Chapter 3: Mystery
The idea of revelation in Christian theology is usually associated with a "word" uttered by God. In the Gospel of John, this word, or the logos, is said to be fully manifest in Christ, the Word made flesh. So rich is the biblical notion of God’s word that we have to seek a variety of terms to capture its meaning for today. No single expression is adequate, but Gabriel Fackre convincingly argues that we might grasp some of its meaning if we translate it as "vision." Revelation, then, is the setting forth of God’s vision for the world. God the Father is the Envisager, God the Son is the Vision itself, and God the Spirit is the Power of the vision to transform the world. (Gabriel Fackre, The Christian Story [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978]198) In Jesus, the vision of God becomes incarnate in our world and history, and in our obedience to and conformity with Jesus’ Lordship and the power of his Spirit, we cooperate in keeping the vision alive in our midst.
However, if we follow the biblical traditions closely, "revelation" has primarily auditory overtones. It comes to expression essentially in language. This means, though, that there can be no revelatory "word" without a background of silence out of which it is spoken. The revelation of the word of God would make no sense apart from an ineffable dimension of reality which in revelation becomes articulate. Such a dimension is sometimes called the spiritual, the sacred or the supernatural. It is also known as the realm of mystery.
The term "mystery" is not without difficulties. To the modern mind, mystery often implies little more than the unexplored and not-yet-understood aspects of our physical universe. It designates only a range of unanswered questions that science will eventually solve. As human knowledge advances, it seems, the realm of mystery, at least as it is often understood, will gradually shrink and eventually disappear from view altogether. But if revelation is a meaningful possibility, then mystery would have to be something more. In all its silence and fullness it would have to be immune to any process of erosion. And if we are to render the idea of revelation theologically intelligible today, we need first to show that, prior to hearing the word of revelation, we already have some pre-revelational relationship to the silent plenitude of mystery from which any possible disclosure of religious meaning could come to us in the first place.
In former ages, the presence of a dimension of mystery could be taken for granted. It was felt quite palpably as the environing context of the world’s reality, and so auditions and visions from that realm were not altogether unexpected events. Indeed, mystery was so much a part of life’s presuppositions that there was no need to make revelation the explicit notion it has become today. The disclosure of mystery was so recurrent that it would have been quite superfluous to construct a distinct theology of revelation. As an explicit concern of systematic theology, revelation is a modern development, roughly coinciding with the emergence of post-Enlightenment skepticism. Today, we focus on revelation partly because its very possibility has come under question. And this is in great measure because the reality of an encompassing and incomprehensible mystery, which would be the only "whence" of revelation, is no longer an obvious aspect of everyone’s experience.
Therefore, the first step in a theology of revelation has to be what Karl Rahner has called "mystagogy," understanding by this term a "pedagogy" into mystery. We must first determine whether and where a hidden mystery already impinges somehow upon our lives, apart from any explicit sense of a special historical revelation. Without the impression that our lives are shrouded in mystery, any notion of revelation will inevitably fall flat. It will have no disclosive intensity unless it comes to us out of the intuited depths of a fundamentally silent but nonetheless real domain of mystery that already bears some relationship to us. Revelation cannot really mean for us an "unveiling," or an "unconcealment" of anything unless we already have at least some vague intuition of or access to the unspeakable mystery that it unfolds. As we shall see later, it is too much to expect that the biblical word of revelation will itself bring this sense of mystery along with it, as though we were encountering it there for the first time. Revelation can clarify mystery and tell us what it is really like. It can help us to name the mystery, but it need not be burdened with the task of introducing us to mystery. For we are by our very nature already open to mystery. It is a fundamental structure of our being to be open not only to the world, but also to transcendent mystery, even apart from the experience of any special revelatory vision or word. (See Wolfhart Pannenberg, What Is Man, trans. by Duane A. Priebe [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970] 1-13.)
The constant presence of this mystery to the world and to human existence is equivalent to what the Christian theological tradition has variously called original, universal, natural or general revelation, which it distinguishes from the special or decisive revelation given in Christ. In Romans 1:19, Paul uses the verb phaneróô (to show or manifest) when he says of humans in general, "what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them." And he uses the same verb in Rom. 3:21 in speaking of the special revelation that comes to expression in Christ: "But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law. . . through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe." The New Testament clearly endorses the notion of a universal revelation.( In the Prologue to the Gospel of John, for example, the Word is said to be the "true light that enlightens every man" (John 1:9). And in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul is pictured as saying to the Athenians: "What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you" (Acts l7:23).[Ibid.] In our human awareness of the mystery that enshrouds our existence, there is already a manifestation of God’s being that we may appropriately call by the name "revelation."
But, as we have already noted, the sense of mystery often seems to be absent today. Consequently, we must begin our reflections on revelation with an inquiry as to whether and where mystery might already impinge upon our lives.(Of course, the process of historical, biblical revelation has already in some way shaped the cultural context in which the task of mystagogy is undertaken. There is no purely pre-religious sense of mystery, since in very many ways the biblical revelation, as well as those of other religious traditions, has shaped the sensibilities of all of us. But to many of our contemporaries the intuition of mystery has grown dull. And the apparent circularity of which mystagogy partakes does not exonerate us from the task of elucidating where mystery touches our lives, so that we might appreciate in a fresh way how revelation enters the picture.) For many people, such mystagogy is unnecessary. They already sense the reality of the sacred; they accept consciously their openness to a dimension of infinite depth, and so the possibility of an explicit revelatory clarification of this mystery seems quite congruent with their experience. For others, however, mystery is not a very meaningful concept. If it signifies anything at all, it is perhaps simply the scientifically unknown world. Mystery, today, often means nothing more than a set of problems that will eventually be solved by science. For example, physicist Heinz Pagels in a recent book on the origins of the universe writes:
People once worshipped the sun, awed by its power and beauty. Now that astrophysicists understand the physics of the sun and the stars and the source of their power, they are no longer the mysteries they once were. In our culture we no longer worship the sun and see it as a divine presence as our ancestors did. But many people still involve their deepest feelings with the universe as a whole and regard its origin as mysterious. The size, splendor and glory of the universe still provoke the sense of transcendent eternal being.(Heinz Pagels, Perfect Symmetry [New York: Bantam Books, 1986] 367.)
This popular scientific author goes on to say that physicists will eventually understand the basic laws of the universe, and then, "the existence of the universe will hold no more mystery for those who choose to understand it than the existence of the sun." And then he concludes: "[A]s knowledge of our universe matures, that ancient awestruck feeling of wonder at its size and duration seems inappropriate, a sensibility left over from an earlier age."(Ibid., xiv.)
Observe that Pagels is using the term "mystery" as the equivalent of "problem to be solved," or "present gap in our knowledge." Accordingly, mystery is a region of the unknown that will shrink away as our knowledge progresses. The term "mystery" is nothing more than a name for our temporary ignorance. And since any religious revelation apparently presupposes a mysterious domain of the unknown, there is little wonder that so many scientific thinkers have serious difficulties with religion in general and especially with the idea of a special religious revelation. The goal of science seems to some of them, at least, to be that of eventually eliminating any mysterious region out of which revelation might occur.
However, to religious experience and theology, the term "mystery" designates much more than a blank space in our knowledge eventually to be filled in by science. It is not just a void begging to be bridged by our intellectual achievements. Such lacunae in our present knowledge should be called problems, not mysteries. A problem can ultimately be solved and gotten out of the way through the application of human ingenuity.(On the distinction between problem and mystery see especially Gabriel Marcel, Being and Having (Westminster: Dacre Press, 1949) 117.) It falls under our cognitional control and can be disposed of by our intellectual or technological efforts. Mystery, on the other hand, is not open to any kind of "solution." Instead of vanishing as we grow wiser, it actually appears to loom larger and deeper. The realm of mystery keeps on expanding before us as we solve our particular problems. It resembles a horizon that recedes into the distance as we advance. Unlike problems, it has no clear boundaries. While problems can eventually be removed, the encompassing domain of mystery remains a constantly receding frontier the deeper we advance into it.
Albert Einstein is often cited as the exemplar of those scientists for whom mystery means much more than just a set of solvable problems. Though he could not embrace the notion of religious revelation, he still perceived a dimension of mystery so enduring that the advance of science could never eliminate it:
The most beautiful experience we can have is of the mysterious. . . .
Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel,
is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. . . . It is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity . . . ."(Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions [New York: Bonanza Books, 1954] 11.)
Einstein saw mystery as real, not just a cover-up for our scientific ignorance. In his view, the sense of mystery will intensify as scientific knowledge advances, for the greatest mystery is that the universe is even intelligible at all. There is little hope for our grasping the possibility of any sort of revelation if we have not, at least minimally, become comfortable in the manner of Einstein with the impression that the universe is shrouded in mystery.
An awareness of mystery can make its way into the consciousness of all of us, even though we may not call it by that name. The sense of mystery comes home to us most explicitly in "limit-experiences" and "limit-questioning."(Tracy, Blessed Rage for Order, 91-118; Stephen Toulmin, An Examination of the Place of Reason in Ethics [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970] 202-21.) Limit-experiences are those happenings in our lives that shock us into a recognition that our ordinary existence is encompassed by a previously unacknowledged realm of the unknown. Often they coincide with moments of tragedy or perplexity, but they may also pop up at times of joy and ecstasy and even during the most ordinary of moments.
In his autobiography My Confession, Leo Tolstoy provides a vivid illustration of how mystery-opening questions may interrupt the routine of one’s life. At a time when he was already a famous novelist and had achieved great wealth and fame, he found himself drawn irresistibly toward the unsolvable questions: What is the purpose of life? Why go on living? What value lies in continuing one’s work? Is life perhaps a stupid cheat? These questions expressed his perplexity about the suffocating nature of an all-too-familiar world. One response to them is a despair that insists on the finality of the ordinary and gives into cynicism. But another is to see such provocations as tortuous openings to the utterly extraordinary and surprising, that is, to mystery.
The presence of limits is felt whenever we find ourselves restlessly asking the big questions to which religions have always been the primary mode of response: What is the meaning of my life? Why am I here? Who am I? What is my destiny? These questions disclose our native openness to mystery even in the midst of the everyday. Functional or pragmatic questions consume the larger portion of our lives, but occasionally things happen that break up the routine and allow us to see our world in a new light. Sometimes these are moments of "earthquake," such as an experience of personal failure or the death of a loved one. Occurring at the edge or "limits" of normal life, they thrust us toward a fearsome but also vaguely promising dimension of reality. They may initially bring a sense of anxiety, but along with it a surprising anticipation of new life. We may even experience a vague longing for such limit-experiences precisely because we have a premonition that they will expose us to new and enriching depths of the unknown.
In the midst of these limit-experiences we are faced with a decision whether to trust in mystery or perhaps give into a despair that binds us even more tightly to the familiar. Limit-experiences bring home to us the boundaries of the ordinary and make us more receptive to the possible presence of another dimension beyond the everyday. But they can also be the occasion for a retreat from the promise of the unknown. They may provoke us to step back into the banal security of the already-mastered world. At any rate, during such moments we seem to brush up explicitly against mystery, even if we then take flight from it.
Our awareness of ordinariness and triviality or tedium can arise only because some part of us has already somehow gone beyond the limits of the everyday world and dipped deeper into mystery. As Hegel, among other philosophers, has put it, to know a limit as a limit is already to be beyond that limit. To recognize and feel confined by the pedestrian quality of our lives is already a hint of our being open to the wider world of a threateningly refreshing mystery. Knowledge of the chains that bind us is the first step in an awareness of our fundamental freedom. A conscious and grateful openness to the mysterious regions beyond our imprisonment may, broadly speaking, be called "religion." The cultivation of a religious attitude, we shall see, is indispensable to the full reception of revelation. Religion is the grateful awareness of and response to a mystery that exposes the limits of the mundane.
A religious detection of the extraordinary can arise out of situations of shipwreck and also at moments of dissatisfaction such as Tolstoy experienced. But we must hasten to add that a sense of mystery can also arise in a very imposing way during moments of deep joy. Ecstatic experiences may actually introduce us to mystery much more emphatically than moments of shipwreck. In a special way, the feeling of being deeply loved by another person can endear one to mystery, as can the experience of great beauty. On such occasions we may intuit a depth of reality that no amount of scientific expertise can adequately probe. The world then appears largely unconquerable by our finite human mental and technological powers. Though such a discovery is intolerable and frustrating to our will to control, genuine religion rejoices in our coming upon a continually surprising region of the unconquerable. Such discovery means that the world is infinitely open-ended, and that the human spirit need never fear the suffocation that would result from a conviction that mystery can eventually be blotted out by our rational expertise or technological prowess.
Mystery also shows up at certain points even in our rational, academic, and professional involvement in such disciplines as science and ethics. It becomes most prominent in what Stephen Toulmin calls the "limit-questions" that arise in connection with such disciplines as science and ethics. While we are actively engaged in science or any other intellectual or practical pursuit, we are not usually focally attending to mystery. But an awareness of the dimension of mystery may emerge when we begin to ask why we are involved in such pursuits at all.
Usually in our intellectual endeavors, we are not explicitly aware of mystery. For example, in the day-to-day work of scientific investigation, a scientist is preoccupied with questions for which a definite resolution is anticipated. The researcher anticipates that scientific problems will someday be solved and eliminated, and that new problems will take their place. The ongoing search for a unified field theory, a room-temperature superconductivity, or a cure for AIDS, requires no special attention to mystery. In fact, such focal attention might even prove to be a distraction if it were unremitting. But at least occasionally the scientist will likely step outside of the problem-solving mode. She might find herself suddenly asking: why am I involved with science at all? Why have I chosen it as my career? What does my work have to do with the rest of life? What is the meaning of my work? Why do I experience the drive to ask questions and to seek answers? Does the universe ultimately make sense, or is science just a game that leads nowhere? Is it really worthwhile spending my days in pursuit of the truth?
These are examples of what Toulmin and his theological admirers are today calling limit-questions.(Toulman, 202-21) They are a different kind of question from those that occur within science. They do not fall inside, but rather only at the limits of scientific investigation. Thus they do not lend themselves to a solution like that of scientific problems. In fact, the deeper one goes with such questions, the more interminable they seem. Such questions indicate how our minds as well as our lives are open to mystery. According to theologians David Tracy and Schubert Ogden, these are the questions to which religion seems to be the most appropriate response.(Tracy, Blessed Rage for Order, 94 -109; Schubert Ogden, The Reality of God and Other Essays [New York: Harper & Row, 1977] 31). In other words, it is at the point of limit-questioning that mystery begins to appear in relation to our intellectual and academic disciplines. So if any revelatory disclosure of this mystery is a possibility, it would not produce a content that can be placed in the same category as the truths we arrive at through science. Revelation would be a response to the limit-questions that arise at the edge of science. It is not a set of propositions that could compete with or come into conflict with scientific ones. Seen in this light, therefore, there can be no genuine contradiction between science and revelation.
Limit-questions also arise at the boundary of ethical inquiry. Ethics, the discipline that attempts to give answers to our moral problems, can, like science, be carried out without any specific reference to mystery. In fact, today a great deal of ethics is being done in our universities by scholars who apparently have no taste for any kind of religion. Ethicians are similar to scientists, at least in the sense that they too are engaged in a kind of problem-solving activity. They dispute among themselves about whether this or that public policy is the violation of the value of justice, or whether a certain action is the breaking of a contract, or whether a certain decision constitutes infidelity to a promise. They ponder such issues as whether abortion, capital punishment, and war are wrong or right, or in what circumstances a patient may be allowed to die: All of this ethical deliberation can take place with or without a sense of mystery, and with no appeal to religion or revelation.
Once again, however, the ethical problem-solving process, like that of science, eventually comes up against limits that open out into what we are calling mystery. It is difficult to ignore indefinitely such questions as the following ones: Why should we bother about ethics at all? Why be responsible? Why should we adhere to any contracts and promises whatsoever? Why should we be concerned about human life or human rights? In short, why pursue the good? Why practice justice? Here the ethician is no longer asking questions that the discipline of ethics, strictly speaking, can itself adequately address. Rather, these are limit-questions. And if we pursue them seriously instead of suppressing them, as we are often prone to do, they may lead us to a sense that both our problems and their solutions are themselves enshrouded in mystery.
If there is any religious or revelatory response forthcoming from the realm of mystery opened up to us by these limit-questions, it would not be an ethical sort of answer. If there is a revelation of mystery it could not give us absolutely clear solutions to specific ethical, political and social problems, any more than we can expect it to solve scientific problems. To do so would amount to a trivializing of the mystery. It is inappropriate for us to expect religion and revelation to compete with ethics, any more than we expect them to compete with science. To look for specific biblical texts as the definitive resolution of questions about war, sexuality, personal rights, public policy, etc., and to present these as revealed truths, is highly questionable. In the final analysis the use of religious sources in this way amounts to a serious repression of mystery and a trivializing of revelation. Instead, we would look to revelation to address our limit-questions, in this case to shed some light on why we should be ethical at all, why we should be responsible, why we should keep our promises to one another.
One way of beginning to understand the idea of revelation, then, is to see it as a response not to our problems but to our limit-questions. It is a crippling reduction of revelation to place its content side by side with the propositions arrived at by way of problem-solving disciplines such as science and ethics. Revelation, we shall see, is the symbol-laden unfolding of the encompassing presence of mystery rather than a magical response to specific sets of problems. Like religion as such, it is more interested in grounding our trust in life than it is with resolving our scientific or ethical dilemmas. Though revelation requires that we take an ethical stance, especially, in the Christian context, that of doing justice, it is not reducible to ethics. And although it gives us a vision that encourages us to seek further intelligibility, it does not fit neatly into the various disciplines of intellectual or scientific inquiry. Its relation to our intellectual pursuits is that of supporting those foundational assumptions that give us a reason for doing science and getting involved in ethics in the first place. To do science we must first believe that truth is worth seeking, and to do ethics we must already assume that the good life is worth living. Revelation, seen in these terms, is the gift of a vision of, and a word about, mystery that gives us an ultimate reason to seek truth and to live the good life. But it is not just a list of propositional truths or ethical requirements.(See below, Chapter 10, for further development of this point in the context of the encounter of revelation theology with modern skepticism.)
To summarize, it is especially at the limits of our experience and problem-oriented questioning that we consciously come up against the truly incomprehensible and uncontrollable mystery to which our lives are inherently open. At these limits, we begin to ask questions that seem unsolvable and irremovable. Our asking limit-questions occurs at all only because mystery has already grasped hold of our consciousness. In a universal or original sense mystery is already revealed to us through these limits. When we reach these limits, however, we often retreat to the safety of mere problems. Or we try to transform mystery into a set of solvable quandaries. We anxiously renounce the inexhaustible depth that becomes evident through our limit-questions. But it is possible that such questions occur to us at all only because we are already somehow situated beyond the merely problematic and because, in the core of our being, we are already abiding within a wider field of self-revealing mystery.
This mystery is present to our lives, but often without being explicitly known as such. We must try therefore to make it more explicit. One way of doing so is to reflect on what Paul Tillich calls the dimension of "depth" that underlies all of our experience of reality.(For a fuller discussion of Tillich’s form of mystagogy see my book, What Is God?(New York: Paulist Press, 1986) 11-24.) In our relationship to others, to our own selves, to nature, and to society we have all received the impression that there is always something more beneath the surface, no matter how deep we go. In every area of experience we can hardly avoid the sense that we could dig deeper and, after we have done so, deeper still. It is difficult to deny the truism held by both religions and the sciences that things are not what they seem to be.("Huston Smith, Forgotten Truth (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1977) 98-100.) Concealed beneath all appearances, and normally not the object of our focal awareness, there is an inexhaustible dimension of depth. Evidence that we have already experienced this depth lies in the fact that we can now look back and observe how superficial were our former impressions of things, of others, and of ourselves. If we had had no experience of going deeper we would not be able now to recognize the shallow as shallow, the superficial as superficial, or appearances as distinct from reality.
Take, for example, our experience of other people. We may think we know them and understand them, but then they will do something or say something that surprises or disappoints us. We then have to dig deeper into their personalities if we are to continue our relationship with them. And when we have penetrated beneath the surface of their being, we discover that we have still not yet fully plumbed their depth. The deeper our knowledge of the other becomes, the more clearly we realize that we will never fully understand that person. This happens because the other person is grounded in a dimension of depth, enfolded in an unspeakable and silent mystery.
We experience something similar in our efforts to understand our own selves. We may think we know who we are, but as we continue our life journeys we discover aspects of our personalities that we never knew about before. The deeper we travel on the road toward self-understanding the more we realize there is no end in sight. We seem to be borne up by an inexhaustible depth that renders us more and more mysterious even to ourselves. And in our relationship to nature and society we also experience how the appearances they present to us also conceal an infinite depth. The deeper science goes in its understanding of the cosmos, the more it seems to open up wider fields to be explored. And the more we look beneath the surface of our social and historical existence the more we encounter the inexhaustible dimension of depth.(.(Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948) 57. The above reflections on depth are suggested by Tillich’s important sermon on "The Depth of Existence," 52-63.)
This commonplace experience of depth is not distinct from the experience of mystery. And, as in the case of mystery, once we become conscious of the depth that yawns inexhaustibly beneath our lives we may begin to inquire about what this depth is really like at heart. What is the true character of this misty but ever-present horizon that continues to deepen as we plunge more fully into it? Is this depth simply a bottomless abyss, or does it have a ground to it? Is it an indifferent void, a hostile impasse, or a caring presence? We suspect, with Paul Tillich and many other theologians, that we need a very specific way to encounter the ‘‘universal’’ revelation of the depth or mystery of reality. We look, in other words, for a special or decisive revelation through which we may experience concretely the essential character of this omnipresent dimension of depth.(Schubert Ogden rightly stresses that there is no "more" in special than in universal revelation. And the New Testament itself does not require that we look at special revelation as a supernatural addition to make up for the inadequacy of natural revelation. Rather, it is sufficient to say that special revelation makes explicit the fullness of God’s love which is always already poured out into the world. "Although such [explicit] revelation cannot be necessary to the constitution of human existence, it can very well be necessary to the objectification of existence, in the sense of its full and adequate understanding at the level of explicit thought and speech." On Theology, 41. And: "what Christian revelation reveals to us is nothing new, since such truths as it makes explicit must already be known to us implicitly in every moment of our existence. But that this revelation occurs does reveal something new to us in that, as itself an event, it is the occurrence in our history of the transcendent event of God’s love," 43.)
Even if we are brought to the point of agreeing that there is indeed a dimension of reality to which the term "mystery" is applicable, we still wonder what this mystery is really like. For it seems to be ambiguous. It is both threatening and promising, and we sometimes wonder whether we can entrust ourselves to it. Perhaps instead we should try to avoid it. It is not surprising that much of our life is indeed an anxious flight from mystery. In the light of this ambiguity of mystery, the quest for special revelation becomes most relevant. The quest for this revelation is at root an inquiry about what mystery is really like. It is not inaccurate to say, at least from the point of view of Christian theology, that the search for such a revelation is the major driving force in the history of religion. And what differentiates one religion from another is the specific set of symbols or myths by which each answers the question about the essential character of the mystery that encompasses us all: "At the base of every religion, as its origin and principle," Schubert Ogden writes, "is some particular occasion of insight, or reflective grasp through concept and symbol, of the mystery manifested in original revelation."(Ibid., 40.) To Christian faith. revelation in the special sense of the term occurs decisively in Jesus who is called the Christ.
Nevertheless, the idea of a special revelation can probably have meaning for us only if we have already experienced an orientation to mystery. The experience of a decisive unveiling of a divine vision or the utterance of God’s word presupposes on our part at least a dim sense of an expansive realm of the unseen and the unspoken as its hidden source. We have noted, though, that today the reality of such a domain has come under question. Hence, a theology of revelation must begin with at least some effort to awaken us to mystery. A foundational aspect of all theology today is mystagogy.
The term "revelation," as mentioned earlier, comes from the Latin revelare, "to remove a veil." Most religions, at least since roughly the middle of the first millennium BC., have maintained that a veil of illusion or of mere "appearances" normally obscures from us what is ultimately deep, important, or real. And these same religions offer various ways by which our ignorance, alienation, or lack of enlightenment can be overcome. In this sense, all the great religions are concerned at least implicitly with special revelation. And so, in our use of the term "revelation" in this book, we shall be referring primarily to special revelation, and only by implication to original or universal revelation. Special revelation, understood as the symbolic disclosure of what lies in the depths of mystery, is an essential aspect of all religion.
The period of history ranging roughly from the eighth to the second century BC. gave rise to the Hindu Upanishads and to Buddhism in India, to the religions of Lao-Tzu and Confucius in China, to the eschatological ideas of Zoroaster in Persia, to the classical biblical prophets in Israel and Judah, and to the philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in the Greek world. This period has been aptly called the axial age by philosopher Karl Jaspers.(Karl Jaspers. The Origin and Goal of History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953). By the term "axial" Jaspers intends to designate a major transitional period in human history and in our species’ understanding of reality. It is a pivotal period because during it there occurred parallel religious revolutions almost simultaneously at different places on our planet. Generally speaking, these independent spiritual developments intensified the sense of the ultimate unity and transcendence of a divine mystery. Or as is especially the case with Buddhism, they gave rise to an unprecedented longing for a state of enlightenment beyond the suffering and unsatisfactoriness of temporal experience. In a broad sense, at least, the major religions and philosophies anticipated special revelatory experiences or moments of enlightenment that would transform human existence and bestow on it a final meaning.
Even before the axial period, archaic or primal religions already had an at least embryonic sense of a sacral dimension that could interrupt life and bestow on it a wider significance than that given in ordinary existence. The religion of early humans focused on the maintenance of stable tribal existence in the face of nature’s wild elements and the hostility of other peoples. The purpose of religion was to an extent, though certainly not exclusively, that of world-maintenance. The axial religions, on the other hand, initiated a more explicit longing for a perfect reality beyond the immediate world of social and natural existence. Religion became less concerned with maintaining the world than with restlessly transcending it on the way to something infinitely better?(John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) 22-29.)
Still, even in pre-axial religion there are the beginnings of a more explicit and adventurous openness to the novelty of mystery. For example, the main religious figure of the pre-axial period, the shaman, characteristically breaks through to a strange but salvific world beyond the ordinary. By way of trances and frenzied actions, the shaman, who functions as a scout of the "other world," discloses or reveals an other-than-ordinary dimension of reality to the members of a tribe. Shamanic mediators of a sacred realm abound in early religion. And we fail to appreciate the notion of revelation as it comes down to us in later religious traditions, including the Christian religion, if we forget its primal connections to the visionaries of pre-literate societies. In its earliest forms, even in the Bible, revelation takes place in the ecstatic experience of exceptional personalities who open up an extraordinary realm of mystery beyond the everyday modes of awareness.
However, revelation is present in preliterate religion in an even more fundamental sense than just ecstatic eruptions. In primal religion, revelation has a fundamentally sacramental character. Early religious inklings of "another dimension" were felt especially in those aspects of nature considered important for human subsistence and survival. The aboriginal forms of religious experience may have occurred in the Paleolithic Age going back at least 35,000 years and even beyond. During this hunting-and-gathering period, religious experience was probably tied up closely with the hunt. Because they were indispensable to human survival, animals were endowed with special, perhaps sacral, characteristics. During the Old Stone Age it is quite likely that totemism arose. In totemism, a particular animal or (less often) some other natural phenomenon or artifact is given a special role as the ancestral being around which the social unit’s life is structured. Participating in the life of this totem is a way of communing with the sacred. And the totem becomes a symbolic medium through which mystery is disclosed, though perhaps not in the sense of the radical other-ness that we discern in the axial and post-axial religious traditions.
Moving closer to modern times, religion undergoes the dramatic transformations we have associated with the axial age. As it does so, the sense of an all-encompassing realm of mystery becomes more prominent in the religious ideas of influential religious visionaries and seers. Ordinary experience of mundane reality becomes more sharply distinguished from and relativized by the awareness of a realm of perfection or of supreme bliss far surpassing anything given in our everyday lives.
For example, the Hindu Upanishads which emerged during the axial age inform us that we are normally tied up in a world of maya (which means "veil" or illusion). And Vedantic Hinduism seeks to open us up to the fact that we are really at one with Brahman. or ultimate reality. The attainment of moksha, or ultimate liberation and fulfillment, occurs when our ignorance (avidya) is removed and we realize that we are already in union with God. Such a "revelation," which may take place through meditation or other forms of yoga and devotion, shows us retrospectively that we have lived most of our lives in ignorance of ourselves and of the true nature of reality. In the history of religions, revelation often means the removal of a veil of ignorance.
Revelation in the wider context of religion also typically implies some sort of enlightenment or illumination. This, as we have noted, is the primary metaphor by which Augustine understood Christian revelation. But in Hinduism also, the experience of moksha entails an experience of unprecedented clarity about things. And in Buddhism, the illuminating moment of enlightenment may be understood as a kind of revelatory experience even though there is no self-revealing God. For Zen Buddhism, the experience of Satori may not mean the breaking in of new truths from some realm beyond, but it does imply seeing things with a clarity that was previously absent. Even in the case of the Hebrew prophets, the experience of God is an eye-opening one. They are aware of the discontinuity between our perception of the world as we ordinarily experience it through our blindness to injustice, and the world as we may come to see it through the eyes of Yahweh, the God of justice and compassion. Revelation universally implies a clarification of vision. And although biblical revelation is not reducible to enlightenment or the removal of ignorance and unclarity, since this would amount to what is called gnosticism, it nevertheless shares with the wider religious world the sense that we all stand in need of enlightenment. The Christian Church Fathers were especially inclined to understand revelation in this sense.
Mystery and the Humility of God
A theology of revelation must attempt to give an interpretation of the basic data of our experience, including the mysterious. We have an insatiable longing to make sense of the enigmatic features of our personal existence, of history, of the cosmos, and of reality as a whole. We naturally look for some revelatory image that will illuminate reality and make it intelligible. The quest for revelation is inseparable from our perennial human longing for some scheme that will allow things to fit together coherently. Even Albert Camus insisted that it would be dishonest of us to deny that a longing for clarity and lucidity about the nature of reality is an essential part of our existence. (Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays [New York: Vintage Books, 1955] 20.)
At the same time, however, both Camus, who was an atheist, and the great religious teachers have warned us not to be too hasty in piecing the puzzle of reality together. We run the risk of diminishing the mystery of reality and of ourselves if we plunge precipitously into shallow certitudes. The unraveling we sense at the edges of human existence and of the world must not be prematurely knotted by our own restrictive meanings. If there is a revelatory key to reality, we must allow it to unfold at its own pace. And at the same time we must be open to surprise at the shape it eventually takes.
In its focus on Jesus Christ as the revelation of God, Christianity claims that the ultimate mystery of reality becomes incarnate in the life of a particular human being at a particular time in the history of the world. In Christianity, a major feature of the sacred is its paradoxical identification with the mundane. The infinite mystery takes on the definiteness of finitude as its mode of actual existence. The eternal identifies with the temporal and perishable. God, in other words, appears to Christian faith as a self-emptying mystery. The mystery becomes definite by limiting itself. In the Christian story, the inexhaustible depth of reality surfaces as a person like us — Jesus of Nazareth — who suffers crucifixion and death.
Interpreting this picture is the main task of revelation theology. In pondering it, we are led to an unprecedented understanding of mystery. The mystery of the world’s infinite open-endedness initially strikes us as so frustrating that we try to transform it into an extended set of problems that we can control. But in the light of Christian revelation we are led to believe that the boundless, and perhaps initially terrifying abyss of mystery is in fact the consequence of an infinite God’s own humble and loving self-withdrawal. In order to give the world and ourselves the open "space" in which to unfold our existence, the ground of our being absents itself, leaving behind, so to speak, a seeming void or abyss. By concealing its infinity within the limits of particularity, the absolute God graciously opens up for us an unlimited dimension of depth in which to live and move and have our being. The outcome of an infinite self-emptying, then, is an emptiness that seems infinite. This emptiness initially strikes us as a mysterium tremendum, that is, an awe-inspiring and even terrifying abyss. So we either shrink back from it in anxiety that we will be lost if we plunge into it, or else we try to domesticate it by reducing it to the merely problematic. In either case we fail to apprehend the absolute lovingness that lies concealed within the infinite void. A Christian theology of revelation instructs us that what might otherwise strike us as the occasion for despair is really the consequence of a boundless love.
That the abyss of mystery can be an occasion for despair is easily illustrated by modern atheism from Friedrich Nietzsche to Jean-Paul Sartre. The most serious forms of atheism interpret the boundlessness and seeming emptiness of mystery as an invitation to nihilism. There is surely an "abysmal" aspect to reality, and nihilistic philosophy and art are intelligible as an articulation of this terrifying face of mystery. But revelation, with its image of the suffering God, allows us to interpret the void not as absurd, but as the consequence of God’s self-giving, self-limiting love.
However, the sources of Christian thought, especially the Old Testament, require also that we understand revelation as the disclosure of God’s power. Indeed, in a manner of speaking, God’s power is the central content of revelation. The one who delivered Israel with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm is the same power that delivered Jesus from death and established him as Lord. The psalmists and prophets constantly implore Yahweh to make manifest the divine power in the face of the attacks of enemies. In light of this dominant theme of God’s power in the Scriptures and theology, the specter of God presented in the crucified man, Jesus — so utterly self-limiting — seems contradictory. The image of divine vulnerability and suffering that we encounter in the New Testament and in less dominant strands of theological tradition goes against what we expect God and power to be like. It seems to feed our agnostic suspicions that there is nobody in charge of the world and its destiny. God is supposed to be almighty, all-powerful, that is, capable of doing whatever "he" wills. That God freely suffers self-limitation in order to be one with us and our world is an idea that Christian theology has itself only reluctantly acknowledged. And it has done so only after making very careful qualifications. Its Trinitarian theology confesses the "communication of idioms," according to which the features and actions associated with one person of the Trinity are attributable to the others also. Accordingly, the sufferings of the Word made flesh cannot be viewed as though they occur outside of God’s life. But long ago the Church also rejected patripassionism, the view that the suffering of the Son can be attributed to the Father also. And in many other ways the theological tradition has kept its distance from the idea of a kenotic God, even though to an increasing number of theologians today it has always been essential to Christian revelation.
How can we make sense of this apparent contradiction? Perhaps behind its reluctance to speak of a suffering God, there lies a legitimate concern that if suffering and death are ascribed too literally to the Godhead, the very foundations will be taken out from beneath our world. Moreover, we might wonder whence would come the capacity to deliver us and the world from evil, to bring the divine promise to fulfillment, if the person of God is itself so beset by defenselessness. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous remark, "only a weak God can help," sounds too extreme to many. And Jürgen Moltmann’s recent revival of the theme of the crucified God, has been criticized as misleading even by such progressive Catholic theologians as Karl Rahner and Edward Schillebeeckx.(And yet Hans Urs von Balthasar, who in many respects appears more cautious in his theology than either Rahner or Schillebeeckx, has endorsed, through his reflections on Trinitarian theology, the notion of a suffering and dying God much more strongly than most other Catholic theologians: ‘the death, and the dying away into silence, of the Logos so become the centre of what he has to say of himself that we have to understand precisely his non-speaking as his final revelation, his utmost word: and this because in the humility of his obedient self-lowering to the death of the Cross he is identical with the exalted Lord." Mysterium Pasehale, 79.)
On the other hand, the enormity of suffering by creatures on this earth, and perhaps especially the human suffering of the present century, makes it difficult for us to return to any concept of divine omnipotence in which God stands silently and apathetically beyond the world’s evolutionary and historical struggles, able but unwilling to intervene. Such an idea seems theologically and spiritually bankrupt nowadays, even if at one time it was credible. On the other hand, the image of a self-limiting God who joins in utter solidarity with the suffering, the sinful, and the dying is more significant than ever today.
The earliest Christian sources already display an awareness that the philosophers and the wise of "this present age" will not easily entertain the paradox that power is made perfect in weakness. The identity of power with vulnerability is a great stumbling block to our ordinary sense of what is rational. But the revelatory image of a self-emptying absolute may just be the revelatory scandal which, if accepted in faith, can make all else intelligible. Even though the image of God’s humility is paradoxical to human reason, we may be enabled by it to make much more sense of our world than we could without it.( Perhaps the best approach to the problems we have raised is that of John MacQuarrie. He proposes a "dialectical theism," according to which we would avoid the conclusion that any statement about God can be understood as the whole truth. Dialectical thinking requires that whenever we make a statement about God, such as "God is all-powerful," we also allow that in some sense that God is weak and powerless. Such dialectical thinking pushes us toward some "higher" resolution, even if we never quite arrive there. In Search of Deity: An Essay in Dialectical Theism [New York: Crossroad, 1985]). The kenotic image of God provides a surer access to mystery than the more dominant idea of a coercive and domineering divine power. And, as we shall see later, our being grasped by the image of the self-limiting God promotes a heuristics (an impulse toward further discovery) that allows us to bring into our picture of the world, society, and ourselves elements that are usually excluded as unintelligible. In other words, the revelatory image of a self-limiting, self-giving, self-emptying God fosters a continually widening coherence in our understanding of reality and mystery. It evokes a distinct form of enlightenment that lets us see the possibility of redemption in the world and in history, and it provides an empowerment for a human praxis that helps to bring this redemption to pass.