Henry Nelson Wieman taught for many years at the University of Chicago Divinity School and at Southern Illinois University.
The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 2-17, Vol. 10, Numbers 1-2, Spring – Summer, 1980. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
In these times all people and cultures must live together in close association with one another. At the same moment, science is revolutionizing our world views. Hence, we must live in a creative, expansive transformation of our vision but at the same time not identify our faith with any one perception that happens to be most popular at the time.
This inquiry seeks to answer several questions. One is this: Does the revelation in Christ, when rightly understood, expose the one and only being that can bring my whole self into action to the measure I commit myself to it? Is this true not only for me but also for every human person? Am I only a fragment of myself, to the measure that I do not give myself wholly to what is revealed in Christ? And is this also true for every other human being?
Do all the constructive potentialities of human existence depend for their actualization on commitment to what is revealed in Christ? Do I and everyone else become self destructive to the measure that we do not thus commit ourselves? And does this also apply to all societies, to all civilizations, and to human history itself, namely, that these all, along with each human person, become self destructive to the measure that each is not committed to what is revealed in Christ?
These questions can be translated into the popular jargon of the existentialists by asking the same in different words thus: Do I become my authentic self only when committed to what is revealed in Christ? And is Christ the end and meaning of history? If so, what interpretation of this revelation can show this to be so?
In asking these questions it must be emphasized throughout that we are not here concerned with the name, that is the label, Jesus Christ. It is the reality, not the label, that operates with power to save when required conditions are present; and this reality is accessible to all persons when required conditions are present.
These are the presuppositions on which this inquiry is conducted. There is a further presupposition.
The measure of intelligence that one can exercise in the conduct of his life always depends in great part on how much understanding he has of his own ruling purpose. If a man’s governing purpose is to live under the guidance of the revelation of God in Christ, the amount of intelligence he can exercise in doing so will depend on his understanding of this revelation. On this account we believe it is a matter of first importance that we seek intellectual comprehension, to the measure of our ability, of what is involved in the event which is called revelation. It is not possible to achieve complete understanding of any event that deeply involves the complexities of human existence, because the human mind is neither omniscient nor infallible. All the complexities of human existence are involved in the event called revelation. But resources for inquiry into these complexities have greatly increased with the advent of psychiatry, clinical psychology, some of the social sciences, historiography, and some branches of philosophy. Consequently some further advance in our understanding of complex human events should be possible. With this hope we undertake the present venture.
It is my conviction that the commonly accepted interpretations of the event called revelation do not enable us to release the full powers of intelligence in service of our devotion. By full powers of intelligence I mean especially all the sciences and scientific technology. Until we can interpret the purpose of our lives in Christ in such a way as to bring all the sciences, theoretical and applied, into this service, it will be impossible for faith in Christ to exercise control over the conduct of life in an age dominated and controlled by science and scientific technology.
This age into which we are moving has been called post-Christian, meaning that the Christian faith has lost control over the conduct of life. The reason for this is not the rising power of sin; the reason is our failure to show how the rising powers of science can be applied to the purpose of human existence when this purpose is found in Christ. The blame does not rest on the evil of scientific civilization; the blame rests on those of us who have responsibility for interpreting the revelation in such a way that the powers of civilization can be brought into its service. This we have not done.
To say that science can be brought into the service of Christ does not mean that Christian living can ever be a science. The management of industry is not science even though industry has learned how to formulate many of its problems so that science can help solve them. Government can never be a science although government is learning to formulate many of its problems so that science can help solve them. Rearing children and education can never be sciences although we are learning to formulate some of the problems in a way that science can work on them. The same is true of religious living. It can never be a form of science, but science might be made to serve it.
Before we can begin to study this problem we must state the meaning we attach to certain key words, such as "revelation." Many different meanings have been given to this expression. Only confusion will result if we do not make plain which of these meanings will be given to this word in the following discussion.
First of all we shall understand that revelation is not a set of propositions about God but is the living presence of God unveiled and operating in the flesh, that is, in the bodies of persons, in their social relations and in history, in this world of time and space. Otherwise stated, the revelation is the actual, operating power of God unto salvation and not merely statements about this power. Therefore if kerygma means merely a message about God, and not the actual uncovered presence of God operating in human life, it is a fatal confusion and misunderstanding to identify the revelation merely with the kerygma. Of course it all depends on how one interprets this Greek word. If one means the actual, operative presence of God, then it can be identified with the revelation; but if it means only the message about the manifest presence of God in human life, it cannot be so identified.
This is the first distinction we make in our understanding of the word "revelation of God." This distinction is important because Rudolf Bultmann has brought the word kerygma to the front of theological discussion in dealing with revelation and there has been some confusion concerning what he means. I am not now debating the question about what Bultmann means nor about what the word should mean. I am only saying that the revelation of God, as I am here considering it, cannot be identified with propositions about God. The revelation is the actual presence of God in human life made manifest by the saving power of this presence. I only want to make clear the distinction between message about, and the actual revelation itself.
A second distinction is of equal importance. Revelation in Christ does not mean that God first begins to operate in human life when the revelation occurs. If God was not always present to create, sustain, and bring to greater good, there could be no human life. Human life exists only because of the actual and continuous operation of the divine presence. Therefore God is in human life continuously from the time it first began to be human; and this divine creativity will be with us so long as there is any human life at all. This is so because human life can be sustained in no other way. Therefore revelation in Jesus Christ cannot mean the first entry of God into human existence. On the contrary, the revelation is the disclosure of this presence. The presence has been here all the time. The revelation is the unveiling of it so that we can be aware of it. The revelation is not the first initiation of God in human life.
Let us now turn back again to the first distinction we made, that the revelation is not any set of propositions about God but is the actual presence of the saving and sustaining power. This being the case, the teaching of the New Testament writers about the revelation should not be identified with the revelation itself. The New Testament writers used the concepts available to them at the time to explain what happened; but the revelation is what happened, namely the actual event. It was not their teaching about it. What is written in the New Testament testifies to what happened; but what is there written is not a correct description of what happened. Certainly the New Testament writers sincerely tried to explain the creative transformation that occurred in their lives. But the revelation is the actual occurrence of it, not their attempts to explain it.
This difference between actual events and the unfitness of prevailing concepts to describe or explain them applies not only to the event of the revelation. It applies to many other events also. For example, people at that time went insane, but there was no psychology of insanity. Hence it could neither be described nor explained correctly. Also people at that time on occasion rose to the heights of genius. This we do not deny although we do deny that they correctly explained the psychology of genius or the social conditions required for its occurrence. People in those days recovered from sickness even as they do today, but we do not explain the recovery as they did. So we might go on with all manner of occurrences in human life, including the event of the revelation. This event actually occurred. The record and the testimony of the writers make this plain. We know it occurred because we observe it occurring today and we can compare their reports with our own observations. Only we use very different concepts to explain it. If the revelation did not occur today we would not have any revelation. We would only have concepts about it and that, we have seen, is not the revelation. Therefore the revelation must be something that occurs today even as it occurred in the time of Jesus and his disciples; otherwise, we would have no revelation to discuss.
So far we have not said what the revelation of God is. We have only tried to clear the ground of confusions and misunderstandings and get the problem clearly before us. The problem is to distinguish that kind of event that was the revelation, that is the revelation, and that forever continues to be the revelation of God in Christ.
Let us now look at the event wherein, according to the New Testament, the revelation occurred. First of all it occurred in the fellowship of the disciples with Jesus. Here was the beginning of the transformation of their lives that released their energies into powerful constructive channels. Obviously what did this was a kind of interchange between Jesus and his disciples. If anyone disputes that, I would like him to tell me what could have happened if it was not some kind of interchange. Yet this interchange was not merely a set of propositions about God, or about anything else, because propositions have no such transforming power. Furthermore, we have seen that the revelation was not a set of propositions. What, then, was this kind of interchange that had in it the power to transform the lives of the disciples and, I think we must say, also transformed the man Jesus?
Here we have the clue to the understanding of the revelation of God in Christ. The great religious conversions of history display this same pattern. St. Paul was transformed by the kind of interchange he had with the disciples whom he persecuted, plus an internal integration in his own personality of what he got from the disciples, plus his access to the creativity working through history that accumulates meanings gathered from the great prophets and delivers them with transforming power to the fellowship of Jesus and on to St. Paul. This is what transformed Saul of Tarsus into St. Paul, delivering him from inner conflicts that wasted his energy and directing this energy into "conflict free" channels that changed the course of history.
The same thing happened in the conversion of St. Augustine. Here again there was interchange with Christians; here again was the internal integration of what he got from his mother and others; and here again was his access to the creativity that works through history to accumulate meanings and deliver them with transforming power into his own life and on to other lives. The same is true of Luther as set forth by the leading psychiatrist of our time, Erik Erikson, in his account of Young Luther.
This creative transformation of human life is the revelation of God that occurred in the fellowship of Jesus and continues to occur in the lives of persons when required conditions are present. It operates in the form of a kind of interchange between individuals that opens wide and deep the channels of communion between them as individuals, and in so doing also opens them to the meaning of past events that occurred in their history.
The crucifixion and resurrection were further parts of the event called revelation. The crucifixion opened even more profoundly the hearts and minds of the disciples to all they had experienced with Jesus. This often happens to people when someone dies whom they have loved and lived with, especially if the death expresses profound devotion and sacrifice. Also the death of Jesus made them more responsive to the tremendous import of Hebrew history.
After the crucifixion came the resurrection. The resurrection was an experience the disciples had three days after the terrible shock of Jesus’ death on the cross. It took that long for the numbness of the shock to wear away so that they could again respond to one another and to the past in the way that they had done in the living fellowship with Jesus. So vivid and so powerful was this recovery of the kind of interchange with one another that they had had when Jesus was alive with them that it produced the feeling of his actual presence with them in bodily form. Many have had this experience after the death of someone deeply involved in their lives. Either they had this psychological illusion, which would be very natural, or, what is more likely, when they tried to tell of their experience the only way they could tell it was in words that led others to think they were speaking of the bodily presence. This would be most likely to happen after the story had passed through many mouths in an age that believed bodies rose from the dead. In any case, even if the body did come back from the grave, the important thing was not the presence of the body. The important thing was, and is, the creative and transforming power of communion that was in the fellowship of Jesus and that rose from the dead to possess the lives of the disciples.
This communion that rose from the dead, so to speak, was not only with one another. It was, I repeat, a communion that opened their hearts and minds to the meaning, hence to the transforming power, of past events, not only in the life of Jesus but also in Hebrew history. All deep communion between individuals has this quality of gathering up into itself the profound meaning of past events.
This interpretation I am offering of the revelation in Christ is, of course, not complete and final. The great creative events of human history involve depths and complexities which our powers of inquiry have never yet penetrated. This uncomprehended depth and complexity is, nevertheless, involved in our lives. It is with us now even as it was with Jesus and his disciples. If it is not with us now there can be no revelation for us here and now. What we cannot comprehend and explain in it we bring to consciousness by means of myths and non-cognitive symbols. But it is our responsibility to try to understand as fully as is possible so that we can apply our intelligence to the service of Christ.
Perhaps the nature of this revelation can be further explained if we look at Judas Iscariot and his reaction to it. I am indebted to professor Bernard Loomer for this suggestion about Judas, although I take full responsibility for my development of the suggestion. Also in this understanding of Judas I must read into the story much that we do not know about Judas; but what I say about Judas is, I hold, true to life, even if it is not true historically of that particular man.
According to my interpretation, Judas was the strongest, the most determined and the most intelligent of the disciples. He joined the fellowship of Jesus thinking that here he would find a great leader to inspire and perpetuate the Jewish faith. But in time he discovered that Jesus was a revolutionary, a corrupter and betrayer of the true faith as Judas understood it. If Jesus continued he would lead the people astray with disastrous consequences. Perhaps Judas and Jesus had several private talks together, man to man. Finally they came to the conclusion that there was not room on earth for two such powerful and determined personalities with opposing views of the way of life that man must go to be saved. Therefore one of the two must be killed and the other the killer. Jesus decided to be the one killed and Judas the killer. Of course Judas did not kill with his own hands. Superior and intelligent men do not do that. They get others to do the killing for them. So it was with Judas.
But after the crucifixion Judas could not cast out of his life that profound communion and deep understanding of one another that he had in the fellowship with Jesus. It would not let him go, try as he did to cast it out. Such a torment it became that his only escape was to kill himself, as you know he did according to the record.
Saul of Tarsus who became St. Paul was a similar character, powerful, determined, highly intelligent. The disciples of Jesus were spreading a gospel that corrupted the faith of the Jews. They must be destroyed before the poison spread beyond control. So he committed his life to that undertaking. But the kind of communion, the kind of understanding, the kind of love, that he felt reaching out to him from these disciples of Jesus got hold of him, and he could not cast it out. Slowly, largely subconsciously, the great Jewish tradition and the teaching of the prophets underwent a reinterpretation in his mind when the sense of this communion got hold of him.
It exposed a new way of life that possessed him with such power that he could not cast it off. Perhaps at moments he was tempted to kill himself as Judas did when the conflict raged in him. But the new way of life finally won over the old way, and Paul becomes a new man. Now for the first time his whole self came into action, his authentic self, with all its constructive powers.
Something of the same sort happened with St. Augustine, who was a man of similar kind, powerful, determined, profoundly intellectual.
Here are two ways of life, fighting for supremacy throughout human history. One is the exercise of power to dominate, control, and shape men and things to conform to a predetermined way of life. The other is to undergo creative transformation expanding the range and depth of what can be appreciated as good and distinguished as evil. The transforming power of this second way operates in the form of deep communion which I call creative interchange between individuals and peoples. This second way of life is the revelation of God in Christ.
This brings us to a second question. Can the revelation of Cod in Christ thus interpreted be called the meaning of history? If so, in what sense?
To answer that question we must again be very careful in defining our terms. The word "meaning" as I use it in this context, does not refer to some purpose to be consummated beyond history. Neither does it refer to any supernatural power or transcendent being allegedly directing the course of history in some mysterious way. Neither do I mean to suggest that history itself has a kind of mind with a meaning or purpose of its own. Neither do I mean to suggest that there is some final outcome that the course of world history is predetermined to attain.
When I ask the question, What is the meaning of history? I am only asking if, amid all the diverse and conflicting processes and meaningless events that occur in history, there is some one process that, when required conditions are present, progressively creates something of supreme importance for human beings?
The innumerable events that occur in human history cannot be fitted into any comprehensive pattern. This I understand to be the view of the most competent historians, and I accept their judgment. It would be folly for me to dispute it. What I do ask is this. Is there one continuous thread of development throughout human history -- sometimes reduced to a trickle, at other times increasing in volume -- that shapes the destiny of man for good or evil? My answer to that question is in the affirmative.
History in the sense of greatest concern to man is not past events. Neither is it merely what historians tell us about past events. History is the accumulation of the resources for human living gathered through a long sequence of generations and delivered to the present to make us what we are. This accumulation and transmission of resources is accomplished by a kind of interchange between individuals. For each individual it begins with infancy. It is the kind of interchange by which the individual from infancy on acquires what we call the culture of his time and place. But this culture is precisely the accumulation of resources for living that has been gathered through a long sequence of generations.
How full and deep is this volume of accumulated resources transmitted from generation to generation, and whether the volume is made deeper with values more profound, or made shallow with values more superficial, depends on how full and deep is the communion between parent and child, between man and man, between diverse divisions of society and of humanity. When the communion is wide and deep, the appreciative consciousness of man becomes wide and deep, and the great values emerge, both tragic and triumphant.
This gives us the answer to our question, What is the meaning of history? The meaning of history is the creation of the human level of existence when human level means that level where there can be indefinite increase in range and depth of values appreciated and evils distinguished; indefinite increase in range and depth of what can be known and controlled; indefinite increase in the depth and complexity of man’s subjectivity, both conscious and unconscious. This threefold development is the human level, and it is created by history, that is, by the transmission of the consequences of past events to the newborn infant so that he progressively assimilates them in a way that creates his own mind and personality. The newborn infant has none of all this at birth. How far this creativity can go in creating the human level in the case of any one individual depends partly upon his innate capacity but most of all upon two other features: (1) how wide and deep is the volume of history that reaches him, that is, how abundant and coherent are the values that have been accumulated in the history he inherits and (2) how deep is the communion he is able to have with other persons who embody these meanings accumulated through a long sequence of generations.
The key to this whole creativity of history is communion. Communion means two things: (1) how profoundly and completely does one individual acquire from the other all that the other can appreciate as good and distinguish as evil; (2) how completely can each individual integrate into his own subjectivity and make his own what he thus acquires from the other.
This communion is the creativity of history. This is the way the human level of existence is created in each generation beginning with the newborn infant. This is the way the human level of existence has been progressively created through a sequence of generations reaching back for a million years. Therefore this communion is the meaning of history when "meaning of history" refers to something that is going on in history which is of supreme importance for the human level of existence. It is of supreme importance for us because it creates the humanness of us. Since this communion is the revelation of God in the form of Christ, Christ is the meaning of history.
Let us recapitulate the argument since this is a complicated subject. Amid all the conflict and confusion and meaningless happenings that occur in human history there is one continuous thread of development that is always present, beginning with every newborn infant. This continuous thread of development is the creation of the human level of existence. With many ups and down the human level has been progressively created during the past million years.
To make this plain, however, we must state what we mean by the human level of existence, analyzing the human level in a somewhat different way than we did before. First of all is the biological organism with its big brain, its upright posture, its hand and opposed thumb, its vocal organs making possible enormous variety in vocalization so that language and other symbols can develop to expand indefinitely the range of meaning, entering into human life.
The second distinctive characteristic of the human level is that, despite periods of recession, successive generations add something to the diversity and range of meanings which language and other symbols can carry.
The third distinctive characteristic is a complex and profound subjectivity, both conscious and unconscious, acquired after infancy by the individual absorbing the complexity of responses and meanings of a culture that has been created through many generations accumulating the resources for human living.
The fourth distinctive characteristic is a biological organism that cannot survive unless sustained by the resources of a complex culture, therefore an organism that has evolved not like other organisms by eliminating the unfit in the struggle with the physical environment, but by eliminating those organisms unfit to absorb and sustain the complexities of a culture progressively accumulated through the sequence of many generations.
With this understanding of what distinguishes the human level of existence it is plain that man has been progressively created by a process of history. This creative process began something like a million years ago with an organism and way of life much the same as that of the other subhuman animals. The development of an organism fit to embody a culture of growing complexity seems to have been completed about 50,000 years ago. Since then what has been progressively developed is not the organism but two things preeminently: (1) knowledge and power of control, (2) the depth and complexity of man’s subjectivity.
If this is what has been and is being created, we ask: What amid all the other processes going on in history is the one process that does this creating and will here be called the creativity in history, so called because it does progressively create the human level of existence when required conditions are present.
There are two candidates for this basic creativity in history. One is the process that expands the range of knowledge and power of control now today reaching its highest attainment in modern science and scientific technology. The other candidate is the process that creates depth and complexity of man’s subjectivity. Here we have two kinds of meaning; one can be called objective meaning, the other subjective meaning. Whenever individuals communicate with one another both kinds of meaning are generally involved although one of the two may greatly dominate over the other. Objective meaning refers to what is going on in the world round about, either past, present or future. This objective meaning is our knowledge and our power of control. Subjective meaning is what the communication reveals concerning what is going on in the personality that speaks. For example, if I say, The weather is stormy, reference to the weather is objective meaning. But if my tone of voice, facial expression, and other forms of expressiveness indicate that I am anxious because of the weather, or elated or otherwise concerned, what is thus expressed in the communication is the subjective meaning. What any communication reveals, not about the world, but about the person who speaks, is subjective meaning. In deep communion subjective meaning is dominantly what is communicated from one to the other. Also it is this kind of creative communion that creates depth and complexity of the subjectivity of the individual. The individual acquires more subjectivity in a form free from inner conflict to the measure that he experiences deep communion with others. To the measure that he does not, his subjectivity is shallow and addicted to inner conflicts that are now being studied by clinical psychology and psychiatry.
There is not time here for any elaborate analysis, but I think it can be shown that a man’s subjectivity is the most distinctive characteristic of the human level of existence. Certainly to be human one must have knowledge about the world and technology to control it. But the knowledge and the technology are the tools created by the subjectivity for its own satisfaction. Also machines can get knowledge and exercise the control of technology but they do not have any subjectivity. Hence the subjectivity is what makes us distinctly human.
If this analysis is correct, we again approach the answer to the question, What is the meaning of history? Is it to create the knowledge and power of a Judas Iscariot to impose a predetermined order upon men and things? Or is to create depth of subjectivity created in that kind of interchange between individuals of one another, a kind of interchange that can be called communion or fellowship or love.
If we accept the second of these two, it becomes apparent that what is revealed in Jesus Christ is the meaning of history because in that fellowship we find this kind of interchange brought to such a high level of dominance over counterprocesses that it has stood before all subsequent Western history as the revelation of this way of life. It is also the revelation of what creates the human level of existence, sustains it in being, saves it from its self-destructive propensities and, when required conditions are present, progressively creates it toward the greatest good that man can ever attain when "greatest good" means the widest range, diversity, depth, and integration of all values.
Again to revert to the barbaric jargon of present-day theology, what is revealed in Jesus Christ is the eschatological event. Whenever this same kind of communion that is revealed in the fellowship of Jesus Christ rises to dominance over all other processes in human life, we have recurring the eschatological event, to use the language of Rudolf Bultmann.
I shall now endeavor to defend this understanding of revelation by showing that it is implicit in the teaching of three leading theologians of our time, even when it is not acknowledged by them. By name the three are Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, and Rudolf Bultmann.
According to Tillich, man’s ultimate concern points to being itself which cannot be limited by any distinguishing characteristic whatsoever. As soon as you distinguish anything whatsoever you have a kind of being, that is, a being alongside other beings. Tillich repeatedly denies that any such distinguishable being can be identified with God except by way of idolatry. To be sure some distinguishable kind of being can be used as a symbol pointing to the unconditioned being that is beyond all characterization. But it is the unconditioned, which is to say being itself beyond all distinguishing characteristics whatsoever, that alone is man’s ultimate concern and that alone can be given the name of God when this word refers not to a symbol pointing on to God but to what is very God and not a symbol.
Now against this background let us see what Tillich says about the revelation of God in Christ. First of all, he says, that when we look for the revelation, the man Jesus as an actual, historical figure fades out. What we find in place of the man is what Tillich calls the "picture" of the man presented in the New Testament. This picture is not like a photograph, giving us a portrayal of the man as he was in actual existence. Rather it is like a painting, giving us the experience which the disciples had in interchange with this man and with one another in the fellowship that formed around him and that continued after his death.
Now what does this mean? Tillich does not seem to draw one obvious conclusion from all this; but the conclusion is plain. It means that the writings of the New Testament depict the transforming power of that kind of interchange which occurred in the fellowship of Jesus. I know that is not what Tillich says about the revelation, but it is inevitably involved when he says that the New Testament is a picture which, like a work of art, interprets in depth the experience of the disciples in their fellowship with Jesus.
Let us turn now to what Tillich explicitly states is the revelation of God in Christ. As said before, when we look for the revelation, according to Tillich, the man Jesus with all his human limitations fades away so that we see not the man but the power of being for which and in which and by which he lived. Thus the revelation is not anything in the man nor in the fellowship but in the transparency of the man through which we see on beyond him and his life. Through this transparency we see not a loving Father, as tradition has asserted, but the awful mystery of being. His suffering, his rejection, his crucifixion, the apparent futility of all his striving, combined with his unwavering devotion, as pictured in the New Testament, obliterate the significance of the man except as a transparent medium through which we become aware of the mystery of being. In this way Jesus reveals not himself, and not any distinguishable kind of being that might be called God, but rather the mystery of the power of being. What is revealed is not anything knowable; what is revealed is the ultimate mystery.
Here we have two interpretations of that event which is called the revelation of God in Christ. Furthermore, both these interpretations are true in the sense that both can be truly found in that event. According to one interpretation there is the mystery of being, as Tillich says. That is not disputed. But also revealed is the kind of interchange which transforms the lives of men in deep communion. The question at issue is not which of these two is revealed. Both are revealed. The question at issue is rather this: Which of these two revelations has the power to transform the lives of men to save them from self-destruction and bring them to the fullest actualization of the constructive potentialities of human existence? I claim that the communion revealed in the fellowship of the disciples with Jesus is what has the power to do this and not the mystery of being. Therefore the correct interpretation of the revelation of God in Christ is this creative interchange. Furthermore, as I have indicated, this is implicit in what Tillich says about the revelation, although he identifies the revelation with the mystery of being and not with the communion.
Now we turn to Karl Barth. Barth says that the revelation comes to us through the Bible. But he insists on a qualification which is of utmost significance. He insists that the Word of God in the Bible is "inaccessible and inconceivable" to the natural powers of the human mind. Only when God has chosen the individual to receive divine grace, can he receive the revelation. Then Barth goes on to make a further point of crucial significance. He says that the Bible cannot be correctly interpreted even by one who has received God’s grace because "we carry this treasure in earthen vessels." For this reason, says Barth, the individual should discuss with others who have received God’s grace what the Bible reveals. The church is made up of those who have received God’s grace. So, says Barth, members of this fellowship of the church should criticize and correct, suggest and instruct one another concerning what is spoken in God’s Word. Outsiders cannot participate, because they have not the grace to believe and know and hence to learn by this interchange with one another. But in the church this communion transforms the otherwise ordinary words of the Bible into the Word of God. The structure of the human mind must be transformed, says Barth, before the revelation can be received. But how is this transformation accomplished? The answer to that question is implicit in what Barth says. The transformation enabling us to receive the revelation is accomplished by a kind of interchange occurring in a special kind of fellowship, namely, that found in the Church of Christ. So here again, we find implicit the truth about the revelation even though, like Tillich, Barth overlooks the truth involved in what he says. He overlooks it because, like Tillich, his attention is directed to something else. Both men have an obsession that will not let them recognize the truth they inadvertently expose when they discuss the revelation of God in Christ. Barth’s attention is so focussed on certain traditional dogmatic concepts, Tillich’s on his ontology, that both look away from the truth that is implicit in what they say.
In the theology of Karl Barth the communion in it, whereby alone the Bible can be the word of God, is not an incidental reference. It is basic to his entire teaching. Everything he says about divine revelation points to the church as the medium through which it must occur. Yet he does not seem to recognize that this can only mean one thing: The revelation of God in Christ must come to you and me by way of a kind of interchange between individuals in deep communion, whereby the meaning of past events can possess our minds and transform our lives, even as it did in the fellowship that formed around Jesus.
Barth disagrees radically with Tillich. For Barth, God revealed in Christ is a definite, knowable person. The man of flesh and blood in the actual time and place of his personal existence is the revelation of God. The eternal dwelt in this man under all the limitations of his existence, temporal, spatial, cultural. According to Tillich this is nonsense and unbelievable. But according to Barth this only shows that Tillich has not received the grace from God whereby he would be free to believe what the Word of God truly teaches, that in this man Jesus God truly dwelt.
Here we have the irreconcilable conflicts between the leading theologians of our time. But underneath their conflicts is a basic truth common to them all, if only they would recognize it as implicit in their teaching. This basic truth they have in common is the revelation of God in Christ to be found in the communion of his fellowship. Their disputes are on matters that do not pertain to the revelation even when they think otherwise. They all agree implicitly that the communion which occurred in the fellowship of Jesus was and is the event necessarily involved in the revelation. But they fail to see that it is the very revelation itself. Thus they fight over issues that are irrelevant to the revelation while unintentionally agreeing on what the revelation truly is. In Tillich and Barth the truth about the revelation is inadvertently conceded, although apparently unacknowledged.
We turn now to Rudolf Bultmann. We find in him also that this same implicit truth is involved in his teaching about the saving event of the revelation of God in Christ. In Bultmann, however, it stands out even more clearly in what he calls the eschatological event.
Man’s ultimate concern is with Being, says Heidegger, but our sin gives to Being the appearance of nothingness. Hence our anxiety and our despair. Now, says Bultmann, out of the void of nothingness comes the Word of God spoken through Christ, telling us that we are forgiven for our sin if we acknowledge our condition and accept the message. If we make the decision to commit ourselves wholly to this message, and stake our all upon it, the void of Nothingness is no longer a void. It comes to us in love and mercy, in the form of the Word of God spoken in Christ.
The kerygma , says Bultmann, otherwise called the gospel message, must be accepted in its purity, free of the distortions of mythology and free of the falsifications imposed on it when it is confused with scientific knowledge about the natural world. Also it must be freed from philosophical speculation about what lies beyond the reach of scientific testing. All this human construction must be wiped away, so that the Word of God can reach us with its true and full meaning, thus enabling us to accept it with a decision of the total self. This decisiveness and completeness of acceptance is prevented when we become entangled with questions about how it is related to scientific knowledge and philosophical speculations.
When a man thus accepts the gospel message with the total self, he exemplifies the eschatological event, which for Bultmann means the culminating point of history. To bring about such a decision is the goal of history, says Bultmann. For this reason and in this sense when a man makes this decision, it can be said that the end of history is attained, otherwise called the culminating point of history or the meaning and purpose of history. When such a decision is made, says Bultmann, eternity breaks into time. This seems to be a paradoxical way of saying that the end (the goal) of history is reached to the measure that men live committed to, and sustained by, the kind of fellowship that Jesus had with his disciples.
Bultmann goes on to say that this decision is made in Christ when it is made in response to preaching of the gospel. It cannot be made in any other way because Christ reaches us only in our response to preaching.
If "preaching," as Bultmann is using the word, merely means standing in a pulpit and expounding the Bible, then it is not true that the decision of freedom and the authentic self occurs only when one is listening to a preacher. But the statement takes on truth when "preaching" means the kind of interchange creating the kind of fellowship Jesus had with his disciples. I believe that a careful study of Bultmann will show that this is implicit in what he means by "preaching." Otherwise preaching could not be identified with what happened in the fellowship of Jesus since that fellowship most certainly was not limited to pulpit and pew nor to any preaching from the New Testament. The latter did not exist at the time Jesus lived.
It remains to explain what Bultmann means by "the presence of eternity" in his book by that title. This again is paradoxical language, unnecessarily confusing. On page 153 of this book he quotes Erich Frank as stating what Bultmann himself wants to say’ "to the Christians the advent of Christ was not an event, in that temporal process which we mean by history today. It was an event in the history of salvation, in the realm of eternity . . . , in an analogous way, history comes to an end in the religious experience of any Christian ‘who is in Christ’. . . For although the advent of Christ is an historical event which happened ‘once’ in the past, it is, at the same time, an eternal event which occurs again and again in the soul of any Christian."
Now if "eternal" used in this quotation meant "not temporal," the expression "eternal event" would be not merely paradoxical but a flat contradiction of terms like "round square," because events are necessarily temporal. But if we interpret the expression by its context and are charitable, "eternal event" in Christ can be understood to be an event having two characteristics. First it is a kind of event that occurred not only in the fellowship of Jesus but recurs again and again in later history where individuals are gathered in the same kind of fellowship. No event can occur more than once because time is irreversible. But in the common idiom it is proper to say that the same event occurs again and again when we mean that such events display characteristics that are much the same. For example, the event of spring occurs every year. The event of spring is never the same event that occurred in previous years, but we call it the same event because all the events of spring have the common characteristic of life springing anew into abundance. So it can be said that the event that occurred with Jesus and the disciples occurs again and again because this event always displays the characteristic of life springing anew into abundance.
This event has a second characteristic according to the quotation we are examining. There it is said that the event is "not an event in that temporal process which we mean by history today." This statement also calls for interpretation. That temporal process which we mean by history today is a sequence in which one event follows another without that kind of creative transformation which we have seen occurs in the fellowship of Jesus. In deep communion there is a transcendence of time and history in one sense, namely, the past takes on a new character relative to the present. This new past creates a new future for the participant individuals.
So here again we find implicit in Bultmann the teaching that the revelation is the creative and transforming communion that occurred in the fellowship of Jesus, although Bultmann covers this over with obscure and paradoxical statements apparently in the endeavor to serve the church by making preaching the one way in which this revelation is transmitted to us. But in his endeavor to do this he falls into inconsistencies that have been exposed by several writers, most recently by Schubert Ogden in his book Christ and Mythus.
This completes our survey of the three theologians. All Christian theology has been largely devoted to seeking an answer to this question: When Christ is distinguished from the man Jesus as the divine being associated with the man, what is Christ and how associated with the man? Most diverse and conflicting answers have been given to this question, thereby showing that no answer so far can be accepted as final and complete. Rather this diversity and contradiction shows that the question has not been answered. The answer to the question, what is Christ, as distinguished from the man Jesus? Most especially what is the living Christ, with us now and always with human beings? are questions we have tried to answer by drawing upon resources of inquiry now available that were not accessible in other times.
The man Jesus was not Christ nor was he the agent that brought creative communion to such dominance that it has become for us the revelation of God in human life. What has made the fellowship of Jesus the revelation of God is not the man. What has made it the revelation of God are two things: (1) The social, psychological, historical conditions at that time made possible this rise to high dominance of creative communion when the right individuals were brought together. (2) Subsequent developments in history have lifted this fellowship to a mountain peak where it can be seen by all of Western culture, thus revealing to us the saving power of this kind of communion.
One last word needs to be said about the relation of metaphysical systems and ontologies to the revelation of God in Christ. It is a perversion of the Christian faith to identify it with any metaphysical system or with any ontology. This is so whether the system be naive supernaturalism or that of Hegel or Whitehead or Hartshorne or Paul Weiss or Paul Tillich or any other. These systems come and go, depending on the prevailing form of culture and epoch in history. To tie Christian faith to any of them is to take your stand on a sinking ship. Deep communion goes on regardless of the prevailing metaphysica. To quote a passage from Thomas Hardy: "A maid and her swain go whispering by. Earth’s empires will fall into night e’er their story shall die."
The point of that quotation is not sex although sex is involved. The point is rather this: This kind of whispering is the communion in which individuals find that profound appreciative understanding that saves from deadly loneliness and self-destructive anxiety. Substitute for "earth’s empires" the words "metaphysical systems and ontologies," and the truth of the statement is even more apparent.
Every metaphysical system must be rejected when it offers itself as the foundation of religious faith. Each metaphysical system is a transitory perspective that an individual has attained. It is the most comprehensive vision he can achieve; but beyond the bounds of every such vision hovers the dark mystery of unexplored being. As creativity operates through history new metaphysical systems will arise. Some of them may be more profound and comprehensive than any we have today. But none will be omniscient, none will be infallible; each one in time will be cast off by the creativity of history as it creates further visions reaching farther into the depths and heights of being.
Man’s faith must be commitment to this creativity and not to any one of the transitory visions that it brings forth in the minds of men. These visions are precious when each is the most honest, profound, and comprehensive vision the individual can attain. But life in Christ is life committed to the creativity that creates in each of us an appreciative understanding of the vision of the other person and the other people and integrates these into a more comprehensive vision.
While it was always an error to identify faith in Christ with some metaphysical system, whether of Plato or Aristotle or Hegel or Whitehead, or some other, it was not a fatal error until now. But now we have reached a period in history when this false identification becomes suicidal for the Christian faith. The reason for this can be briefly stated. We have come to a time when all the diverse cultures, systems, and peoples must live together in intimate association one with the other. Also we have come to a time when science is continuously revolutionizing our view of the world. For these two reasons we must live in the power and keeping of the creative transformation that expands our vision and not identify our faith with any one vision that happens to be most popular at the time.