Chapter 8: Encountering Revelation
We have approached the question of revelation by considering what it might mean in terms of six distinct aspects of our situation. But an important question still remains: how do we come in touch with this revelation? By what channels is it communicated to us? How do we know when the mystery of existence and the promise of God’s future has been disclosed to us in our particular lives?
This is not an easy question to answer in just a few pages, so we must be content with a few suggestions that would ideally be developed in much more detail. The first point I would make is that we do not have to move from where we already are in order to encounter the mystery of our lives. This promising, gracious, liberating and accepting mystery already enfolds our existence, perhaps hidden beneath the realities, persons and events we encounter in our everyday experience. And it also lives in the depths of our own selves. We do not have to be transposed to some sacred place or sit at the feet of seers and mystics, though this need not be neglected either. The substance of what we have been calling revelation is already intimately related to us. The question is how aware are we of this intimacy. And how do we reach a deeper awareness of that which has already communicated itself to us?
It is the nature of our human existence that we come to understand ourselves only in community with others. Existence in community is not just accidental to our being as humans. It is constitutive of our existence to be in relation with others. Moreover, it is natural to any community that it base its very existence and identity on the great myths or stories that narrate how it came into being and what makes it specially significant. Such stories give the members of the community a sense of their origins and destiny, a sense of what is important, a sense of common purpose. It is impossible to live meaningfully except in relation to such communally shared stories.
The particular face that mystery will take for us is inevitably shaped by the narrative traditions that mold the character of the community in which we reside. It is these narrative traditions that provide the material for the symbolic and mythic expressions through which we as individuals come face to face with mystery. Our reception of revelation would seem to require therefore that we indwell a communal context without which the reception of any symbolic communication is impossible. Thus there will inevitably be a communal dimension to revelation.
Christians participate in a community of believers, the Church, which feeds on the biblical narrative(s) and especially the story of Jesus the Christ. This narrative dimension of revelation is embodied especially in the sacred Scriptures. So meaningful are the stories of God’s fidelity recounted in the Scriptures that members of the community spontaneously seek to retell them to their children and to others so that they also might indwell the healing images imprinted in the biblical material. The deposit of this continual retelling throughout the centuries is known as Tradition, and together with Scripture it provides a normative basis for the community’s relating to the revelatory promise out of which it has its being. In this community, with its scriptures, traditions and rituals, Christians find a further extension of the liberating mystery that came to light especially in Christ, and they are aware that a close relation to the community facilitates encounter with the incarnate God who is mediated through the lives of others. They can respect the fact that there are many other pathways to mystery without denying that they belong to a special story of their own.(See H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation, pp. 32-66.) They cannot cease telling of the wonders that have happened to them at least, nor can they cease from sharing with others their own sense of the graciousness of mystery as they have experienced it in Christ. The existence of a Church and a teaching tradition to give body to this sharing is both legitimated and necessitated by the intrinsically social, narrative and historical character of revelation.
To those outside of the Christian tradition the story of Jesus of Nazareth may have little if any significance (just as to most Christians today, though this is certainly not praiseworthy, the story of Muhammed’s life holds relatively little religious interest). Each religious community has an "internal" memory of its founding events, and this internal memory is characterized by a high degree of religious involvement in the ongoing narration of those events. One does not find such passionate interest in a scientifically detached summary of religious history undertaken in an external manner. Because the internal account lacks the disinterestedness and detachment of a scientific history one might suspect that it lacks "objectivity." However, the internal memory of events cannot be discarded simply because it is always accompanied by enthusiasm and deep feeling. As we saw in Chapter 3, H. Richard Niebuhr has emphasized that the Christian’s primary knowledge of revelation is given not through objective reporting but through participation in a community’s internal memory of saving events that to outsiders may have little narrative significance. Yet the high degree of religious sentiment that empowers inner history can put us in touch with the reality of revelatory events much more intimately than could a merely objective recounting. Niebuhr gave us the analogy of a man who has recovered his sight by way of a medical operation. As you listen to the healed man’s gratefully enthusiastic account of the event of his recovery of sight, you will notice how strikingly it differs from the medical report given by the doctors who performed the operation. Can we say that the medical report with its cool clinical language is more accurate than the healed man’s account? Which account puts us more deeply in touch with the healing event? Could we really understand what it means to recover one’s sight if we took only the medical report as our source of information?
Of course objective history provides an essential corrective to our tendencies toward personal and group bias. And critical methods of investigation should be embraced by believers. But a purely detached method of knowing (even if it were possible to be purely detached) would not put us in touch with revelation. If revelation is God’s self-disclosure, then it would require a deeply personal, participatory reception on our part. In other words, it is questionable whether we could talk seriously of the encounter with revelation without our first having opened ourselves to it in the genuinely prayerful posture of shared trust and hope.
By participation in a community with the internal story of its own "recovery of sight"(recorded especially in the Scriptures and retold in Tradition) Christians are brought into encounter with the promissory words and events that have given them their life and identity to this day. Encounter with the revelation of which Christians speak is mediated by the community of believers who have handed on the revelation in word and sacrament. This community, the Church, is itself founded by the revelatory promise and is itself a sign or "sacrament" of God’s fidelity to the promise of an ultimately fulfilling future for the world and history. Participation in the life of such a community provides a special (though not exclusive) "access" to revelation.
And yet, while many Christians are content with a close relation to the Church, many others, especially today, see little connection between their hope in the future and the Church as they know it. The Church often seems out of touch with the deepest aspirations of humanity in our time. And it too often fails to witness in its own internal structure and practice to the justice and liberation that belong to the Kingdom of God whose coming it is its primary mission to proclaim. As mediating revelation it often seems to be a pitiful failure, and sometimes even an impediment to the burning sense of hope and promise that are the essence of the revelation it professes to convey.
It would be naive of us to deny the weaknesses and failings of the community founded on the revelatory promise. For that reason we may decide that criticism of abuses within the Church is essential for the very sake of manifesting our trust in the promise of revelation. Criticism of the Church by its members is not always a sign of lack of faith on the part of discontented Christians. Rather it may well be the expression of a deep desire to transform the Church into a community faithful to God’s promise. This transformation would seek to make the Church, in its own life and structures, a model of justice and liberation for our time. If the actual life of a community whose whole reason for being is to witness to the coming of God’s Kingdom is itself deeply flawed with unjust practices (lack of due process, sexism, authoritarianism), then it can hardly witness effectively to history’s own hope.
Finally, however, it cannot be forgotten that the Church is founded on hope. It would be inappropriate for its members to give up on the Church, to despair and lose heart. In some sense even a deeply flawed Church has kept the memory of God’s promise alive and made it possible for us to recover it anew in each age. Within the community called Church we can still come into intimate encounter with revelation. For this we can be grateful as well as forgiving.