Chapter: 7 Reason and Revelation

The Revelation of God in History
by John F. Haught

Chapter: 7 Reason and Revelation

Throughout the preceding chapters I have repeatedly emphasized the promissory nature of revelation. Revelation is fundamentally God’s self-revelation. But the infinite mystery we call God can be received by us only as promise. Promise is both the content and the context of revelation. The limited, finite character of ours and the world’s existence cannot receive the infinite in a single receptive moment. Thus God’s reality (and, therefore, revelation also) cannot be adequately contained by the present or the past, but is located primarily in the realm of futurity. Revelation, in the words of Wolfhart Pannenberg, is the "arrival of the future." And the "arrival" of God, whose essence is "futurity," is experienced presently in the mode of promise. The God of the Bible always addresses us out of the inexhaustible "newness" of the future. And this means that our present religious consciousness must assume the distinctive attitude of radical openness to the future if it is to be properly receptive of revelation. This attitude is called hope.

But is hope in God’s promise of an ultimately fulfilling future a realistic attitude for us to take? We must finally ask more explicitly than we have up to this point what every reader of this book has probably also asked at times along the way: is not the so-called revelation of a self-giving, liberating and unconditionally loving divine mystery likely to be just another example of wishful thinking? How can it all be true? Does not revelation seem a bit implausible? Without throwing reason to the wind can we honestly think that God speaks to us in history out of an open-ended future of promise? Can an intelligent or "enlightened" person honestly accept the notion that our life is not the one-sided affair of which we spoke in the opening pages?

The idea of revelation in history is intrinsically bound up with Western theistic religious traditions. It is not surprising, then, that as theism has been seriously challenged in the last three centuries so also the idea of revelation has been attacked as equally unrealistic. Ever since the scientific revolution and the age of reason began to dominate the intellectual life of the West there have been important thinkers who have challenged as unscientific and irrational both the idea of God and the notion of revelation. And especially since the eighteenth century even some theologians have doubted that we need the notion of revelation, especially since the natural world seems sufficient evidence of the existence and nature of God. For several centuries the notion of revelation in history has been the subject of a controversy that is still far from resolution.

A significant component of the context out of which the problem of revelation has arisen is what may be called "critical consciousness." This is a modern kind of mentality which tends to be distrustful of any understanding based on "authority" alone or that takes place without the endorsement of reason and especially of scientifically enlightened reason. We live in an age of criticism and its attendant questioning of any symbolic religious awareness. Criticism thrives in the universities of the world today, and it has deeply affected popular culture as well. Its demands and criteria, though often diluted, are spread abroad everywhere. Indeed we might say that criticism is the "spirit" of the intellectual component of our culture.

So imperious have been the demands of critical consciousness in the intellectual communities of the West that today many theologians spend most of their professional time and energy attempting to deal with it. And it is especially the idea of revelation that seems to be at stake. In order to accommodate the spirit of criticism and its skepticism about "revealed" knowledge some theologians themselves seem to have surrendered the notion of revelation as hopelessly irretrievable today. Or in their efforts to please the princes of criticism they may seem to have divested revelation of those very qualities of authoritativeness "otherness" and "impossibility" that believers consider indispensable to any revealed knowledge. We must face the fact that in theology today there is much controversy and confusion about the value and verity of the notion of revelation. And much of the confusion occurs as a result of our not knowing quite how to deal with critical consciousness.

Facing "Reality"

What is the goal of this critical consciousness? What is it searching after? And why does it have such a strong appeal? In general we can say quite directly that critical consciousness is characterized by a noble passion for objectivity and truth. Its suspicion of authority, of piety, of faith of all sorts, stems from its interest in being objective and from its cognizance of the capricious tendencies of human subjectivity. It is aware of how easily the human mind is led astray by our biases and wishes, and so it seeks to find the truth independently of every human desire except the desire to know reality. For that reason it esteems "detached" and "disinterested" methods of knowing which seemingly exclude the involvement of persons in the knowing process. Its conviction is that by such an "objective" method our minds will be put more closely in touch with "reality" than would be possible by any sort of "faith" or personal knowledge.

But what exactly is meant here by reality? If our concern is to be realistic, then we must have some assumptions both about what constitutes reality and how we go about putting ourselves in touch with it. What we are calling "critical consciousness" must itself be governed by such assumptions. What are they? Any attempt to test whether hoping in a divine revelatory promise is a realistic posture of consciousness must begin by examining such assumptions.

"Critical consciousness" seems to entail a conviction that our ideas are in touch with the real world only if they pass the test of being "verifiable" or "falsifiable" according to methods of observation that are publicly accessible. Its understandable distrust of the ideas and fantasies we are capable of constructing either out of the privacy of selfhood or out of group bias has led it to impugn all ideas that resist some sort of public or communal verification. The methods of logical deduction and induction, and especially scientific method, seem to possess a neutrality and public accessibility that makes them apt measuring rods for the veracity of our ideas. These apparently impersonal methods seem to allow for a minimum of subjective involvement, of taking things for granted, and of flights of fancy. By eliminating as far as possible the element of personal involvement, it seems that our consciousness will more readily open itself without distortive filters to the real world outside our minds. It is little wonder that critical consciousness has enshrined scientific method, with its ideals of detachment and disinterestedness, as its central model for reality-testing.

Such a way of testing the validity of many propositions is unquestionably appropriate. However, there is a logic and a view of reality (what philosophers call a "metaphysics") operative in the realm of revelatory promise and hope that is deeply resistant to the demands of critical consciousness as it is usually understood. Criticism, after all, operates in the realm of the predictable and the probable, of what is plausible according to science and ordinary human experience. It can accept as valid only that for which there are already analogies and precedents that "objective" science can decipher. It works by taking large numbers of identical occurrences and making generalizations from them. A completely novel, unpredictable or unique occurrence would not constitute the basis for such a generalization, and so it would not fall within the purview of critical methods of inquiry. Science is incapable of dealing with the radically new, the unpredictable and the improbable. For that reason the notion of revelation, a notion that we cannot separate from what is considered quite improbable in terms of our ordinary and critical standards of plausibility, seems to contradict critical consciousness. To those for whom criticism is the only measuring rod for "truth," therefore, revelation will inevitably be problematic.

Moreover, critical consciousness is oriented essentially toward what is verifiable in the present or in the past. Scientific method can verify only those hypotheses for which there is a sufficient amount of data available from the records left by the past (such as fossils in evolutionary theory) or observable in the present. On the other hand the "data" upon which the "hypothesis" of revelation is based are for the most part empirically unavailable. For the realm from which Christian faith senses the appearance of revelation is the future. Revelation as the "arrival of the future" is given only in the form of promise. This promise contains a foretaste of the future; but the future is not yet fully present, and so it remains mostly beyond the limits of what is critically verifiable or publicly accessible.

Does this mean therefore that acceptance of or trust in revelation is unrealistic? Are we escaping from reality if we decide to hope in a promise that seems improbable from the point of view of critical consciousness? Certainly it would be inappropriate (if not impossible) to trust sincerely in something we suspect may not be true or realistic. We must at least agree with criticism’s wholesome demand that we be true to the real and try to avoid illusions. And we must also adhere to criticism’s demand that we test our private aspirations in the context of a community and its sense of reality.

We may realize these demands by way of following a vision and "praxis" of shared hope. Christian faith holds that our abiding within a community founded on hope in God’s promise, and actively shaping history through the practice of justice and liberation, is the most "realistic" posture we can take in the world. Such an approach is realistic because the realm of the "really real" or of "ultimate reality" is essentially the future. The past is gone, and the present is only vanishingly "present" before it disappears into the past. The temporal dimension that is the most persistent and "faithful" in bringing freshness and new life into the present is the future. To faith the future is the domain of the "really real." Therefore, facing reality means facing toward the future. And it is especially through shared images of hope that we can turn our faces toward the future. Moreover, the sharing of hope with others provides a communal context in which we can continually "test" the plausibility of our aspirations, lest they become purely private fantasies.

At this point we may observe that the question of the truth of revelation converges with the larger question of the reality of God. This is because revelation, in its promissory nature, locates the realm of the divine primarily in the arena of the future. Many contemporary theologians and biblical scholars have repeatedly indicated that the God of the Bible is one whose very essence is futurity. Therefore, approaching the question of the reality of God requires that we ask also about how we would open ourselves most completely to the arena of the future. How can we face the future if it is not verifiable as are the objects of science and ordinary experience?

It seems that only hope can orient us toward the fullness of reality if indeed the fullness of reality lies in the future. For hope is an openness to the breaking in of what is completely unpredictable and unanticipated from the point of view of what is considered to be possible by ordinary standards of expectation. Hoping is not the same as wishing. Wishing is a mode of desire that is oriented entirely from the individual’s present. It tends to imagine that the future will turn out the way I would like, on the basis of what pleases me now. Wishing, arising from what Freud called the "pleasure principle" can give rise only to fantasies and illusions. But hoping, as a communally shared aspiration, renounces such illusions and opens itself to a future that may turn out to be quite different from the one I wish for. Hoping is openness to the radically new and "impossible" in a way that wishing is not. Hoping, therefore, can be considered a realistic, indeed the most realistic, stance our consciousness can take. Hoping is faith’s way of embracing what Freud called the "reality principle." And if revelation means the arrival of the future into the opening that our hope makes in the fragile fabric of the present, then our acceptance of this revelation is consistent with the critical demand that we face reality.(On the distinction between wishing and hoping see H. A. Williams, The Resurrection (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1972), PP. 178f.)

Revelation, though, does not mean the acceptance of notions that are contrary to reason or to science. Much of the modern protest against the notion of revelation stems from a fear that revelation intends to provide information that potentially conflicts with reason or science. And since reason and science carry so much authority today, any alternative source of information would be suspect.

But revelation is not informative in the sense of adding horizontally to the list of "facts" in the content of our consciousness. Revelation is the unfolding of a relationship between God and the world. It is not an attempt to usurp the place of our ordinary ways of discovering, and so it does not compete nor conflict with reason or science. Only items in the same category can contradict one another. For example, Newton’s ideas may conflict with aspects of Einstein’s or Ptolemy’s theories of the universe only because they all belong to the same category of thinking, i.e., cosmology. But Newton’s science cannot conflict with, say, Shakespeare or Tennyson (unless we mistake the poets for cosmologists), since poetry lies in a completely different mode of thinking from cosmological science.

Likewise, reason and science cannot come into conflict with revelation unless we mistakenly reduce revelation to the category of scientifically informational discourse. Such a reduction is in fact attempted by what is known today as "creationism," or especially "scientific creationism," which presents the biblical accounts of cosmic origins and God’s activity as though they were alternative scientific and objectively historical accounts rivaling those of secular science and history. Such a reduction of the biblical material, however, not only unjustly belittles the legitimate achievements of science. It also suppresses the depth of the very notion of revelation by situating it in the category of informational knowledge to which it does not properly belong and which is unworthy of it. Revelation does not give us information that may be placed side by side with scientific knowledge. Instead revelation mediates to us the mystery of God’s boundlessly loving relationship to the universe, society, history and personality. Hence it may not be appropriately received in the objectifying mode of scientific method or external historical method. Science and history can provide helpful assistance in understanding the circumstances within which the mystery of God is disclosed. But it would be a misunderstanding of revelation to place its content in the same realm of ideas as those discussed by cosmologists, scientists or historians. Revelation, as the uncovering of God’s relation to the world, offers us a content that is much more pervasive and foundational than what we can receive through ordinary ways of gathering information. It will appear as unrealistic only if we try to transform this content into the relatively trivial mode of competing information about the world or history.

Throughout the preceding pages we have emphasized the "foundational" rather than any "informative" character of revelation. In Chapter 2 we noted that revelation is the very well spring and fulfillment of the evolutionary cosmos which science looks at in its particulars. In Chapter 3 we viewed revelation as the gift of a founding promise that brings history into being and that holds out to it the hope of fulfillment. It would here be appropriate to say that revelation also opens up for us a space within which science, reason, historical inquiry and criticism can freely manifest their concern for reality. Revelation is too important to be consigned to the same category as the disciplines which fill in the empty spaces of human ignorance. Instead revelation is what fully opens up for faith the horizon within which human consciousness is set free to pursue the truth through its various disciplinary approaches. Indeed, revelation is the foundation and implicit goal of critical consciousness itself. Let me elaborate on this rather bold proposition.

Revelation and the Desire to Know

We need not conclude our brief discussion of reason and revelation simply by stating that there is no contradiction between them. Such a statement does not go far enough. Rather, we may present a much more positive suggestion as to how they are related to one another: revelation actually promotes the deepest objective of critical consciousness, namely, the relating of ourselves and our minds to reality. Establishing this point, however, requires that we get to the heart of what motivates reason, science and critical consciousness. I think Bernard Lonergan has put it best when he calls it "the desire to know." The desire to know is the striving of our consciousness for what is true as distinct from what is merely pleasing. It is our searching to be in touch with reality rather than illusions. It is this desire to know that constitutes the foundation of genuinely critical consciousness.

We can all easily identify a desire to know in the depths of our own consciousness. All we have to do is recognize the fact that we ask questions such as "is this or that really the case?" "Is this or that hypothesis correct?" For example, "is religion true?" "Is revelation valid?" "Is hoping a realistic stance to take?" Such questions are all the evidence we need that we too are motivated by a desire to know. The imperative we all experience to be reasonable and critical is what motivates critical consciousness, and our experiencing this imperative is immediate evidence of our own desire to know reality.

My point here is that not only does revelation not conflict with the demands of reasonableness rooted in our desire to know; it actively promotes our desire to know and its concern for reality. Acceptance of or trust in the revelation of God’s unconditional love of the world and of each person actually liberates our desire to know from those elements in consciousness that tend to frustrate it. How is this so?

In the preceding chapter, while speaking of the relationship of Christian revelation to the life of the individual, I emphasized how revelation in principle delivers us from the need for self-deception. By offering us the sense of being given an eternal and inviolable significance, revelation frees us from any need for self-deception. And self-deception is the major obstacle we have to conquer if our desire to know is to reach its objective: reality. For if we cannot be truthful about ourselves we can hardly be truthful in our understanding of others and of the real world around us. It is a psychological truism that self-deception places a distortive filter not only between our native reasonableness and our own selves, but also between our minds and reality as such.

If the desire to know is to be set free to reach the truth, then the first step in such a liberation is the conquering of self-deception. It follows that any transformation in our self-understanding that would erode our tendencies to deceive ourselves would also work in the interests of our desire to know, the one longing within us that is completely intolerant of deceptions and illusions. But as I argued in the last chapter, self-deception arises when our ineradicable desire for significance plays itself out in social situations where we are expected to "perform" in order to gain our sense of self-worth. And it is these situations that inevitably lead to self-deception. Thus the "solution" to the problem of self-deception requires a restructuring of our relations to those social situations and their implied heroics and criteria of worth that may have pressured us into concealing aspects of ourselves in order to gain the approval we seem to need at a very deep level of our being.

A trust in the revelation of our relationship to an ultimate environment of unconditional love is capable of breaking through such situations and exposing the contexts in which self-deception flourishes. If we sincerely trust that the promise of divine fidelity provides the ultimate context within which to live out our lives, we will not feel obliged to cling too tenaciously to immediate social arrangements in order to find the approval we desire. Hoping in an ultimate horizon of fulfillment beyond any we can adequately imagine on the basis of our interaction with society is capable of liberating us from the idolatrous tendency to demand an impossible acceptance from those around us. Instead we can see others’ love and fidelity as symbols or sacraments of an ultimate fidelity to promise. And when the others fail us, their weaknesses need not be taken as a major threat to our own sense of significance. Surrendering in faith to the promise of an ultimate and eternal fidelity may then deliver us from the need to "perform" for finite others or to deny those sides of ourselves that do not seem to meet the approval of these others. Such a faith, if it could indeed become actual, would be in the service of the desire to know. In other words, such faith in revelation would be realistic or truthful in a fundamental sense.


What is at issue in this chapter is whether the claims of revelation are in conflict with the desire to know the truth which allegedly animates critical consciousness. Bernard Lonergan has noted that the fundamental criterion of truth is "fidelity to the desire to know." I have suggested that a trust in the promise of unconditional divine love given by revelation provides the context in which the desire to know can be liberated from the restraints of self-deception. Allowing our consciousness to be taken up, in faith and hope, into a horizon of divine fidelity, allows the desire to know to flow more freely toward its natural objective, truth. Such a surrender in faith and hope seems to me to be faithful to the desire to know, that is to say, truthful. Hence the deepest level of our rationality, the desire to know, is not in conflict with, but is supported by, revelation. (I have worked these ideas out in considerably more detail in my Religion and Self Acceptance (Lanham, Md., New York, London: University Press of America, 1980).