Chapter 3: History and Revelation
We live not only in nature but also in history. History, in the broadest meaning of the term, is the total sequence of events that have occurred in the universe. Thus we can speak with cosmologists about the “history of the universe” or the “history of evolution.” In a stricter sense of the term, however, history is the chronicle of specifically human events that have taken place. While we humans share much with the animals, there is something that sets us somewhat apart from nature. This is especially our existence in history.
The distinction of history from nature is logically possible because of the existence of human freedom. Whereas nature appears for the most part to be a realm of relatively predictable and largely causal occurrences, human existence is characterized by a freedom that we do not find, in any but an analogous sense, in nature. Human existence therefore is said to “transcend” nature in that it has a dimension of personal freedom that is not easily understood in terms of the sciences that deal with nature. Though there are “social” or human sciences that attempt to go as far as they can in achieving a scientific understanding of human activity, there is always a residue of the human that eludes scientific prediction, namely, our freedom. Thus, because of our freedom we may think of history as a second aspect of our situation, quite distinct (though, of course, not separate) from cosmology.
Revelation of History
Because history is made up cumulatively of the actions and experiences of persons endowed with the elusive quality of freedom, its intelligibility is not easily comprehended, that is, if it has any intelligibility at all. The search for a possible meaning to history has been one of the most frustrating, though fascinating, enterprises undertaken ever since we first became aware that we do not live in nature in the same way that other species do. Once we acquired the distinct feeling that our historical existence has “exiled” us to some degree from the regularities and rhythms of nature, we became restless to find exactly where we do fit in. What pattern or order, if any, does history have that can give us a sure sense of where we are situated, of what our origins, destinies and identities are? The “fall” of the human species from the predictabilities of nature into the turmoil of history has been a most adventurous development in the total unfolding of the universe. But it has certainly been a troubling one as well, and we are far from having a firm hold on its significance in terms of the entire sweep of things.
Because the movement into history has been a tumultuous and even terrifying occurrence for our species, there has always been a strong temptation to return to the womb of nature. There seems to lie in nature’s regularities a haven from the open-endedness and unpredictability of living in history. Yet from antiquity to modern existentialism we find warnings that such a “gnostic” move away from our historicity is regressive, that it is a backward retreat which conflicts with authentic human existence. The move into history is irreversible, even though much suffering and uncertainty will inevitably beset those who have ventured into it.
Interestingly, biblical religion itself has been responsible to a great extent for sparking the disturbing impulse to move beyond a purely natural existence and into the uncertainty of history. In fact, it seems accurate to say that biblical ways of thinking opened the horizon of “history” to humankind in an unprecedented and decisive way. Biblical religion did so especially because of the promissory nature of its revelation. In God’s revelatory gift of the divine self to human consciousness in the form of promise, the horizon of the future began to appear more obvious, and with its beckoning promise our biblical ancestors moved decisively into history as the central context of their lives and aspirations.
Therefore, instead of our speaking only of God’s revelation in history, it is just as appropriate for us to speak here in terms of God’s revelation of history. History is the content, and not just the medium of revelation. History is itself what is revealed or “unveiled.” History as such is the horizon of unpredictability and novelty opened up to us by a revelatory promise.
The emergence of the Hebrew religion then was a very unsettling occurrence, and we are still reeling from its appearance. In the call of Abraham to leave the home of his ancestors, in Moses’ leading his people away from acquiescence in Egyptian slavery, in the prophetic protests against any localizing or naturalizing domestication of Yahweh’s presence, in the apocalyptic rebellions against the status quo, in Jesus’ idealizing of homelessness, in the Evangelists’ turning our attention toward the Risen Lord and in St. Paul’s relentless call to freedom from the slavery of legalism, we have a constant chorus of discontent at the idea that we can find our fulfillment in what nature apart from history has given us. Our fulfillment as human beings begins by our embarking upon a journey into the unknown future opened up by the revelatory promise that pulls us away from the familiarity of a purely natural existence. This call into history has been troubling as well as promising, and it is always tempting to turn back toward the “paradise” of non-historical existence.
The human transition from nature into history has brought us at least part way out of the ancient enclosure in cycles of seasons. It has pointed us into a future that is more than just a return to the sameness of the past. Novelty and surprise are essential to the future out of which history is born. There is no turning back to the predictable and reversible, much as we are inclined at times to move in that direction. History, unlike nature as such, is apparently open-ended and irreversible. Although there is a certain sense in which “history repeats itself,” events in the historical arena are never recurrent with the same regularity and predictability as are natural occurrences. They lead us into an indefiniteness which we often tend to domesticate by using analogies from predictable natural occurrences, such as “cycles” or “spirals.” But in the end, the outcome of history eludes the controlling attempts of our sciences, and we are confronted with nothing less than a mystery of indefinite openness. We refer to this mystery as the “future” and the appropriate response to it as “hope.”
The uncertainty of the future into which history is taking us might be unbearable unless some beacon up ahead lights our way and guides us through the fog toward some vision of fulfillment. The quest for revelation may therefore be understood, in the present context at least, as the quest for some resolution of the mistiness that confronts us as we peer into the unknown outcome of historical events. We are so immersed in the contemporary stream of happenings that we have little idea of the geography through which the historical current that bears us along may be flowing. Human beings existing in history have always longed for a perspective that would assure them that the present is not unrelated to a meaningful future. And so we may understand the “revelation” we are looking for as the unfolding of this future, the disclosure to us within the limits of our historical situation of a wider pattern of significance that bestows on the present and the past an intelligibility that would otherwise not be evident.
But is there indeed such a disclosure? Has such a pattern been laid out before us? Can we confidently discern any meaning in history? Such pattern or meaning is certainly not obvious to everyone. Most intellectuals today are skeptical of any talk about the meaning of history. They are aware as never before of the “historically contingent” nature of all human consciousness, that is, of how even the most apparently objective knowledge is conditioned and relativized by the context out of which it is nurtured. We are all immersed in the relativities of our own cultures, and therefore we do not have any vantage point that would allow us to state what truth is in any universal sense. Hence no matter what our thoughts may be regarding the meaning of history, they will inevitably appear questionable to others who simply do not “see” what we see in history.
Nevertheless, the substance of biblical faith allows us to say, at the very least, the following: without a trust in the promise of a meaningful and unimaginably fulfilling future, the move into history would be intolerable. History without promise is unbearable. It is no wonder that so many avenues of escape are devised by those who find a history without promise so utterly terrifying today. Gnostic movements of the body, the spirit and the mind are inevitable temptations whenever history is exorcised of its promise, the expectancy of fulfillment that brought it about in the first place. The romantic retreat into an “unadulterated” and uncivilized nature, the resurgence of barbarism, the escape into drugs, alcohol, depersonalized sex — these and many other exits are at least partially explainable as a result of the feeling that nothing will come of involving ourselves in historical existence. Such escapist movements are quite intelligible whenever history is seen as bereft of a fulfilling future.
Parallel escapes from history are being entertained in the intellectual world today. For example, some important philosophical and literary movements give sophisticated and learned expression to the modern despair about a possible meaning and promise to history. Interestingly, though, many of these learned movements of escape from history still manifest a deep hunger for a better world than the one to which history seems to have brought us. The reaching Out for a better and fuller world of promise is never completely quenched. Hoping, in some mode or other, is a part of our nature, a “prototypical human gesture.”( See Peter Berger, A Rumor of Angels (Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1970), pp. 49-75.) Today, however, this longing for something more satisfying is often exercised by reaching for some sort of “fulfillment” apart from history.
Biblical revelation refuses to let us despair of history. The idea of revelation is inseparable from a promise that our movement into history is not in vain. Revelation therefore may be understood as the promise of an ultimate meaning to history(symbolized in the Bible especially by the notion of the “kingdom of God).” It does not specify in any completely clear way what this meaning is. The meaning of history as far as we are concerned at this moment, consists of the promise it holds of ultimate justice and freedom, of a fulfillment beyond our expectations. At the same time history may also be understood as itself essentially a product of revelation. History is constituted as such by God’s gift of a future that pulls us out of the safety of nature and into a mysterious openness accessible only to hope. Only by our opening ourselves in hope can the promise take root in our world and continue to keep the horizon of history open for us. Revelation is promise, and without our response of hope neither revelation nor history can become an actuality. It is quite understandable, then, that whenever human hope fails and despair about the future grows, there is often a resurgence of attempts to find refuge in either hedonistic or ascetic flights from history.
Revelation means the disclosing to us of a new forum for our existing, namely, the sphere of a promise of fulfillment that makes history possible. In relating ourselves to the promise given to Abraham (who stands to Jews, Muslims and Christians alike as “our father in faith”), and by observing the partial fulfillment of this promise in surprising ways time without number, we sense that we have been given a new context, beyond the purely natural, within which to dwell. And through this gift of history the cosmos has been given a future far surpassing the repetitions, regularities and rhythms of nature alone.
In Christianity the season of Advent celebrates in a heightened way the ages-old sense that an infinite and inexhaustible divine care seeks continually to renew our lives and move us out into the realm of history’s promise. The liturgies of this season of promise are filled with biblical images of trust in God’s power to bring new hope where there was previously only a sense of utter impossibility. One of the most moving is from the book of Isaiah (II, 1; 6-9), where it is promised that out of the lifeless “stump” of Jesse will come forth a shoot symbolizing God’s promise-keeping fidelity at a time of historical hopelessness. Following from this blossoming of new life impossible, incongruous occurrences are to be expected — wolves living in harmony with lambs, children playing with snakes. For reasons of space I cannot quote extensively from the Scriptures in this book, but the reader is encouraged to read and dwell within the countless similar passages where the impossible breaks into and renews history, always by being received in hope. It is difficult to read very far in the Bible without concluding that its essential meaning is that we may trust in the impossible, and that the realm of the purely predictable is far from exhausting the limits of reality. The following passage, written at a time when it would have been quite “realistic” to despair of Israel’s future, may serve to exemplify the trust to which the revelatory promise calls us, not least in situations of utter desperation:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of its roots.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him. . .
Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist,
and faithfulness the girdle of his loins.
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them. (Isaiah 11:1; 5-7)
Revelation in History
However, we must have some grounds for believing in such promises of an ultimately fulfilling and “impossible” future. Without such a basis we will inevitably be tempted to join the caravans of those who have decided to forsake history for more immediate but less fulfilling satisfactions. Faith can never be completely without reasons. It must have a foundation based in human experience itself. Revelation, if it is to be accepted, must not only give us a promise. It must also provide some evidence that there is a principle of fidelity operative throughout our history. In other words it must consist of concrete deeds and events in our history that vindicate our hope for fulfillment.
It is in this connection that we may speak more strictly of revelation in history. For as we look with our tradition into the past we can discern innumerable instances of God’s fidelity to the promise that is revelation. This fidelity is embodied paradigmatically in the account of the covenant of Yahweh with Israel, when God is portrayed as pledging everlasting care and companionship and asks only that we, the people of the covenant, keep our side of the agreement by mediating the divine goodness and justice to all (Exodus 19-24). The theme of divine fidelity is undoubtedly the dominant theme in biblical religion, and all we have to do is look into our own history as a people to observe how it has been repeatedly and continuously manifested. Our traditions and Scriptures embody accounts of the instances when God’s fidelity to the covenant appears time and again in the face of our own infidelity. God’s revelation in history, from creation to the hoped-for Parousia, is the story of the mighty acts of a God whose essence is always fidelity and promise-keeping in spite of our own lack of trust. Our history is comprised essentially of events in which faith sees the presence of a God whose passionate concern for the integrity and happiness of human life is unfailing. For Christians, of course, the Christ-event is the decisive manifestation of the divine promise and fidelity.
Discernment of this and other revelatory events requires that we belong to the inner life of a faith community that perceives its very identity as having been founded by the story of divine acts of fidelity to the promise. To those who participate in this “inner history” such occurrences as the call of Abraham, the Exodus from Egypt, the tortured lives of the prophets, the redemption of Israel and Judah from captivity, the events surrounding the life and death of Jesus, including the acts of the apostles and the establishment of the Church, all have a promissory significance that would not inevitably be obvious to scientific historians. Partaking of the internal memory of a people and its own story gives us a perspective on these strange occurrences that would hardly be arrived at by way of a detached, objective or external chronicling of these same events through the methods of a scientific historian. Our conviction that we belong to a history whose meaning is promise could hardly take shape outside the life of a community whose very existence is based on that promise.
H. Richard Niebuhr, more clearly than any other modern theologian, has articulated the difference between internal and external history and its importance for understanding the idea of revelation. Though his distinction should not be stretched too far, it is quite useful at least as a starting point for understanding the meaning of revelation in history. Niebuhr gives us a simple analogy to help us comprehend the duality of internal and external history. Consider the case of a blind man who undergoes an operation and, as a result, receives back his sight. Then try to imagine how his own account of this momentous healing event would differ from that of the doctors who performed the operation. The account of the latter will be framed in the detached, clinical language of medical science, in the idiom of a decidedly external reporting. On the other hand, the account of the blind man cannot be clinically “objective” but will be filled with language of deep feeling, gratitude and emotional involvement. It will be an inner history,” giving us a perspective which the doctors who performed the operation are not in a position to provide. Both the external and internal accounts are valid, but they cannot be reduced to or evaluated in terms of the standards pertaining to each other’s approaches to the same event. And the inner history provided by the man whose sight has been restored will give us an intimacy with the event that even the most careful clinical language could never come close to providing.
Similarly the revelatory significance of the promissory events in the life of Israel and the Church will not be obvious from the perspective of a purely external accounting. An external report cannot state exactly why we may perceive these events as a basis for our hope here and now. Scientific history can shed much interesting light on the historical circumstances surrounding the great events upon which our hope is founded, and critical historical work can even become a necessary and corrective ingredient in a community’s recalling of its foundational moments. But only a participation in the “inner life” of a community puts us in a position to experience and confess these events as moments of divine fidelity to the covenantal promises that comprise God’s relation to our life as a people founded upon these events. To grasp the reality of a possible revelation in history, we must be prepared to risk involvement in the life of a community established by this memory of an internal history often inaccessible to “objective” recording.(This distinction of internal from external history is not intended, though, to make history outside of our own tradition irrelevant. In actuality there is only one history, and the revelatory promise perceived in internal history is intended to bring all of history to its fulfillment. For the above discussion of internal and external history see H, Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation, pp. 44 ff.)
Revelation and the Future
In biblical religion we are given innumerable accounts of God’s address to Israel and to the Christian community. But in these accounts there is no complete disclosure of God or of history’s meaning. Instead there is typically an exhortation to look forward into the future. The theophanies (manifestations of God) in the Bible are predominantly promissory appearances of God pointing toward a dimension of the yet-to-come. There is the withholding of a future except in promise, a future that can only be approached through a posture called hope. Even in Jesus’ resurrection appearances, when viewed against the backdrop of the Old Testament theophanies, as Jurgen Moltmann has written, the first Christians experienced a Christ who still has a future and who invites them and us to share the promise of his personal future with him. For that reason there can be no adequate faith in the Resurrection without a deep hope here and now for the future of our own historical existence as tied up with the future of Christ and the whole of human history. The Christ who comes to Christians in the Eucharistic celebration of the memory of his death and resurrection is one who is yet to come. The promise of Christ’s and the world’s future pervades the Christian notion of revelation.(Moltmann, Theology of Hope, passim.)
It is precisely the promissory nature of revelation that I wish to accentuate here. If we are to avoid the inevitable accusation of being overly hasty in our judgments about the meaning of history we must admit that things do not yet make complete sense to us in any clear way. Believers in revelation are not in a position to say exactly what the meaning of history is. What has been revealed to them is not complete clarity but a promise that demands trust.
However, to Christian faith this promise is more than enough. To faith the promise of a still undisclosed future is all we need to light up our history and to give us consolation in the face of the apparent absurdities that have taken place within The course of human events. The revelatory promise of Yahweh, first bestowed on Abraham and handed down through the precious centuries of Jewish and Christian history, is in fact all that we would be capable of grasping at this juncture of time. It is only the promissory nature of revelation that can deliver it from the countless trivializations of human hope that have poisoned our human history with premature portraits of history’s meaning. Our understandable human impatience for meaningful fulfillment has led us time and again to imagine that a particular conception of social order is the ultimate stage in history’s movement. Innumerable atrocities have been committed against those who have not accommodated themselves to the many “visions” of human existence that have been proposed. But it is the very nature of “promise” that we learn to wait, ideally in joyful expectation, but nonetheless, wait. It might seem that such waiting puts us at a disadvantage in comparison with those who want to possess. But this is not the case. As Paul Tillich says, we are stronger when we wait than when we possess.
The condition of man’s relation to God is first of all one of not having, not seeing, not knowing, and not grasping. A religion in which that is forgotten, no matter how ecstatic or active or reasonable, replaces God by its own creation of an image of God. . . . It is not easy to endure this not having God, this waiting for God…. For how can God be possessed? Is God a thing that can be grasped and known among other things? Is God less than a human person? We always have to wait for a human being. Even in the most intimate communion among human beings, there is an element of not having and not knowing, and of waiting. Therefore, since God is infinitely hidden, free, and incalculable, we must wait for Him in the most absolute and radical way. He is God for us just in so far as we do not possess Him.. .. We have God through not having Him.(Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations(New York: Charles Scribner s Sons, 1948), p. 55.)
Radical waiting is of course often a most difficult and ungratifying response to life. But it is also the most realistic, fulfilling and empowering:
If we wait in hope and patience, the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. He who waits in absolute seriousness is already grasped by that for which he waits. He who waits in patience has already received the power of that for which he waits. He who waits passionately is already an active power himself, the greatest power of transformation in personal and historical life. We are stronger when we wait than when we possess.(Ibid., p. 151)
It is important to observe, in this connection, that the sense of the breaking in of a revelatory promise has always been most intense among the poor and the oppressed, among those who have to wait and are most distant from any possessing. Their poverty has given them a vulnerability that opens them to the future in an exceptional way. And that is why these people have been the bearers of revelation’s promise. It is not the possessive and the powerful but the childlike, the weak and the disenfranchised through whom history’s meaning has been most fully mediated. The Bible is filled with stories illustrating this motif. Especially those who are not in possession of their lives, those who have to wait, have been the most open to receiving the Good News of history’s promise.(Today in our situation “after Auschwitz” we need to rethink the idea of revelation in terms of theological questions raised by the unspeakable horror of the so-called “Holocaust” and other massive murderings of our century. Such necessary rethinking is beyond the scope of this brief introduction, but the theme of “forgotten suffering” taken up in the following chapter would perhaps be a starting point.)