Chapter 7: The Congregation of Hope
Jesus’ life and death had a profoundly transforming effect on his followers. So moved were they by their encounter with him that they interpreted their subsequent existence together as a whole new "way"(the Greek word is‘hodos’).(Originally they did not conceive of themselves as starting or belonging to a new religion, since this was not even a formal concept in their self-understanding, but as followers of the hodos, or the "way.") But while this "way" was in some sense a new departure, it still emanated from the context of Israel’s ancient hope in God’s promises. Out of the experience of renewed trust aroused by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was born what has come to be known as the ecclesia. Literally, this word means the community of those who have been "called out." The ecclesia is the new congregation of hope.(Moltmann, The Experiment Hope, 58) This community of those who have been called to follow the new way toward the future is referred to as the "Church."
The Church may be defined as the community through which God’s revelatory promise in Christ is received, celebrated, and communicated to the world. In word, sacrament, and mission, the Christian Church mediates to the world, of which it is a part, the promise received in Christ. Because of its promissory mission, the Church is continuous with "the people of God" first shaped into a community by events in the lives of Moses, the kings, and the prophets of Israel. The Church’s distinctiveness within this tradition lies simply in the fact that it bears witness to the eternal promise especially (but certainly not exclusively) by reference to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In essence, therefore, its mission is to convey Jesus’ own proclamation of an inclusive reign of God, and to rehearse for each age the reasons we have for a sustained hope in God’s encompassing vision of fulfillment for the entire world. By our belonging to such a community of hope and vision, we remain within the horizon of the paradigmatic biblical Stories of promise and liberation that begin with Abraham and culminate in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Although there is no evidence that Jesus self-consciously contemplated the institution of a new ecclesia. we may legitimately maintain that the Christian way, with its incipient ecclesial character, was founded by the revelatory promise that came to expression in him and his proclamation of the reign of God. In that sense, he is the Church’s foundation. The Church’s existence, then, remains essential to revelation as the sign or "sacrament" of God’s fidelity to the promise first given to Abraham and ratified in Jesus’ being raised up to new life. And our participation in the life of the Church provides a special (though not exclusive) access to revelation. Through participation in the life of the Church, its liturgy, sacraments, teachings, and praxis, we are enabled to situate ourselves within the revelatory vision of Christ with its promise for the liberation of the whole of history and creation.
Human nature is such that we exist and come to understand ourselves, our identities, and our destinies only in community with others. Existence alongside others who share our sense of life’s meaning is not accidental but essential to our being human. Through participation in the rituals, actions, and stories of a common tradition, a people is molded into a fellowship of shared destiny. Every community with a tradition understands its existence and identity in terms of the narratives that recount the process of how it came into being and that tell where it is going. It is questionable whether any of us can live meaningfully without relation to such stories.
It is primarily through participation in shared stories about Jesus and the effects of what the New Testament and later Trinitarian theology call the "Spirit," felt by Jesus’ contemporaries and poured out at Pentecost upon the early Christian community, that we experience even today the promise offered anew in his life. Our reception of specifically Christian revelation ordinarily requires therefore that we abide within a communal context guided by the Spirit and given expression through the Christian story in word and rite. Living inside this community of faith gives us an intimate access to revelation that we could not have if we remained disinterested and uncommitted observers outside. Sharing membership with a body of fellow believers allows the content of God’s promise to insinuate itself into our lives with a depth of penetration that an external or detached standpoint would not allow.(In ways that we cannot examine here, it could be said that all of us, whether churched or unchurched, indwell in some degree the Christian story that has been so determinative in Western culture, even when this culture has become deeply secularized. For even the contours of modern secularity have been subtly molded by biblical motifs.)
In his important book, The Meaning of Revelation. H. Richard Niebuhr writes that our knowledge of revelation is transmitted to the Church not so much through impersonal, external historical reporting as through a feeling-laden involvement with the community’s internal historical memory of its founding events.(See H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation, 44-54.) These events will probably have little more than academic interest to non-believers, and the latter will often cast doubt on the objective historicity of some occurrences such as the Exodus or the resurrection of Christ. But to the believer, only an affectionate, faithful involvement in the saving character of the events mediated to us through the inner history of the Church can put us deeply in touch with the reality of revelation.
An encounter with revelation’s promise today can occur because of our immersion in the internal memory of the Church. Thus, those within the Church will speak of "our" fathers, "our" God, "our" Lord and savior. Niebuhr writes:
When the evangelists of the New Testament and their successors pointed to history as the starting point of their faith and of their understanding of the world it was internal history that they indicated. They did not speak of events, as impersonally apprehended, but rather of what happened to them in their community. They recalled the critical events in their own life-time when they became aware of themselves in a new way as they came to know the self on whom they were dependent. They turned to a past which was not gone but which endured in them as their memory, making them what they were. So for the late church, history was always the story of "our fathers," of "our Lord," and of the actions of "our God."(Niebuhr, 53.)
Niebuhr provides a helpful analogy illustrating how relation to a community’s "internal history" can connect contemporary believers with the saving events that are often of little interest to those outside of the Christian faith tradition.(Ibid., 44.) Consider, he says, the case of a man who has recovered his sight through a medical operation. As this former patient gives his enthusiastic and grateful account of the event of his recovery of sight, the quality or tone of his account will differ considerably from a purely clinical digest of the same event. The doctor who performed the operation will use a scientifically detached, personally uninvolved kind of discourse in order to describe what has happened. And the physician’s words are taken to be objectively true. But is the physician’s report any more true to the reality of the event than the recovered patient’s own emotionally involved account? Does the fact that the latter talks with such feeling and enthusiasm about his recovery constitute an obstacle to the truthfulness or objectivity of his report? Or is it not possible to say that the one who has been healed can give a no less truthful report of what happened than can the clinician?
Clearly we may view the two accounts as complementary rather than as inevitably conflicting. Likewise, what we are here calling internal and external history may be seen as mutually supportive ways of knowing events. It is not impossible that a faith community’s enthusiastic, internal story of its own recovery of vision has the capacity to retrieve aspects of salvific occurrences that a more scientific account will leave out. Even in science, Michael Polanyi notes, the range of data that are visible to inquirers is determined in large measure by what is interesting to scientists as persons in community endowed with feelings and passions.(Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge. [New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964] 135.) This element of interest will cause certain items to show up and others to remain in obscurity. Likewise, the specific focus of faith will highlight certain events of history and read them as interesting, whereas an inquiry devoid of this focus may scarcely notice them at all. The Church is a community held together in part by its shared internal historical interest in a specific set of events out of which it reads a special promise. And this interest is an essential part of a community’s search for truth.
Of course there is always a need to be critical about accounts of events given by internal history, for sometimes they are distorted by the sheer force of enthusiasm. Even so, what appears as exaggeration from the point of view of external history is itself a way of calling attention to aspects of events that might otherwise pass us by. At times, our internal memories are subjective to the point of being unrelated to reality, and so they need the correction of a more clinical examination. But this does not mean that every place we find enthusiastic, emotionally tinged descriptions of events we should conclude that they lack objectivity or that they bear no relation to the real. For it may be that the interlocking of our lives with momentous events, and especially salvific ones, can occur in depth only by our sharing with others a life and language that evokes in us a certain feeling of involvement. We may need to look at the world through the eyes of the shared expectations of a tradition and community of faith and hope if we are to be grasped by the substance of revelation. And it is equally possible that the exclusive use of a completely external, scientifically historical method would leave us still stranded at a distance from the reality of saving events.
Thus, the Church’s language is primarily confessional, enthusiastic, and involved, rather than scientifically detached. But this does not mean that we need to be a priori suspicious of its authenticity. At the same time, however, it is important for us to add that scientifically historical study of the tradition is an important and necessary corrective to the possible excesses of a more passionate approach. In recent years, for example, the Church has learned much from a detached scientific study of the Bible and traditional teachings. Niebuhr says, "There is no continuous movement from an objective inquiry into the life of Jesus to a knowledge of him as the Christ who is our Lord."(Niebuhr, 61) Only a decision of faith can make this jump. But recent developments in biblical research using various kinds of scientific methods have added helpful corrections to our pictures of Jesus and other events that faith perceives as revelatory.
The heavy reliance on its own internal historical memory may seem to imply that Christianity is just another esoteric religion, accessible only to a group of insiders There is, of course, a certain insider’s perspective in any faith tradition, but it would be contrary to the inclusive character of Christianity to interpret our belonging to a Church community as though it were a position of privilege that separates us from those not so gifted. In the past, some forms of Christian faith have not escaped the tendency to close all doors to outsiders. It is clear that a one-sided reliance on what insiders think to be normative to faith can at times lead to an elitist gnosticism. If the content of a faith is not checked by some externally objective evaluations, it can easily become too esoteric. In recent years, the work of scientific historians, philosophers, sociologists, and psychologists of religion has built up an impressive roadblock to the evils of esotericism. The dangers of enthusiasm are present in all religions. But given the proviso just noted, the passion and joy that bond members of the Church to its founder and his message of hope need not necessarily be taken as interfering with the truthfulness and openness of faith in that promise. For without the feeling of excitement which belonging to a community of shared hope provides, it may be difficult for us to be grasped deeply by the reality of the mystery revealed in Jesus.
After emphasizing the advantages of such belonging, though, we should not push too far the necessity of formal membership in the Church as a condition for the reception of revelation. People who are unchurched may be touched deeply by the power of God’s promise and even more specifically by Jesus’ personality. In the latter case, this may happen by reading books about him, by immersing themselves in the history of Christian art and architecture, or by living alongside those who are explicitly members of the Churches. Portraits of Jesus abound in various media, and the individual can derive much hope and inspiration from them without necessarily having formal association with a church. Today, for various reasons that we cannot explore here, many individuals have lost confidence in all formal ecclesiastical institutions. But they have not necessarily lost faith in Jesus and his teachings. And they find access to his personality -- and even to his saving presence -- through art, novels, films, academic studies of Christology, or private reading of the Gospels. The commanding authority of the figure of Jesus overflows the boundaries of purely ecclesiastical vigilance.
Still, in its fullest flowering, following in the footsteps of Christ requires in some sense or other the sharing of his promise and praxis with others. Christian faith pushes us beyond a purely private piety. A sense of promise can only be felt fully when it leads to a shared hope that leads to common action. Christian faith is essentially, and not just accidentally, ecclesial. This does not mean that the prevalent Church structures and practices of any particular age are inevitably ideal vehicles for the conveying of the substance of revelation’s promise to the world or even its own members. Ecclesia semper reformanda: the Church is itself ever in need of conversion. But it is normally through shared life, prayer, and ritual activity with others, or through common reception of the Word, that we are brought into encounter with the Christ of promise. It is the function of the Church to facilitate this encounter. Where it fails to do so, it is to that extent unfaithful to revelation and in need of self-revision in order to execute its sacramentally representative mission.
According to the teaching of Jesus, what is asked of those who belong to his circle is a complete trust in God’s love and fidelity to the covenantal promise, now renewed in the coming reign of God. However, the breadth and inclusiveness of God’s promise and reign present an enormous challenge to us. They invite us to put into practice the acceptance and promotion of others that Jesus’ God manifests toward us. Those officially enrolled in the Churches often show anything but this latitude. And so it is possible for us to remain in some sense outside the faith, even in the midst of our membership in the Church that proclaims the bold and inclusive message of God’s reign. Moreover, many of those who have no formal membership in the Church are actually more inside the real circle of the tolerant faith that Jesus spoke of than those of us who have been baptized and participate bodily in the worship of the Church.
Nevertheless, a formal, sacramental community of believers shaped by an identifiable tradition built upon shared stories of origin and destiny is essential to the communication of revelation. The existence of a Church with a teaching tradition provides necessary informational boundaries for ensuring the reliable transmission of what the apostles received from their encounter with Jesus. To repeat what we stated earlier, such boundaries are necessary for any informational process. Without some doctrinal constraints, any message will sooner or later decay into a chaotic vagueness or indefiniteness and thereby lose its challenging and critical edge vis-à-vis the rest of culture. Reliable transmission of information -- as we now know from science and cosmology, as well as from communications theory -- requires information systems with clear boundaries. The establishment of a Church, together with a teaching officialdom and institutional structures, is not merely accidental to this informational requirement, though the specific features of these elements may (and should) vary considerably from one age to the next.(This, however, does not mean that the system has to be rigidly hierarchical and undemocratic. As we are learning from physics and other sciences today, systems come in many shapes.) Any system, such as the Church, has to have what information theory calls "sets of constraints" in order to function as an informational medium. Yet, to repeat another point made earlier, if these constraints themselves become too rigid, as they often do in the unfolding of a religious tradition, then the communication flow becomes so burdened with redundancy that it loses any truly informational (in this case, revelatory) character and decays into the transmission of mere banality. An information process has to be bounded in some way by constraints, but it must also remain open to the influx of novelty if it is to be truly informative.
One of the functions of the Church is to protect the Christian story so as to ensure its faithful and undiluted transmission to the next generation of believers. Any religious community’s desire to safeguard its sacred and saving information often leads it to be very solicitous, at times excessively so, about doctrinal orthodoxy. So, too, the Christian Church has sought to guard its borders against any blurring or rarefying of what it takes to be a specially revealed content. In its attempts to plot the requisite informational boundaries, however, it has experienced serious internal disagreements. One segment of the Christian Church lays Out its borders in a manner inconsistent at times with others’. Thus we now have many churches within the Church. As in the case of the other religions of the world, Christianity has splintered into a variety of sectarian subsystems whose doctrinal boundaries have often hardened to the point of making conversation extremely difficult.
Yet from its very beginning the various elements of the Christian tradition, while always being concerned with doctrinal constraints, have also been open, at least to some degree, to novelty. From its Palestinian origins, the Church has reached out into alien cultural and linguistic settings for a conceptuality and imagery that would communicate to a continually wider circle of people the inclusive message its earliest disciples had experienced in Jesus. Our most venerable doctrinal formulations contain elements derived not only from Judaism, but also from Gnosticism, Platonism, Stoicism, Aristotelianism, and other modes of thought, most of them unfamiliar to Jesus and his immediate disciples. Christian liturgies and feasts today are full of elements borrowed down through the centuries from what we have pejoratively called "paganism." The informational effectiveness of a tradition requires such continual borrowing. Periodically, the official guardians of Christian tradition become unsettled about theological attempts to communicate the content of revelation in a new idiom. Their reserve is partially understandable in that they implicitly see the need for boundaries and constraints in the informational processing of the content of faith. But if they seek to make the membranes surrounding the deposit of faith completely impermeable to the influx of alternative insights and modes of expression, this will inevitably lead to a serious inhibition of the transmission of the revelatory content of the faith.
The Christian story brings with it certain boundaries. But it also possesses a radical impulse toward inclusiveness. It is intrinsically opposed to boundaries even while remaining within them. In the life of the Church, these two biases often exist in serious tension with each other. At times destructive conflicts develop as a result, while at other times an enlivening synthesis of tradition and new ideas occurs. (An example of the latter may be the new evolutionary theologies that have emerged in this century.) Like many other religious traditions, the Christian story is open to being retold in diverse ways in new situations. Even in the New Testament, the many Christologies articulating the character and effectiveness of the one Savior are already evidence of the mingling of traditional constraints with the novelty required by ever changing circumstances. Subsequently, the Scriptures and tradition become the constraining informational sources on which members of the Church rely in order to situate themselves in the presence of the promising mystery that gave new life to the disciples after the death of Jesus.
Revelation, Past and Present
An essential condition for the Church’s communication of revelation is that it have a deposit of faith that remains in some sense fixed or finished in order to remain a continually reliable source to draw on in new circumstances. But revelation is not fundamentally the normative deposit of accounts of saving events in the past. If revelation is to be real to us, it must be something that is occurring now in the concrete events, trivial and important, of our everyday lives. To encounter revelation is not primarily to look back, or to dig into a sacred book or a traditional set of teachings. These monuments of faith, of course, all carry with them essential constraints shaping the relevant information. But experiencing the self-revealing God is not simply a matter of looking at the scriptural and doctrinal boundaries laboriously established by the Church and its traditions. Such limits do give definiteness to the content of faith, but encountering revelation means, above all, being confronted by the inviting and challenging futurity of divine mystery in the immediate context of our own concrete situations. The content of revelation is a promise which, because it has never yet been completely fulfilled, can never be fixed or finished, but remains incalculable and to some extent mysteriously incomprehensible And the reception of this revelation means that we experience a gracious, extravagant, and surprising future dawning at the frontiers of our own lives here and now. The Church’s teaching tradition exists primarily to make it possible for us to look forward to God’s promises in a new way every day. We make an idol of this tradition if we read it in any other way.
The content and substance of revelation is always mystery, and for biblical faith, this elusive but endlessly fulfilling mystery comes to us in the shape of an unfathomable future that promises complete liberation. Our being inserted into a community of fellow believers who have been gathered together on the basis of historical events in their past is an indispensable dimension of our encounter with this future. We "indwell" these past historical events not to make them absolutes, but in order to look with them into the mystery they anticipate. Living within a tradition is not so much a matter of looking at the past but rather with it toward a still unfulfilled promise latent within it.(See Niebuhr, 54.) Tradition invites us not to make an absolute of its constraints, but to focus our gaze toward the future in accordance with the coordinates it bequeaths to us. We continually recount our common past and seek to incorporate it ever more coherently within our memory, but we concretely experience revelation only by looking forward along with this past to the fulfillment of God’s promise. To live within the horizon of Easter is not simply to look at an event that took place long ago but, even more, to look forward to the fulfillment that it promises for our future and that of the whole world.
If we do look back to the record of God’s mighty deeds accomplished in the past, as indeed we must, it is not in order to restore something that is no longer, but to find the basis there for hope here and now. We dwell within our tradition in order to be more sensitive to the promise and futurity of God that are still on the way Too often, theology and religious education have left us with the impression that everything important has already happened and that therefore faith’s main posture is one of restoring the past. We are often instructed to look back into Israel’s history or even into the New Testament times in order to find there the fullest appearance of God’s revelation. But this is a way of "abolishing time" that finds no authority in the Bible. The Bible constantly invites us to look ahead into the future for the fullness of revelation. Repristinating the past, even if it is a glorious past, is asking for the impossible. And it contradicts the very nature of human existence with its essential orientation to the future.(See Wolfhart Pannenberg, What Is Man?, trans. by Duane A. Priebe [Philadelphia: fortress, 1970] 41-53.) The fact is, people are not looking only for a "salvation history" somewhere in the traces of historical events. Rather, they are fundamentally in search of the meaning, purpose, and renewal of their own lives as they exist in the here and now.
We look to the past, then, in order to find there some ways of orienting ourselves toward our future, but not in order to absolutize or romanticize a lost age. If the idea of revelation, is to have any relevance it must be essentially a present experience of God’s coming to us from the future, and not simply a set of stories dragged out of the past. The deposit of revelation is said to be finished or fixed, but this can be a salvific teaching only if it means that there is sufficient evidence in our past history to convince us that we live within the horizon of a promise which by its nature always looks to the future for fulfillment. Revelation fundamentally means the arrival of that future and not a retrieval of the past.
Still, the ancient stories are obviously indispensable, for it is in their continual retelling that we find the informational constraints that give appropriate shape to our hope. The Church community, its normative writings, and its traditions are repositories and mediators of those stories of hope that we stand within as we reach forth toward the future. The Church is (ideally at least) a community in which hope is kept alive by the retelling of the mighty acts of God. In a sense, revelation is simply the unfolding of a great story of which we ourselves are a part, but which has its fulfillment only in the future. We need then to know the earlier chapters in order to have at least a dim sense of the story’s more complete unfolding. We cannot look toward an ending of a story unless we know where we have been. In recounting the past acts of God, we are placed within the horizon of the hope awakened by those events.
Revelation as Salvation
The promising mystery of the future always seeks to carry us into itself. It does so by sacramentally concealing itself in the concrete objects of our human hopes. But we nevertheless resist the promise of that future and its promises. This rejection of God’s future, the refusal in other words to let God be God, a refusal to which the biblical stories are a constant reminder, is the fundamental meaning of sin. The fuller meaning of revelation can be understood, therefore, only if we take into account the fact of a human sinfulness that has continually resisted the freedom, extravagance, and surprisingness of the divine self-promise.
In the face of our resistance to God’s promise, revelation assumes the character of salvation. Revelation is not just a take-it-or-leave-it disclosure of the future. It is the divine future’s relentless quest to liberate us from any fixation on the past. Revelation is God’s making the divine selfhood known to us, through the mode of promise, in such a way that we will perceive that there is no limit to what we may hope for. The mission of the Church, therefore, is to keep open the limitlessness of the horizon of God’s future. This liberating open-endedness is the Good News that the Church must continually proclaim to the world. When it fails to do so, it is unfaithful to its calling.
Revelation can be called salvation because its visionary promise of an ever new future redeems us from the prison we build around ourselves out of our hopelessness and mistrust. In its saving character, there is also an inevitably judgmental aspect to revelation. The self-emptying God of the future seeks to break through our resistance to the fullness of what we can hope for. This is the meaning of divine judgment. And this is how we may interpret the many passages in the Bible that refer to God’s anger:
God’s revelation is a saving activity because it penetrates the closed state of man, and thus it is also the revelation of divine wrath (Rom. 1:18 ff.). The mystery of the "righteousness of God" (Rom. 1:17) could not be revealed (Rom. 1:17; 3:21) without simultaneously revealing God’s "No" to man’s godlessness and unrighteousness.(Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics, Vol. 1, trans. by Darrell L. Guder (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1981) 175.)
But we must be careful to interpret the meaning of godlessness and unrighteousness in terms of how the Bible understands God, and not in accordance with the moralistic and despotic ideas of God that linger in ill-formed religious imaginations. God, as the giver of the future, is the limitless origin of promise. Godlessness or sin, therefore, is at bottom our refusal to let into our lives the fundamentally promising character of reality. What is subject to judgment, therefore, is the assumption that our own paltry visions of the future are ample enough to satisfy our deepest longings. Divine judgment is the shattering of those limiting projections of our future that arise from a consciousness not yet attuned to the breadth and inclusiveness of the divine vision of our future and the world’s future. Though such judgment initially seems to be negative and evokes our strong resistance, it is really a gift in favor of us rather than an interdiction opposed to us. Its concern is that we lift the lid on what is realistically possible for us as a human and cosmic community shaped by hope.
The Church, too, stands continually under the judgment of the divine promise. It constantly needs correction from the wider vision contained in the revelation to which it witnesses. It fails in its mission whenever it allows the promissory character of reality to sink under the weight of any past age of allegedly splendid "orthodoxy." The Church can glory in its past only to the extent that this past carries the seeds of a hope that can be sown anew in the present. And it remains a sinful Church particularly to the extent that it fails to represent in its own structures the inclusiveness that it proclaims in its word about the promise on which it is founded.
According to this understanding of revelation, sin means the obscuring of our true possibilities from ourselves, a circumscription that leaves us unfulfilled and enslaved. Divine judgment, therefore, is part of a process of liberation. If this judgment initially seems to be a contradiction, this is only because it conflicts with the restrictedness and pettiness of our own aspirations. It is a signal that we are not dreaming and hoping with sufficient breadth. We are not being open enough to the freedom, extravagance, and unexpectedness of our genuine future.
It is part of the Church’s mission, therefore, to be critical of all political, cultural, and psychological constraints, including the ones imbedded in its own figure, that prevent the breaking in of the promise of God’s future made manifest especially in Jesus the Christ. It is required to carry a judgment against the "world," understood as the product of our excessively narrow and non-inclusive efforts to secure our existence. In order to do so effectively, however, it must begin with a critique of its own non-inclusiveness. That this has not yet been accomplished is a major source of the Church’s failure to move the world toward the promise given in revelation.
The Church’s own failure in this respect is itself rooted in a refusal to be informed by the image of God’s humility that lies at the center of Christian revelation. The Church can truly sacramentalize the mystery of promise, the person of Christ, and the reality of God only to the extent that it, too, exists as an embodiment of self-emptying humility and defenselessness. Through much of its history, though, the image of God resident in its ecclesiastical self-image and conveyed to its members has been one of power and might. Its "God" has often been understood after the model of political potentates instead of the humble shepherd of Nazareth who died on a cross. And it has often taken as its own a conventional conception of political force contradicted by the crucified Jesus’ redefinition of power. Though some within the Church have taken seriously the kenotic character of the mystery it stands for, by and large the sense of God’s self-emptying love has been obscured in its preaching, practice, and theology, as well as in its internal and external politics.
An understanding of revelation as the gift of an ever-more-inclusive future rooted in the kenotic love of God can help transform the Church’s self-understanding in a way that would make it more closely related to the needs of our contemporary world. We would be deceiving ourselves if we pretended that the Church today is not largely ineffective in the world. Its inherent message of hope and comfort to those in need has not penetrated very far into the affairs of the planet. Its clinging to pre-revelational, pre-kenotic images of God fails to stir the hearts of people toward appropriate compassion. It often remains self-preoccupied in a manner utterly in contradiction to the self-abandoning God incarnate in the Christ.
Still, it is not helpful for us to be unforgiving toward this ambiguous community of sinful men and women that we call the Church. For it remains the indispensable bearer of the fullness of God’s promise and the Good News of the divine self-gift to the world If it is often unfaithful to the substance of its own raison d’être. it is nevertheless forever commissioned by the Spirit to proclaim the good news of revelation.
Revelation and Sacrament
Generally speaking, religions have a sacramental aspect through which they both receive and express their sense of mystery. As we have argued previously, the revelation of mystery occurs also in the mystical, silent, and active ways of religion. But it is through sacraments or symbols that we first and most explicitly encounter the sacred. In Christian tradition, Jesus is the primary sacrament, and the Church, both as the body of Christ and as the carrier of a set of sacraments, brings the reality of God bodily into the lives of its members. Along with attending to the Word, Christians have felt God’s redemptive love quite palpably in such sacraments as baptism, Eucharist, and marriage.(Catholic Christianity has traditionally spoken of seven sacraments: baptism, reconciliation, confirmation, Eucharist. marriage, holy orders and anointing of the sick. We need not enter here into the controversies that have arisen among Christian denominations regarding this precise number and their relative importance. Rather, our concern is simply to situate the sacraments in the context of revelation as we have been portraying it in this work. In that respect baptism, Eucharist, and matrimony may be taken here as the primary ways of sacramentalizing the promissory aspect of revelation that we have been highlighting, but which has not always been sufficiently emphasized.)
These sacraments are familiar enough to most Christians, but what is not always so obvious is their promissory character. How often is the sacrament of baptism celebrated in a spirit of genuine hope for the whole world’s future liberation? Moreover, do we often see marriage fundamentally as the sacramentalization of God’s fidelity to the promise, so that it is not just the present sacralization of human mating, but also one of the most powerful signals we are given in our human lives that the mystery of the future deserves our absolute trust? To a great extent, the dimension of hope or futurity has been lost sight of in sacramental theology, just as it has disappeared from our inherited notions of revelation. Until quite recently, for example, the Eucharist has rarely been seen by the majority of Christians as the radically eschatological celebration it is. Even though there is much in its traditional formulations that begs us to interpret it as a celebration of hope and a looking forward into the future, it is often felt to be little more than a reenactment of a past event. How often has it been experienced deeply as the anticipation of an eschatological banquet or as the sharing of life with the One who has risen and is still coming? How often is it experienced as an encounter with the Christ who himself still has a future precisely because the lives of those he loves, with whom he wills to remain in solidarity in the Eucharist, are still at a distance from completion? The powerful theme of promise has typically been subordinated to the sense of the Lord’s presence in our midst.
Obviously, we have no wish here to soften the sense of the divine presence sacramentalized in the Eucharist. Instead, we need only to highlight the specific mode of that presence. If we follow the patterns of thought set forth in the Bible, it must be seen as a presence in the mode of promise and not an exhaustive presence that leaves no room for further manifestations of an incalculable future. Sacramental presence is not appropriately interpreted as a divine availability that would render any further hope for future fulfillment irrelevant. The Christ whose presence in our midst is sacramentalized in the Eucharist still has a future in communion with our own unfinished existence.
Likewise, in the Eucharist the important theme of anamnesis ("do this in memory of me") has sometimes edged out the theme of hope ("we hope to enjoy forever the vision of your glory"). Obviously, the sacraments are reenactments or memorializing rites as well. They are indispensable symbolic ways of making ourselves in some sense contemporary with the past events of salvation history. But in view of what we have been saying about the character of revelation, the purpose of this anamnesis is not to reconstruct the past for its own sake, as though it holds the fullness of salvation. Rather, it is to align our lives with the yet unfulfilled sense of promise that came to birth in a heightened way in those momentous events that are remembered in the sacraments. Revelation is fundamentally the arrival of the future.
Sacramentally speaking this means, for example, that we celebrate the new exodus of baptism not only to immerse ourselves in Christ’s death and thus become purified of sin, but also in order to realize that we are the inheritors of God’s yet-unfulfilled promise to Abraham and his offspring. If being baptized means being raised here and now to new life, then this present sharing in Christ’s resurrection cannot yet mean final fulfillment, but rather a life of hope which is cognizant of the inadequacy of the present state of things to contain the fullness of God’s future. In our present state of existence, it is hope for fulfillment and not fulfillment itself that constitutes our life. And the Spirit poured out in our sacraments in order to make us experience the nearness of God is the Spirit of hope and not a conclusive presence.
The distaste for "presence" that we find in so much modern philosophy, art, and literary criticism is something we need to attend to if we think of the sacraments only as ways in which God becomes present to us. There is an apophatic, silent, or distancing impulse in these contemporary movements that, in spite of the nihilistic extremes to which they often tend, can be assimilated into the themes of hope and promise. By protesting our typical religious (including Christian) sacramentalizing of God’s presence, they poignantly highlight the fact that fulfillment has not yet arrived. Their protests against our often shallow sacramentalizing of God’s presence provide a needed antidote to our tendency toward an idolatrous closing ourselves off from the wider vision of revelation’s promise arriving out of the inexhaustible future.
In general, the sacraments can be truly revelatory of God if they are interpreted in the spirit of promise rather than simply as theophanies. It is true of course that God is present in these sacraments in a special way, but in the light of revelation we are encouraged to see God’s presence in the mode of the arrival of the future.("In Bernard Cooke’s learned book, The Distancing of God (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1990), the author laments the way in which God has been gradually distanced from sacramental modes of mediation. Cooke is correct in chastizing much classical theology for making God too remote. And yet there is a certain sense in which God’s not being fully present is what opens up the future to us. A self-renouncing God humbly withdraws, and in doing so paradoxically becomes more intimate with us, evoking the response of love, patience, and action. A full self-presentation of God would bring history to an end, and given its presently unfinished character, this would be a most unsatisfying experience to all who have hope in the infinite mystery of the future. For this reason we need to see the sacraments not only as the mediations of God’s presence, but as tokens of a future which is not yet real. Thus there has to be in some paradoxical way a "distancing of God" in order to allow for the intimacy of a relation based on fidelity and trust.) This means that we must learn to see the sacraments not as manifestations of the fullness of deity but as expressions through which God’s future touches us without yet being fully actualized. The world remains unfinished, and it would be deadening to pretend that our hopes for this world have already been fulfilled. It is sufficient, and in fact more enlivening, for us simply to trust that the back of evil has been broken, and not to imagine that the final victory has been completely won. The disillusionment we sometimes experience during or after a sacramental celebration may in part be the result of our over-burdening the rites themselves with the task of bringing the fullness of mystery to presence. An excessive emphasis on the sacraments as making God present needs correction by the mystical, silent, and active aspects of hope. The world is yet in the making, filled with ambiguity, still at a great distance from the destiny it seeks. It is sufficient then that we see the Church’s sacraments as promises, for it is in the mode of promise that God becomes most intimately present to us now.
Inspiration and The Scriptures
In the life of the Church, the notion of revelation has come to be closely associated, though not identified, with that of the inspiration of Scripture. The Church’s doctrinal boundaries began to take on a more definite shape when, in response to the need to determine what falls within and what without the pale of authentic faith, it authorized a canon of Holy Books which it holds to be inspired by the Spirit of Jesus and his God. These books, in spite of their wide diversity of genre and style, have a certain guiding character essential for the shaping and transmission of Christian faith. Thus, they are said to be the product of divine inspiration.
In what sense, though, may we today understand the doctrine of inspiration? As in the case of the idea of revelation, it no longer appears fruitful or meaningful to understand it merely according to the propositional or illumination model. Theologians today have abandoned the simplistic theory which has the Holy Spirit dictating sentences to prophets and evangelists. Inspiration has to mean something much deeper than the infusion of holy truths into the minds of isolated biblical writers.
We may reach a deeper understanding of the Church’s view of inspiration by reflecting on the remarkable and felicitous fact that in its determination of those books it holds to be inspired, it did not throw out, but instead enthusiastically embraced, the texts we have traditionally called the Old Testament.(Today we have become conscious of the need to be somewhat reserved in our using the adjective "old" to refer to books which are not at all obsolete either for Jews or for Christians.) Apparently, it was their promissory character that endeared these writings to the Church. The Church’s reverence for these books, it is true, is due in great measure to the fact that they provide the essential background for appreciating the fulfillment of God’s promises in Jesus. The momentousness of the Christ-event could never have been grasped except in terms of the highly charged atmosphere of expectation that received its written expression in the ancient books of the Israelites. Hence the books are taken by the Church to be inspired.
However, even independently of their bearing on the Church’s interpretation of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, these texts have been held holy for the simple reason that they give authoritative expression to the central themes of promise and hope that constitute the core of biblical faith. In the final analysis, then, the root of inspiration is the very same promising mystery that comes to faith’s awareness through revelation Those texts are held to be inspired which convey the sense of God’s fidelity to the promises first given to Abraham. Some of these texts do so more explicitly than others, and occasionally the Bible includes works that seem to question whether God’s promise is really going to be fulfilled. Ecclesiastes, Job, and some of the Psalms wonder at times whether we live in a universe that embodies God’s promise and fidelity. And the Wisdom literature does not always focus very explicitly on the theme of promise. But even these texts still fall within the general horizon of a faith shaped by trust in God’s fidelity. And when taken in the context of the whole of Scripture, they provide the dialectical nuance that gives even more substance to the central message of the holy books, namely, that God is one who makes and keeps promises.
In its choice of those books that comprise the New Testament, the Church has also been guided by criteria rooted in a balanced vision of God’s promise. As we have seen several times before, the criterion of genuine hope in God’s promise consists of a willingness to temper the sacramen- talism of our dreams by a willingness to look mystically into the future symbolized by our images, by a steady posture of patience and silence, and by a transformative praxis that refuses to escape from the troubles of present history. Even though it had the opportunity to survey many gnostic texts in circulation at the time the canon became fixed, we may conjecture that the Church finally left these off the list because of their failure to embody the balanced kind of hope and deep sense of mystery’s futurity that we find in the canonical books. Though full of titillating tales and occasional bits of edifying wisdom, the gnostic gospels lacked the balance of sacramentalism, mysticism, silence, and praxis that we find for example in the kerygmatic presentations of the Christ of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. They are examples of what happens to religion when the mystical component becomes disengaged from the sacramental, silent, and active elements. And when we turn to the epistolary texts of the New Testament, it is also tempting to conjecture that it was their balancing of these four ingredients that gave them depth and breadth of authority.
In conclusion, then, we may say that biblical inspiration is the effect of God’s promise on individuals writing within the context of a community of faith brought into existence and sustained by a vision of promise emanating from the Spirit of hope.