Chapter 9: The Meaning of History
We have just observed that the universe of modern science presents itself to us in the form of a story. It appears to have a singular beginning followed by a period of existence measurable in terms of enormous spans of time leading up to the present, and it also apparently has a long future ahead of it. Dramatic developments have taken place in the course of its existence, even independently of our own species’ recent emergence. We can say therefore that the cosmos has a history of sorts. In the broadest meaning of the term, "history" is the total series of events that have taken place in the universe. And so, in a very general way, we may speak about the history of the universe or the history of nature.
Usually, however, history has a stricter meaning. It refers to the sequence of specifically human and social events that have taken place on the earth, especially since the birth of civilization. We must now seek to relate the notion of revelation to history in this narrower sense. We may do so by raising once again the ageless question of whether the human story has any meaning to it, and if so, what is it? Is there -- anywhere in the course of human events -- a key to unlock the enigma of our social and historical experience? If the notion of revelation is to be of any real consequence to us, it must offer some response to our questions about the purpose of human existence on this planet. Notwithstanding the fact that whatever human meaning we may discover would be inseparable from the meaning of the cosmos, it is still necessary for us to focus our quest for the meaning of revelation on the question of the significance of our own existence as a distinctly historical species.
However, we cannot expect from revelation a vividly detailed picture of the future direction our historical existence will take. Revelation is not in the business of offering forecasts. It will speak to us of the meaning of history not in the mode of prediction, but in that of promise. And it is according to the logic of promise that we must seek this meaning out.
The idea of History
When and under what circumstances did our sense of historical existence arise? Although the recording of significant events, especially those in the lives of monarchs, began to occur in the ancient kingdoms of Mesopotamia and Egypt, this was not yet history in the sense of understanding time as an irreversible sequence. Mythic consciousness, with its need to return periodically to the origins of the cosmos, cancelled out any inkling of time as an irrecoverable series of events. Throughout most of the ages in which our species has dwelt on this earth, its various tribal units have had no sense of historical time. It was probably not until the axial age, when the Israelites began to experience mystery more explicitly in the mode of future and promise, that humans began first to realize that we do not dwell in nature with the same instinctive ease that other species do.(In a sense, also, the writings of Hesiod and Thucydides in the Greek world are part of the rise of historical awareness, but their histories were primarily chronicles of events whereas the Hebrew historians were concerned more explicitly with the meaning of events.) It is true that in several other contemporary religious Contexts there was also an emerging impression of the distinctness of human existence from nature. Around the eighth century BC. in India, for example, the Upanishads began to point more explicitly to a transcendent realm of meaning known as Brahman. Conscious union with Brahman was said to provide final deliverance from samsara, the cycle of rebirths in nature. A couple of Centuries later, Buddhism sought to release people from their suffering by opening consciousness to a world-transcending experience of enlightenment. In the Greek world, aspects of pre-Socratic philosophy, and later Socrates and Plato, located true reality in an ideal realm apart from nature’s becoming and perishing. All of these developments signaled a new kind of human existence, one less tied to purely natural realities.(Another axial religion, Taoism, on the other hand, taught that our true being consists of conformity to the "Tao" from whose "natural" truth and humility we generally stray.)
But most of these religious developments continued the older mythic habit of "abolishing time," to use Mircea Eliade’s expression.( Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality, trans. by W. R. Trask [New York: Harper & Row, 1963] 75-91.) A full sense of what we know as history was still not awakened in these religious situations. Probably only in biblical religion did there come into being a specifically "historical" way of understanding human existence. In its portraits of God’s revelation in the mode of "promise," biblical religion gave rise to the experience of history as an opening of events to an always new future bearing a universal meaning for the events that take place in time.
In spite of the fact that the cosmos is truly our home (as we argued on scientific, biblical, and environmental grounds in the preceding chapter) our species nevertheless began (during the axial age) to feel gradually somewhat exiled from subhuman patterns of natural existence. And so people became restless to find exactly into what context they fit if nature does not itself suffice to locate the fullness of their being. Dualistic religion and philosophy sought this setting in a spiritual sphere completely beyond or above the temporal world. Biblical religion, however, refused to abolish time. It gave time a salvific importance and made history the basic horizon of human life.
In doing so, however, it exposed us to what Eliade refers to as a kind of "terror."(Ibid., 68.) With the sense of history, there arose a new form of anxiety consisting of an unprecedented preoccupation with the irreversibility of time, a heightened sense of temporal becoming and perishing, along with a need to discern the significance of the transient events that make up human existence. The concern about meaning, which had been present even beneath the very earliest cosmological myths, was now considerably magnified by the emerging disquiet concerning the possible outcome of historical events. Today, we still stand within the purview of this concern for the meaning of history. Since this meaning is not presently available to us, some contemporary modes of thought have despaired of the possibility that history has any meaning to it. And it has become increasingly difficult for theology to present a portrait of the intelligibility of history that rings true to many people.
The biblical conviction that we have been exiled from any non-historical paradise has been one of the most adventurous developments in the unfolding of the story of humanity, of religion, and indeed of the entire cosmos.(It is important to emphasize once again that history is a movement of the cosmos, and not a movement away from it. It can only be interpreted as a movement away from the cosmos if nature is taken abstractly as itself devoid of historical features.) But like all adventures, this movement out into history has been disturbing as well as exciting. Because it has been so agitating at times, we continue to feel the strong tug of non-human nature, or other ahistorical lures, beckoning us to return to a more secure and predictable kind of existence. The anxiety that always accompanies the sense of an unpredictable historical process can be momentarily relieved by any number of efforts to put an end to history, to "abolish time." Taking refuge in nature’s regularities seemingly offers one such haven from the turmoil of historical existence. In modern times, however, numerous efforts to turn history completely into a science, according to which we might calculate, predict, and control the future, has become another way to conquer our anxiety in the face of the unknown.(Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 23) From Auguste Comte to Karl Marx, philosophers have made repeated efforts to eliminate any profound uncertainty about the future by placing it within some scheme of inevitability or determinism that might calm our vexation about its destiny.
Another way to escape from history is to follow the gnostic path of dreaming up some radically other world, to which we "essentially" belong by virtue of an esoteric knowledge or "gnosis," membership in which therefore keeps us from having to dwell fully within the messiness of historical existence. Not a few theologies of revelation have succumbed to this gnostic temptation.(Both Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann have attempted to understand revelation in a way that would allow it to be critical of human culture and thus prevent any easy synthesis of Christianity with contemporary socio-political realities. But by locating revelation in the realm of transcendental subjectivity, or on a plane radically discontinuous with actual human events, they have removed it from a more challenging proximity to our historical existence. In this book we are following, with some modification, the approach of Jürgen Moltmann, namely, that of understanding Revelation as a promise that makes history possible and that enters deep into history while at the same time, in its partly unavailable futurity, exercising an ongoing critique of any contemporary culture.) Still another, more subtle, way of domesticating history’s terror is simply to declare it and the universe, a priori, absolutely meaningless. If one adopts a nihilistic perspective from the very start, this will avert the kind of disappointment that utopians experience when their visions inevitably fail to become fully actual in history.
All such retreats, of course, violate revelation’s pivotal injunction that we learn to live by promise rather than prediction or tragic resignation. An adequate Christian theology of history and revelation maintains that only by trusting in the promise of history, without either fleeing it or nullifying it, do we find a security proportionate to the incalculability of God’s future, as well as to our deepest human aspirations.
The "flight into nature" has perhaps been the most prevalent way in which humans have extricated themselves from history. But as we saw in the preceding chapter, recent science itself has taught us, in a way that earlier generations of theologians were not in a position to see, that nature itself is historical. Therefore, any escape into nature cannot in any case be the flight from history that we might wish it to be. Even on scientific grounds we can no longer allow an artificial separation of nature from human history. The cosmos itself is historical, from the point of view of both science and Christian faith. The birth of a sense of history removes us not from nature itself, but only from the frozen, abstract, and ahistorical conception of nature that we had for centuries projected onto the flux of cosmic events.
However, even though any separation of nature from history is both scientifically and theologically questionable, some sort of distinction of human history from natural history is necessary. For there is an emergent quality that makes our existence different, though certainly not separate, from other natural beings and from earlier phases of the cosmic story. This emergent quality is what we now know as human freedom. Today, many scientists allow that there is something analogous to freedom -- a sort of indeterminacy -- resident in all levels of nature. Even physics, which had formerly been the stronghold of determinism, has now abandoned the rigid notions of causation that Newtonian and Cartesian science had followed and upon which classical determinism was based. Nevertheless, practically speaking, sub-human dimensions of nature still present themselves as relatively more predictable and determined occurrences than we find at the human level. Nature would not be accessible at all to scientific understanding if it were not largely composed of many invariant routines. Human existence, on the other hand, brings with it an intensification of the indeterminacy that appears in a much less explicit manner in non-human nature. Human existence transcends non-human nature even while being continuous with it and constrained by it. This transcendence of other levels of natural reality consists of a personal freedom that lies outside the sweep of scientific comprehension. It is especially this quality of freedom that allows human existence to be "historical" in addition to being "natural." And it is the same freedom that makes it impossible for us to put an end to history and its terror by turning it into a science capable of exactly forecasting the outcome of events.
It is true, of course, that the social sciences go as far as they can toward formulating "laws" governing human activity. And these sciences are useful especially when dealing with the habits of large numbers of people, or with statistically predictable reactions of humans to certain events. Still, there is always a residue of individual freedom that eludes scientific prediction.(Philosophically speaking, we can only postulate the existence of freedom. We cannot prove that it exists. Any attempt to demonstrate scientifically, that is, in terms of causation, that freedom exists, would probably be self-contradictory.) Thus, because of the fact of human freedom we may here think of history as an aspect of our general "situation," distinct, though not separate, from non-human nature. What then does revelation mean in terms of this more restrictive notion of history and human freedom?(Henceforth we shall be using the term "history" in the sense of human history rather than natural history,)
History as a Gift
The specifically historical character of human existence may itself be understood as the first fruits of the divine promise of an ever-new future. God’s promise to Abraham and to Israel sparks a unique kind of restlessness. A trust in God’s promise leads away from earlier styles of human existence defined simply by the seasons. The promise of a new and uncontrollable future opens out into the insecurity, indefiniteness, and adventure of history. History is both a gift and a serious challenge rooted in the promissory nature of revelation. And from the biblical perspective at least, the meaning of history is found only in our pursuit of this promise.
Theology has become accustomed to speaking of God’s revelation in history. But it is no less appropriate to speak of God’s revelation of history. History, at least insofar as it is a consequence of God’s promise, is itself the Content, and not just the context of revelation. What is unveiled or revealed by the revelatory promise is precisely the historical character of reality.(See Wolfhart Pannenberg, Faith and Reality, trans. by John Maxwell [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977.]) God’s revelation takes the form of a story evolving in a direction that no human planning, necessary though it is, can adequately divulge. This promissory and storied character of reality allows it to unfold in such a way that novelty and surprise can continually come into view and thus render the universe and history both more complex and more intelligible than we could ourselves imagine on the basis of previous patterns of occurrence. Revelation allows reality as a whole, and human life in particular, to take on the character of adventure.(Recall our Whiteheadian definition of adventure as the quest for more and more intense versions of ordered novelty.) Its promise allows reality and human history to embark on the pursuit of more intense beauty and enjoyment. Only a faith that perceives reality to be grounded in promise can activate and continually energize such a pursuit.
This promissory experience of reality reshapes our whole understanding of time. Time, in the light of promise, is what allows reality to unfold dramatically and meaningfully. Without this dramatic time, our world would be frozen into a repetitive triviality. Promise-laden time allows the universe and human existence to evolve in such a way that newness and freshness can continually enter into them. We seldom think about what a gift time is, but without it, reality would be stuck in an intolerable monotony. Or as Whitehead persuasively argues, the world would simply cease to exist. In a temporal universe, there can be nothing "at an instant." If time suddenly (and unimaginably) came to a stop, the world would simply no longer be actual. Time, we know now from physics and astronomy, is woven into the very texture of things. It allows novelty, nuance, unprecedented forms and patterns to come into the universe and into culture and civilization. It permits the world to be this particular world. It brings definiteness to what would otherwise be only an abstract possibility. Revelation identifies the origin of this usually taken-for-granted gift of time as the very promise of God’s own self.
Yet we must not forget that the advent of historical existence brings challenge and suffering along with the promise of heightened beauty and enjoyment. It is clear from the biblical texts that the emergence of Hebrew religion was quite unsettling. The sense of history’s promise required that Abraham abandon, we may assume with a good deal of pain, the home of his ancestors. It compelled Moses to lead his followers, many of them reluctantly, away from their preferred compliance to slavery. It aroused the prophets to risk their lives and reputations combating the nostalgic religious inclination to localize and naturalize the divine presence. The sense of promise undergirds a wide variety of biblical challenges, e.g. apocalyptic renunciations of the "present age," Jesus’ sense of homelessness, the Gospels’ message that turning our attention toward the Risen Lord requires a forfeiture of worldly security, and St. Paul’s summons to realize our freedom by living without the comforts of legalism.
Because it constantly portrays mystery in the form of a gracious promise, the Bible forbids our searching for meaning, salvation, or fulfillment completely apart from historical existence. However, as we have already seen, Christian teaching and theology have obviously not always paid attention to this directive. They have avoided it by interpreting mystery in ways that overlook its fundamentally promissory character. Much traditional theology of revelation has almost completely suppressed the promissory nature of revelation and with it the value of historical existence.(In preparing this book, the author has seldom found the theme of promise to be prominent, or sometimes even mentioned, in traditional Catholic treatises on the subject of revelation.) Yet from a biblical point of view, the refusal to accept the promising character of mystery is the fundamental meaning of sin. Human life and conduct become twisted and begin to miss the mark whenever mystery is domesticated into a sanction of present or past patterns of existence instead of a stimulus to transcend them and move toward a new future. By shaping the experience of mystery in exaggerated mystical, Platonic, Stoic, and dualistic ways, rather than in terms of a promise that beckons us deeper into history and the future, theology has become innocuous and irrelevant. A theology of revelation consonant with the biblical vision now needs to address this failure and propose a suitable alternative.
Where theology has failed to take up the historical theme of promise, secular ways of thinking -- such as Marxism or the dubious Western dream of indefinite economic progress -- have often done so instead, thereby filling a need to which religion and theology have failed appropriately to respond. People cannot live without the prospect of a future, and so utopian musings, sometimes of the most unrealistic nature, have always attracted followers. The theme of promise, even in the form of secular eschatologies, speaks to something ineradicable in the human heart. By falling to acknowledge the natural human openness to promise, our theologies have sometimes lost touch with the actual lives and dreams of real people. They have substituted an other-worldly escapism for the biblical vision that sees promise even in the most impossible of historical situations. And when the other-worldly flight from history grows stale because of its failure to connect with present reality, dreamers are tempted to the opposite extreme of milking perfect fulfillment out of a purely secular environment.
Sooner or later such exclusively human efforts themselves also use up their energy and lead to disappointment and despair. The religious wisdom of the ages insists that any efforts to fulfill our hopes all by ourselves and with purely human resources will themselves inevitably become idolatrous. Peter Hawkins writes:
Utopia forgets. . that we do not have it of ourselves to help ourselves; it ignores our need for grace. . . . The heresy of utopia . . . is that it forestalls the human journey toward genuine fulfillment by reaching premature conclusions. It can make an idol of its own ideals, imprisoning us in the very structure that was meant to set us free.(Peter S. Hawkins, Getting Nowhere (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1985)9.
Mystery without promise can easily lead to religious escapism. But promise without mystery eventually ends up in the deadness of visions of the future too narrow to accommodate the inexhaustibility of our longings for fulfillment.
Biblical revelation speaks to this impasse through its perception of mystery as appearing to us precisely in the mode of promise. And it understands this promise not as an escape from the present but as new possibility for the present. It frustrates thereby our instincts for religious escapism. An awareness of promise often miraculously blossoms even amidst the most absurd circumstances: barrenness and infertility; conditions of oppression and slavery; exile from homeland; death by crucifixion. If promise is present even in these historical extremes, then it is present everywhere. It must therefore be the enveloping and sustaining context of all of reality. To those who object that happiness is impossible in a present that always looks to the future for fulfillment, revelation proposes that the kind of happiness most pertinent to the "now" is precisely the awareness of promise in every present situation. A happiness fully proportionate to the present moment is realized in the experience of hope. Hope is the happiness of the present.(Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 26-32.) Unhappiness then is not the result of present suffering, but of the absence of hope in the midst of either present suffering or present prosperity.
In the Bible, the truly virtuous, happy, or "blessed" are precisely those who perceive a promise in every present. In the Magnificat and the Beatitudes, the poor are presented as those most likely to be open to the fulfillment of God’s promise. Abraham’s trust in God is what makes him a just man. On the other hand, the Israelites became miserable whenever they lose sight of the promise during their difficult desert journeying. In Luke’s infancy narrative, Zechariah expresses misgivings about God’s promises, while Mary’s "blessedness" consists of her spontaneous trust that the promises of God to her would be fulfilled. Luke’s portrait of Mary as trusting in God’s promise provides a vivid paradigm of the authentic human response to revelation. To a great extent our theological understanding of faith, virtue, and happiness has lost this emphasis on the primacy of openness to the surprise of promise.(To a great extent, also, traditional Mariology has failed to highlight this most important aspect of the New Testament portraits of her character.) We have substituted a whole list of other ethical attitudes as more fundamental to Christianity than trust in God’s promises. We have often idealized virtue as a stoical asceticism which in the absence of hope can become intolerably burdensome. The consistent biblical position, however, is that only trust or hope can fully energize the ethical life. Even love is impossible unless the beloved’s life is seen as having possibilities for future realization. It is only hope in the other’s future that renders my concern effective. The promise of new possibility for oneself and others is the condition of any truly virtuous life. Only the horizon of promise allows human caring to thrive.
The Meaning of History
We would probably not be much interested in revelation unless it offered us answers to the big questions, such as the meaning of history. Obviously, those of us who trust in revelation cannot state in clear terms what the meaning of history is. Ultimately the future is God’s, and it therefore remains somewhat cloudy to us. This is why Wolfhart Pannenberg continually speaks of God’s revelation in history as "indirect." The meaning of history can only become clear at its end. Until then, revelation is provisional. In the Resurrection of Jesus, we have an anticipatory disclosure even now of the end of history.(Pannenberg, ed. Revelation as History, 125-58.) But until the end, we must be content once again to say only that what has been revealed is not complete clarity but a promise that demands trust. It is the promissory nature of revelation that we must accentuate here once again. As of yet, historical process does not make complete sense to us. And yet, to Christian faith a simple hope in the promise of history is sufficient to imbue it with meaning. In the perspective of faith, it is God’s promise that gives meaning to history.
Hope, as we have emphasized several times before, has an apophatic dimension that cleanses it of false optimism. It seeks a wider meaning for present events than can ever be stated in our words. In the face of the apparent absurdities that take place within human events, this hope renounces easy answers and opens itself to the surprise of unanticipated fulfillment. It requires a patience that liberates it from the trivializations of human expectation and premature utopian portraits of history’s meaning. Impatience for fulfillment has led time and again to the establishment of merely provisional conceptions of social order as though they were the climactic Outcome of all previous history. And those who set up such regimes have often resorted to unspeakable atrocities towards any who refuse to accept the finality of their visions of the golden age.
Hope’s injunction of silence in the face of mystery’s promise teaches us to wait for something more. At first sight, such waiting for deeper fulfillment seems unacceptable. And if it is not tempered by the ethical imperative to concrete action, it can indeed lead to passivity. Or if it attempts to thrive in the complete absence of present sacraments of promise, it will also wither. Still, Tillich is right in affirming that we are stronger when we wait in silence than when we possess:
The condition of man’s relation to God is first of all one of not having, not seeing, not knowing, and not grasping. A religion in which that is forgotten, no matter how ecstatic or active or reasonable, replaces God by its own creation of an image of God. . . . It is not easy to endure this not having God, this waiting for God. . . For how can God be possessed? Is God a thing that can be grasped and known among other things? Is God less than a human person? We always have to wait for a human being. Even in the most intimate communion among human beings, there is an element of not having and not knowing, and of waiting. Therefore, since God is infinitely hidden, free, and incalculable, we must wait for Him in the most absolute and radical way. He is God for us just in so far as we do not possess Him. . . . We have God through not having Him."
Tillich is aware that such patience is often difficult. But he goes on to say that in the final analysis it is the most fulfilling attitude we could take toward the future:
If we wait in hope and patience, the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. He who waits in absolute seriousness is already grasped by that for which he waits. He who waits in patience has already received the power of that for which he waits. He who waits passionately is already an active power himself, the greatest power of transformation in personal and historical life. We are stronger when we wait than when we possess.(Ibid.)
It is important to observe, in this connection, that the sense of the breaking in of a revelatory promise has generally been most lively among the poor, that is, among those who are forced to wait and who are most removed from possessing. Because of their present destitution, they can only look toward the future. The future breaks into the lives of all of us most decisively at those times in which we find that the present and the past are unsatisfying. To the poor, however, the present and the past are always inadequate to sustain them. They can only live off the future. Thus, it is those most oppressed by present circumstances who usually awaken the rest of us to revelation’s promise. Not those who hold the power, but the weak and dispossessed, bring us the promise, often clothed in the imagery of a seemingly inaccessible future. It is especially those compelled to wait for this future who open our present existence to the Good News of history’s promise.
For that reason it is important also that we retrieve and hold in our memory the forgotten sufferings of the past. Recent theology has emphasized that any accounts of meaning we may see in history must, for the sake of honesty and integrity, not forget the human pain that has made up so much of our history. If we fail to recall the harsh episodes of the past, we will end up with a naively narrow sketch of history’s meaning instead of a full picture. In this respect, too, our cosmological emphasis encourages us to include in our memory not only the suffering of our own species, but that of others as well. Our theologies have often forgotten this suffering, but an adequate theology of revelation must make a special place for the travail of natural evolution as well as of human history.
Reasons for Our Hope
Without the promise of a future to hope in, the move into history would be unbearable. But hope is impossible unless it is based on past and present events that provide the grounds for our trusting in a future fulfillment. The biblical authors were apparently aware of this need, and so they saturated their narratives with specific reasons to trust in the promise. As the author of I Peter says, we must be prepared to give a "reason for the hope" which is in us (3:15). The reason for our hope is depicted in stories, songs, and celebrations of how God has already, time and again, acted faithfully and effectively, how God’s "word" has been effective, and how God may now be acting in our lives. Revelation is not a vague and empty stab at the future, but a way of interpreting reality grounded in actual events in our lives and those of our ancestors in faith. It points narratively to actual evidence that grace and redemption are operative in history. It even reaches back to the beginnings and interprets creation itself as the pledge of God’s eternal power to keep promises. Only on the basis of actual creative and salvific events can we build our hope for history’s ultimate fulfillment.
It is in relation to this need for a basis of hope in previous and current events that we may also speak of God’s revelation in history. As we read the biblical texts, we note how often major strands of the tradition emphasize God’s fidelity to the promise made to Abraham. This fidelity is made concrete especially in stories of a divine covenant. In the creation story, in the promise to Noah, in Yahweh’s pledge to Moses at Sinai, in Jeremiah’s prospects for a new covenant written on the heart, and in accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God is always portrayed as promising everlasting loyalty. As we mentioned earlier, the accounts of the resurrection appearances of Jesus can themselves best be understood as promissory, in the genre of the appearances and new pledges of fidelity by Yahweh narrated in the Hebrew Scriptures.(Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 139-229.)
God’s fidelity to the promise is the Bible’s dominant theme. But in order to be assured of its substantiality, we have to look into our own history as a people formed by the promise. We will find there numerous accounts of how God’s fidelity has never failed and how it constantly overcomes our own infidelity. God’s revelation in history takes the form of recurrent actions possessing the qualities of graciousness, extravagance, and unexpectedness that characterized the promise first made to Abraham. If we could learn to indwell the stories about these actions and allow them to sweep our own present lives into their schematizing of historical existence, then we too could more consciously become children of the promise. By our surrender to the stories of promise we would become receivers and transmitters of God’s revelation.
The revelation of God is experienced in connection with significant historical events that take place in the life of the faith community. But it is the "word of God" that interprets these events and allows us to see in them a promise of future fulfillment. In other words, it is God’s word that gives meaning to history. In a certain sense, revelation is the word of God. Rene Latourelle writes:
If the Old Testament lacks a technical term for the idea of revelation, the expression "Word of Yahweh" remains a favorite expression, the most frequent and the most significant to express the divine communication. In the theophanies, the visible manifestation is always subservient to the word. What is primary here is not the fact of seeing the divinity, but the fact of hearing His word. (René Latourelle, Theology of Revelation [Cork: Mercier Press, Ltd., 1968]21.)
In the story of Abraham’s calling it is God’s speaking and not any appearance or vision of God that stands out. In Moses’ intimate encounters with Yahweh, he could not see God’s face but could only hear the word of God. And in the prophets, revelation occurs much more explicitly through the word than through theophanies.(Ibid.) Word or speaking is more natural to the act of promising than is vision, though the latter can be a vehicle of hope as well. In traditional theological discussions of revelation, the theme of God’s Word as disclosure has often been emphasized, but its character as promise has not.
The word of God is both promise and creation. It not only tells us what our future is, but actually brings it about. In biblical times, the spoken word carried a power and effectiveness that it appears to have lost in more recent periods. It is through the word, however, that God creates the world out of chaos or nothingness. And it is through the power of the same word of God that we may anticipate the fulfillment of history’s promise out of the nothingness of every apparently hopeless situation. It is important that we understand the creation story in Genesis in terms of the theme of promise. What this account delivers to us is not simply an interesting story about the beginnings, such as we find in all other myths of origins, but even more the basis for a confidence that God’s word can create new hope and promise out of every impossibility. The ability of God’s word to create the world gives faith the confidence that no matter how confusing and hopeless history seems at times to be, we may nevertheless continue to look for its meaning.
But it is not evident to everyone that there is a creative, gracious, and promising God at work in human history. It is not clear to most intellectuals today, for example, that history has any meaning at all. As they survey the past, they see no pattern of promise, no special events that would provide a clear basis for contemporary confidence and hope. How can history be read as pregnant with promise? There are so many horrors in our past and in the present that tempt us to give up on history. How are we to speak coherently of history’s promise in the face of these facts?
This question anticipates a discussion concerning the justifiability of the truth-claims of revelation that we shall undertake more explicitly in Chapter 11. But even at this point, we must at least begin our response to it. Here again we may invoke the notions of internal and external history that we spoke about earlier. Discernment of the promissory character of historical events, especially those connected with the theme of covenant, requires that we belong, in some sense at least, to the inner life of a faith community that grounds itself in those events. Experiencing a certain belongingness to this inner history allows us to abstract a certain sector of coherent events from the welter of confusion that makes up history, and to employ this abstracted series of events as a kind of key to interpret the whole. That there will be a certain relativity and historically conditioned quality to our scheme cannot be denied. But our selection of promissory events from Abraham to Jesus and the early Church allows us to focus on the totality of events in a meaningful, if not comprehensive, way.
This confession of the limits to our faith perspective seems to place in question what has traditionally been held out as the universality of Christian revelation. But here we may invoke once again the concepts of information science that we discussed in Chapter 4. There, we showed that the transmission of information requires constraints without which the information becomes lost. Any information needs to be constrained if it is to be something definite, and revelation is no exception. It must be incarnated in the consciousness of a particular people with a specific history. It must in some way be "bounded" if it is to have a definite shape.
Dwelling within a community of faith shaped by the significant events in the life of Israel and the Church orients our perception and consciousness so as to be able to read in the larger context of history a pattern of promise and fulfillment. Those "outside" the reach of this story will obviously not have the same orientation, and so they may fail to discern the significance that believers perceive in the Exodus or in Jesus’ death. But those who participate in the internal history of the covenant will see the call of Abraham, the Exodus from Egypt, the lives of the prophets, Israel and Judah’s release from captivity, the disciples’ missionary fervor after the death of Jesus, and the establishment of the Church as all having a promissory significance that a "scientific" historian might not appreciate at all. It is through our specially charged participation in the internal memory of a tradition that we are placed in touch with the promissory interpretation of what might otherwise appear only as a series of inconsequential occurrences. A purely external, detached, or "objective" account of historical events cannot by itself conjure up the significance we ourselves may attach to these events.
Our conviction that we belong to a meaningful and redemptive history could hardly take shape outside the life of a community whose very identity is based on hope in that promise. By indwelling a faith community that sees things in terms of certain paradigmatic events (such as the call of Abraham, the promise to Moses, the Exodus), we acquire the skill of discerning meanings that would otherwise completely elude us.(For a discussion of how such skills are formed see Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1958). This is not entirely different from what goes on in a scientific community. For even there, certain non-scientific factors are operative, leading scientists to focus on particular sets of data. All sorts of extraneous cultural and personal factors determine what sort of data the scientist will find interesting enough to deserve consideration. The scientist no less than the believer dwells within a community that orients inquiry in a particular direction. Such social orientation is not an obstacle to, but a condition of understanding.
Science is not just objective reporting, but also the work of an authoritative community that has determined what is interesting to look into. And this means that things that are not interesting to it will not show up in scientific theses. Human cognition, whether scientific or religious, can work only by being selective. Scientific and religious envisagements of reality are all historically, culturally, and geographically bound, and this means that they cannot encompass everything. In the world of religions, for example, we would hardly expect a Buddhist from Sri Lanka to designate the same human experiences as salvific that a Muslim or a Christian would.
Thus, it is only from within a relative and limited framework that we can provide a justification of our hope. We do not stand on any Archimedean point from which we can, in a detached way, survey the totality of history. We can only testify to the trustworthiness of the promise on the basis of what we know from the stories of God’s mighty deeds told to us in the context of our faith. But any complete verification of the validity of our trust awaits the fulfillment of God’s promise. We shall develop this point in Chapter 11.
History and God’s Humility
Throughout this book we have understood the notion of revelation not only in terms of the theme of God’s promise, but also of God’s humility. In our inquiry into the meaning of history, we may once again see the intimacy of these two themes. To state it somewhat abruptly, it is the humility of God that serves to open up the historical future as the arena of promise and hope. It is only by virtue of God’s humble self-absenting, by the kenotic withdrawal of any overwhelming divine presence or power, that the gift of history and its openness to the mystery of the future become possible. When we experience the mysterious abyss of an indefinitely open future, this mysterium tremendum which is in fact the gift of a self-renouncing deity, we are tempted and usually succumb to the tendency to cauterize it with our own narrow visions of the future or of the end of history. In doing so, we simultaneously invent our own petty deities, not recognizing them as our own projections. We create idols of oppressive power and presence, calling them "God" in order to sacralize them in their narrowness. And we substitute devotion to our utopian ideals for the posture of trust in an open future. This tragedy occurs time and again in our encounter with the promising mystery that beckons us into history.
Ernst Bloch, the great philosopher of the future, sensed our need for hope in an indefinite "forward dawning." But it seemed to him that the idea of God constituted an enormous obstacle to our need for an open-ended, limitless historical future. Only in the absence of any such limitation, he thought, can our hope thrive. Similarly Friedrich Nietzsche had earlier announced the death of any God who places a limit on the "innocence of becoming." Much modern atheism appears to be a protest against the God whose overwhelming power and presence serve to hem us in and suffocate our freedom and hope. We need a totally open future, and the existence of God seems to place limits on this openness. However, to Christian faith, the God of revelation who becomes manifest in the humiliation of the cross is disclosed as one who has from the beginning emptied the divine self of any claims to the kind of power and presence that might frustrate the openness of historical existence. The self-absenting of God opens history up to us in a radical way. This kenotic mystery removes the constraints on human becoming to which serious atheism is often rightly sensitive. Revelation challenges us to transform our history by submitting ourselves to no other constraints than those to which God has submitted, namely the self-limitation that allows others to be and that therefore permits the mutual relationships that constitute the stuff of history. Such a constraint is known as love. It is not the frustration, but the very condition of genuine historical fulfillment.
God has accepted the lowly limits of human existence, especially those imposed on human beings by the exercise of oppressive political power omnipresent in history. The God of revelation is not an ally or legitimation of this powerful suffocation of our being. Rather, God is one who suffers along with us in opposition to this power and presence. The self-renunciation of God is the condition of the possibility of our own and the atheists’ protests against oppressive power and presence. The self-emptying God does not stand over against us closing off the historical future to us, but in abandoning such a dictatorial posture, comes over to our side and leaves the future open to indefinite surprise. The meaning of history is its openness to this surprise. The meaning of history, in other words, is the reign of God.