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


Jesus spoke about, and he prayed in complete confidence to, the promising mystery that encompasses the world. He experienced this mystery as most intimately personal, and so he addressed it as abba. Christians are instructed to relate to this same mystery while simultaneously thinking of the man Jesus, his life, his parables about God’s reign, his healing compassion, his words of encouragement, his fidelity, his death and resurrection to new life. For it is especially through these that the mystery of the world is revealed to faith.

Yet the God that Christian faith associates with Jesus is the same one who spoke in promise to Abraham, Moses, and the prophets. It is the same God who pledged fidelity to Israel at Sinai and later to David and his progeny. This God is revealed as one who makes and keeps promises, as one who is always coming and the fullness of whose presence always eludes us. It is the God who in everlasting self-emptying love gives away the divine self unreservedly to the world. This God is revealed as one who in the most intimate self-withdrawing humility opens up the future in which God’s other, the world, can have its own being.

Revelation is God’s word of promise. The world’s reception of the promise and love of God requires that at all levels of its evolution it undergo creative transformation. If it is truly responsive to God’s self-revelation, it cannot simply remain the same. It has to be a somewhat restless world since the promise on which it is founded, and which continually beckons it forward, has not yet attained its fulfillment.

The world has the enduring character of not-yet-being. Our awareness of the "not-yet" at the level of human history leads us to invest our hopes in dreams of ideal social orders. But because our sketches of a future for humanity and the cosmos are usually too small and insufficiently inclusive, God’s own vision of the future bursts them asunder and invites us continually to widen our sense of what is possible. God’s revelatory promise invites us to imagine beyond narrowness, evil, and injustice, beyond poverty and oppression, and beyond even death.

The reception of revelation, then, is not a quietistic or passive acknowledgement of what God has done in the past moments of our history. Its reception entails our present transformation in order to allow God’s future to penetrate more fully and deeply into our world. Revelation does not require our transformation as a priori condition of its coming. For it is always gratuitous, surprising, and extravagant. But it does imply, as a consequence of these characteristics, that we surrender in obedience to its demand for inclusiveness and breadth. In this sense, it judges us. It challenges our narrowness -- for the purpose of uplifting and ennobling us. And not only us human beings, but the entirety of the cosmos in which we are rooted and to which we are inextricably connected.

Revelation, we have said repeatedly, is the arrival of the future. We open ourselves to its coming by way of hope, and we are accounted blessed if we trust that the Lord’s promises to us will be fulfilled (see Luke 1:45). Moved by this hope, we become servants of God’s vision for history and the entire creation. Our service takes the form of working, praying, and playing in a spirit of ever-widening inclusiveness. This posture seeks through the praxis of faith to overcome seemingly insurmountable barriers between races, sexes, classes, rich and poor, oppressors and oppressed, humans and the natural world, Christian faith and other religions. Without wiping out differences, it seeks the beauty of a harmony of contrasts. It does not despair when this harmony fails to materialize. Instead, it renews its hope that even our failures will not be an obstacle to the opening up of unprecedented possibilities.

Faith attaches itself to the promise of revelation through the attitude of hope. This hope, in turn, has sacramental, mystical, silent, and active aspects. It is sacramental in the sense that it is not abstract but seeks concrete ways in which the future can become present and tangible. In other words, hope discerns the humble incarnation of an absolute and infinite future hidden in the medium of finite realities, in healthy human communities, and in an integral environment. At the same time, hope looks mystically beyond the sheer finitude of all our sacraments of the future. It perceives the reality of a transcendent Promiser beyond the finitude of specific promises. Hope eventually allows itself to be consumed completely by the desire for union with the self-revealing Promiser. In order to arrive at this status, however, it passes through the asceticism of silence. It learns to wait, sometimes in darkness and emptiness, for the fullness of the ripening promise to reveal itself. Without silent waiting, hope turns into infatuation with visions of the future that are too small. Or else it tries by force to bring the fullness of the largely unavailable future into the confines of a restrictive present. Finally, if hope is to open us fully to the promise of the future, it also becomes active in the affairs of the world and human history. It yields to a praxis that actively transforms the present so that it will correspond more closely to the breadth and inclusiveness of God’s vision, a vision in which nothing or no one is finally left out of the picture. It prays with patience, but also without passivity: "We hope to enjoy forever the vision of Your Glory."

It is useful to keep these several modulations of hope in mind in order to avoid a one-sided emphasis on the notion of revelation as symbolic communication. For revelation also occurs in the mystical, active, and silent modes of religious life and hope. In recent years sacramentally oriented theology, stimulated by theologies of symbol, may have caused us to overlook the disclosive capacity of the non-sacramental aspects of religion. Thus, in this book we have proposed that revelation comes not only through sacraments of hope, although this is the indispensable entry point of God’s promise; it also enters into our awareness by way of the mystical, silent, and active sides of hope.

The mystical aspect reveals the infinite depth of mystery beyond the finite symbol. The apophatic return to silence, whereby we distance ourselves from the inevitable narrowness of particular symbols, allows mystery’s breadth to become more prominent. And finally, the praxis of the prophetic message also becomes a vehicle of revelation. Only through the doing of justice can we be said to know the God of Moses, the prophets, and Jesus. This does not mean that the doing of justice is a condition of God’s revelatory self-gift. There are no such conditions. But what it does mean is that the manifestation of God’s being in our world cannot occur apart from situations of social and economic inclusiveness. The glory of God is obscured and remains unrevealed to the extent that poverty, division, and oppression still reign. Where justice, unity, and love prevail, there God is revealed.