Chapter 5: Promise
In the previous two chapters we sketched the broad religious and symbolic context out of which the notion of revelation may be understood. We noted that without our having an antecedent sense of the silent and mysterious depths of reality, the idea of revelation has little meaning. An awakening to mystery, then, is the first step in a theological appreciation of revelation. Religions in general are ways of bringing mystery to awareness. They generally appreciate the necessity of mystagogy as the condition for opening up our consciousness to the possibility of revelation. Through their sacramental representations of the sacred, in their mystical longing for transcendent unity, in their experience of the demand to act justly and lovingly in the world, and in their assuming the apophatic posture of pure silence, religions place us before the possible unfolding of a holy mystery.
Because of their diverse sacramental features, religions differ considerably from one another in the ways by which they formulate for their followers the fundamental character of this mystery. Although they generally agree that mystery is in some sense gracious, salvific, and fulfilling, there are endless variations in their imaginative envisagements of the nature of ultimate reality. It is not our task here to summarize these differences. We must leave that enormous undertaking to the historians of religion. Instead, we shall focus here only on the manner in which biblical religion, and particularly Christianity, unfolds its own unique experience of the dimension of depth to which the many religions witness in their widely dissimilar ways.
Mystery as Promise
All religions have some vision of "salvation," fulfillment, or liberation. Because of the universal experience of suffering, people have naturally sought a definitive solution to sorrow and evil. They have looked toward some final state of deliverance. And religions have attracted so many followers because they provide ultimate ways toward release from suffering, death, and other limits. But they do not all propose the same route to redemption. The religions descended from Abraham, for example, have a unique appreciation of mystery and a distinctive understanding of the salvation that coincides with it. They experience mystery especially in terms of "future," and they understand deliverance or salvation as an experience whose definitive occurrence resides not in the past or present, but only in the future.(See Jürgen Moltmann, The Experiment Hope, edited and translated by M. Douglas Meeks (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975). Much of the interpretation of mystery given in this chapter follows ideas of Moltmann. However, the writings of Ernst Bloch, Teilhard de Chardin, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Karl Rahner, and their many followers have also influenced the ideas presented here.)
This vision of the ultimate futurity of reality sets biblical religion apart from the other traditions. Primal religion was chained to the cycle of seasons. Its sacramental relation to animals, fertility, and earth gave it a cyclical character based on the repetition of natural occurrences. It was not yet aware of the radical openness of reality to the future. It remained bound to the soil, the sun, the moon, the forests, rivers, and seasons. This sacramental attachment to nature still lives on as an important layer within many religions. And it would be a considerable impoverishment of religions if they ever forgot their origins among the ancient hunters and gatherers of the Stone Age and the more recent planters and harvesters of the agricultural period originating about ten thousand years ago. The sacramental life of religious people to this day carries with it metaphors (such as the dying and rising of a god) that owe their original meaning to the religious imaginations of our forbears of the early agricultural period.(It is possible that the metaphor of "resurrection," for example, was originally nurtured by the experience, going back to the neolithic period, of planting in the ground seeds which "die" and then "rise" to new life.) Although biblical religion overlays the natural world with historic meaning, it nevertheless does not completely abandon the natural-sacramental mode of religion. This is a point worth holding on to as we search for a response in the religions to our global environmental crisis.
All of the axial religions, in fact, maintained some connection to nature’s rhythms and cycles. But they also nurtured a new restlessness that loosened them from early religion’s immediate connection to nature. The Vedantic quest for the One, the Platonic postulation of an ideal world of being beyond the becoming of the sensible world, and the Buddhist renunciation of the religious clinging to concrete worldly objects -- these and other developments in the first millennium BC. augured a new and more disturbing understanding of mystery while showing the provisional and imperfect character of the world of ordinary human existence. Simultaneously they relativized the sacramental orientation of early religion by warning of the narrowing effects of idolatrous attachments.
The religion of Israel developed a unique version of the axial disengagement from purely nature-oriented religion. Filled with an unprecedented hope for a future fulfillment within the context of history, it no longer thought of the cycles of nature as the primary sphere in which fulfillment is to be found. As noted above, it did not entirely abandon nature. It is impossible to do so. But it began to think of mystery more in terms of a vision for history than in terms of the sacral dimension behind natural phenomena. And it learned to think of God as one who continually holds out a fresh promise for the future, as one who calls us to hope in a vision yet to be fulfilled.
Hans Küng summarizes the temporal and futurist slant that biblical religion gives to the axial intuition of a transcendent mystery:
Transcendence . . . is conceived no longer as in ancient physics and metaphysics, primarily spatially: God over or outside the world. Nor is it to be understood on the other hand as idealistically or existentially interiorized: God simply in us. No, in the light of the biblical message transcendence must be understood primarily in a temporal sense: God before us. . . . God is not to be understood simply as the timeless eternal behind the homogeneous flow of coming to be and perishing, of past, present and future, as he is known particularly from Greek philosophy; but it is precisely as the eternal that he is the future reality, the coming reality, the one who creates hope, as he can be known from the promises of the future of Israel and of Jesus himself: ‘‘thy kingdom come.’’(Hans Kung, Eternal Life. trans. by Edward Quinn (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1984) 213-14. Kung acknowledges the debt that Christian theology owes to the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch and to Bloch’s main Christian theological follower. It is possible that the metaphor of "resurrection," for example, was originally nurtured by the experience, going back to the neolithic period, of planting in the ground seeds which "die" and then "rise" to new life.)
This religious attitude of looking toward the future for deliverance is known as eschatology. Thus Judaism and Christianity may be called eschatological religions. The term "eschatological," derived from the Greek noun eschaton, literally means "final" or "last." In Christian theology, the term "eschatology" formerly meant a study of the "last things," i.e. death and life beyond death. But in its broader and more biblical meaning, it designates the hopeful looking forward to a future salvation.(for a summary of recent theological interpretations of eschatology, see Zachary Hayes, Visions of a Future [Wilmington: Michael Glazier, Inc. 1989]) The notion of revelation, we shall be emphasizing, needs now to be grasped again in its profoundly eschatological nature.(Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 37-94.)
Eschatological thinking appeals to believers partly because it provides a response to the perennial problem of suffering. The solution to suffering in eschatological religion begins with a hope that the God who comes to us from the realm of the future will bring the end of frustration. By hoping for a future deliverance, biblical eschatology renders present misery only temporary, and even though distress may still remain, the prospect of an eventual solution at least makes pain more bearable. Without such hope, suffering is intolerable.
In the face of suffering, eschatological religion conjures up a rich array of images pointing to future salvation. It speaks of shalom, of the "day of the Lord," of the coming of the Son of Man, of the "reign of God." But perhaps its fundamental contribution to the history of religion is its idea of a personal, caring God who makes promises and intends to deliver people from their suffering. It is in the realm of the future that this God’s reality most fully resides. The esoteric Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch observes that the God of promissory religion "has the future as the mode of his being."(Quoted in Moltmann, The Experiment Hope, 48) This God is the source of endless surprise, holding Out the vision of a realm of fulfillment and joy far surpassing all present anticipations. The image of a promising God who meets us Out of the mysterious future subverts the archaic religious instinct to seek fulfillment in nature or in the present moment alone, or in an escape from history into timelessness. The promising mystery holds out a new vision of creation’s possibilities and thereby sabotages our instincts for securing our existence only in the predictability of natural recurrences.
The invasion of promise into human consciousness has proven to be quite disturbing, as the biblical texts testify. Promise is troubling because it demands of us a willingness to let go of the present and to forsake our tendency to define reality only on the basis of what has already happened in the past. Its God is one who makes all things new (Rev 21:5): "For behold I create new heavens and a new earth. . . ." (Isa. 65:17).
What is meant by promise? Jürgen Moltmann, who -- perhaps more thoroughly than any other contemporary theologian -- has retrieved the biblical theme of promise and hope as central to the Christian vision of revelation, answers as follows:
A promise is a pledge that proclaims a reality which is not yet at hand. A promise pledges a new future, and in the promise this new future is already word-present. If a divine promise is involved, it means that this future does not result from those possibilities which are already present, but that it originates from God’s creative possibilities. God’s promise always points to a new creation as the word for divine "creation" in the Old Testament, barah, indicates. . . . The word of the promise itself already creates something new.(Ibid., 49.)
In the Bible, God’s transcendence is located not so much "up above" as up ahead, in the realm of the future. Moltmann seeks to recapture the biblical notion of the future as the realm of divine transcendence. But he emphasizes that the future can be conceived of as the primary abode of God only if we allow that it contains possibilities and surprises that we are incapable of calculating on the basis of present experience.(Jürgen Moltmann, Zukunfi der Schöpfung (Munich: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1977) 21-22.) The future is God’s, and God’s future is not a simple unfolding of potentiality latent in our present or past. Rather, in its transcendence it comes to us in a way that we cannot predict or control. It cannot be completely planned. And genuine hope, the fundamental consequence of biblical faith, possesses an openness to this future and a willingness to undergo the transformation that it requires as we go to meet it.
By offering a new future, the biblical word urges us to move actively toward the realization of the promise it announces. The revelatory word of promise not only announces, it also transforms. Opening ourselves to the novelty of God’s future requires an active struggle with those inclinations in us that seek security in a settled past or an untroubled present. So we often resist the futurity of being. But in so doing we obscure the goal of our deepest and most intimate yearnings. In disclosing undreamed-of possibilities for us, revelation seeks to expose the very core of human longing as well. This process can be quite uncomfortable even while it is very promising. The mysterious depth of God’s future may first present itself to us as an abyss to be avoided rather than as a ground of consolation. The future appears to us a mysterium tremendum.
For this reason, contrary to what many critics of religion have claimed, accepting the promise held Out by eschatological faith is by no means an easy or childish escape from the difficulties of human existence. The uncertainty of a future that appears only in the form of promise rather than as an instantaneously complete manifestation of the sacred is terrifying. Accepting the unpredictability of the future is too much for us at times, and so we seek refuge in the more certain and predictable realm of nature or in our past achievements. Trusting in an uncertain future is much more challenging than is a religiosity based on the securing of ourselves to present certitudes. Eschatological religion does not appeal to the human instinct for safety as much as to our passion for adventure. Much that goes by the name "religion" is little more than a sanction of the status quo or a flight from the messiness of historical existence. Our religiosity easily reverts to an idolatrous sacramentalism or an aversion to temporality and history. But eschatological faith is intolerant of such escapism.
We gather from the Bible that the promissory vision of existence originated in the dreams of a semi-nomadic people in pre-axial Mesopotamia. Among the natives of the Fertile Crescent during the second millennium BC., perhaps there was a "wandering Aramean" known as Abram.(We are not concerned here with questions of the historical facticity of the ancestor narratives in the Bible. Rather, we are concerned only with the way in which such accounts express the promissory faith of Israel.) Like all semi-nomads, he was required by seasonal changes to shift his herds and family constantly in search of new resources. Such a restive life allowed no final settling down into one fixed place. Thus the nomadic existence nourished a spirit of anticipation. Fresh possibility loomed constantly on the horizon. In such disquiet there may have occurred the first hints of the futurity of mystery that would culminate in a new and distinct religious tradition.(Even when Israel finally abandoned the nomadic life of her ancestors, the wandering spirit remained at the heart of its God-consciousness, and this served to make Israel’s religious experience unique among the nations. See Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 79.) The biblical understanding of God would eventually blossom from this ancient intuition of reality’s promise.
According to the Bible, Abram used to travel the caravan routes linking Ur, Haran, Damascus, Shechem, Hebron, and Egypt. At a certain point in his wanderings, he experienced a summons from God to leave his ancestral home and go forth to a new life of unknown promise. In some of the most memorable words of the biblical tradition, God is said to have called Abram:
‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you the families of the earth shall bless themselves.’ (Gen. 12:1-3)
It is impossible to determine the exact circumstances surrounding this calling. The biblical narratives about the ancestors are colored over with religious and political ideals of later periods of Israel’s history and hopes. It is conceivable that there was an historical Abram who experienced mystery in the mode of a future promise. In any case, the picture presented in Genesis portrays him as one who felt God’s future beckoning him toward the uncertainty of a whole new way of existing. Perhaps he felt a deep uneasiness about abandoning himself to its promise. But he is pictured as surrendering himself to God’s promises in an attitude of trust that has remained the norm of authentic piety to this day in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, all of which claim him as their father.
As the book of Genesis tells it, God periodically renewed the promise to Abram: "To your descendants I will give this land." (12:7) "All the land which you see I will give to you and to your descendants forever" (13:15). "Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your descendants be" (15:5). "Behold my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations" (17:4). And in Abram’s old age, God bestowed on him a new name:
‘No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. And I will give to you, and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God’ (17:5-8).
As we have already noted, the biblical stories about Abraham express the sentiments of later stages in the history of Israel. So it is hard to sift out the events as they actually happened or to distinguish them from later interpretations. But, for our purposes, such otherwise significant scholarly effort is not necessary. It is sufficient to emphasize the distinct mode of the appearance of mystery as it is portrayed in these passages. What stands out is that revelation comes in the mode of a promise of future fulfillment to which we can relate only by adopting the posture of hope. Promise is the form of revelation, and hope is the indispensable attitude for the reception of revelation. Revelation is not, biblically speaking at least, a vertical interruption from above. It is not a passing of information from "up there" to "down here." Nor is it a mystical rapture with the One such as we find, for example, in Vedantic Hinduism. Neither is it Buddhism’s sudden entrance into nirvana. Revelation is not the present uncovering of the nature of ultimate reality, as much traditional theology would have it. The fullness of the future cannot be exhaustively disclosed in any particular present moment within history. For that reason, it is difficult for theology to maintain that revelation has yet been completed. Thus revelation may best be understood as the disclosure of God’s vision of the future in the form of a promise. And in any present moment, we attune ourselves to this revelation only if, like Abraham, we let go of the present and renew our hope in the promise of an open, uncertain, but fulfilling future.
Characteristics of Promise and Hope
The main features of the divine promise are its gratuity, extravagance, and surprise. These three persistent elements of revelation are already present in the story of Abraham, and they recur in numerous other biblical narratives. Revelation’s gratuity -- its undeserved nature -- is manifested, for example, in Abraham’s doing absolutely nothing to earn the promise bestowed on him and his posterity. The promise always arrives in a most unexpected way, often when conditions seem to be impossible and incapable of redemption. "Grace" is the name that Christian theology has given to this freely bestowed promise of fulfillment. The gracious character of the promise implies that we ourselves are not in a position to wrest any revelation from the heart of mystery. We can make no claim upon tt, even by the most virtuous of our actions. We may open ourselves to it in hope, but we cannot exact it. It comes as a gift.
Second, revelation is extravagant. There is no apparent limit to the abundance promised to those who trust in God’s promise. Abraham’s posterity will be numberless. The land his posterity will inhabit will be bounteous to the point of overflowing. Throughout the Bible, God’s revelation is constantly portrayed in images of excess. This immoderate nature of revelation is a quality that our parsimonious human habits of religiosity find quite disturbing at times. Usually our expectations of how any conceivable revelation might confront us are framed in terms entirely too narrow to contain its superabundance. But it always spills over the upper limits of our apparatus for receiving it. And so we typically filter it out and shrink it down to our own size rather than embrace it in its fullness.
In the third place, and precisely because of its gratuity and extravagance, the revelatory promise catches us by surprise. It goes beyond our wildest expectations and imaginings. None of our present anticipations of the mystery of the future can adequately forecast the actual shape it will take as it comes into conformity with God’s vision for the world.(For this reason, the theology of Karl Barth, with its emphasis on the otherness of God’s word, is a healthy corrective to the straitjacketing effect of many of our hermeneutical efforts.) The consistent biblical teaching, which becomes most explicit in the apocalyptic literature, is that the future is ultimately God’s future. Biblical religion, therefore, requires that we always keep ourselves open to the possibility that this future will surprise us. The indispensable condition for the reception of revelation is an openness to the possibility of being surprised.(This is a point that has been made more consistently in the works of Andrew Greeley than in the writings of most theologians.)
The appropriate response to the free, extravagant, and surprising promise of God is hope. Hope is a radical, unquestioning openness to the breaking in of God’s future. It is not the same as mere wishing, or naive optimism, although hoping does not necessarily exclude wishing and optimism either. But wishing without hoping can, as Freud shows, easily become nothing more than illusory projection. And wishing may be little more than the fantasizing of a future whose shape is determined exclusively by what I (first person singular) would like now (present tense).(H. A: Williams, True Resurrection (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1972) 178-79.) Such an attitude, insofar as it is devoid of hope, closes one off from any possibility of being surprised by the actual arrival of a truly transcendent future. Though we cannot and perhaps should not even try to purify our hope of all elements of wishing,(See William Lynch, Images of Hope (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1974.) we may still distinguish it from less expansive modes of desire. Hoping is understood here as openness to the radically new. It is a willingness not necessarily to renounce but at least to relativize the optimism of wishing, which is usually oriented entirely from the point of view of our present situation and needs. Instead, hope transforms our natural human desiring into an openness to that which present awareness may not even begin to envisage as possible.
Hope is a posture that embodies all four of the religious ways discussed in the previous chapter. First, it generates a highly sacramental aspect in its rich images of the future. For it is through our images of hope that God’s future first comes to birth in our world. Human imagination is the vehicle of divine revelation.(Ray Hart, Unfinished Man and the Imagination (New York: Herder & Herder, 1968) 180-266.) Such an observation might seem at first to arouse an enormous number of epistemological difficulties. For if revelation is so closely tied to our faculty of imagining, how do we know that It is true to reality? How can we tell when our images of the future arise out of hoping rather than solely out of wishing? How do we know when imagination is exclusively projective and when it has elements of radical openness to a transcending future?
It would seem that our longing for the future is genuine hope rather than mere wishing, only if, along with its images of the future, it also includes mystical, apophatic, and active elements that keep these images from being frozen into absolutes. As we argued in the preceding chapter, religion is most wholesome when it balances its four elements -- sacramentalism, mysticism, silence and action. The same criterion of authentic religion -- namely, that of keeping the four aspects in dynamic tension -- can be used to distinguish hope from unrealistic fantasy.
Hope, as we have just noted, has a sacramental character in that it is always embodied in images of the future. Without a lively imagination there can really be no hope. Hope cannot take root in our lives without very concrete imaginative representations of the future. For example, as we shall observe, Israel’s hope in God’s promise takes on the vivid shape of a search for a secure homeland. But hope’s openness to the futurity of mystery is ensured especially by its including also a mystical willingness to transcend endlessly the particularity of sacramental images. Moreover, its realism is grounded in an apophatic patience and capacity to wait in silence, as well as in its embodiment in concrete action, or in what contemporary theology calls praxis. It is by maintaining a healthy tension among these four aspects that hope avoids escapism and opens itself to the revelation of God’s promise.
Let us look a bit more closely at the mystical, apophatic, and praxis-oriented aspects of hope. Hope manifests its mystical side in its longing for ultimate union with the future and therefore deliverance from the relativity of the present. Prophetic religions have often been sharply contrasted with Asian religions because the former seem to be less interested in mystical union than the latter. Such a comparison, however, is difficult to sustain. For in hope’s reaching out to the future, it is also seeking intimate union with sacred mystery, which in the prophetic context happens to have the shape of "future." The fact that mystery bears the character of futurity, however, does not make prophetic religions less mystical than any others, if by mysticism we mean a longing for and experience of union with ultimate reality. There is even a sense in which the person who hopes seeks thereby to lose or abandon herself to God, taking on the attitude of complete surrender that is typical of mystical experience everywhere. In that sense at least, the desire for union with God is no less passionately mystical in biblically based religions than it is in the Asian traditions. The difference is that hope does not insist upon a full epiphany of God, nor does it pretend that in any historical moment we can ever achieve complete and total enjoyment of God.
Hope also gives evidence of an apophatic or renunciatory aspect in its willingness to let go of the present and in its patient waiting for the genuine arrival of God’s future. This willingness to wait is clear evidence of a mature hope’s openness to the graciousness, extravagance, and unexpectedness of revelation. Hoping, we have noted, is not an easy attitude to assume. It may indeed be quite painful. (As Moltmann indicates, the Greeks even saw hope as an evil to be avoided, because it is an attitude that time and again leads to disappointment. According to the myth of Prometheus, hope is the last and greatest of the evils that escape from Pandora’s box: "In addition to all other evils, man acquired yet another: hope. It deceives him with illusions and thus intensifies all his sufferings. If we were able to be free of hope, then we would be able to come to terms with all forms of our suffering. We would no longer experience our suffering as pain. We would then have no more fear; without fear and without hope we would be invulnerable like the Stoics. Hope is a fraud. Only if one sees through this deception is he or she at peace. Give up hope, then you are happy!" The Experiment Hope, 16.) The first implication of hope, after all, is that the present must be abandoned. Hope carries its own kind of asceticism.(Williams, 178-79.) It requires that we cease our clinging to the way things are. Genuine hope, moreover, is faithful to the apophatic requirement of authentic religion in its willingness to forsake obsession with any single sacramental image or vision of the future. As it allows the mysterious future to enter into the present, it abandons any exclusivist fixation on previously consoling images and begins to experiment with new ones. It seeks to transcend utopian visions of the future that had been built up out of our previous wishings. It lets go of the present in order to receive the open, surprising, and inexhaustible reality of the future. In its exposure to surprise, genuine hope yields to the future in a way that allows the latter to retain its "otherness" and ineffability. It does not try to coerce, but expresses its willingness to let go of comforting and optimistic imaginings spun too abundantly out of our own narrowness of perspective. It does not seek to force mystery to take on the shape of our desires. For that reason, it is entirely appropriate for us to speak of an apophatic dimension of hope. No less than Buddhism, a religion of hope must be ready to renounce those cravings that tie us down to the present. Its adoption of the "way of silence" guarantees the realism of hope over against the short-sightedness of mere optimism.
Finally, hope contains an active aspect in its refusal to wait in sheer passivity. Hope realizes that the arrival of the future requires our energetic involvement in its coming. The vision unfolded in biblical revelation can become incarnate in our world only as we cooperate actively with the power behind that vision. For this reason, Christian teaching rightly rejects a quietism that leaves our human activity and creativity out of God’s revelatory vision. Of course, it spurns any "works-righteousness," according to which our own actions are made the sole criterion of salvation. But it also finds unacceptable the notion of a faith that fails to challenge us to a praxis corresponding to God’s plan for the world and its future. Concretely, this implies that we incarnate our hope, for example, in action for justice on behalf of the poor and abandoned.
In summary, then, if we follow the Bible, hope in God’s promise is the core of authentic religion. The story of Abraham’s fidelity to the promise is the model of fidelity to God. Stories of such unflagging loyalty are necessary to fuel our own faith in revelation’s promise. For Buddhists, the story of Gautama is the central model for their own persistence on the path toward enlightenment and final freedom from suffering. When Buddhists hear about Gautama, with all his struggles and temptations, they are encouraged to sustain their own life quests, keeping in view the fact that Gautama eventually reached his true destiny. All religions contain narratives of such courage, and it is in these heroic accounts that the character of a religion is most vividly represented. For Jews and Christians, as well as Muslims, it is Abraham’s enduring faith in God’s promise that constitutes our shared model of faith and hope.
We notice that Abraham had many apparently solid reasons to abandon his pursuit of the promise. His own wife’s infertility hardly augured well for one who was promised descendants that would outnumber the stars in the sky. He was commanded, by the same God who had given him the promise of enormous progeny, to sacrifice his own son Isaac. Yet Abraham continued to trust, and his perseverance remains the standard of religious fidelity in the prophetic faiths.
Revelation, as we observed above, takes the shape of very concrete Images of God’s vision for the world’s future. In order to have any content, it requires a symbolic or sacramental component. In Hebraic religion, the ideal of a land in which to dwell at peace is the great sacrament of hope. Through it, the mystery of the future enters concretely into the religious consciousness of the people. To this day, much Jewish faith requires a specific homeland as the indispensable sacrament of its encounter with the mystery known as God. Its need for sacraments of promise explains the symbolic power of the land of Israel or the city of Jerusalem as an emblem of hope. Without such visible and tangible monuments to the future, existence as a people would become inconceivable to many Jews. The importance of a homeland for this people cannot be appreciated aside from the deep religious need for sacramental representations of a future in which to hope. Hope must be embodied in concrete realities if it is to arouse all levels of our longing.
The story of the Jewish quest for the "land" is well known. Most of what Christians have traditionally called the Old Testament centers around the quest for a Promised Land, the successful occupation of this land, the struggle to hold onto it, the anguish at losing it, and the prospects of reclaiming it. Often, Christians and other religious people have difficulty understanding the seeming obsession with geography and locality in Jewish religion. Many religions have so spiritualized the object of their aspiration (as have even some later developments in Judaism itself) that the Jewish concern for a rather small Middle Eastern territory, today the state of Israel, seems utterly secularistic (as indeed it often is). However, we have suggested that there is a need for at least some sacramental representation of mystery in all religion. Though it is not without its own temptations, some degree of sacramentalism is indispensable to the very integrity of religion. Without a sacramental component, religion -- or religious hope -- can easily take flight from our earthiness and from the reality of bodily existence. It will then be transformed into the style of religious escapism known as "gnosticism." Gnosticism itself, however, merely translates the desire for some special place in history or among the nations to a longing for an elite spiritual status in the eyes of God. The sad consequence of gnosticism is that its etherealized piety and its demand for esoteric knowledge make it largely irrelevant to human history. Without some bonding to the earth and to the political and economic realities of our existence, hope turns into reverie or romantic utopianism. And from such unrealistic aspirations, the road to cynicism and despair turns out to be very short. The great lesson Christians can learn from Judaism is the importance of some visible, bodily representation of a future in which to hope.
Let us recall briefly the main episodes in the story of the Jewish quest for the land. The ancestors of Judaism lived a servile existence in Egypt without a home to call their own and without a clear national identity. Then Moses rose up in their midst, initiated a revolt against the pharaoh’s regime, and crossed over the "Sea of Reeds" in a liberative event known as the Exodus. He led his band of followers into the wilderness where they wandered for a period. All the while, the dream of a new land sustained them. Eventually, as the story goes, they arrived in Canaan where they merged with the inhabitants and gradually became the biblical people of Judah and Israel. Moses himself never reached the Promised Land, but his liberating efforts, his hope for the future, and his fidelity to the "promise" have made him the central ancestral figure in Judaism.
Judaism traces its existence as a distinct nation or people to such dreamers of the future as Abraham and Moses. And with them, it still continually looks toward the future. Along with Christianity, it anticipates the breaking in of a free, extravagant, and surprising future. The primary historical basis for its hope in the future lies in the deliverance from Egypt as recounted in the biblical Book of Exodus. The narratives comprising this book seem highly exaggerated when we view them simply in terms of scientifically historical standards. In fact, there may have been only a relatively small band of people who followed Moses out of Egypt, whereas the Book of Exodus speaks of thousands. But we would be missing the point of Exodus if we concentrated only on the question of whether it actually happened that way. For its purpose is to arouse trust in the future, and it looks back to the past liberation of the Hebrew people and to their settlement in a new land as the sacramental and narrative basis for our hoping here and now in the mystery of a future that is still dawning.
Having fled from slavery and the threat of losing their identity as a distinct people, Moses and his followers gave thanks to Yahweh, the deity to whom they attributed their new freedom and their creation as a people with a new future. The Exodus, we should note, occurred long before what we have called the axial age. During the thirteenth century BC., the religious consciousness of the Hebrew people had not yet fully developed the axial yearning for a transcendent Oneness with its intolerance of a multiplicity of gods and goddesses. Yahweh, therefore, was not originally the one-and-only transcendent being that he was later to become. Initially, he may only have been Moses’ tribal or family deity, but as Israel’s religion developed during the following centuries, the name of Yahweh took on a more comprehensive and eventually monotheistic character. Finally, during the axial period, Yahweh began to be seen not only as the great promiser, liberator, and mighty warrior who had fashioned a distinct people, but also as the creator, savior, and ruler of the entire world. Judging by the writings of Second Isaiah, strict monotheism, which is intolerant of trust in a plurality of deities, arrived decisively somewhere around the sixth century BC.
According to Exodus, after the deliverance from Egypt, Moses and his followers continued their relationship with the God of freedom and hope. At Mount Sinai, Yahweh forged a "covenant" with his elected people. Once again, the theme of the land was central. Yahweh graciously promised the Hebrews their own home and high status among the nations if they on their part would but put their trust in him and in the future fulfillment of his promises. They would have to show their loyalty by turning away from idols, from gods that would only enslave them once again. They must place their trust in Yahweh, the liberator and promise-keeper, alone. The Ten Commandments and the Law in its entirety make explicit what it means to live freely and trustingly as a community of hope. The imperative to turn away from idols is in fact an invitation to freedom. Any obsessive clinging, including any exclusivist possessiveness toward the land itself as though it were a right and not a gift, leads away from the free life and back to slavery.
During the wilderness journey, the Hebrews are said to have "murmured" in defiance of the divine promise given through Moses. Unwilling to adopt the patience and waiting that always accompany authentic hope, they fell back into idolatry, forsaking the dream of freedom. Meanwhile Moses struggled valiantly to sustain their hope in the promise. But, in a way characteristic of all humans, the people yearned for security in the present and the past. They expressed their distaste for freedom and the uncertain future by a longing to return to Egypt. It would be better to be slaves again than to wander in the wilderness devoid of safety. In slavery there is at least a kind of security, while the call to freedom and the unknown future is full of risk. The Bible credits Moses and his faithful followers, however, with not allowing their vision of future deliverance to die. And it is in great measure to their steadfastness that the Jewish and the Christian faiths owe their vision of the unconquerable power of hope in God’s future.
The struggle against despair remains a constant one in all religion and in human life as such. In Israel, it is especially the prophets who take up the cause of Moses and Abraham and insist that God’s people not give into the temptation to hopelessness. It is especially on the prophets that there falls the obligation of keeping the promise pure and alive in the people’s religious life. There is a natural tendency for a nation living close to the land and making its living from the earth to consort with the gods of nature and fertility. From the perspective of our awareness of the history of religion, such devotion seems quite understandable and forgivable. But to the prophets of Israel it was an abomination because it signaled an abandonment of the revelatory promise given earlier to Abraham and Moses. In sum, it was a forsaking of the liberating mystery that had disclosed itself as a personal God of promise. Returning to nature symbolized a despair about history and its possibilities for fulfilling the deepest longings of creation and of human existence.
In fact, the fulfillment of history’s promise always seems too far off, whereas the gods of nature offer immediate satisfaction. It is very tempting to lose ourselves in the natural and to anesthetize any deeper longing we may have for a wider vision. But the prophets, speaking authoritatively on behalf of the God of Abraham and Moses, challenged the people to trust in the promise unconditionally. They protested any flirtation with the gods and goddesses of nature. They even objected to the establishment of a monarchy that would tempt people to settle for the superficial sacramentalism according to which divine mystery is represented only in the image of monarchical political power. If Yahweh is King, it is not in the same sense as the typical despots who have so little concern for justice.
It is in their demand for justice that the prophets stand out most sharply. In the eighth century BC., a young dresser of sycamores named Amos from the southern kingdom of Judah experienced a calling to journey to the northern kingdom of Israel in order to protest the social injustice, especially the widening gap between the rich and the poor, that had become prevalent there. He thought of himself only as a humble farmer and did not identify himself with the professional prophets of the day. But he was consumed by a passion for righteousness, and he spoke out on behalf of the God of justice. He observed that the Israelites "trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and turn aside the way of the afflicted" (Amos 2:7). He attacked them for their presumption that being chosen by God from among the nations is a guarantee of salvation rather than a call to responsibility. Israel had failed to abide by the conditions of the Sinai covenant, and now the promised "Day of Yahweh" would spell doom rather than joy.
The prophetic message is that God is faithful to his promise but that the promise is not to be taken lightly. It requires that people adopt the same concern for the needy as Yahweh had done in electing Abraham and in rescuing his people from Egypt. But Israel and Judah had failed to follow the demands of the election and covenant, and had thoughtlessly turned back onto themselves. The land had become an idol rather than a sacrament of the future. The praxis required by authentic hope had been ignored. The neglect of justice had led to an obscuring of the religious heritage of hope. Revelation, at least in the biblical sense, can be experienced only if justice prevails. Where justice does not yet reign, the appropriate sense of God is also absent.
In the prophetic outcries of Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel we see yet another instance of axial religion’s critique of a piety based only on sacramentalism. About the same time that the Upanishads were expressing an uneasiness with Vedic ritualism, Amos and Micah were excoriating the superficial sacrifices of the Israelites. While the Buddha was reforming religion in India, even to the point of abandoning the ancient Hindu rites altogether, the prophets of Judah and Israel were impeaching the superficial piety of their own culture. They rejected any sacramental religious solace that was not accompanied by positive social, political, and economic implications. A more thunderous indictment of ineffective religiosity is hard to find than the one preserved in the book of Amos. Here God reproaches Israel:
‘I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ (Amos 5:21-24).
Like the Buddha, the prophets insisted that religion cannot be separated from compassion for those in need. Sacramental, mystical, and silent religion must also have implications for life in this world. Trust in the promise requires an attitude of inclusiveness that embraces all and excludes none.
The biblical idea of revelation as God’s promise has both auditory and visual overtones. Usually we think of revelation as a disclosure of God occurring through the mediation of the spoken word. The prophets, for example, called upon their listeners to hear the "word of the Lord." In the Bible, the dabhar or the logos of God appears to be the primary medium of divine revelation. But revelation may also be understood as the unfolding of a vision. The latter notion has not been as prominent in the theology of revelation as has the former, but it is no less biblical. The prophets leave us with vivid pictures of God’s plan for the future. They require that we use our own imaginations to portray, however inadequately, the freedom, extravagance, and surprisingness of God’s eternal vision for the world and humanity. The concept of God’s vision for history, and for the entire cosmos, is indispensable for a genuinely biblical understanding of revelation.(As noted earlier, this idea is worked out most explicitly in Gabriel Fackre’s The Christian Story.
Although "vision" does not capture everything implied in "word," it allows us to focus on the pictorial features implied in the revelatory promise. It enables us to assimilate revelation to the notions of dreaming and imagining without which we can have no vivid sense of what is promised to us. In dreaming and imagining we form pictures of the future. The eschatological age, according to the prophet Joel, will feature those who dream dreams and see visions. Since the future has not yet fully arrived, it can come into our lives now only on the wings of dreams and imaginings. Biblical religion, unlike our naive "realism," actually encourages us to dream about the future. And although we must be critical of our dreams, since they may easily become unrealistic, the reception of revelation requires on our part an actively visionary way of thinking.(On the importance of day-dreaming as our access to the dawning of future possibilities, see Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, Vol. I, trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight (Oxford: Basil Blackwell. 1986).
Once again, though, we must ask ourselves how we know when our visions are simply projections of childish wishing, rather than images more truly revelatory of mystery. We shall address this question at greater length in Chapter 11, for around this issue the question of the plausibility of revelation revolves. But even here, we may invoke the simple criterion implied in the teachings of the prophets themselves: we can trust our visions if they are all-inclusive ones, open to the assimilation of ever new, surprising, and alien elements. In other words, the authenticity of our visions is a function of their heuristic breadth. (As we indicated several times earlier, authentic religion must have an apophatic dimension. It is in its move toward silence that it acquires a breadth that is lacking in sacramentalism as such.) Earlier we spoke of mystery in terms of depth. Here, the notion of vision invites us to think of mystery also in terms of breadth. Accordingly, the "truthfulness" of a vision resides in its capacity to spread out and integrate coherently into itself elements of experience that would otherwise remain unnoticed and unintelligible.
Most of the time our visions of and plans for the future tend to leave something out. And this is why, in retrospect, they seem so naive. They are misguided because they have failed to consider items that in a wider perspective turn out to be indispensable for genuine wholeness. For example, when we close our eyes to elements of society such as the homeless, the unemployed, the mentally ill, and others who do not seem to fit into our idealization of social order, or if we forget the sufferings of past generations, we end up with sketches that are inadequate to God’s own vision of the future. Much evil, including the slaughter of millions of innocent people, has been wrought, especially in the present century, by "visionaries" who were not expansive enough in their dreams of social order to include those too weak, poor, or ideologically unsuitable to fit into the plans of the powerful for the future.
In order to avoid such narrowness and naivet~, the biblical prophets, unlike their obsequious establishment rivals, did not turn toward the future with rosy-eyed optimism. Their hopes were tempered by a sober realism about the current state of affairs. They took note of present injustice, particularly the exclusion of the poor, and proclaimed the inadequacy of any vision of the future that failed to include the suffering and the marginalized victims of society. The prophets called for a continual widening of what it means to be a community of hope, and they did so by refusing to allow any forgetting of the poor and outcasts. Social planning that excludes certain groups for the sake of efficiency and homogeneity is in the long run completely unrealistic. The prophets forbade such narrowing of social ideals. They refused to let the children of Abraham forget the dark side of history, the sufferings of the past, or the poverty of their own origins. To them, the vision of future shalom had to be all-inclusive.(It is especially in the company of the prophets that we shall locate the revelatory role of Jesus. See below, Chapter 6.)
Although the prophets were speaking primarily of social and economic inclusiveness, we are called upon by revelation to extend their criterion of inclusiveness to other arenas (such as race and gender, for example) today. If a vision is to be realistic it must be open to an ongoing expansion that continually takes more and more data into account and fits these data together in increasingly more meaningful ways. In our own day this means that a vision of the future cannot ignore what the sciences tell us about reality. And now, more than ever, it must be attentive to what other religions are saying. Without losing its distinctive boundaries (which are essential for the passing on of information) a "truthful" revelatory vision must nevertheless be continually open to new data. Of course, none of us can ever hold the breadth of reality within the narrowness of our own awareness. But at least we may be open to the possibility of a wider vision, one far surpassing our own. And we may even speak of an ultimate vision, one in which there are no limits whatsoever on inclusiveness.
Such a limitless breadth of vision is sacramentalized in the biblical image of shalom. Authentic faith is the search for an ever-widening vision of peace.(This is a major theme in Alfred North Whitehead’s understanding of religion. See Science and the Modern World, (New York: The Free Press, 1967) 191-92.) It is the quest for a perfection too grand to be contained in any present moment, a vision that only the uncertain future is adequate to hold. Faith’s vision, because of its infinite scope, cannot be squeezed into the narrowness of the "now." It can be approached only through the mediation of an imagination suffused with a hope held in common with others.(See Teilhard de Chardin, The Future of Man [New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1969] 75.) Revelation, therefore, is the disclosure not only of the depth but also the breadth of mystery. Such breadth would be intimated only by the vision of a future in which all can hope. Such a vision would thereby provide a meaning not only for our own lives but for all of history and even of the universe as a whole. The function of revelation is to set forth such a vision.
The Image of God’s Humility
God, as Karl Rahner puts it, may be understood as our "absolute future." (Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, Vol. VI, trans. Karl H. and Boniface Kruger (Baltimore: Helicon, 1969) 59-68.) But the absoluteness of the future hides itself, and it is sacramentally approachable by us only in the concrete particularity of our present experience with its always limited images of the future. But whereas psychology might suggest that these images are our own creations, faith allows us to see in them an incarnation and revelation of God, our absolute future. The infinite mystery of the future, notwithstanding its ultimate hiddenness, condescends to dwell within the restrictive arena of our present human imaginings. It does so by limiting itself and taking on, after a fashion, the shape of our own hopes in order eventually to lead us further into the depth and breadth of God’s own vision for the world.
The theme of the "land" in Judaism is one such sacramental incarnation of God’s future in the religious life of a particular people. To our overly spiritualized religious sensibilities, a geographically limited locality might seem to be a too secular and even materialistic way of symbolizing that which is promised to us. And yet the restrictedness of such symbols is quite consistent with our central image of the humility of God. The biblical understanding of revelation is thoroughly incarnational, and not just in the New Testament. The sons and daughters of Israel also believe that the eternal mystery of the world does not keep itself separate from the temporality of our particular world. It grasps hold of us and elicits the response of hope only by embodying itself in something so concrete as a homeland in which to hope. It is through our relationship to such mundane longings that we begin to construct our visions of the future. To separate hope from the bodily, social, and geographical realities in which we abide will lead us away from and not toward the God of promise.
In order for revelation to be a meaningful notion to us, we must experience the promise of the future in the particularities of our own lives and our own times. The promise of God, if it is still to be effective, must enter into the warp and woof of our existence here and now. Otherwise, it is nothing more than an abstraction. Perhaps it even needs to come alive in a new way every day of our lives. This means that we will not experience revelation simply by reading the Bible or attending a religious service. Although these are indispensable, the concrete situation of our encounter with the futurity of mystery is our everyday life with others in the world of today. If the idea of revelation is as intimately tied up with the theme of promise as we have argued in this chapter, then any appreciation we might have of it has to begin with an honest reflection on what our own hopes are.
The Bible and the tradition of the Church cannot all by themselves tell us what we can hope for. We read and remember the stories of God’s promises in the Bible. Yet we do so not in order to go back in time and repristinate a lost culture, but to look forward with the stories of God’s past promises in order to hear them again challenging us in our own language and in terms of our own needs and aspirations. Revelation is not fundamentally a codified set of beliefs written down in Scripture or doctrinal formulations. We can happily move beyond such an idolatrous notion of revelation today. Since it comes to us from an inexhaustible future, revelation is potentially as fresh every day of our own lives as it was to Abraham, Moses, the prophets, and Jesus. But only by acknowledging our own hopes can we begin to allow it to enter into our present.
Our sense of revelation, therefore, must begin with a scrutiny of what we long for in the hidden depths of our own being. In our encounter with revelation, we must be open to having these longings transformed from private wishing into communal hoping. But the beginning of an understanding of revelation requires an admission that we have concrete and often mundane wishes, beneath which there may already lie the seeds of a hope that will become increasingly more receptive to Gods s vision.
In Abraham’s and Israel’s experience, the mystery of God’s promise is felt palpably through the image of a new land, through anticipation of a multitude of progeny, through the hope of a long and blessed life for the people, through a vision of shalom. Accordingly, God is understood as the one who makes and keeps the promises we live by. Although our earthy sacramentalism can easily be vitiated by our inclination to idolatry, this is not a valid reason for completely mystifying religion. The value of sacramental images of hope is that they keep our religious life firmly planted on the terrestrial ground from which we have ourselves sprung. And at the same time, they remind us of the humility of the mystery that condescends to meet us in the concreteness of our ordinary human hopes and desires. When Christian faith discerns the limitless logos (or vision) as becoming "flesh," this linking of the divine to the corporeal is not entirely unprepared for in the sacramentalism of Israel and even of the world’s other sacramental religions.
We can now begin to see how our twin themes of revelation as promise on the one hand and the image of God’s self-emptying on the other converge. The revelatory image of a self-emptying God explains not only the fact of reality’s mysterious openness, as we noted at the end of Chapter 3, but also why mystery presents itself to us in the mode of a promising future. The futurity of mystery is grounded in the humble self-absenting of God. The gift of a future to hope in is a consequence of God’s self-concealment in such mundane realities as the land or an infant, a humble shepherd, a crucified man, a community of the oppressed. For our sake and for the world’s future, God renounces any impulse to make the divine mystery a totally present, completely available reality. Such a presence would overwhelm the world and paralyze any possibility of its further becoming. It would inhibit the self-creation and self-transcendence essential to ourselves and an evolving universe. The self-effacement of a God who withdraws into the future, and who meets us in the humble guise of sacraments of promise, allows our world to exist as relatively autonomous and self-coherent. At the same time, this faithful and humble God of promise continually offers the possibility of redemption and new creation, for the world often fails to choose the appropriate paths toward its true destiny. At each point along the journey of its movement toward the future, the world meets the responsive grace, extravagance, and surprisingness of an always new and unexpected future. Revelation means the arrival of this future in our midst in the form of promise. The biblical understanding of revelation as promise invites us to understand this future as "God."(In this sense. Moltmann is correct in saying that the content of the promise and its author are one and the same. The Experiment Hope, 50.)