Chapter 6: Jesus and the Vision

Mystery and Promise: A Theology of Revelation
by John F. Haught

Chapter 6: Jesus and the Vision

The sense of mystery and its promise would remain too vague without concrete sacramental mediation. Though it is a necessary corrective to en-sure the breadth of our hope, an exclusively apophatic religion or theology would fail to connect us to our future. Promise requires images that can arouse our hope in very specific ways corresponding to diverse times and circumstances.

It is true, of course, that Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism, as well as some significant strains of Hinduism and Christianity, have all expressed suspicion about the excesses of images and sacramentalism. The apophatic strand present in all of these religions justifiably cautions us that our clinging to particular symbols can at times be an obstacle to deeper encounter with sacred mystery. The via negativa. the way of silence, is intended to repair such narrowness. Silence opens us to the radical otherness of mystery. There is a place in all religions for the dialectical negation or subduing of words and images. Revelation involves much more than just a sacramental or verbal manifestation of mystery. It also requires, as a necessary condition of its reception, moments of silence, renunciation, and waiting. Silence prevents our anticipations of revelation from being dominated by our own predictions and keeps open to us the surprising aspects of mystery’s promise.

Nevertheless, people are first brought to an explicit sense of sacred mystery through sacraments or symbols. And even when their religion assumes mystical, apophatic, and active aspects it still has to remain connected to a sacramental base.(See above, Chapter 3.) The distinct shape that mystery takes in Israel’s experience, we have seen, is that of a promise sacramentally mediated through images of shalom, that is, through vivid pictures of peace, righteousness, and abundance on the land. That is why the holy city of Jerusalem and the land of Israel have remained to this day powerful and palpable symbols of the presence of God’s promise. Without such concrete imagery, hope might remain too vague, devoid of context and content.

In Christianity, the sacramental form in which mystery and promise are embodied is preeminently the compassionate person of Jesus of Nazareth.(See Monika Hellwig, Jesus, the Compassion of God (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1973) 121-23.) "He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. . . ." (Col. 1:15). "In him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell. . . ." (Cal 1:19). "He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature. . . ." (Heb. 1:3). "He who has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:9). Thus the New Testament expresses the early Christian conviction that the person of Jesus symbolically reveals to us the reality of God. Jesus is the "human face of God."(John A. T. Robinson, The Human Face of God (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973). In the faith of the early Christian community, as Rudolf Bultmann notes, the "proclaimer became the proclaimed."(Rudolf Bultmann. Theology of the New Testament, trans. Kendrick Grobel [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951] 33.) The one who announced the breaking in of the Good News of God’s reign turns out to be, in his very own person, the incarnation of God’s promise. The New Testament speaks of revelation as the making known of a mysterion (Rom. 16:25; Eph. 3:3-4; 6:19; Col. 1:27; 2:2; Mark 4:11). For Christian faith, this "mystery," hidden in God from all eternity, becomes most fully manifested in Jesus.(With Moltmann, however, we must emphasize that Jesus himself still has a future. So we do not need to interpret Jesus’ coming in history as though there is nothing left for us to hope for. If we see him as the fulfillment of the quest for revelation. it is not in a static sense, but as the one in whom we now orient ourselves toward the future.)

To Christian faith, Jesus himself is the primary sacrament of our encounter with the divine mystery of promise. To the Church, Jesus is the "Christ," the Word of God, God’s self-revelation. But what is the nature of revelation when viewed in terms of Jesus’ own personal experience? How did he apprehend the revelation of God? Difficult as it is to give confident answers to such questions as these, we must ask them here nonetheless. For it would seem that revelation has its proper origin in Jesus’ own consciousness of the arrival of God’s future.(The location of revelation centrally in the consciousness of Christ has been most explicitly highlighted by Gabriel Moran, Theology of Revelation (New York: Herder and Herder, 1966). Revelation, in the Christian sense at least, is born in the crucible of the Jewish mind, soul, and imagination of the man Jesus of Nazareth with his unique vision of the "reign of God."

Where did his powerful vision of this reign (or "kingdom") of God come from, and what does it reveal to us today? In asking such questions, we are of course also taking up once again the perennial theological quest for who Jesus really was and what possible meaning he might have for our lives. That is to say, we are entering into the area of Christology.(Recent Christian theology has increasingly placed Christology first in the order of theological disciplines, insinuating that we can have no more than a vague knowledge of God prior to an encounter with the man Jesus. The approach taken in this book, however, emphasizes the theological priority of a disclosure of mystery as the whence of revelation, prior to doing Christology. It seems that Christology is overburdened when it is forced to do all the work of mystagogy.) A Christian theology of revelation depends in a special way on the insights of this branch of theology. If it has not yet become evident to the reader, we must here emphasize that a theology of revelation embraces every other realm of the theological enterprise. It includes within itself contributions of all the other fields of theological inquiry. It is closely related to soteriology and pneumatology as well as Christology. And by identifying revelation with promise, we have already seen that it embraces eschatology as well. In the following chapter, moreover, we will observe that cosmic creation also may be interpreted as revelation. Its breadth, therefore, makes it logically misleading for us to list revelation simply as one theological category alongside others. It is a broad concept that includes, in some sense at least, the other divisions of theology as well.

But this comprehensiveness raises the question whether we can legitimately distinguish revelation theology from theology as such. Why have a distinct theology of revelation? Is not all Christian theology revelation theology? Why set revelation apart for special treatment? After all, during most of the Christian centuries, revelation received very little if any formal attention. It did not become a clearly distinct theme in theology until modern times. Apparently for the larger portion of its history, Christianity has been able to get along quite well without an explicitly formulated theology of revelation. So why do we need one now?

Not all theologians are of the opinion that we do. Some of them are reluctant today to speak of revelation because it seems to be too apologetic and particularist, especially in light of the plural nature of our religious situation. Others avoid the notion because it appears to exaggerate what faith can now perceive only dimly. They would prefer to use the notion of revelation only with reference to what we will experience eschatologically.(This is the position, for example, of F. Gerald Downing, Has Christianity a Revelation? (London: SCM Press, 1964) 239-90.) So far, they insist, nothing has been disclosed with sufficient clarity to qualify as revelation. Everything is still too cloudy and ambiguous. We must await the end of history in order truly to experience revelation.(Wolfhart Pannenberg is open to the notion of revelation provided that we understand it in the present as "indirect" revelation that awaits the full disclosure of God at the end of history. See the collection of essays Revelation as History, edited by Wolfhart Pannenberg, Rolf Rendtorff, Trutz Rendtorff, & Ulrich Wilkens, trans. David Granskou (New York: Macmillan, 1968). Until then it would be more modest and unassuming if we did not use the term at all. Others are embarrassed by the idea of revelation because it conjures up obsolete and scientifically unacceptable images of a supernatural world that comes down to us from another realm and arbitrarily interrupts the closed continuum of natural and secular reality. And still others find it problematic because their experience indicates no domain of mystery or sacred hiddenness from which any "unconcealment" or "unveiling" could possibly occur. Obviously, skeptical thinkers have serious reservations about the idea of revelation. But not even all Christian theologians are convinced that a special theology of revelation is helpful.

Still, while remaining sensitive to these objections to the concept of revelation, we must insist on its enduring appropriateness. Christian theology needs to have a special treatise on revelation if for no other reason than to emphasize the indispensable biblical doctrine of the prevenience of God’s promissory vision for our lives and the world.(This is the main theme of Ronald Thiemann’s controversial but helpful book, Revelation and Theology (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985). The awareness that God’s promise exceeds or outdistances anything we could ourselves construct is the very foundation of faith. There may be no better term than "revelation" to accentuate faith’s conviction that we ourselves are not the authors of the promise we live by. Were we to abandon the notion, as some have urged us to do, we would once again have to wonder whether there are any real reasons for our hope. Could the content of Christian faith then be construed as anything more than our own creation? For if revelation were taken to be no more than our psychic or social projections, our beliefs would surely lose their hold on us. If our images of God and the divine promises were seriously taken to be nothing more than religious or theological constructions,(As they are taken to be, it seems, by theologian Gordon Kaufmann, An Essay on Theological Method (Missoula: Scholars Press. 1975) they would forfeit their "otherness" and along with it their capacity to criticize and transform our situation. If we viewed our religious symbols as nothing but our own imaginative inventions, we would be forced to wonder whether we could really be challenged by them or whether we could take them at all seriously. A set of ideas or images that we suspected to be no more than an emanation of our own imaginative powers could hardly summon us to new life or to genuine hope, no matter how charming they may be. The idea of revelation points to the graciousness, extravagance, and surprisingness of a future that always lies somehow beyond our calculation and control, and that breaks into our midst with a form and content that has not been anticipated in its every aspect. It carries with it the implication that this future is always a judgment on the paltriness of our own aspirations. And so, by virtue of its having this character of prevenience, it is an indispensable notion for any theology that takes seriously the biblical theme of promise.

At the same time, however, we may be permitted to entertain reservations about some interpretations of revelation, such as that of Karl Barth and his followers, which make revelation so absolutely interruptive and "different" that it casts all of our natural aspirations in a suspicious light. Barth thinks of God’s word as so completely "other" than what we naturally long for, that when revelation bursts forth in Christ, it crushes all our former (perverse) longings and replaces them with new ones that were in no sense there before. Such a radical reading of revelation may at first sight seem to be quite appropriate in the face of our human frailty. The sinful distortions of our lives and consciousness twist and divert our longings and aspirations in such an idolatrous way that we are forced at times to distrust them completely. For that reason, the critiques of culture by Barth and other representatives of neo-orthodoxy should not be erroneously mistaken for fundamentalist retrenchment. Their call to attend to the element of judgment and new creation accompanying God’s word is an indispensable ingredient in any authentic theology of revelation.(See Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (London: Oxford University Press, 1972)

However, the neo-orthodox demand that we repudiate our natural hopes and imaginings is, in the final analysis, excessive. At heart it is an insult to the creativity of God and to the natural visionary capacity that sustains human existence. Official Christian teaching has consistently emphasized that creation is good and that this goodness exists as a permanent stratum of our own human existence as well, even in a sinful world. The propensity to dream, wish, and hope is an essential part of our creatureliness. To pull up by the roots and cast away as worthless our inborn visionary habits would be an act of violence toward the created order. If revelation brings something new and unanticipated, it must still somehow connect with the structure of our present expectations as well as with those of all the past generations of human searching. Otherwise, it would amount to a complete annihilation of our created being and consciousness. It would throw all previous history into utter futility. If revelation were to come to us without already having at least some resonance with the natural core of our longings it would hardly be the Good News we take it to be. What James Carpenter states about the neo-orthodox attribution of absolute novelty to Christ applies to the whole of revelation:

To posit the "absolutely new" in Christ . . . is to take him out of the context of life, to see him as having no part in human emergence, a non-participant in the created processes of existence. It is to divorce him from prior history and to separate him from all those in other religions who have had a little something to say about hope.(James A. Carpenter, Nature and Grace[New York: Crossroad, 1988] 92.)

Nevertheless, after voicing this reservation, it still seems correct to maintain that revelation does bring something new and unanticipated.(This does not contradict Schubert Ogden’s interpretation, endorsed above in Chapter 3, according to which special revelation is not something "more" than or in addition to what is called original revelation. The two are ontologically inseparable. Special revelation, however, has the character of novelty in that it is encountered in our finite, culturally relative historical and categorical existence. The mystery of God’s love and promise is always, ontologically speaking, fully present to the world, but in terms of our historical existence, it takes on the character of surprise and unpredictability.) Its promise awakens in us longings that, though they may already have been somehow present, were inactive or needed to be clarified, focused and purified. Revelation is a "disclosure" event in which we are confronted with a picture of reality which faith makes out to be the good news we have always been longing for but which we could never have conjured up all by ourselves out of our own ambiguous lives.(The argument of this book is that it is especially the image of God as self-emptying love that confronts us in this interruptive, yet deeply longed for, manner.) It is an essential theological notion because it expresses our sense that the imagery of faith places what we may hope for in a continually new light. It has the power to make sense of things in ways that would be historically impossible without its intervening images of our future. The theme of revelation brings out how faith can help us see things in an ever wider and deeper perspective. It is this illuminative aspect of faith that a theology of revelation seeks to make explicit. It is faith’s discernment of a new vision of reality that encourages us to think of revelation as a distinct theological theme, though certainly not unrelated to the other branches of theology.

What native Americans, such as the Sioux Indians, refer to as a "vision quest" is to some degree representative of the longings of our common humanity. Built into us there is a profound appetite for "vision." We long to see things more and more clearly, truthfully, and meaningfully. "Vision" means the imaginative representation of meaning, truth, and, above all, beauty. Beauty, in turn, refers to a "harmony of contrasts" Our natural quest for a continually wider beauty is a most important aspect of our vision quest. We have a natural instinct for adventurously widening our horizons, expanding our picture of reality’s beauty, and for continually heightening our vista’s contrast and harmony. We are born with creative imaginations that seek to bring increasingly more nuanced harmony into the sweep of our awareness by way of a continually broader variety of symbols, images, and metaphors.

This visionary capacity is given with our existence and cannot be eradicated without great stress to our constitution. Satisfaction of our longing for "vision" is essential to human vitality. But at the same time, experience instructs us that we have strong inclinations to acquiesce in unnecessarily narrow and mediocre images of the future. As Whitehead says, we tend to substitute a sketch for the whole picture.(Alfred North Whitehead. "Mathematics and the Good," in Paul A. Schillp, ed., The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead [Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1941] 679.) Our desire for order and harmony can smother our need for breadth of contrast and novelty. This is the same tendency that leads sacramental religion toward idolatry. We often try to exclude the contrast that makes for wider vision,(Today such exclusiveness may take the form of a refusal to encounter the challenging plurality of religions, thus narrowing our understanding of revelation and forfeiting opportunities for a widening of our notion of the mystery of God.) and so we remain content with excessive rigidity, settling for a harmony without contrast, order without nuance, and unity without complexity. It is in opposition to this complacency that Jesus introduced his disturbing vision of the kingdom of God. His religious faith and awareness are marked especially by an intense longing to expand our purview of human life and of reality as a whole. This concern for breadth of vision appeared especially in his words and parables about the dynamic "reign of God."

Just how disturbing, but also promising, his vision of the reign of God was can be brought out in a fresh way if we interpret it in terms of the four interrelated modalities required by any integral religious vision. In order to be receptive to the revelation of mystery, religious faith must have sacramental, mystical, silent, and active ingredients. If any of these is exaggerated at the expense of others, or if any one of them recedes too far into the background, distortions will appear that either diminish or deny the reality of mystery. The revelation of mystery, we have been emphasizing, requires our careful cultivation of all four ingredients of religion. And when mystery takes the shape of promise, as it does in biblical religion, then hope, the Bible’s characteristic response to mystery, must also balance all four ways according to its own logic.

Jesus’ repertoire of images of the kingdom, his habit of presenting what we can hope for in the idiom of parables of God’s reign, is an exceptional illustration of these four revelatory aspects of religion. We shall focus on the sacramental, mystical, silent, and active aspects of his proclamation of the reign of God. In this way we may be able to link his teachings to the wider world of religious revelation, while at the same time bringing out their freshness and distinctiveness.

Before doing so, however, it may be useful for us briefly to expand on our earlier suggestion that the religious posture of hope in God’s promise embodies the four ways of religion, and that the failure to integrate all of them leads to the perversion of hope.(See Chapter 5.) In the first place, hope has to come to expression in quite specific and concrete sacramental images in order to connect with present reality and thereby to avoid the docetic and gnostic temptations to escape from the present altogether. But if our fixation on a particular imagery is too exclusivist, then our sense of the future decays into a restrictive obsession with the sheer givenness of things. This narrowness rules out the attainment of wider vision. It turns into an idolatry of the present or past, and it is content to live without the tension and challenge of a new and surprising future. On the other hand, a healthy hope is willing to entertain a wide variety of images of the future. We shall see that this is one of the remarkable features of Jesus’ religious imagination. Genuine hope allows our vision to expand to the point of an inclusiveness that takes into account the future of those other than ourselves, indeed of the whole of creation. It avoids fixation on particular symbols that would end up shrinking our sense of the future to a size too small for our deepest aspirations. We may understand the Spirit of Christ as the power that seeks to extend to the ends of creation and its future this all-inclusiveness.

Hope is also mystical. It is mystical in the sense that it seeks union with, and longs to be lost in, the futurity of God. If it blossoms to maturity it surrenders to an "absolute future." (Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, Vol. VI, 59-68. Jesus and the Vision 113) But if the mystical component of hope (its experience of union with this absolute future) becomes disengaged from a specific sacramental context, or if it ignores the requirement of present praxis and the necessity of silent, patient waiting for God’s future, it shrivels into sheer reverie. The mystical aspect of hope then turns into a premature flight from the world of the present. It abandons earthy imagery and worldly reality too early, and this forfeiture amounts to a gnostic denigration of creation. Hope withers when it loses its connection to nature, to time and place, and to the need for action here and now. It turns into an escapism that leaves the present and past world out of the picture of promise. We should note that Jesus’ imagining of the reign of God remains closely connected to the earth and the mundane. It does not yield to mysticism’s characteristic temptation of flight, but remains tied up with the sacramental, silent and transformative ingredients of hope. It seeks the establishment of God’s reign on earth as well as in heaven. It invites patience as well as action.

Hope also has an apophatic dimension. It entertains a justifiable suspicion that its images of promise are always inadequate. Thus it is at times reduced to silence out of respect for the unpredictability of the shape the future will actually take. Because of our petty pictures of reality’s possibilities, it makes us seal our lips in the manner of Job and occasionally quiet our imaginations and thoughts in the fashion of all so-called "negative" theology. It is aware that only God can present to us our true destiny. The apophatic instinct arises out of hope’s concern for breadth, for a wider beauty and perfection than that encompassed by our current visions of utopia. Genuine hope brings with it an intuition that none of our present imaginings could ever adequately represent the full graciousness, extravagance, and surprisingness of the mysterious future we call God. Therefore, it is willing to undergo an asceticism whereby it renounces fixation on any particular human images of the future and opens itself to God’s vision of the world’s possibilities. The need for renunciation in the interest of breadth is one of the main features of Jesus’ own teaching. He speaks, for example, about the need to subordinate our own desires to God’s will, and about the importance of watchfulness in place of calculations: "You know not the day nor the hour."

But there is also a danger hidden in the apophatic side of hope. We may, out of frustration, turn vengefully against all images of the perfection we seek. An exaggerated hesychasm may either decay into an absurd silence, or it may experiment with such a wild array of images, discarding one after another, that it leads to despair. Apocalyptic projections manifest the longing for an undreamed of future, but the chaos of apocalyptic imagmy sometimes stops just short of confusion. If it were not still tethered to the sacramentality of present experience, and to the mystical and active aspects of hope, it could easily pass over the border to an anarchical hatred of present reality. Such transgressions have occurred more than once in the history of religion and Christianity. Here again it is worth noting that Jesus’ preaching, though it shared aspects of apocalyptic expectation, avoided the extreme of world hatred to which this genre is at times disposed.

Finally, genuine hope also requires an element of praxis, a need to be embodied in transformative action in the world. Hope is empty unless it leads to cooperative action that tries to make the vision of God’s future more explicit and sacramentally present in our world here and now. The heirs to biblical faith have often overlooked the prophetic call to social justice. Indeed, a case may be made that the major religious failing of Western theism has been its slighting and even repressing the summons to action central to the prophets’ teaching. Without the doing of justice in the present, it is questionable whether we can experience much of the revelation of God’s future. There can be no full verification of revelation apart from the wager of direct involvement in the praxis of the reign of God.

Still, like the other three elements of religion and hope, the way of action is also subject to its own peculiar kind of temptation. In the case of action, a possible failing is impatience. An activism divorced from sacramentalism, mysticism, and silence may attempt to seize the mysterious and incalculable mystery of the future and make it a present possession subject to human control. In doing so, it will inevitably shrink hope down to the level of mere planning. Planning is essential, but it does not exhaust the meaning of hope. For hope also has sacramental, mystical, and silent aspects that open us to the self-disclosure of an unfathomable future. Genuine hope points our social existence toward an ever wider vision. It makes us aware of the narrowness of all our current images of the future. Hope is most authentic when it displays a capacity, when necessary, simply to wait in silent expectation. It is healthiest when it sustains a balance of all four religious ingredients.

Jesus as the Revelation of God’s Promise

Jesus’ life and his teachings about the reign of God give evidence of this balance. In his person as well as in his vivid images of the kingdom, Jesus sacramentalizes the compassionate God whose promise is coming to fulfillment. In his urgent vision of the unity of humanity with God, presented especially by John, we see the mystical side of his hope. In his continually turning his will, his longings, and his future over to God we observe the apophatic tendency of his hope. And in his connecting the reign of God to our present praxis of justice, thereby subordinating ritual to justice and piety to caring for the poor, he links hope to action. In sum, the life and words of this remarkable man open up the mystery of the future to his followers in such a radical fashion that he functions for them as the very revelation of God.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus opens his ministry with these words: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel" (1:15). When placed within the context of expectation that runs from Abraham through the prophets, Jesus’ announcement that the time is now fulfilled is indeed dramatic. It implies nothing less than that the absolute and unsurpassable future promised by God from the beginning is now entering into our life in a decisive way.(See G. R. Beasley-Murray, Jesus and the Kingdom of God [Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s. 1986] 73.) What is noteworthy here is how Jesus links his own anticipation of the arrival of God’s future to the contemporary standards of expectation that he inherited from his culture. In interpreting God’s promise, he does not uproot previous patterns of hope but instead seeks to transform the traditional images of Israel’s understanding of its prospects. He came not to destroy but to fulfill.

There is, however, an apparent impatience in Jesus’ declaration that the long-awaited kingdom is now at hand. We have seen that one of the temptations of all religions is that of a refusal to wait patiently for the fullness of mystery to disclose itself. Such a refusal can lead to a shrinking of the transcendent into the narrowness of our own contemporary designs. Judaism stands forth to this day as a powerful witness to our need to wait in hope until the time is ripe for the messianic age, which to Jewish faith has not yet arrived. During the Jewish Passover meal these words are still uttered: "I shall wait resolutely for the coming of the Messiah. And even though he tarry, yet shall I wait for him." Theologian Paul Tillich emphasizes this point about waiting: "We are stronger when we wait than when we possess."(Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, 151.) Is it possible then that the eschatological teachings of Jesus violate this imperative to wait? Is there too much impatience in his message? And, moreover, is there perhaps a premature closure of history in Christian faith’s identification of Jesus as the conclusive fulfillment of God’s ageless promises?(Moltmann says: "The existence of the Jews again and again forces Christians to the knowledge that they are not yet at the goal, that their church is itself not the goal, but that with eschatological provisionality and brotherly openness they remain on the way. The Experiment Hope, 66.)

These are difficult questions, and they can only be addressed inadequately here. For Jesus, however, it is clear that the time is always ripe for the coming of the kingdom. The kingdom, which stands for the reign of justice and peace, is needed at every moment of history, if for no other reason than that people are suffering. "All life is suffering" is the First Noble Truth of Buddhism. And Jesus shares with the Buddha a compassionate desire to cut right to the heart of human suffering and to eliminate it as soon as possible. If this is impatience it is not the sort that diminishes the divine. Rather, it is an impatience that grows out of profound contemporary compassion for the abandoned, the poor, and the lost. If anything is clear in the gospels, it is that the pain of others vehemently violates Jesus’ sensitivity. And to Christian faith, his deeply human caring stands sacramentally for the ultimate caringness of God. In its all-inclusiveness it opens us up to a vision far wider than our own efforts and plans could allow.

The Buddha’s departure from previous religious and theological patterns was the consequence of his profound longing to eliminate suffering as soon as possible. And in the case of Jesus, we would hardly be stretching things if we surmised that his own reshaping of religious and eschatological expectation was the result quite simply of his own exceptionally intense compassion for the needy, the poor, the outcasts, the guilt-ridden. and the forgotten whom he encountered every day. His longing to remove their misery compelled him to announce that the God of Moses, who long ago had heard the Hebrew people’s loud outcries and had responded to them, was now once again near at hand and ready to rescue the people from their pain. It is Jesus’ special discernment of human tribulation that makes his proclamation seem to be a bit "impatient."

When he stood up to read the Isaiah scroll at the beginning of his ministry (Luke 4:16-21), Jesus announced that the time of liberation for all who are imprisoned in any way had dawned on "this very day." Christian faith has deciphered in this man’s exceptional outpouring of empathy for the poor, the captives, the abandoned, and the sick, the consummate entrance of an ultimate love and mercy into our world. In our experience of Jesus’ compassion, we experience the compassion of God. If there is something "impatient" about all of this on Jesus’ part, it is an impatience born of compassion and not out of a will to control the mystery of the future.

In fact, the empathy evident in Jesus’ life, action, and teaching does, after all, require at its roots a profound religious patience with respect to our social, political, and economic schemes. What the gospel, as well as the teaching of all the prophets, rejects is the kind of impatience we find in most social planning. Such planning seeks to establish a smooth, unblemished order as quickly as possible. But almost inevitably when we begin to implement our envisagements of the ideal social arrangement, we end up excluding some groups and individuals whose presence in our system keeps it from running as effortlessly as we would like. The homeless, the insane, the non-conformists, and the economically disadvantaged tend to mess things up, and so we ignore their presence. In Jesus’ vision, though, no arrangements are ideal or adequate until and unless they have included all segments of society and have not left any groups or individuals out of the picture. Since such an arrangement has not yet appeared, and since it will never be perfectly approximated on the plane of pure history, Jesus’ "impatient" eschatology shows how far the fullness of God’s future is yet from complete realization. By his being such a radical departure from our ordinary accommodation to suffering and injustice, Jesus prophetically sets forth our future possibilities. He demonstrates that an impatience born of compassion does not conflict with, but actually supports, the apophatic posture of patience and concern for breadth essential to all authentic religion and hope.

Furthermore, the religious temptation to flee impatiently from history is also offset by the sacramentality of Jesus’ teaching, especially in the parables. Jesus typically employs earthy, mundane, and natural images to communicate the intensity of his hope. He discerns a religious depth in such simple realities as the anticipation accompanying the sowing of seed. The promise hidden within the inauspicious origins of a mustard tree gives him an image of the disproportionality between present reality and the full flowering of God’s future. But Jesus tempers such sacramentalism, in turn, with an apophatic posture of patience. In the interest of breadth, his vision of the kingdom, as exemplified in his parable of the sower and the seed, demands that our own trust put down its roots deeply into the ground and that we be wary of the shallowness of any too-hasty sprouting. He urges us also to allow the weeds to grow together with the wheat, and to avoid any premature harmony and "purity" at the expense of the nuance and complexity of the full harvest of God’s vision. He does not try to separate the just from the unjust, but sees God’s goodness and compassion encompassing both.

Finally, his parables are also invitations to action in the present. They announce the breaking in of God’s future, and they call us to a metanoia, to a transformation of our lives into vehicles of the spirit of inclusiveness that refuses to leave things the way they are. The balance of sacramentality, mystical openness to the future as God’s future, silent waiting, and vigorous action ensures the revelatory power and religious integrity of his gospel of hope.

Especially noteworthy in Jesus’ life and teaching is the announcement of what we are calling, in the terminology of Whitehead, the "wider vision." It is worth quoting in full here the famous philosopher’s enunciation of what he took to be authentic religion:

Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.(Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 190-91)

Jesus’ personal sense of the present and coming reign of God is an opening to and revelation of this wider vision. He does not seek to uproot our natural instincts and desires but only to direct them toward a wider fulfillment. In his parables of the kingdom, we observe a blending of the most familiar imagery with a summons to an unimaginable breadth of vision and hope. His religion is not one that encourages withdrawal from the world of our senses. Instead, it seeks to extend the sensuality and earthiness of our experience toward a divine mystery that embraces all things. Jesus requires a kind of renunciation, not for its own sake, but only for the purpose of allowing ourselves to be embraced by a wider and eternal panorama. It is not a puritanical, spiritual athleticism that he prescribes, but an asceticism of the future that opens us to the enjoyment of a wider vision. What he asks us to renounce is not our enjoyment of the good things of this world, but our failure both to share this enjoyment with the poor and to imagine and trust in the infinity of goodness and compassion that transcends and grounds the good world.

In order to keep his vision of God’s future connected to present reality, Jesus’ teachings employ a vivid imagery based on the worldly experience of his day. Although there is considerable controversy among New Testament scholars about the authenticity of many of the sayings and teachings of Jesus himself, there is little doubt about his passion for proclaiming the nearness of the reign of God. The image of a reign or kingdom, we can readily observe, is a very worldly one. The practice of embodying the sense of promise in such secular imagery as a basileia is thoroughly Jewish, thoroughly worldly, and at the same time thoroughly religious. Jesus’ teachings about the dynamic "rule" of God consistently make reference to present reality. His parables take as their symbolic basis not only natural occurrences but also the social, domestic, political, and economic realities that shaped the lives of his contemporaries. In his sacramentalism of the reign of God, he refers to fathers and sons, to kings and servants, to the use and abuse of money, and to many other purely "secular" realities. "The reign of God is like . . ." is an expression he uses often. And it is remarkable how, in his articulation of what it is "like," he employs the most pedestrian of characters and locates them in the most commonplace of circumstances. This sacramental style is indicative of one who did not despise the earth but who loved it dearly. While he was deeply disturbed about the injustice and poverty that prevailed, he did not seek a future that would have no roots in or consequences for present realities.

At the same time, however, Jesus’ imagining of the kingdom pulls us and our world beyond the mere givenness of the present. It exhibits a deep discontent with tbe status quo. Jesus’ profound mystical and apophatic sense of divine love and the otherness of God’s compassionate plan for the world give his teaching a critical dimension that unsettles all who invest too much in the way things are. His intuition of a wider vision continually demands that the present stretch itself to include the unprecedented novelty of God’s reign. He is especially sensitive to how the social conditions of his time tended to crush the life and self-esteem Out of entire groups of people. This situation, rooted in both the political and religious ideology of his time, was intolerable to him. And so his most powerful teachings were directed at those conditions that bring misery and hopelessness to so many.

The social situation in which Jesus lived was one in which a distinctively Jewish identity had to be constructed in the face of constant pressures to become assimilated into the Roman Empire.(For the following see Marcus Borg, Jesus: A New Vision [San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987] 79-96.) In order to resist this pressure, several religious alternatives for affirming one’s Jewishness were proposed by such groups as the Essenes, Sadducees, Pharisees, and Zealots. Each of them offered a "way" of solidifying Jewish identity so that it would not be absorbed into the Roman culture. However, in order to follow any of these "ways," specific rules and regulations had to be followed closely. Only in this manner could one prove that he or she fully belonged to a particular religious sect or political faction. At times the requirements for membership in such an affiliation were so exacting that many who were financially poor, or mentally, intellectually, or physically impaired, or who felt morally disqualified, could not participate in any of the dominant religious groupings. Consequently, they were unable to take advantage of the cultural and sub-cultural opportunities for gaining a sense of personal and social significance that were available to the more fortunate "belongers." They inevitably felt left out of any respectable "system," and therefore were especially vulnerable to the feeling of shame. These were the outcasts, the poor, the abandoned, the despised, or the "sinners," those who did not "belong." They were what today’s sociological terminology would brand the "marginalized."

It was especially to such people as these that Jesus announced his Good News concerning the reign of God. In addressing his gospel to those who were not only in but also outside the various systems, he indicated that religious boundaries now had to be stretched beyond what was conventional. In fact, there could no longer be any social or religious demarcations at all that would elevate one group to superiority over others. All alike are God’s children. Unlike the sectarians who had made membership dependent upon fulfilling religious, ritualistic, political, or economic prerequisites, Jesus’ wider vision of the kingdom was expansive enough to include all, even the excommunicated. It was not necessary for those abandoned by society to fulfill any special social or religious conditions in order to belong to the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus. In Luke’s gospel Jesus says: "It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (12:32) Here the emphasis is probably on the word "give," indicating the absolute gratuity of God’s gift, and that one does not have to earn one’s deliverance by fulfilling a list of obligations.

Both in word and action Jesus attempted to convince his disenfranchised listeners of their unconditional worth. "Blessed are you poor," he proclaims in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. And at the beginning of his public ministry he says, "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor" (Luke 4:18). Jesus understood his public vocation to be that of announcing the limitless breadth of the divine vision. Only as such can we understand his passion for extending the circle of religious and social belonging. Thus his parables teach the all-inclusive nature of the future reign of God that is now dawning.

Moreover, his own life embodies in action what he proclaims in word. He becomes a living parable of inclusiveness and belonging, especially in his table-fellowship with sinners and rejected people. In Jesus’ culture, sharing a meal -- and especially a banquet -- with someone was a highly charged symbol of acceptance of that person. And so when he sat down to eat with tax-collectors, prostitutes, and other non-belongers, and with Pharisees and wealthy too, he clearly signaled God’s unconditional acceptance of them all.

The revolutionary implications of this parabolic speech and behavior have yet to be thought Out fully, much less applied in real life. Many different images and concepts are required to unfold it. We are merely suggesting here that the Whiteheadian notion of a "wider vision" goes some way toward interpreting the revelatory meaning of Jesus’ consciousness and action. Jesus’ inclusive images of the kingdom and his mission to seek out those who are lost in order to make them part of the wider picture is, to Christian faith, the vehicle of God’s revelation. By making room for the incongruous, the unqualified, and the disparate within the dimensions of a single religious society under God’s fatherhood, Jesus’ words and actions shatter all conventional views of human reality. His proclamation of the reign of God requires the painful dismantling of all non-inclusive arrangements of social and religious reality. In our own time, there are at least some efforts to include women, ethnic minorities, the homeless, and other previously repressed and excluded minorities as fully belonging to social and religious circles. Jesus’ teachings and actions on behalf of the kingdom surely support such endeavors, and we can hardly expect to experience his Spirit today apart from our own involvement in such processes leading toward complete inclusiveness.

But where did this incorporative vision of Jesus come from? Ultimately, we must surmise that it came from his own unique experience of sacred mystery. Just when his sense of an all-inclusive reign of God was solidified we cannot say. Was it when he was still a child? When he was alone in the desert? When he was baptized by John? During his episodes of prayer in lonely places? We simply do not know for sure. What does seem certain, scholars generally agree today, is that the distinctive character of Christian revelation bears a close relationship to Jesus’ unique experience of God as "abba" (usually translated as "father" but expressive of the deepest familiarity and trust). The term "abba" was in Jesus’ day apparently used as an intimate and familiar address to elders in whose presence one felt completely secure. In Jesus’ use of this religiously unusual appellation, he showed that for him the ultimate character of mystery is nothing other than the most intimate and inclusive love. His sense of God as "abba" is the font that nourishes his vision of the kingdom as well as his own inclusive actions. We may infer then that Christian revelation begins to receive its own specific shape in Jesus’ consciousness of God as "abba."

The point of Christology, as Schubert Ogden has clarified, is not so much to tell us who Jesus is as it is to tell us who God is.(Schubert Ogden, The Point of Christology (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982) 20-40.) Or to put it in terms of the present book, its point is to clarify for us what the ultimate character of mystery is like. Humanity’s religious quest, with its innumerable sacramental representations of incomprehensible mystery, receives a unique answer in Jesus’ revelation of God as "abba." And when the New Testament poses the question "who is this man?" or "who do you say the Son of Man is?," the point is not to have us focus on Jesus as much as on the mystery whose character his life and teaching are revealing to us. The point of our dwelling on Jesus as the Christ, then, is to bring us to a clear sense of the meaning of the mystery of God revealed in him. Perhaps nowhere does the character of this promising mystery present itself more graciously, extravagantly, and surprisingly than in Jesus’ exhortation to think of God as "abba."

Cross and Resurrection

According to Christian faith, the Jesus who was crucified early in the first century now lives. Indeed, his life -- according to Paul and John -- is our own life. Jesus’ resurrection means that he is still present to us, no less than to his disciples who gathered in Jerusalem and Galilee after his death on the cross. And the life that he has now with us in the Spirit is our access to the ultimate mystery he called "abba." God’s promise and the world’s own aspiration toward a new vision come together in the Jesus who is now risen from the dead. His resurrection is the promise on which Christian hope is based. But as Carl Braaten says, "The resurrection as an event is not only a basis of hope in the future; it is the power of the future becoming present now. . . ." The resurrection" . . . not only points to the future; it is the future entering the present."(Carl Braaten, Christ and Counter-Christ [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972] 50.) Thus, because it is the definitive (though not conclusive) arrival of the mystery of the future, for Christian faith the resurrection is, in its inseparability from the Cross, the central event of revelation.

The articulation of Christian belief throughout the ages confesses that in Jesus there exists the very reality of a God become human. Ultimately, therefore, the unfolding of Christian faith leads to the unanticipated and indeed scandalous conclusion that, in Jesus, the Godhead took up our own struggles and aspirations, suffered frustration, and experienced all that it means to be a finite human being who suffers and dies. The content of revelation includes at its very core the idea of a self-humbling God who experiences suffering and death in the crucifixion of Jesus.(Dermot Lane remarks: "It is difficult for us today to understand a love that is not capable of some form of empathy, sympathy and suffering. From a purely human point of view, a love that does not suffer is somehow something less than love. It was this kind of love, the love that suffers out of love, that was revealed in the passion and death of Jesus on the cross." Christ at the Center [New York, Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1990] 72.) And yet, the other side of this self-gift is resurrection. In the resurrection is prefigured the prospect of a future for the cosmos, for humans, and, we may even say, for God.

Jesus died as a sacrifice to an all-inclusive vision of the world’s future. But in spite of this death, the vision still lives on in the Spirit. The cross is followed by resurrection. And the Spirit of God in Christ remains alive in our midst. We can detect the reality of this Spirit most vividly in present social, political, environmental, and religious movements that seek the full inclusion and unity of those beings and persons who have been left out by our restrictive social, political, economic, environmental, and religious practices. We become vehicles of this Spirit and its vision whenever we ourselves live a life of concern for social and religious unity and inclusiveness (and as we shall emphasize later, a concern also for reconciliation with the natural world).

The seeking out, embracing, and including of the lost and forgotten is the main thrust of Jesus’ life and teaching. Such a life requires the renunciation of any special or separate status on the part of the includer. As long as the one who initiates the act of inclusion insists on preserving a special status there can really be no inclusion or relationship of empathy after all. We cannot really embrace others as on an equal footing with ourselves unless we forfeit any attempts to define ourselves as more privileged than they. What allowed Jesus to attract to himself so many of those lacking social or religious credentials is his self-effacing desire to exist alongside of them rather than above them. Though he clearly exemplified moral excellence, he never condemned those who lived immorally, but regarded them as partaking of his own sonship with his heavenly Father. The gospels portray him as resisting all temptations to privilege, and this renunciation allowed outcasts to approach him and to belong to his open circle without fear. It was a posture that eventually led him to his death on the cross.

But if Jesus is the sacrament of God’s own reality, as Christian faith teaches, we must conclude once again that the essential content of revelation is nothing other than the kenosis of God that opens up the future to an all-inclusive vision promised in the resurrection. What finally becomes manifest in Jesus, and especially in his death, is that the promising mystery that embraces our world is. at heart, utterly self-emptying love. Eberhard Jüngel writes that:

[S]hortly after his death, Jesus himself was proclaimed as the nearness of God, and as the Son of God. Faith in God, which Jesus had made possible in a new way, now became valid as faith in Jesus Christ. After his death, Jesus was no longer only the witness to faith in God. Like God himself, he had become the object of faith.

Then Jüngel adds that faith in God did not end with the flight of the disciples after Jesus’ death:

There arose faith in Jesus. And faith’s own explanation for this is that God had revealed his glory through the dead Jesus. The nearness of God’s rule, that which had determined Jesus’ earthly life, that to which he appealed and cried out in his death, showed itself to be immediately present in the death of Jesus. This was the experience of the Easter-faith, and it was this that men had to experience: in death, the Proclaimer and the content of his proclamation have become identical. The Proclaimer has now himself become the Proclaimed. Thus faith’s own ground and presupposition for faith in Jesus is God’s identification with him in his death.(Eberhard Jüngel, Death: The Riddle and the Mystery, trans. by Iain and Ute Nicol [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974] 107-08.)

By identifying with the dead Christ, God experiences the negativity, the alienation, the relationlessness of death. But in God’s self-emptying identification with a dead man, there is also the unassailable reality of an eternal love that promises victory over death. Death means essentially a state of relationlessness, but the love of God expressed in the unbroken divine relationship to a dead man overcomes the alienation. As Jüngel goes on to say,

To be for someone means to stand in relationship with him. However, when God’s relationship to us remains unbroken even in death, when he identifies himself with the dead Jesus in order to demonstrate his gracious concern for all men through the crucified One, then out of the midst of the relationlessness of death there emerges a new relationship between God and man. And we must be careful to note that this new relationship of God to man consists in God himself bearing the relationlessness of death which alienates man from him. It is when relationships are broken, when the relationships between men are ruptured that God takes up man’s cause. As pledging himself for man in this way, God reveals his very being. By identifying himself with the dead Jesus of Nazareth to the benefit of all men, he reveals himself to finite man as a being of infinite love. For it is when everything has become relationless that love alone creates new relationships. When all relationships have been broken, only love can create new ones.(Ibid., 109-10.)

The historical life that Jesus lived was clearly one devoted to the overcoming of relationlessness. The sense of not belonging, of being unaccepted by the social, ethical, and religious requirements of his times led him to identify in a special way with the outcasts in order to give them a new and more secure sense of relationship, and therefore of life. But even while Jesus’ chief passion was to restore broken relationships, he himself became increasingly the victim of efforts to break his relationship to the world. And in his own death by crucifixion, Jesus himself died the death of an outcast abandoned even by those who had been closest to him. He experienced the very depths of relationlessness.

Relationship, as we now see more clearly in the emergence of ecological consciousness, is the substance of all being and of life itself. Without relationship among entities -- whether at the levels of matter, life, or persons (and in Trinitarian terms, of God also) -- there is simply no reality. This is why death is so abhorrent. For it means the loss of relationship, the experience of being cut off from life, loved ones, and seemingly of God, too. In the Hebrew Scriptures, death is clearly seen as a state of being estranged from one’s people, from participation in the promise, and also from God. God is a God of the living, and the dead no longer appear to have a relationship to the God of life.

Christian faith discerns in Jesus’ death, that is, in an event of utterly broken relationship, the revelation of God’s eternal love and its power to restore relationship. The resurrection then is grounded in the love of God entering into and appropriating relationlessness so as to overcome it. Revelation is the disclosure of the self-humbling of God and with it the promise of ultimate reconciliation and unity that arises out of the unbrokenness of the love that gives itself away completely and by doing so manifests itself as the ground of all life and relationship.

(To emphasize the utter self-givingness of God does not in any way mean that God is unreceptive to, or unaffected by our own love in return. Critiques of the residually patriarchal motifs in the notion of "unilateral" love need to be heeded. The idea of self-giving must be understood in a relational sense, in which case the self-emptying includes the act of making oneself "dependent" upon the love of others. As Schubert Ogden and other process theologians, following Charles Hartshorne, have convincingly shown, the "absoluteness" of God is not jeopardized by attributing to God the notes of relatedness, or vulnerability, to the "other." God’s eminence or absoluteness consists precisely of God’s being the most related of all realities. God’s own relatedness is relative to nothing; that is to say, it is absolute. Viewed in this context, the self-humbling love of God is not intended to obliterate, but to render significant our own loving of God in return. See Ogden, The Reality of God, 47-70.)