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April 2019
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Speeches

M.D. Bryant: On Divine Self Disclosure

Essay published in Dialogue & Alliance, Vol. 25, No. 2, 2011

In his theological meditation on The End for Which God Created the World, Jonathan Edwards articulated his conviction that it was the very nature of the Divine to communicate itself.[i] This conviction had long been part of the Christian traditions; indeed, it stands at the very fountainhead of Christian faith. And over the course of centuries, Christian writers sought to unfold this conviction in relation to all orders of Being as well as in relation to the Divine Trinity itself. At the very well-spring of Divine Life itself lay the ontological grounds of divine self-disclosure. In creation, as in the soul, in time as in eternity, in the incarnation as in every life, was to be found the self-disclosing God who yet in the mystery of transcendence remains utterly beyond. The paradox of divine transcendence and immanence thus generates a multiform grammar of divine life that continues to unfold as Christian thinkers strive to articulate the truth and meaning given in Christian experience of the transcendent but self-disclosing God.

For Edwards, the articulation of his conviction that it was the very nature of the Divine to communicate itself came late in his life, although it had long been implicit in his writings. Already in his youthful essay "Of Insects," probably written before his teenage years, Edwards had observed the life of the spider – “of all Insects no one is more wonderful" – and concluded that in their lives we can "see the exuberant Goodness of the Creator who hath not only Provided for all Necessities but also for the Pleasure and Recreation of all sorts of Creatures ..."[ii] Such a combination of natural observation and religious sentiment came easy to Edwards in eighteenth-century Puritan New England and bespeaks an integral Christian culture that is no longer ours. Throughout his life, as Edwards turned his powerful mind – one that had been deeply nourished by a life of prayer, the study of Scripture, and the routines of a pastor and family man – to the mysterious turnings of the human soul and the turmoil of a society in transition, he sought to discern the presence of the self-disclosing God. The very presuppositions of his life – that life unfolded from God and returned to God – were also the objects of his reflection.

To invoke the story of Jonathan Edwards as the prologue to this essay on revelation is not wholly fanciful. Edwards has been seen as standing in a transitional moment in the history of Western culture and theology. Perry Miller, a great cultural historian of American life, saw Edwards as the first American theologian to incorporate the emergent sciences of the Enlightenment into his theology. Others saw him as the last American representative of what Peter Gay called "the medieval mind."[iii] The differing assessments are not here at issue, but what is worthy of notice is the transitional situation of which Edwards stands as an emblem. In Edwards’ own time, new cultural forces were emerging in Western Europe that would challenge the very foundations of Christian life and reflection. While Edwards could read the works of the new sciences, especially Newton, and incorporate them into his thought as new insights into the workings of the Creator God, later generations would be challenged as perhaps never before to prove that the very notion of a creator was not just a silly remnant of superstition from a bygone age. While Edwards could write volume after volume of Christian theology on "the freedom of the will," "the religious affections," the "nature of true virtue," and a host of topics without once stopping to defend the belief in divine self-disclosure or revelation, the generations following would be challenged to defend the very foundations of knowing that had funded Christian life. For Edwards, thinking and writing flowed from the crucible of a life that had early resolved to do all for "the glory of God." But in the years following Edwards, a profound transformation was to unfold in the world that dramatically altered the situation of the thinker who believed, as did Edwards, that the God with whom we have to do is revealed in the lives of spiders, the beauty of rainbows, the transfiguration of souls, the revolutions of history, and the very relations of Being itself.

It is this changed situation that we have inherited.

Towards the recovery of the revelatory foundations of knowing

Wolfhart Pannenberg has argued that "the problem of revelation has become the fundamental question in modern theology."[iv] The issue of revelation rightly deserves such prominence on the contemporary theological agenda, but we need to briefly unpack the cultural reasons for such prominence. What began to unfold in the modern era, following Descartes, was a view of knowing that dissented from the classical traditions of the ancient world – Greek, Hebrew, Christian, and Muslim. When Descartes urged programmatic doubt as the foundation of all knowing, he severed the connection with traditions of knowing that had rested on the gestalt of given relations between the subject and object. In Plato, for example, we could "know" by virtue of our participation in the very objects of knowing: truth, goodness, and beauty. For the Hebrews, we could know because Yahweh had made Himself known in his covenant, commandments, and Torah. And for the Christian, God had likewise made himself known in the Word made flesh and in the faith that we could come to know the one who had been made known as well as know anew the whole of creation. Muslims affirmed that God had made himself known in creation and the Qur’an. These paradigms of knowing were, of course, philosophically developed in a variety of ways over the centuries, but there was a pervasive agreement that we could know rather than a pervasive skepticism that we could not know at all. More attention was given to the different ways of knowing – mystical, moral, theological, allegorical, et cetera – and the different levels of knowing in accordance with the hierarchy of being. Given the shared presuppositions concerning the givenness of the objects of knowing to the human mind, new syntheses between these strands of Western culture emerged, disintegrated, and reformed. But into these traditions there emerged, in the modern world, a new account of knowing and reality that left these ancient traditions on the defensive.

In the centuries following Descartes, the new sciences emerged as the paradigm of knowing, together with the new philosophies of the autonomy of reason. While that story is far too complex to review here, it will perhaps suffice to recall that with these developments there emerged a new metaphysic that, in effect, reduced reality to what can be known in the emergent paradigm of knowing. Within that context, the claims of the earlier traditions became increasingly problematic, if not impossible. How could we speak of a knowing grounded in God's self-disclosure? Of events or persons or texts that revealed a transcendent reality that was itself beyond the new paradigm of knowing? Of the presence in the soul of a divine light that was its own truthful witness? While answers to these questions were available in the writings of earlier ages, it was precisely those sources of wisdom that had now, it was believed, been surpassed. Thus the critical questions for the defenders of the classical paradigms of knowing became this: can we justify our claims to know and be known by a transcendent God in terms of the emergent modern paradigms?

Throughout the modern era, then, there were a host of noble attempts to reformulate the classical traditions, especially within Christianity, in the light of the modern intellectus. Figures like Immanuel Kant, for example, after denying the possibility of knowing the noumenal, sought to refashion the content of Christianity in moral terms. Later, Frederick Schleiermacher sought to locate the divine presence in a realm of feeling that was untouched by the modern paradigm. Schleiermacher thus abandoned the traditional claims that out of the self-disclosure of God we gained access to a knowing that could be unfolded as an ontology. While we must not underestimate their achievements, neither reformulation is adequate to the Christian belief in a self-disclosing God. Rather, what we can see in the modern era is both a marginalization of the classical traditions and a reluctant abandonment of the conviction among Christian thinkers that out of the self-disclosure of God the truth of Being could be articulated. Why? In the flush of the stunning achievements of the new sciences, a new world was emerging that was no longer dependent upon religion for its success. While Pannenberg's argument for the centrality of the question of revelation still stands, we can now see that we must ask if the question can be addressed on the basis of modern assumptions of the situation between an autonomous knower and autonomous nature.

My answer would be that the Christian belief in a self-disclosing God cannot be articulated on the paradigm of knowing that has emerged in the modern intellectus.[v] In this paradigm, the only valid knowledge we can claim is that given to us through the methods of the empirical sciences which, it was long believed, gave us certain knowledge of an objective natural order. More recent developments in science itself have led to a profound questioning of that empiricist paradigm of knowing, but it continues, in a variety of variations, to enjoy a pervasive dominance in our technological civilization. Moreover, what has shifted is the very understanding of knowing itself. Whereas the more ancient traditions saw knowing in more holistic and transforming grammars, the modern paradigm increasingly understood knowledge as information.

Consider, for example, the way in which in both the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions the knowing of the good and the true led to a life of virtue and how, conversely, a virtuous life was considered the prerequisite of knowing the good and the true. Or how the Jewish tradition believed that faithfulness to the Covenant transfigured the life of the nation and community. Or we might recall how the encounter with the God revealed in Jesus Christ was understood by Christians to transfigure human life by healing the imago dei that had been broken by the fall. These transformative grammars of knowing were not incidental but integral to the very event of knowing itself. But in the modern paradigm, even though I believe such transforming consequences for the knowing subject are inherent in the paradigm itself, true knowledge is defined as information and probabilities that we come to gain through observing, counting, and measuring the world that we stand over against.

If there is merit in this account of the situation that has emerged in the modern era, what is the Christian thinker whose life, like that of Edwards, has been nourished by a knowing that does not count in the canons of the modern paradigm, to do? The answer is not easy, nor is it obvious. But it does seem to me that certain options are precluded if one is to remain faithful to the traditions that have nourished and given one life. While one might legitimately abandon the quest to articulate the truth and meaning given to one in one's life on the ground that the task, given the hostility of the modern paradigm, is impossible, one cannot grant the modern paradigm the exhaustive rights it claims for itself. And if one will not, for whatever reason, grant these exhaustive rights to the modern paradigm, then one must seek to clarify both a way of knowing and its content in terms that are more consonant with the very traditions of knowing that the modern era has cast out. It is perhaps one of the great ironies of the modern era that in the midst of its own dissent from the more ancient traditions of knowing it has made available to us, albeit with the relativistic rider that this is what earlier cultures and epochs taught and believed, more information about those ancient traditions is available than ever before. But if we approach those older texts and traditions in a different spirit, we might be instructed anew in what we might call the revelatory epistemology of those earlier ways of knowing. Indeed, we might even discover some hidden resources in the modern era for such a recovery of the very modes and ways of knowing that the modern paradigm has officially barred from the house of knowledge.

Recovering a revelatory epistemology

Rather than beginning with the explicitly Christian claims about a self-disclosing God, I want to turn to some other features of modern life that suggest some elements of continuity with more ancient ways of knowing. In the ancient ways of knowing, it was more common to speak of things given in experience, of things received in an inspired moment, of an ecstatic moment when one saw the truth, of the mind that recovers itself through what is given to it. In modern terms, we might say that knowing was more received than acquired, more passionately given in the soul than accumulated by actively measuring the world, more suffered than created. For the Promethean modern era, even such a way of speaking about knowing is to evoke a forgotten feminine dimension of us all that we more aggressive and active moderns have sought to abolish.[vi] When we hear Plato's story of the cave, we are more impressed by the valiant efforts of the knower to climb up out of the cave than we are by the majesty of the sun that is the source of all knowing. When the prophet calls us to listen to the still small voice that speaks within, in silence, we are so terrified by the prospect of silence that we dismiss him out of hand as a fool. And when the broken body on the Cross speaks directly to our heart and instructs it in the ways of humility, we are too busy to heed the Word. For is not knowing more than acquiring information? Don't we already know more than we know we know – as well as less?

Despite the substantive dissent of the modern era from more ancient ways of knowing, the vocabulary and grammar of what we have here called a revelatory epistemology have persisted. We continue, even today, to speak of scientific "breakthroughs," of great "discoveries," of things coming to us "in a flash," of achieving a great "insight," of "suddenly seeing something that had long eluded us," of waking in the middle of the night with solutions that "seemed to come from nowhere." These ways and habits of speech bespeak an experience of life that is at odds with the official paradigm of modern knowing. Here in the spontaneous expression of our experience, we recall our connectedness with things deep within and without that make themselves "known" to us. But they are generally pushed aside, regarded as "subjective" irrelevancies to the actual processes of knowing. And certainly it is not our intention to make too much of them here. Is it too much to suggest that they at least echo a memory of a profound engagement with a reality both beyond our skins and deep within that is not simply there but in which we participate and which "actively" engages us? Perhaps.

Another development that emerges late in the modern era that, in some respects, begins to open the way for the reappropriation of a revelatory epistemology is the psychoanalytic movement. What is significant here is the rediscovery that truly significant knowing, the kind that occurs in the life of a patient, comes as a disclosure or self-discovery in relation to layers and levels of consciousness that may have been completely hidden to the patient before.[vii] Of course the very debate that surrounds psychoanalysis – is it or is it not a "science"? – speaks loudly of the misgivings and unease of our culture in the face of a way of knowing that clearly moves beyond the dominant paradigm. And we see, as well, how anxious many of the theoreticians of the psychoanalytic movement are to establish psychoanalysis as a science in the modern sense. Be that as it may, it seems that we have in psychoanalysis a way of knowing that is in many respects consistent with the ancient conviction that "knowing is transforming." Such a way of knowing transcends the simplistic subject-object dichotomy and involves participation in the very transforming ground of life itself. Of course the very articulation of what happens in the psychoanalytic event is often caught within the very terms – subjective versus objective – that the event of insight and healing moves beyond.

More recently, the scientist turned philosopher Michael Polanyi has shown us that even the sciences have misrepresented themselves by claiming a false objectivity when their very activity as scientists is grounded in what Polanyi calls "tacit knowing" that itself cannot be proven. Again, the "tacit" dimensions of knowing, as Polanyi calls them, lead us beyond the false characterization of subject and object that has bedeviled the modern era.[viii] And even within the so-called "new physics" of Einstein and Heisenberg, we see the breakdown of the modern paradigm of knowing, as the role of the subject in the process of knowing the universe is acknowledged. However, as promising as these developments are, we are still a long way from a truly revelatory epistemology that would acknowledge the revelatory grounds of knowing the truth of ourselves, of Being, and of God. We are still a long way from overcoming the anti-revelational views of knowing that emerged in the modern era when we were overtaken by the Promethean (Faustian) desire to establish our complete autonomy from our divine ground, an arrogant longing for mastery that threatens our very future.[ix]

Nevertheless, some are beginning to relearn, in continuity with the ancient traditions, that all knowing involves the engaged participation of the knower in that which he seeks to know. And the circle of knowing is completed when we realize that that which we seek to know is already present as the ground of the very quest to know itself. The truth of being is already present in that being in relation to Being in which we stand. The truth that we are loved by God is already present in the love that God has for his creatures that moves us towards the Divine love. Before, as the poet said, we turn towards God he has pursued us, so that in turning we merely meet the One who was already there. In this revelatory epistemology, disclosure is at the heart of all knowing. Though we seek and struggle and twist and turn, knowing finally comes as a gift, something given. In the experience/act of disclosure, we are given insight that transcends our anticipated goal while at the same time being led beyond our prior state of not knowing. Here, knowing is not mere information, or mere knowing about. It is rather a being-in-relation to the object of knowing that now discloses itself as subject so that the relational ground and character of knowing is made evident.

For the ancient ways of knowing, the goal is wisdom. It is not knowing where to get change for a dollar, but knowing the truth of the self and not self, of Being and Non-Being, of God and the Ultimate. In revelatory experience, we know the Other as Other and yet as not Other in the sense of foreign. Our knowing here is holistic, involving the whole self in its multiformity, prior to its differentiation into knowing of the heart, the head, or the will. Only over time is the holistic knowing of the whole self unfolded into concepts, or affects, or decisions as well as into historical comities and structures in time. And we may misrepresent what we have known holistically in that differentiating process.

If we could move beyond the false debate that has pitted revelation against human knowing and recover the revelatory ground of all knowing, then the religious traditions could address themselves to the truly significant question of the relationship of the disclosure of the Divine given in a particular tradition to that disclosure which is claimed in another. This is an exceedingly complex question, not least because the self-disclosure of the Divine in the context of differing cultural traditions is experienced as the experience of the whole. But the fact that the disclosure of the Divine is experienced as the disclosure of the whole does not make it the whole disclosure. This paradox stands, I believe, at the very heart of the intra-religious question.

The intra-religious question concerning the self-disclosure of the divine is also complicated by another factor: we grow in our understanding and apprehension of the God that is given to us in our respective traditions. Our apprehension of what is given in the revelatory moment is not apprehended from a neutral standpoint, but from one that is shaped by one's life, historical circumstance, and cultural tradition. Thus, while we are conditioned, we may and do grow in our apprehension of what has been given in the revelatory moment: we grow through the conditioning context to a deeper, or purer, or fuller apprehension of what was given. This is possible precisely because what is given to us that is of God, however mangled or distorted or even hidden from us, is related to and part of the self-disclosure that is grounded beyond the conditioned, in the unconditioned.

In an account of knowing that is grounded in the revelatory self-disclosure of a Transcendent Other that is beyond the self, then, we begin to approach the religious traditions and ancient ways of knowing. In these traditions, primacy is given to that which discloses itself: the Other, the Divine, Being, even the World. Here, knowing is illumination, insight, recollection, transformation; it is not just information or knowledge about something. In the modern context, the most fruitful analogies to these ancient patterns are to be found in interpersonal life, where knowing takes place between subjects but in relation to something that is not reducible to either subject: the one knowing or known. But the limitation of this analogy is that these experiences are often construed as "merely" subjective, as if they did not tell us something about the reality in which we find ourselves, a reality of incredible mystery until that mystery discloses itself to us in a revelatory event.

Revelation as divine self-disclosure

If, now, we turn our attention to the Christian faith (which has already implicitly informed everything said above), we find ourselves confronting the basic Christian claim that "God was in Jesus Christ reconciling the world to Himself" or that "in Jesus Christ God makes Himself known." At every point in the Christian traditions that emerge from that series of revelatory events witnessed to in Scripture and proclaimed over the centuries in the Christian churches, we encounter the fundamental claim that here God is revealing Himself, here we are in the presence of the self-disclosure of the Transcendent.

The primacy of the self-disclosing God is underscored in the very language of revelation. To reveal – in Greek, apokalupto, in Latin, revelo – is first a verb, the act of uncovering or making known what was hidden, and then a noun, revelation, signifying that which is uncovered. Within the Christian traditions, then, the divine subject that initiates the revelatory event or events always remains primary. And this primacy cannot be overcome; the subject remains always beyond our grasp. At the same time, Christian writers seek to correlate this divine subject with that in which and through which – Jesus Christ, the Word, Scripture, Creation, history, the soul – the self-disclosure of God occurs, as well as with the subject that receives/acknowledges the revelation – the believing community, the holy church, men and women of faith. Keeping these elements in relation to each other is crucial to the integrity of the Christian experience of the self-disclosing God, but it also makes clear something of the multiform grammar that must inevitably accompany Christian attempts to articulate their encounter with a self-disclosing God. In the language of the Christian faith, God reveals in the Word made Flesh. But our affirming of that divine self-disclosure as the self-disclosure of God is always, at root, a believing knowing or an act of faith. In this tradition, as the Orthodox writer Nicholas Berdyaev remarks, "... the knowledge of God presupposes revelation and that it is at once divine and human. The most necessary thing to keep in mind in that revelation is divine-human."[x]

We can approach the Christian revelation only with the conviction that it is an event of Divine self-disclosure in which the subject, God, while revealing what was hidden, remains beyond. But this very affirmation is already made within the triadic relationship of the divine revealer, the revealed, and the receiver of revelation. And the moment we attempt to say anything more – if not this very affirmation itself – we place ourselves within the context of the manifold doctrines of revelation that have been articulated over the Christian centuries. Here one encounters an overwhelming, but exceedingly rich, variety of expression and argumentation as Christian writers seek to articulate in discursive terms the event, content, and process of divine self-disclosure. Employing the languages of spirituality and symbolism, of mysticism and metaphysics, Christian writers sought to articulate their encounter with the self-disclosing God who transformed their hearts and minds. But in these multiform attempts to articulate what was revealed in these revelatory events, the event remains primary. It gives rise to the attempts to articulate what is given and yet, at the same time, is the basis for the continuing reformation of the very articulations of its content. The various doctrines of revelation thus remain forever subject to revision on the basis of the event itself.

When we approach the divine self-disclosure that stands at the fountainhead of Christianity, then, we must be aware that all of our categories for understanding the event, its content, and even its unfolding in our lives will have to be reformulated and transfigured in the light of what is there disclosed. The new wine bursts the old wineskins, the blind see, the ears hear a melody never known before. This trans-valuation of categories is required by the very nature of the self-disclosure itself – and the effort to be faithful to what has there been disclosed. Thus, the first language of response is the language of confession, of song, of inner transformation. Then more discursive languages are appropriate as we seek to articulate, in ways conformable to what is given in the self-disclosing event itself, the meanings of revelation in relation to the multiform spheres of life, the differing eras of humankind, and the differing issues that present themselves to the believing heart. An analogous point is made by the very history of Christian reflection.

For centuries, as the Catholic theologian Avery Dulles remarks, the Christian traditions lived out of the encounter with the self-disclosing God in Jesus Christ with "little effort ... to prove the existence of revelation or to define the concept."[xi] At the beginning, the more pressing concern was to identify those writings that faithfully witnessed to what had been given to them in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This process went on over a long period of time and was coupled with developing creedal formulations that sang the regula fidei. These early Christian affirmations of the self-disclosing God led eventually to Irenaeus' summary of the Christian faith as God becoming human in order that humanity might be lifted up into the life of God.[xii] This theandric formulation of the Christian encounter with the self-disclosing God precedes the more discursive attempts at a theology of revelation in the history of Christianity. Indeed, one of the most striking features of that history is that explicit attempts to "prove" or "define" revelation come late, after the fifteenth century. And their very emergence is in a context and with intentionalities that make them exceedingly problematic.

The doctrine of revelation first attains prominence in the context of the intra-Christian controversies of the sixteenth century and in order to justify the confessions of rival confessional communities within the family of Christian traditions. The Protestants tended to identify revelation with the "Scripture" and the Catholics with "Scripture and Tradition" in the Holy Church. These polemical efforts generated misunderstandings that only now are beginning to be overcome. Moreover, these misplaced debates tended to undermine the very notion of revelation in the wider culture, and with considerable justification, since it often appeared that what was at issue was not the self-disclosing God but the hegemony of the church over the whole culture. Thus the way was prepared for the Enlightenment perspectives which savagely critiqued the very idea of revelation and sought to consign it to an era of superstition. It is therefore imperative that we move behind these modern developments and recover the older traditions of theological reflection as the way into a post-modern future.

What I have argued here is that that way must begin with a recognition that the self-disclosing God is both the primary actor and the very subject of the Christian understanding of revelation. Such a starting point moves us beyond the "subjective/objective" categories that have plagued the modern era.[xiii] This is reflected in Christian responses to the self-disclosure of God in Jesus Christ, as Christians have sought to chart their own transfiguration as their lives, communities, history, and very being have been remade by the transforming presence of the self-disclosing God. From the radiant center of the incarnation, we look back anew to creation and ahead in hope to the consummation. The event of revelation, precisely because it is the revelation of God, reverberates throughout the cosmos, leaving nothing untransfigured. For the one who has been caught up in the ecstasy of Divine self-disclosure, the very rising of the sun is a daily hymn to the Creator; the healing of a broken heart another testimony to the Redeemer; the vitality of life a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit. For the one still caught in the net of one's own making, the world remains opaque, a circle unto itself, disclosing nothing beyond.

To say this is, of course, to leave unsaid that whole history of Christian reflection that has sought to render in the various grammars of spirituality, symbolics, metaphysics, and theology the truth given in the self-disclosure of God within the Christian faith. And while that history cannot here be reiterated, it is imperative that we acknowledge it as the context for our own appropriation of the Christian affirmation of the self-disclosing God. To stand in that multiform tradition is to affirm a grammar of life, thought, and action that begins with God as the divine ground and end of all things, the Transcendent source of our creation, redemption, and consummation. To affirm the fundamental Christian claims is to affirm that we too have encountered as event the self-disclosing God, been grasped or caught up in a divine life that can never become an "object" of knowing in any modern, relativistic, or reductionistic sense.

Rather, when we affirm that God reveals Himself in Jesus Christ, reconciling the world to God and lifting it up into the life of God, we are affirming a knowing that is at once believing and that transforms us in the process. That this knowing can only be stated as a believing knowing does not make it invalid – unless we restrict the language of knowing to canons of verifiability that are, as we have suggested here, open to serious question and challenge. Moreover, to notice the correlation of believing and knowing within the human subject in relation to the self-disclosure of God is to underscore the transfigurative character of the revelatory experience. To claim to know God is simultaneously to know one's self and the world anew. Thus Christians speak of knowing as metanoia, as a turning of one's whole life and mind to conformity with the self-disclosing God. This process unfolds over time as faith seeks to understand what is given to it in the revelatory experience of the self-disclosing God.[xiv] This task has become, as we have argued above, increasingly problematic in the context of the modern intellectus. Where can we turn in unfolding the content of the self-disclosing God given in Christianity?

Transition

This question has become increasingly problematic in the modern era. The divorce of philosophy in the post-Cartesian world from its alliance with the Christian religion – a marriage made in the Middle Ages after centuries of courtship going back to the early Christian apologists – has created a predicament for Christian reflection upon the revelatory ground and content of its life. This predicament arises as the Christian traditions of reflection have lost their historical conversation partners in the joint project of thinking the truth of Being and God. As philosophy moved to assert its autonomy from the religious traditions – a move as old as Plato himself but which was achieved with a vengeance in the Enlightenment West – it turned against its former partner with a hostility that called into question the very Divine Subject that had funded the life of Christian reflection in its multiform idioms. In recent centuries, then, theology in the West, not knowing where else to turn, continued to attempt a reconciliation with a philosophical partner that clearly wanted a divorce. The consequence is the pitiful state of Christian theology continually seeking a relationship with a partner that no longer wishes to remain in the marriage. (Consider, for example, the infatuation with Heidegger in the 20th century or Paul van Buren's wholesale accommodation to the assumptions of the modern intellectus in his fortunately ill-fated The Secular Meaning of the Gospel, which simply abandoned the fundamental revelatory grounds of the Christian faith.[xv]) Is there another, more fruitful, direction in which to look? I believe there is.

Earlier we had suggested that Jonathan Edwards stood in a transitional moment in the history of Christian thinking in the West. What was emerging then was a modern intellectus that was profoundly hostile to the received tradition in which Edwards stood and in which he wrote. The subsequent secularism of the modern era placed theology on the defensive. We now find ourselves in another era of transition as the modern era is coming to an end. I believe that a new horizon is beginning to emerge that will influence that unfolding of the Christian faith in many equally profound and unknown ways. And that new horizon involves the recognition of the Christian traditions among the many religious traditions of humankind. While these have always been part of the history of humankind, they have been largely ignored in the history of Christian thought. But that suppression of the variety of humankind's religious heritage is coming to an end in our time. And it is, I believe, this kairotic moment that opens up new and fruitful directions for the future of Christian reflection on its own revelatory foundations. That more fruitful direction is to be found in an open encounter of the Christian faith with the revelatory elements of the other great traditions of the East and the West.

The argument for this proposal can be simply stated. The fundamental affirmation of Christianity is that in revelation we encounter a self-disclosing God who is the ground and end of human life. This affirmation cannot be verified from some neutral vantage point, nor proved within the paradigm of knowing found in the modern era. But it may be unfolded in life and thought. It is precisely this affirmation of a self-disclosing God that leads us to the other religious traditions that likewise claim to know the Divine on the basis of the self-disclosure of God in their sacred scriptures, traditions, practices, and life. At the same time, the particularities of the Christian experience of the self-disclosing God distinguish Christian faith from other faiths that arise in response to their particular encounters with the self-disclosing God. Prior, then, to the questions that will inevitably arise in the encounters between persons of different traditions is that shared experience and belief, though shaped in different ways, that life attains to its fullness in relation to the Transcendent. Thus, the Christian affirmation of a self-disclosing God becomes itself the reason for Christians to enter into a mutually respectful dialogue with other traditions that likewise claim to know the Divine on the basis of revelation. Such a dialogue can be entered into only out of the depths of the Christian faith and with a profound humility – not because one has nothing to bring to the dialogue but precisely because one has the most precious of all things to bring to such an encounter: the gift of God's self-disclosure.

Thus there is, I believe, a theological ground within Christianity itself – and not just a human, or a world historical basis – for Christians to embrace the emerging encounter between religions as the way to recover Christianity’s own revelatory foundations. That theological ground is, I believe, rooted in the very primal foundations of Christian affirmation, namely, that the God we know in Jesus Christ is both one with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the God of all. And what distinguishes this proposal from those of John Hick in God Has Many Names and Wilfrid Cantwell Smith in Towards a World Theology is that this proposal is grounded in the revelatory affirmation of a self-disclosing God, rather than in Hick's "religious pluralism" or Smith's "history of man's religious life."[xvi] To affirm, as I am proposing here, that the revelatory foundation of Christianity is the ground of Christian openness to other traditions is only to indicate a starting point. It says nothing at all about the myriad questions that must inevitably arise in the actual encounter between religions in our time.

On a more practical level, I would suggest that the most creative and constructive turn that Christian thinking could make in the present era is to enter into a mutually respectful dialogue with the great traditions of the East and West. Here, we will encounter thinking that grows out of the experience of the transcendent sources of being rather than out of the rampant skepticism, positivism, relativism, and secularism that characterize philosophy in the West. While the differences between the religious traditions remain profound and even directly contrary on some points, it is my belief that sustained encounter with the traditions of Advaita Vedanta in Hinduism, forms of Mahayana Buddhism, and Sufi traditions in Islam – to name but three – would be infinitely more productive for Christian theology than its continual lusting after a mate that has gone another way. It simply proposes that Christian thought enter into conversation with those who are convinced that the transcendent is the source of life. We might even recover in these encounters our own Christian rootedness in the Divine life and rethink that rootedness in ways that are both faithful to the primal foundations of Christianity and relevant to the current malaise of Christian thinking about its own revelatory foundations.

Revelation and Christianity: the unfinished agenda

At first blush, the suggestion that the grounds for an openness to other traditions is rooted in the Christian experience of a self-disclosing God may appear profoundly contrary to Christianity itself. Have we not all been taught that the self-disclosure of God within Christianity vanquishes all other claims to know God outside the Christian revelation? Isn't this the cumulative record of the Christian faith in relation to other traditions? Does not the revelation of God within Christianity sound an unambiguous no to all other revelations past, present, or future? We would be less than honest if we did not acknowledge that the weight of the traditions of Christianity is towards an affirmative response to each of these questions. Nevertheless, I would suggest that there are grounds within Christianity itself to respond in another way. It will be the burden of the remainder of this essay to sketch the grounds for that alternative response. This sketch is, admittedly, both tentative and speculative.

But before going further, let me say that I do not see what follows as discontinuous with the classical Christian traditions. Indeed, I believe it is continuous with the deepest insights of Christianity and its three-article faith in God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. I understand this sketch to grow out of the Christian experience of the self-disclosing God and thus to be a further development of that tradition. What is different, then, is not the substance of that Trinitarian faith, but the context in which it is unfolded, namely, the world religions, and a way of articulating that Trinitarian faith in relation to the revelatory claims of other traditions. Such an undertaking points in a direction and indicates a basic orientation towards a contemporary issue rather than substantive results.

The question of the revelation of God given in Christianity in relation to the self-disclosure of God given in other traditions is often regarded as a completely new question. But it is actually the oldest question to have confronted the Christian faith: was the God revealed in Jesus Christ the same God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? The unambiguous answer of the earliest Christian writings was yes. Indeed, Christians claimed that Jesus Christ was the long-awaited Messiah, the one promised not only in the prophetic traditions of ancient Israel, but the antidote to the Fall of Adam and Eve. This God, the Apostle Paul was to later affirm, was also one with the "Unknown God" of the Greeks. If one looks back to the earliest written witnesses to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, one finds the affirmation of continuity, if not identity, between the Christian God and the Jewish God – and even the Unknown God of the Greeks.[xvii] (The same connection is present in the minds of contemporary saints too.) Similarly, when one looks at the process of identifying the Christian canon, one can discern a parallel pattern.

One of the earliest and, to my mind, most fateful of all developments in early Christianity arose in relation to Marcion in the second century. Marcion had argued for a fundamental discontinuity between the Christian and Jewish God – a view that continues to be expressed in pulpit after pulpit, Sunday after Sunday. On this basis, Marcion believed that the Christian scriptures should be limited to the writings of Paul and the Gospel of Luke. But the wider Christian community rejected Marcion's claim. Instead, they affirmed the Hebrew Scriptures, read in the light of their faith in Jesus as the Christ, as their Scriptures. They affirmed that the God known in Jesus Christ is one with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the Creator God of the entire universe.[xviii] The importance of these developments cannot, to my mind, be overstated. The Christian community affirmed a fundamental theological continuity with the faith of the Jewish community while at the same time acknowledging the element of discontinuity and difference in its affirmation of Jesus as the promised Messiah. Thus at the very foundation of the Christian experience of the self-disclosing God lies a dialectical yes-and-no towards the fundamental theological content of another religious tradition. Tragically, the long history of Christians in relation to Jews has been characterized by the negative rather than the positive dimension of this dialectic. But this should not obscure the principle here, namely, that the Christian revelation is both continuous with the self-disclosure of God within the Jewish tradition as well as discontinuous.

Of related importance in this regard are the subsequent developments as Christianity moved ever more deeply into the Gentile world. Here one sees, especially in the writings of early Apologists like Justin Martyr, the effort to understand Jesus Christ as one with the Logos and thus the source and fulfillment of the Greek quest for Wisdom. In these ways, Christianity was unfolding the truth given in its revelation of God in relation to different cultural and religious traditions. There are, of course, different ways of understanding these developments. But is it inappropriate to see here the dialectical consequences of the transformation of consciousness under the impact of the Christian revelation and the recognition of the self-disclosing God as meeting them in spheres of life and traditions beyond what had been initially anticipated? Wasn't the Word make Flesh also the eternal Logos present to creation from its very beginnings?

At the very heart of the Christian faith, then, lies a dynamic in relation to God that continually leads us into a deeper relationship with the inexhaustible mystery at the heart of Divine life. Rather than understanding the self-disclosure of God in Jesus Christ as the end of that mystery, it is the way into a deeper apprehension of that mystery. In affirming, for example, that Jesus Christ is the Logos, the Divine Word who discloses the mystery of God's will and purposes, need we deny the disclosures of the divine found in the revelatory experience of other traditions? Such was not the case at the beginning of the Christian era, and it need not be so now. (It almost seems that in our anxiety about a syncretistic Gospel we have misconstrued our own sources and grounds. It is precisely the synchronizing character of the Gospel that makes Christianity a truly catholic faith.)

For the Christian, for humanity transfigured by Christ, the way into the mystery of God remains Jesus as the Christ. But that transfigured Christian consciousness is also the way to apprehend anew the self-disclosure of God given in other traditions – as well as within our present day life and experience. Just as Christian consciousness apprehends anew the One who gives to Moses His name, "I AM WHO I AM," so the Christian might apprehend anew the One given in other traditions. For the God known in Jesus Christ – a knowing dependent today as yesterday on divine self-disclosure – is also one in being with the Creator and Consummator of all things. Here, the universal and the particular join; here, one is simultaneously led deeply into the mystery and broadly out to the fullness of the mystery of God.

The Christian encounter with the self-disclosing God need not be construed as a no to the revelatory experience of other traditions, but rather as the way into, for the Christian, the depths of other traditions. We want to know if that God who has made Himself known to us is also present there. Such a direction or path is, I believe, opened up to us by the very revelatory character of the Christian way. Only when the encounter with the self-disclosing God of Christianity is collapsed with the positive content of the Christian traditions is the possibility suggested here foreclosed. But, as Tillich has rightly argued and the history of Christianity has made abundantly clear, Christianity itself stands under the judgment of its own revelatory experience and the self-disclosing God. Indeed, it is this very distinction and tension between Christianity as a religion and its revelatory encounter with God that is crucial to its on-going transformation and deepening. And that distinction and tension continues to the very end of time and the consummation of all things. When this point is grasped, then we can see that the issue is not a "revealed" Christianity in relation to the other "non-revealed" religions, but the revelation of God given in Christianity in relation to the revelatory experience of other traditions.

To continue the unfinished agenda of the Christian faith, it is imperative that we search again in the history of Christianity for the resources that will aid us in that task. Relating the Christian encounter with the self-disclosing God to the revelatory experience of other traditions is increasingly the imperative under which I live. It is an imperative under which others have lived also. While that agenda has been abandoned in many quarters, especially Protestant, it is showing signs of revival now. The tasks that lie ahead are neither simple nor easily accomplished. Indeed, they may even turn out to be wrongheaded. And it would certainly take the combined efforts of several generations for such developments to make a significant impact upon the unfolding of the Christian traditions at an institutional level. But that does not make the imperative any less crucial.

There is little to point to on the contemporary scene that moves in the direction suggested here. What is not intended is a comparative study of revelation, nor would it be adequate to simply promote an empty ecumenism. Nonetheless, there are two works that bear being noted in this context. They are both by the Catholic thinker Raimundo Panikkar. The first is his controversial study The Unknown Christ of Hinduism, and the second is his work on The Trinity and the Religious Experience of Man.[xix] The first study illustrates the movement beyond the history of religions to the theological interpretation or reading of another tradition. Here, Panikkar reads Hinduism with Christian eyes. While his reading will obviously not be pleasing to all Hindus, nor his reading of Christianity be pleasing to all Christians, his work is an important example of a reading of another tradition that takes seriously both the revelatory experience of Christianity and of Hinduism. The genre is what is crucial. The second work is likewise grounded in Christian Trinitarianism and seeks to unpack the spiritual depths of the religious experience of other traditions. This work gives priority to forms of spiritual life that underlie and sustain and criticize more rationalistic or theoretical formulations. For Panikkar, the crucial matter is a "theandric" spirituality. It is a brave attempt to see the depths of other traditions, where they merge with or point towards the divine and to be instructed by them without forsaking the self-disclosure of the Divine mystery given in Christianity. What is crucial for me in both of Panikkar's works is his holding together of a remarkable openness to other traditions and the deepest affirmations of Christian faith. What is equally impressive is that Panikkar does not eschew the theological dimensions of the Christian faith in his efforts, but goes deeply into them as the way to the revelatory experience of others. The direction of Panikkar's work is, I believe, promising.

Revelation as orientation: a concluding commentary

Over the past several decades, I have become increasingly convinced of the importance of taking with utmost seriousness the great religious traditions. This conviction has grown out of my increasing contact with persons from religious traditions other than my own. Out of that experience I have been persuaded that there are depths of insight and patterns of practice and reflection in other traditions that affect and enrich me and my understanding of God, and the very Christian traditions that have guided and formed my life. I am also aware that my hearing and understanding of other traditions is mediated by my own Christian formation and understood in terms that are given to me from the Christian faith. Thus, it strikes me as a dangerous, and false, illusion to believe that the encounter of other religious traditions can be undertaken from a neutral standpoint. Rather, I have come to believe that it is only out of the depths of my Christian experience of divine self-disclosure that I can actually and truly relate to persons of other traditions. To forsake those formative convictions would be both impossible and dishonest.

Thus, when I reflect upon the meaning of revelation within Christianity and my own life, I find that I can best understand it in terms of how it orients one towards the whole of reality. It is through the Christian traditions that the self-disclosing God has been mediated to me, and it is here that I have come to believe in God and that all flows from God and to God. This orienting dimension strikes me as primary. It is prior to any attempt to say what the content of that revelation is. It is a way into the deepest mysteries of things both human and divine. It is a way of situating the whole self towards both time and eternity. It is the ground-tone of a whole life. It is the source of meaning and direction that resonates with the deepest order of things. It is sweet consent to being itself.

An autobiographical postscript: I wrote the above before going to India with my family, Susan and our four children. It was a year that led to an engagement with the living dialogue of people in the world religions, an engagement that continues to this day. When I read in 2011 what I wrote in 1986, I am both intrigued that it anticipated the direction my life has taken and uneasy about some of my formulations.



[i] Jonathan Edwards, Dissertation on the End for Which God Created the World, in C.H. Faust & T.H. Johnson, eds., Jonathan Edwards, Representative Selections (New York: American Book Company, 1935), pp. 340 ff.

[ii] Jonathan Edwards, Scientific and Philosophical Writings, ed. W. Anderson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), pp. 154 ff.

[iii] See Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards (New York: W. Sloane, 1949) and Peter Gay, The Enlightenment, An Interpretation (New York: Knopf, 1966).

[iv] See Wolfhart Pannenberg, et al. Revelation as History (New York: Macmillan, 1968).

[v] See Herbert Richardson, Towards an American Theology (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), pp. 36 ff. on the notion of intellectus, and M. Darrol Bryant, “Beyond the Enlightenment: An Unfinished Exploration of Modernity” in Christopher Lamb and D. Cohn Sherbok, eds., The Future of Religion: Postmodern Perspectives (London: Middlesex University Press, 1999), pp. 26-40.

[vi] See Karl Stern, The Flight from Woman (New York: Noonday Press, 1965).

[vii] See Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Uses of Faith after Freud (New York: Harper & Row, 1966).

[viii] See Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy (New York: Harper and Row, 1964).

[ix] See George Grant, Technology and Empire, Perspectives on North America (Toronto: Anansi Press, 1969).

[x] See Nicolas Berdyaev, Truth and Revelation (New York: Collier Books, 1962) p. 27.

[xi] See Avery Dulles, Models of Revelation (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1983).

[xii] See “Irenaeus” in Hugh Kerr, ed., Readings in Christian Thought (Nashville: Abingdon, 1978), pp. 27-36.

[xiii] See Richardson, op. cit., on “Fides reconcilians intellectum,” the antidote to the relativistic assumptions of modernity, pp. 40 ff.

[xiv] See Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, The Christian Future or the Modern Mind Outrun (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), especially pp. 92 ff.

[xv] Paul van Buren, The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (New York: Macmillan, 1963).

[xvi]See John Hick, God and the Universe of Faiths (London: Macmillan, 1977) and Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Toward a World Theology, Faith and the Comparative History of Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981).

[xvii] See especially the entries on “Justin Martyr” and “Irenaeus” in Hugh Kerr, op.cit., pp. 20 ff.

[xviii] See M. Darrol Bryant, Out of Galilee, Christian Thought as a Great Conversation (Renison University College: Course Reader, 2008), pp. 31 ff.

[xix] See Raimundo Panikkar, The Unknown Christ of Hinduism (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1964), and The Trinity and the Religious Experience of Man (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1973). See also K.S. Murty, Revelation and Reason in Advaita Vedanta (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1974), Harold Coward & Krishna Sivaraman, Revelation in Indian Thought (Emeryville, Ca.: Dharma Publishing, 1977), and Ary Roest Crollius, The Word in the Experience of Revelation in the Quran and Hindu Scriptures (Rome: Universita Gregoriana, 1974).