Chapter 4: Religion and Revelation
The Conviction that mystery is revealed to us is not unique to Christianity and biblical religion. Religion in its entirety can be viewed generously as the disclosure of a transcendent mystery. In our own cultural context we call this mystery by the name “God.” But peoples of other times and places have also experienced the breaking of mystery into their lives, and they have related to it, talked about it, and worshipped it through many different verbal and iconic designations. We cannot appreciate the Christian understanding of revelation unless we keep this wider religious world before us. A Christian understanding of revelation will become distinctive to us only if we view it in the context of other kinds of religious awareness.
Searching for distinctiveness, however, need not imply looking for ways in which Christian revelation might be better than others. Any singularity we may find in Christianity does not necessarily imply “superiority” to other faiths. Such a comparison would be pointless and arrogant. There is, of course, a considerable body of Christian opinion that still insists on a comparative devaluation of other religions. But we are now beyond the time in our global religious evolution when we need constantly to be so exclusivistic. This is not to say that all religions are the same, or that they can be reduced to some common essence. Such a simplifying perspective would enormously diminish the rich diversity of religious paths that history has bequeathed to us. Religions are not the sort of realities that can easily be comparatively graded. Perhaps aspects of them, such as their ethical implications, may be compared, but as total approaches to mystery, to human existence, and to the world, it makes little sense to say that one is clearly better than another. None of us occupies a neutrally objective perch, above or outside of all traditions, from which we could ever securely make such an assessment.
Fortunately, there is now developing, here and there, a new spirit of mutual openness and respect among influential religious thinkers representing the various faiths. For Catholic theology, the ecumenical movement and the Second Vatican Council have signaled the end of the old “apologetic” approach to revelation.(See the Council’s document on revelation, Dei Verbum) In the past, a defensive style of theology, remnants of which still unfortunately live on, sought to preserve an often rather narrowly conceived Christian notion of revelation from attack by alternative positions, whether religious or secular. As a result of the self-enclosure of this kind of theology, its treatment of revelation could not receive much nourishment from other traditions. Such isolationism is no longer acceptable in Christian theology.
Still it may be useful at this point for us to speculate on why religions are so vigilant in defense of what they perceive to be revealed truth. Such an examination may go some way toward helping us understand why the idea of revelation has been set apart by theology for special treatment in the first place. Why do Christians and members of other faiths stand guard so securely over their respective deposits of faith?(The Greek word for bishop, episcopos, literally means “overseer”) The following explanation of religion’s preoccupation with apologetics is offered by British theologian John Bowker. It is certainly not intended as an adequate account, but it does offer a rather novel perspective, and it is one that we shall draw on at other points in the present book.(John Bowker, Is Anybody Out There? [Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, Inc., 1988] 9-18; 112-43.)
Whatever else they may be (and they are other things besides), Bowker claims that religions are, at the very least, systems for processing information. They are living structures with boundaries built up over the course of sometimes many centuries for the purpose of encoding, storing, retrieving, and transmitting to the next generation a very important kind of information. This information is usually connected explicitly with some notion of revelation. It is a very special kind of information. It may be non-verbal as well as verbal, but it is not trivial. It has to do with salvation, liberation, and fulfillment, the goals that have traditionally mattered most to the majority of the earth’s human inhabitants. Religion responds to the deepest and most urgent of all human concerns. It answers questions about the final meaning of life, and in doing so it shapes the identity of individuals. It responds in a decisive way to the need to be loved or forgiven and to the longing to discover the purpose of the universe.
Religions are so important because they provide information about how to negotiate the most intransigent roadblocks we encounter in life. Whereas other techniques, like those of science and engineering, can remove more mundane obstacles, religions attend to the most irremovable limits on life: fate, guilt, meaninglessness, and death. Since religions deal with such important matters, the information they convey to their followers is the most valued of all. And so it needs to be carefully protected, more than any other kind of information. It is no wonder then that religions are so defensive — and for that reason also at times so dangerous.(Ibid., 15-18)
Information, Bowker says, does not just float about aimlessly in the universe. It has to be ordered and processed if it is to carry any meaning.(Ibid., 114ff.) But for this purpose it requires a system, an organized channel through which content can flow and be reliably passed on to receivers. Any information system must be allowed to sustain a definite identity throughout the passage of time. It requires some degree of stability. And for that very reason it has to have clear boundaries consisting of sets of constraints. Without such limits the channeling system would collapse, and any revelatory information would dissolve into the noise of indefiniteness. A cell without a membrane would be too shapeless to carry the information essential for life. A computer without the constraints of its circuitry or a specific program could not organize and process information. The informational component in a cell, organism, or computer has to be constrained if it is to be informative. Clear boundaries must be imposed upon a system in order to allow for the processing and transmitting of information. And since religions are information systems (or, perhaps more accurately, complexes of informational sub-systems), they are not exempt from the need for definite constraints to protect the information they seek to transmit.(Ibid.)
The term “constraint” often has a negative ring because it seems to imply oppressive limitation. But modern information science insists that constraints are a positive and necessary feature of any information system. Without our adhering to the constraints of grammar, for example, we could not communicate information in speaking or writing. Our verbalizing would be unstructured and unintelligible. Religious systems are no exception to the informational need for limits. Were it not for their doctrinal constraints they would have no distinct identities. To be something definite, and not just a vague spewing forth of data, an information system requires clear borders. In the case of religions, doctrinal, ritualistic, and scriptural limits are necessary to protect the information about ultimate questions that they each consider important enough to pass on to the next generation of believers.
Especially in the early phases of a sect or religion’s existence, a period of relatively narrow and restrictive self-definition seems necessary. A religion needs to get its sense of revealed truth under some control lest it fade off into indefiniteness. But even in later phases, the boundaries need to be maintained in the face of various threats to a tradition’s identity. For that reason, religions will often tend to be conservative and apologetic. After all, they are absolutely convinced that they have information worth preserving. Not that they are totally immune to change. For they are each the product of a winnowing process which sometimes only over the course of many generations establishes clearly the constraints within which they assume distinctive shapes. Witness, for example, the tortuous history that culminated in the Nicene Creed or in the formulations of the Council of Chalcedon. But once doctrinal essentials are established, religious communities will not casually erase or redraw the revered boundaries that protect and channel the information they hold to be indispensable for ultimate fulfillment. So whenever a religion’s boundaries are being attacked, either by insiders or outsiders, they must apparently be fortified.
This tendency to exclusivity has been present throughout the history of religion. It is apparently the role of bishops, popes, imams, gurus, and other officials to monitor the flow of information in a religious system by carefully patrolling its borders.(Ibid., 14.) It is the function of codified doctrines and authoritative teachings to determine who is in and who is outside the system. Offensive to particular individuals and to outsiders as they may sometimes be, some sort of boundaries seem to be essential, informationally speaking. They are needed in order to keep the religious system from melting into a shapelessness that would prevent the ordering and transmitting of any information at all. A religion without boundaries simply could not function as a vehicle for passing on the revealed information.(And yet, we shall observe later how Christian revelation also has within it an impulse to transcend all boundaries in the interest of the inclusiveness manifested in the life and teachings of Jesus. See below. Chapters 6 and 9.)
The problem, however, is that some religions draw their boundaries more sharply than others. And some subsystems within a tradition are stricter about doctrinal constraints than other subsystems. This is clearly the case with various factions of Islam. Or, to give a more familiar example, within Christianity Roman Catholicism is generally more concerned about boundaries than is Anglicanism.(Bowker, 129.) At times a religion’s or a denomination’s borders can become unnecessarily hardened. And when this occurs, religion can become exclusivist and self-protective to the point of being a menace to others.
The point here, though, is not to dwell on the negative implications of religions’ concern for constraints. Rather we may be Content for the moment simply to acknowledge that some kind of boundary maintenance is essential in order to protect the saving or revealed information that religions value so highly. Even in the most liberal forms of Christianity, traditional religious teachings, sacraments, and Scriptures exercise some sort of constraint on what people teach their children about the meaning of life, death, and reality as a whole. Religions can never be completely a case of “anything goes.” They require “membranes” with at least some degree of thickness. Otherwise they spill over into such vagueness that they lose their identity altogether.(Bowker, 124-32.)
Thus, information theory helps us understand the apologetic tone of so much religion and theology. It allows us to see why the concern for a specially revealed deposit of truth can be so important in the shaping and maintaining of a religion’s identity. And it also suggests why religions often claim that their respective revelations are superior to those of others. Such a claim can be a very effective means of boundary maintenance.
However, we may now take a step beyond Bowker’s illuminating use of the new information-systems model. For information theory also instructs us that religions, like other systems, cannot sustain any vital flow of information if they remain absolutely conservative and defensive. Information theory also requires that there be an element of unpredictability in any truly informative message. In order to be informative, a system has to avoid not only the chaos or “noise” of indefiniteness, which boundary maintenance is designed to assure, but also the monotony of excessive redundancy. Of course, some redundancy, that is, a tendency to repetitiveness, is a requirement for the flow of information in any system. For it is in such redundancy that informational constraints and boundaries are embedded. For example, the constant and repetitive adherence to the rules of grammar is essential for linguistic communication. But if the redundancy is excessive it will drown out the unpredictability and novelty that the passing on of information also needs.
This holds true for the obvious reason that if information were totally predictable it could not really be informative. If a system were simply an “order” without any openness to novelty, it would be frozen into a single identity and would therefore be incapable of anything other than self-duplication. It would be incapable of mediating any genuine revelation. Its absolute rigidity would inhibit the entrance of novel, surprising content. The same material would be repeated over and over, impeding the flow of real information to present recipients. If I already know the content of the message coming across a telegraph wire, I can hardly call it informative or revelatory when it finally arrives. Absolute predictability inhibits the flow of information since everything is already fixed irreversibly in a stationary pattern. Only an entropic disassembly of the elements involved in information can allow for a reassembling into truly novel and informative patterns. A leaning toward disorder is necessary if information is to have the surprising character it requires in order to be information. As a system processes information it needs randomizing moments or trends in order for wider and more intensely informative patterns to emerge.
Thus any kind of information, revelatory or otherwise, has to walk the razor’s edge between noise and redundancy, between chaos and monotony, between unintelligibility and repetition. Without a certain amount of redundancy, information would have no intelligible shape. But without a system’s capacity for moments of deconstruction, no meaningful or relevant information could be inscribed in it. A periodic veering toward the state of “noise” loosens up a system to receive new life and information. Without such a capacity for randomization, a code would be too “stiff” to carry a message. If religions are information systems, then their revelations must also be in some way continuously open to novelty, precisely in order to sustain their informational character.
The extant religious traditions all began when the boundaries and constraints of their historical predecessors had become too restrictive to mediate the saving information required to interpret new historical circumstances. Buddhism, for example, originated when the Buddha perceived Hindu religious practice to be too confining to bring the fulfillment and release from suffering for which living beings longed. Islam began when Muhammad became sensitive to the dehumanizing implications of the idolatry of popular religious practice. And Christianity started in the fresh experience of the compassion of God by Jesus of Nazareth. Gautama, Muhammad, and Jesus all transgressed the boundaries and constraints that had shaped and channeled the flow of religious information in their respective cultures. It is clear then that religion and revelation are more than the passing on of a fixed tradition. The beginnings of influential religious movements are usually tied up with acts of rebellion and revolution. However, adventurous religious movements at some point typically abandon the innovative openness of their originating moments. They circle the wagons not only to contain their well-winnowed traditions, but also in order to seal themselves off from novelty. Too much novelty would lead to chaos, but without some opening toward surprise a religious system eventually stifles the traditional information it seeks to transmit.
Christian Attitudes Toward the Religions
As we move forward in our inquiry into the nature and plausibility of revelation, it will be helpful to keep before us the rules by which all systems process information. The transmission of ideas associated with revelation will be especially bounded by protective constraints. But a religion’s understandable concern with clear borders may at times restrict the very novelty that originally made the ideas seem to be specially revealed.(In order then for revelation to remain truly alive it must always be a source of new surprises for each generation of believers. We shall see later that our conceiving revelation in the form of “promise” allows for just this novelty, whereas a purely antiquarian retrieval of a “deposit of faith” from the past is by itself inadequate as a way of understanding the self-disclosure of God.) Even though emphasis on doctrinal constraints is an inevitable phase in the formation of a tradition, there comes a time in its unfolding when a purely defensive posture leads to stagnation arising from under-nourishment. At such times a relaxation of the apologetic approach and a new openness to the foreignness of alternative ways of looking at mystery become essential simply for the sake of the vitality and survival of the tradition’s revelatory capacity.
We are now living at such an exciting time for religions. World history is bringing the various traditions together into such mutual proximity that they can no longer ignore one another. Simply thickening their protective membranes and emphasizing doctrinal constraints, or the normative superiority of one deposit of faith over the others, now leads only to an obstruction of informational flow. In the final analysis, sheer defensiveness becomes an impediment to the communication of revelation.(As we shall see later, the openness of authentic Christian faith to the future, to novelty, and surprise invites it therefore to undergo considerable transformation in its encounter with other traditions. Christianity, following Jesus and Jesus’ God, should be expected to be somewhat vulnerable and “defenseless” in any relational encounter with other faiths. If it defends anything vigorously it should be its own defenselessness and inclusiveness. Informationally speaking, this would entail a willingness to allow its boundaries to shift in response to new information in its encounters. In this way it preserves its identity instead of losing it. Like persons, a religion must “die” [abandon any non-relational exclusivism] in order to live.)
Although there is still considerable resistance on the part of many devout Christian believers to the new openness now being extended toward other religions, there is also a great deal of enthusiasm about it on the part of many others. Religion on our planet is now embarking upon a new and adventurous stage in its history. To an unprecedented extent, members of the various faiths are today in conversation, seeking to learn new things from one another. This occurrence is too threatening for large segments of some traditions and subsystems, and so they have retreated into themselves, building thicker walls against the invasion of alternative points of view. But in other respects, the new inter-religious encounters are already changing the religious landscape of our world in a wholesome way. And they are inviting us to rethink our ideas of revelation in terms of inter-religious conversation.
Today, most Christian theologians have rejected, at least in principle, a purely exclusivist approach which would deny the revelatory value of other religions. Where significant controversy now exists, it involves the so-called “pluralists” on the one hand, and the “inclusivists” on the other. Informationally speaking, the pluralist theological option radically relativizes the importance of distinct religious boundaries, proposing that different religious traditions may all be equally valid ways of experiencing the revelation of an ultimate reality transcending the comprehension of any particular tradition(See the essays in John Hick and Paul Knitter, eds., The Myth of Christian Uniqueness (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1987). The inclusivist approach in Christian theology, however, without denying the value of other traditions, is more concerned with boundary maintenance.(See, for example, Gavin D’Costa. ed., Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books. 1990). It is open to dialogue with other traditions and willing to have Christian faith enriched by ecumenical encounter and exposure to the sacred texts of other traditions. But it is not willing to sacrifice this teaching, expressed as early as Acts 4:12: “There is salvation in no one else [except Jesus Christ], for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”(We are far from resolving this very important debate. Both the pluralist and the inclusivist positions are making important points. The perspective taken in this book (especially in Chapter 8) is that of an evolutionary cosmology in which the universe itself is the primary revelation of mystery and in which religions and their symbols are seen as expressions of the cosmos (and not just of isolated, cosmically homeless human subjects). Religion is something that the universe does through us in its evolutionary journey into mystery. Contemporary theology, including discussions between pluralists and inclusivists, is still hampered by a pre-evolutionary, a cosmic understanding of religion.)
Whether one takes the pluralist or the inclusivist position, it is generally agreed that any Christian theology of revelation that we construct today has to be sensitive to the new consciousness of religious plurality emerging in our time. Previously, it was especially in the theology of revelation (and also Christology) that Christian theologians argued apologetically for the eminence of the Christian religion. They maintained that it has this status by virtue of a privileged access to God given in a special revelation withheld at God’s discretion from other religions. Much Christian theology still has overtones of this apologetic approach, but it is being challenged by a more ecumenically minded sensitivity to the revelatory possibilities in all the religions.
The traditional language of Christian religion and theology emphasized the centrality and normativeness of Jesus Christ as the decisive and final revelation of God. For centuries, Christians have been taught that the fullness of God’s being becomes manifest only in Christ. And this teaching seemed to imply that we need not look elsewhere for any further data of revelation, least of all in the other religions. Our theologies of revelation focused almost exclusively on the Christ-event and its biblical environment. The exclusively Christo-centric character of revelation theology made it difficult for us to take seriously the revelatory character of primal religions, of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and other religious ways.
The simple dynamics of human psychology provide some explanation for the tenacity of an exclusivist Christo-centrism. A devotee’s concentrated commitment to Christ is not entirely different from one person’s loyalty to another in ordinary situations of friendship or romance. Because of the limitations of our existence, it is difficult for us to divide our loves indefinitely. We normally need a central focus of devotion, and in our commitment to one individual we may sometimes devalue or deny the reality of others. In romantic love, sometimes it is as though virtually nobody else exists outside of the beloved. And even though to some degree one may outgrow sheer obsession, the normal predilection for a select person or group will still persist. The awesomeness of the world requires that finite beings “partialize” it in order to relate to it at all. We have to bite it off in little chunks, or else risk madness.(Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death [New York: the Free Press, 1973] 244.) We simply do not have the capacity to consume it in all its depth and complexity. It would not be surprising, therefore, if this limitation overlays our grasp of any possible revelation of the mystery that encompasses us.
In the enthusiasm of devotion to Christ, a Christian will often insist that Jesus alone is savior and Lord. Such exclusivist language is consonant with the state of being enraptured or in love. Indeed, if it were absent one might even question the intensity of the devotion. When Christians proclaim Jesus Christ as universal savior, is this entirely distinct from the excessiveness of all love-language?
Still, when John’s gospel testifies that in the incarnate Word all things have their being and when St. Paul extends Christ’s lordship to the entire universe, are we not beyond the kind of exuberance that pertains to romantic expression? Is there not something more literally cosmic and metaphysical here? In any case, the universalism accompanying Christo-centric exclusivism constitutes a major problem in today’s inter-religious encounters. It is also a major issue in the theology of revelation. In what sense can Christians call Jesus Christ the decisive revelation of God, the savior of all humanity, or the Lord of all the universe, without treading on the religious toes of Hindus or Buddhists or others who sense no such universality in Christ?
In all honesty, today Christians have to ask whether their own concepts of salvation are any more universal in intention than those implied, for example, in the Buddhist ideal of the bodhisattva, one who is portrayed as having such sentiments as these:
All creatures are in pain. All suffer from bad and hindering karma. All that mass of pain and evil I take in my own body. Assuredly I must bear the burden of all beings for I have resolved to save them all. I must set them all free, I must save the whole world from the forest of birth, old age, disease, and rebirth. . . . For all beings are caught in the net of craving, encompassed by ignorance, held by the desire for existence; they are doomed to destruction, shut in a cage of pain.
It is better that I alone suffer than that all beings sink to the world of misfortune. There I shall give myself into bondage, to redeem all the world from the forest of purgatory, from rebirth as beasts, from the realm of death. I shall bear all grief and pain in my own body for the good of all things living. I must so bring to fruition the root of goodness that all beings find the utmost joy, unheard of joy, the joy of omniscience.(Siksasamuccaya, adapted from William Theodore de Bary, The Buddhist Tradition (New York: Vintage Books, 1972) 84- 85.)
At the moment when nirvana is about to occur, the bodhisattva (as portrayed in Mahayana Buddhism) pauses on its threshold, deciding that it is not yet the right time to enter fully into the blissful state of fulfillment. The mass of living beings still remains stuck in the cycle of rebirth and suffering. Other living beings have not yet attained the bliss of nirvana, so it would be inappropriate to enter into the rapture of final liberation as long as even one of them remains suffering outside. Thus the bodhisattva. filled with almost infinite compassion, renounces salvation until all living beings have been liberated. Would it be surprising if a Buddhist tendered the same sort of devotional regard toward the salvific person of the bodhisattva that Christians give to Jesus?
Following Chapter 1 of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Christian theology has traditionally taught that revelation is present in a general sense throughout creation. In some way or other, all things are manifestations of God’s glory. More recently, theologians have allowed that other religions, which are also a part of God’s universe, have a special role to play in manifesting the Creator. The Second Vatican Council explicitly affirmed the revelatory value and significance of the great religious traditions. But following mainstream Christian teaching, it continued to affirm the decisiveness and finality of the revelation given in Christ. It maintained that the prevalence of sin has blinded us to the full glory of God, and it seemed to imply that other religions can give no more than a glimpse of it. Only in Christ has sin been decisively vanquished and the fullness of God’s being been made manifest(At the second Vatican Council both Lumen Gentium and Dei Verbum reaffirmed this traditional conviction.) And this seems to be the consistent teaching of the Christian churches.
Thus, along with the element of universality mentioned above, the doctrine of the unsurpassability of Christ as the final revelation of God has come to be a crucial point of controversy in inter-religious discussion involving Christians and other traditions. But do we not now have to keep in mind, even more than the Second Vatican Council, what a Buddhist or Hindu might think of our theologically exclusivist language? Should we make any theological statements today, even amongst ourselves, that will antecedently rule out the possibility of deeper conversation and eventual agreements with sincere members of other faiths? None of us can yet give definitive answers to these questions, and it may be years and even centuries before theological discussion has moved us close to any kind of resolution. But the question of how to interpret the doctrine of the universality and unsurpassability of Christ in the context of inter-religious dialogue is now with us for good, and the fact that it will not go away means that we may be at least a little closer to an answer than we were before.
A priori, of course, we cannot rule out the possibility that God can make one phase or moment of history more decisively revelatory than others. In fact, to suppose that every period in history or every person is just as transparent to mystery as any other seems quite implausible. In the evolution of an emergent universe, each “higher” development can make its initial appearance only at one particular time and place. There is something singular and unique about every new breakthrough in evolution and history. Perhaps the same could be said concerning the revelation of mystery through the religious traditions of humanity. It is not inconceivable that there would be degrees of revelational intensity at various phases in the religious dimension of the cosmic process, especially if there is a discernible axis of “progress.”(Whether the evolving universe is a progressive development is highly disputed. Generally speaking, scientific skeptics, like Stephen Jay Gould, repudiate the notion of evolutionary progress. Religious scientists, such as Teilhard de Chardin, however, discern clear lines of progress, at least in terms of the emergence of complexity-consciousness. while it is impossible to discuss this controversy here, it is at least worth noting that it is not irrelevant to the question whether one historical revelation may be taken as an advance over others.) That God’s love, manifest in diverse ways throughout the duration of the universe, might come to a full and unsurpassable self-expression in an individual human being who lived and died in the Middle East almost two thousand years ago does not seem incongruous with what we now understand about the nature of an evolving universe, especially if we regard religion as a phenomenon emergent from the universe rather than just something done on the earth by cosmically homeless human subjects. Nor can we rule out the possibility that one aspect of God’s total self-revelation is normative for all the others. Indeed, most Christian teaching in the past seems to have made exactly this claim for the Christ-event.
But in our religious situation today can we continue to maintain such an exclusivist Christo-centrism? Is honest dialogue with other religions possible as long as the cards of conversation are stacked in such a way as to make the dialogue partner’s position inferior to ours from the start? Does not “dialogue” then become just another word for a not-so-subtle proselytizing? Do we not implicitly subordinate our conversation partners to ourselves if we insist from the start on the definitiveness and unsurpassable character of Christian revelation? Can Christians plausibly continue to affirm the revelatory supremacy of the Christ-event and at the same time be fully open to other traditions that have their own unique convictions about religious meaning and truth?
Before any of us undertakes to address these questions it may be well to recall two facts about religion that have become more visible in theology and other disciplines especially in the last one hundred years or so. The first of these facts is that religious reference is always symbolic rather than direct and literal. The character of mystery is mediated to human beings only by way of concrete aspects of the world. These may be called symbols or “sacraments” of mystery. Objects, persons, events, metaphors, analogies, and stories are the vehicles through which we first encounter the divine. Even “God,” Paul Tillich says, is a symbol for God.
The fact that religious expression is symbolic, however, does not mean that it is inferior to direct, non-symbolic language. To say that religious expression is ‘‘merely symbolic” implies that non-symbolic reference to mystery is the ideal. But a completely clear or literal representation of ultimate reality would trivialize mystery to the point of idolatry. Accepting the symbolically vague nature of religion is not a surrender to softheadedness, but an implicit affirmation of the transcendence of the mystery that no human expression can capture adequately. Religion, we shall see, requires silent or apophatic moments precisely as protection against our taking symbols too literally. If we think carefully about the symbolic nature of religious language, it may lead us to acknowledge its inadequacy. And if we accept its inadequacy, this will leave an opening for us to learn things about mystery from other traditions that our own symbols may not convey.
The second axiom contemporary theology has to accept in our religiously plural context is that religious consciousness, no less than any other aspect of human awareness, is historically conditioned. All religious thought. utterance, and practice grow out of particular times and circumstances. They are bound up with specific localities and are subject to the cultural and linguistic constraints that prevail at the time they come to expression. Thus, there is a certain perspectival limitation or relativity inherent in all human attempts to affirm the absolute.
Acceptance of this relativity, however, does not mean that theology is forced to accept relativism, the view that nothing is absolute. It only means that any religious representations of the absolute are themselves relative. That is, they must be interpreted in terms of the cultural and linguistic patterns out of which they originate. If they are taken as completely timeless — in the sense of being immune to the conditional character of historical existence — they then become idols themselves instead of pointers to the mystery that transcends history and culture. To accept the contingent character of our religious language may seem at first to threaten its informational boundaries, and so in reaction we may be tempted to elevate our particular traditions to a status of timelessness that they in fact do not possess. But alternatively we might also take the new awareness of the relativity of our own doctrinal constraints as an opportunity to open ourselves to a wider world of revelation as it is mediated by other similarly conditioned religious traditions.
After all, there is no reason to insist that the Christian religion and its theological language are an exception to the two rules we have just enunciated. In the first place, Christianity, like most religions, is tied up with specific symbols or sacraments. Think, for example, of the wide variety of images and ideas by which the New Testament itself seeks to interpret the life and person of Jesus. The specificity and culturally shaped character of religious symbols is necessary if a saving mystery is to be communicated in a rich way to a particular people at a particular time. And second, even by virtue of its own doctrine of the incarnation, Christian faith accepts its thorough immersion in the particularity of concrete historical circumstances. This means that there is a certain relativity (not relativism) at the very heart of its own understanding of mystery. To confess this relativity is religiously necessary. And at the same time, it is the indispensable condition for honest dialogue with other traditions. There is little hope of our learning, appreciating, and appropriating the content of other religions unless we first accept the relativity, and that entails the revisability, of our own standpoint. If we assume from the start that we cannot learn anything from others because our own position has no room for growth, then entering into dialogue would be dishonest. And as pointed out earlier, it would also unnecessarily contract the informational character of our own faith tradition.
However, to return to the main issue before us, it may seem that we are being disloyal to traditional Christian teaching if we in any way cast doubt on the universal and unsurpassable character of Jesus the Christ as decisively revelatory of God. So in what sense can we continue to proclaim the special authority of Christian revelation while at the same time fully embracing the implications of our two axioms: on the one hand that our religious language, including our Christological categories, is never adequately representative of God, and on the other that it is always conditioned by historical relativity?
A Mystery-Centered Approach
Perhaps the best approach to take in this matter is a “mystery-centered” one. Without reducing all religions to a quest for one common essence — which the pluralist position is often accused of doing — and without making the simplistic claim that all religions are saying or doing “the same thing,” it nevertheless seems that in their own widely divergent ways they all seek and express union with something like what we have been calling “mystery.” In our dialogue with other traditions, the key to sustaining conversation (rather than cutting it short by claims that others will interpret as arrogant) is to keep before ourselves the possibility that in some way or other all religions may be relative, culturally specific ways of looking toward an ineffable mystery. Intuitions of mystery are universally possible and not confined to specific cultural-linguistic frameworks, simply by virtue of the fact that all people have limit-experiences and occasionally at least ask the limit-questions that transport us beyond the confines of the everyday. Indeed, it is awareness of limits that allows us to share human experiences across widely diverse cultures. Whatever transcends these limits, whether it be an emptiness, an abyss of nothingness, or a plenitude of being, is what we are calling mystery. This dimension of mystery is not a “common essence.” However, the experience of limits is universal in human experience, so it seems reasonable to suppose that all religions bear some relationship to this experience.
According to this hypothesis, what is all-important is not our religions themselves, but the mystery of which they speak and to which they point. In the final analysis, what is really “unsurpassable” in all religions is the mystery that they mediate, and not the religions or theologies that speak of this mystery. And this is a point upon which, it seems, the greatest voices of all the traditions have already agreed.
Sensitive religious people have always been more oriented toward mystery than toward their own religions. Jesus, for example, clearly pointed his disciples toward an ultimate reality beyond himself and beyond the conventional religious certitudes of his day. And even though the New Testament expresses a Christo-centrism, its focus on Christ is best understood as a sacramental mode of theo-centrism. Without its general orientation toward God, Christology. like any kind of religious symbolics, would be idolatrous. It is clear that Jesus himself was God centered. The gospels indicate that like all humans he struggled with the temptation to self-assertion, but that he conquered the urge to make his own personality into a cult object. So if there is something unsurpassable about him for believers, it is ultimately derived from the mystery that he sacramentally mediates – Whenever a religion speaks of the “unsurpassability” of its central revelatory event, personality, or doctrine, religious wisdom exhorts us to acknowledge that only the unfathomable mystery to which these realities point is indeed unsurpassable. Jesus, for example, would never have insisted that his own being is unsurpassable. Rather, he would have given this status only to that ultimate mystery he referred to as “abba.”(See Leonard Swidler, “Jesus’ Unsurpassable Uniqueness,” Horizons XVI [Spring, 1989] 116-20.) If Jesus’ own person is unsurpassable it is so only in the sense that it is for Christians the primary sacrament of the encounter with the infinite God?(Edward Schillebeeckx, OP. Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God [New York: Sheed and Ward, 1963] 7-45.)
But as we have already observed, from the point of view of Christian revelation, the unsurpassability of the divine mystery itself consists in the limitlessness of its self-emptying love. If we keep this kenotic aspect of mystery in mind whenever we use the adjective “unsurpassable,” it may be possible to enter into religious dialogue in a spirit of openness and humility rather than with a doctrinaire inflexibility.
Moreover, it is not a requirement of authentic Christian faith to hold that the Christ-event is the only way through which divine mystery is mediated to human consciousness, including that of Christians themselves. Although there has been much controversy and even bitter dispute on this issue, Christian doctrine has never insisted that our sense of mystery is bound exclusively to the Christ. Mystery becomes transparent to people through the mediation of numerous aspects of nature, society, and human experience. It would be contrary to the spirit of Jesus’ own faith, life, and teachings to tie our sense of the divine to the relativity of a single sacramental matrix, even if it is Jesus himself. The Christ-event can still legitimately be taken as sacramentally normative for Christians without entailing a symbolic exclusiveness.
Today, in fact, the idea of revelation must be unfolded with an eye toward rendering intelligible the very fact of the plurality of religions themselves. In the past, apologetic presentations of revelation theology sought to suppress the significance of any religion but Christianity itself. It was almost as though the large majority of human beings have lived in total darkness. unillumined by the light of Christ. Now, however, we may acknowledge with more sincerity than before that the light that illuminates us in Christ also shines through other faith traditions in other ways.(See Lumen Gentium, Chapter II, #16) Not to acknowledge this possibility is itself a kind of idolatry that obscures, as does all idolatry, the self-revelation of mystery. Idolatry is the elevation of a particular and relative approach to mystery to the status of sole and exclusive representation of it. Such idolatry can be as much a part of exclusivist Christianity as of any other efforts to tie the mystery of God down to the particularity of a single culture and time in history. On the other hand, by viewing the plurality of faiths from the point of view of our central revelatory image, that of God’s self-emptying love, we may effectively confront the temptation to idolatry. Indeed, in the light of this image, we would be surprised if there were not a rich variety of revelatory religious paths. This point will be developed below.
The Four Ways of Religion
In Christianity, Jesus the Christ is the primary symbol or sacrament of our encounter with God. The distinctiveness of Christianity from other traditions lies especially in its choice of this particular “sacrament” as central. Most of the differences among the religions have to do with their understandably one-sided attachment to the particular sacramental images, events, experiences, or persons that they choose as representative of mystery.
But there is more to any religion than just the sacramental constituent. Religion of course always requires at least some symbols. But in addition to being sacramental, it is also mystical, silent, and active. Only a cursory look at the story of religion is needed to see that there is more than one way of orienting ourselves religiously toward mystery. And this diversity must influence our ideas of revelation as well.
We may present the four main “ways” of religion in the form of a simple typology suggested by a comparative study of distinct emphases found respectively in four different kinds of religion: early (or “primal”) religion, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the prophetic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).(An expanded version of this typology is given in my book What Is Religion? [New York: Paulist Press, 1990) The sacrificial practices of preliterate peoples suggest one way, the sacramental. The Hindu Upanishads’ quest for union with the “One” implies another, namely, the mystical. The Buddha’s renunciation of selfish craving together with his silence about theological issues offers yet another, what we shall call the apophatic (or silent). And finally, the intense social concern of the prophets provides yet another way, the active. If religion in general means an adventure toward mystery, it is now clear that there is more than one way of moving toward this goal.
More specifically: 1. Primal religion takes a predominantly sacramental or symbolic approach to mystery. It senses mystery only in relation to concrete objects, persons, and events. 2. Hinduism, especially Vedanta, exemplifies what we shall call the mystical tendency present in all religion. Mysticism, as we are using the term here, perceives more explicitly than sacramentalism the presence of an ultimate unity of mystery beyond finite realities and seeks to enter into this unity immediately and intensely, at times with little apparent need for sacramental mediation. 3. Buddhism, with its “way of renunciation,” is characteristically silent (scholars would say “apophatic” or “hesychast”) with respect to the nature of mystery. The “way of silence,” which is likewise an ingredient, at least to some degree, in all religion, is so alert to the inadequacy of any sacramental images of mystery that it sometimes puts them completely aside, intending thereby a radical purification of religious consciousness. 4. Finally, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (to oversimplify for the moment) may be taken as exemplars of the active side of religion. For them, the approach to sacred mystery is inseparable from a transformative praxis in the world of political, social, and economic existence.
Sacramentalism, mysticism, silence, and action are the four main religious “ways” of entry into mystery. To some degree they are each present in all the religions, but often with differing emphases. The history of religion teaches us that religion will preserve its integrity only if it keeps all of these four ways in mutual tension and relationship. Each of the four ways must be critically connected with the other three, or else it runs the risk of losing its religious character altogether (if by “religion” we mean a receptivity to the reality of sacred mystery). As we construct a Christian theology of revelation in the context of our growing awareness of the plurality of religious revelations, it will be helpful to keep this picture of the fourfold complexion of religion before us. It will enable us to see better the connections Christianity has with other religious traditions, and it will also assist us in clarifying the diverse ways in which mystery reveals itself in Christian faith.
Corresponding to each of our four religious components there is a representative sociological role or institution. Sacramental religion generates the office of shaman or priest as the representative of a divine order. The mystical way produces the type known as the contemplative. Our third religious type, represented especially by Buddhism, is based on the ideal of detachment, renunciation, and silence. These ideals are associated especially with the ascetic, one who renounces any clinging to the things of the world (traditionally represented in the institution of monasticism). And finally, prophetic religion inspires a fourth religious type, the activist, whose life is dedicated to the transformation of the world and society into a more just context for human life.
The activist, of course, may also be a priest, contemplative, and ascetic, all at the same time. But often the activist lives in tension with the other three types. The activist may criticize the priest, contemplative, or ascetic for not caring enough about the process of political and economic renewal of the social world. And the priest or mystic may question whether activists, preoccupied as they are primarily with the secular realm, are sufficiently oriented toward sacred mystery. But the activists, such as the biblical prophets, claim that the life of social concern is thoroughly religious, and they make “doing justice” the very heart of any authentic religious relation to the sacred mystery of God.
Each of our four ways also has its corresponding manner of interpreting the world of “secular” reality. Sacramental religion’s attitude toward the world may be characterized as one of enjoyment. It rejoices gratefully in the goods of creation and interprets their gift-like character as a hint or revelation of the ultimate beneficence of God. Mystical religion exemplifies the religious relativizing of the world. It senses the ultimacy and unity of mystery more dramatically than sacramentalism, and it seeks to move more decisively beyond particular things, thus relativizing them in the light of the transcendent. Apophatic or silent religion, exemplified by the Buddhist renunciation of clinging, and also by the hesychast strains of other religious traditions, is significant for its patient letting be of the world. And activist religion seeks to change or transform the world. Strains of all four attitudes are found in any of the major religious traditions, though they are present with distinct emphases.
Finally, each of our four types is subject to its own peculiar temptation. As mentioned earlier, the four ways need to communicate with each other in order for religion to be healthy. If any one of them loses contact with the others, it degenerates into a caricature that eventually divests it of its revelatory character, of its transparency to mystery. For example, if sacramentalism is uninformed by the mystical tendency to relativize the things of the world, or by the apophatic suspicion of symbols, or by the activist need to change the social world, it will inevitably degenerate into idolatry and empty ritualism. When this occurs, it forfeits its mediating or revelatory character. If mysticism loses touch with sacramental symbols, with apophatic patience, and with the needs of the social world, it becomes a form of religious escapism. If the ascetical way of silence is not carefully qualified by at least some degree of sacramentalism, by the mystical sense of transcendence, and the activist concern for the world, it tends toward nihilism, the view that all things are empty of value. And finally, if religious activism breaks its ties with sacramental, mystical, and silent religion, it becomes indistinguishable from secular humanism, such as Marxism for example. These four temptations of religion, all of which in the extreme would frustrate any revelation of mystery, can be thwarted only if each religious way allows itself to be nourished by the other three.
Awareness of all four ways of religion and of their respective temptations allows us to approach the subject of revelation in such a way that in inter-religious dialogue, areas of religious agreement may show up more obviously than when we look only at the obvious sacramental differences. Of all four, it is in the sacramental arena that differences stand out most sharply. It is especially here that disputes and controversies arise. Different cultures will choose correspondingly different media by which to focus their sense of mystery. For example, in Christianity the primary sacrament is Jesus as the Christ, whereas Hindu bhakti might choose Krishna or Kali or numerous other deities. (It is likewise in the sacramental dimension that conflicts arise concerning the gender of God.)
It is extremely difficult, and probably impossible, for all peoples on earth to reach agreement all at once on the appropriateness, decisiveness, or normativeness of a specific sacramental mediation of mystery. However, this impasse need not prevent us from acknowledging the convergence among religions regarding the other three aspects of religion. The sacramental is only one of four essential religious ingredients. Some religious agreement may occur in reference to the mystical, apophatic, and active modes even where it is lacking in the sacramental.
For example, there has already been some convergence among representatives of the various traditions regarding the mystical dimension of religion. Likewise, we may look for more and more agreement on at least some of the active components of religious life. Regardless of a faith’s sacramental peculiarities it is still possible to recognize some overlapping with other traditions on the question of what needs to be done in our world today. Buddhist monks, for example, are now engaging in protests against social injustice. And a convergence on the issue of planetary environmental ethics is very promising for the future.
Most important, however, is the possibility of inter-religious agreement flowing out of a common sharing of the religious way of silence. Here, more than anywhere else in religion, there can be virtual unanimity. The theme of the “ineffability” of mystery is taught to one degree or another by all the religious traditions.(See my book What Is Religion?, 113-27 for example.) To the extent that they are at all open to mystery they unanimously agree that no set of sacramental expressions can ever adequately communicate the content of religious experience. They are sensitive to the inadequacy of any images of, or language about, ultimate reality, and so they all make room for silence as an authentic religious corrective. Thus the occasional avoidance of images and symbols is a distinct and venerable religious “way” of opening ourselves to mystery. Authentic religion requires that at least at times we cease our habitual verbalizing and imagining what mystery is like, and silently allow it to be itself, purified of our always inadequate symbolic representations. The way of silence becomes the opening to an ever deeper sense of mystery. Thus it is an indispensable disposition for opening our lives to the revelation of God.
The fact that sacramental religion employs a multitude of symbols, rather than just one, already implies a wholesome conviction that no single concrete object, personality, or event can all by itself correspond completely to the unknown and unnamable mystery. And a sure sign of the informational openness of a religion is its willingness to experiment with a wide variety of metaphors. But the most obvious way in which religions acknowledge the reality of divine mystery is by their assuming the posture of pure silence. Like sacramentalism, mysticism, and action, silence is an essential condition for the reception of revelation.
In Buddhism, the emphasis on silence leads to a distinct world religion. Gautama, the Buddha, considered theological discourse to be utterly inappropriate. Talk about God or nirvana gets in the way of the process of bringing actual people salvation from suffering here and now. Other religious traditions share at least some of the Buddhist reserve about religious talk. There is an apophatic strain in Hinduism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And it is in their meeting on the plain of stillness that these very diverse traditions manifest their deepest sharing of mystery. In that sense their common reversion to silence renders sacramental differences somewhat less significant than they might otherwise appear to be.
Religious Pluralism and the Humility of God
In terms of a Christian theology of revelation, however, the sacramental normativeness of Christ is still the main issue. So we repeat now the question asked earlier: How can we enter seriously into inter-religious discussions while clinging to the doctrine of his uniquely normative and universal significance?
We cannot respond to this question without recalling, as we shall do in each of the following chapters, what we take to be the startling imagery presented by the Christian understanding of the revelation of mystery. Earlier we noted that the central content given in the Christian understanding of this mystery is summed up in the theme of the humility and self-abandonment of God. When ultimate power conceals itself in apparent powerlessness and when mystery “loses” itself in the particulars of history or in the uniqueness of a particular personality, there is already a ratification of the symbolic and the relative as the media of revelation. The fact that we have to resort to symbolic language and commit ourselves to a relative perspective in our thinking about God is not a defect for which we need to apologize. Rather, it is a direct implication (and imitation) of the humility of God. It follows from God’s own eternal decision to forsake any domicile located exclusively outside of our time and space. The concrete sacramentality and historical relativity in our speaking of God is, therefore, not a problem to be solved in spite of our Christo-centrism. It is a direct expression and consequence thereof.
The image of God’s self-humbling generosity is also the key to the plurality of religions. Given the extravagance of God as manifested in the evolving universe at large, it would indeed be surprising if there were not also a splendid variety in the religious unfolding of the cosmos as well. Nothing would be more out of character with mystery, with nature and its evolution, or with history and selfhood, than a drab homogeneity in any phase of cosmic emergence. And religions, we have to remember, are part of this cosmic emergence. In God’s letting-be of the world by humble self-limitation, there is established the probability that there will be a plurality of (relative) paths toward the one Absolute. Each one of these paths is unique, and it would be unfruitful to measure them as though only one of them is in full possession of the truth and is thereby clearly superior to the others.
However, acknowledging plurality does not require that we suppress the Christian intuition of something unique, decisive, and unsurpassable in the Christ of faith. Yet this unsurpassability needs to be understood in such a way as to avoid the connotation of a superiority that negates the revelatory value and validity of other religious traditions. If there is anything decisive for faith in Christian revelation, it is the unsurpassably self-sacrificing character of the God who becomes manifest in Christ. The crucified Christ is the sacrament of a God who renounces omnipotence in order to “let us be.”(This “letting be” does not mean that we ourselves become totally free of limits. In the first place, no being could be actual without being determinate, and that means This Christian image of God’s humility and “letting be” does not mean that we ourselves become totally free of limits. In the first place, no being could be actual without being determinate, and that means limited. there is ,of course, the possibility that in our hubris we will demonically go beyond our proper limits in wake of God’s loving self-renunciation. But God’s own self-sacrifice is itself the criterion of human existence as well, ans in our imitation of God’s own self-emptying, we would discover our own proper limits. See Geddes MacGregor, He Who Lets Us Be [New York: Seabury, 1975]) can also be our guide when we encounter other religions. We too can adopt an attitude of letting them be. Indeed this is the model for all human conversation. Adopting a tolerant and humble approach in inter-religious conversation is our own way of sacramentally representing the God revealed in Christ. Faith in revelation is at heart a commitment to imitating the self-absenting God who lets the world be, in order that it may flourish in rich and luxuriant spontaneity and variety. That the world of religion also manifests this florescent diversity should not surprise us. Instead, it can be another of the many reasons we have for rejoicing in the extravagance of the mystery revealed in biblical religion as the one who makes and keeps promises.