What precisely is meant by the concept of Revelation is a difficult enterprise upon which to embark, if only because such a concept as such–which is to say one concept–has never truly existed: the “precisely” complicates the predication of such a concept. In part, this owes to the fact that in general, such a strict predication cannot be made, for such is the nature of a communicable language that however precise it may be, it is never absolutely precise. Furthermore, significations as well as connotations may be more or less precise as regards a common understanding–though this itself could never be conclusively demonstrated, only intuited and assumed–depending on a host of contingent factors, among which includes primarily, the nature of the concept. For instance, we do not imagine it difficult for a common understanding, however difficult it is to measure such a thing, of the concept of a tree. When the utterance is made (“tree”) there generally does not arise between the interlocuters a great discrepancy in significations. In other words, we can assume that the one imagines a form roughly similar to what is represented in the other’s consciousness. This difficulty is exacerbated, however, by phenomenological differences. Two interlocuters may speak of a tree because, presumably, both have encountered trees. But in more complex cases, where such an experience is not shared, the communication thereof is complicated. It is by this reason that a high school student, however precocious she may be at literature, at understanding the functions of the assorted tropes as they relate to the thematic subjects, could not well understand Shakespeare’s Lear. It is because of this that axiomatically the teenager is fully convicted her parents cannot understand her and because of this reason that her parents are sure they do.
Revelation falls into the category of such a difficulty: one would be hard-pressed, though crafty apologists could probably work around it, to say that revelation, to the extent that it is experiential, falls into the category of the mundane, like the encounter with the tree. This problem becomes all the more vexed by the complication which arises from a comparative theology, when the necessary move is made to reckon other theologies in pursuance of a theology which does not arrogate its conceited limitlessness to itself, so far as theological pride is, to be sure, the most dangerous. Such a complication would not arise in the example of the tree: different languages may have different terms and–should we not put it beyond ourselves–maybe even different concepts for describing the encounter with the tree, but the translation would still be perfectly possible. Putting aside senseless objections, we can say that the translation is not culturally contingent. But inasmuch as an entire ontology grows up from the culture around a concept like revelation, the theological attempt is complicated. To be clear, by ‘culture’ I shall follow Professor Clifford Geertz in defining as a system of symbols and meanings, but this also implies an entire conceptual apparatus for creating and conveying meaning–typically, through describing or explaining–within a corpus of public knowledge which is at least stable enough to enable a basic communication. Thus under this definition, certain philosophical ways of explaining things shall be considered. For example, while LudWig Wittgenstein sees a tree and points to it saying, “there, a tree,” Saint Thomas Aquinas might say “there, a particularity which takes its essentia from its participitation in tree-ness.”
Thus the very first problem in speaking of revelation is that such a concept, insofar as there is the possibility of its being culturally contingent, may not even exist in a given culture, for a given people. A concept is translatable, made newly communicable in one conceptual apparatus only insofar as there is something to be translated in the first place. But we may postulate examples of when this is not true, when there are not similar concepts which can be translated from one culture into the next. In fact, the orthodox study of theology suggests as much. Was it not Kierkegaard who suggested that until Christ invented it at a specific point in history, the very concept of compassion, of neighborly love, of other-regard did not exist. It certainly did not exist in the ancient pagan culture, Kierkegaard argues. Such a concept would have been utterly nonsensical to the pagans, that is “foolishness to the Greeks” as it is said: Christ would have been utterly incomprehensible to Socrates. So we may posit that compassion as such was not translatable from the conceptual apparatus of Christianity into that of the Greeks. We must then ask, is revelation such a concept?
The question must be elaborated. At the moment, it is too broad. In order for us to be able to determine whether revelation is a communicable object we must deal with its constituent elements. Here then, let us define what is meant by revelation. By revelation, we shall mean the disclosure of the knowledge of God, the truth. Disclosure is obvious: since it is fundamentally presupposed in any culture, insofar as a culture houses public discourses, then disclosure is ipso facto translatable. The second element of revelation so defined is knowledge of God, the ostensible problem of which is resolved with the Incarnation: in the doctrine of the incarnation, the problem of an epistemology is resolved, via God’s disclosure through Christ. God without the incarnation would be problematic for a theology of revelation, since God as such poses a host of problems, not surprisingly. For one, Christians inasmuch as they speak of a God thus unconditioned by history (space, time) speak whereof they cannot, so must be making utterances of something within experience (space, time) from which the utterance as a speech act (Wittgenstein) may be made. Secondly, not every culture has a concept of God as such, that is to say, a God who has volition, consciousness, etc. Certainly Plato’s and Aristotle’s God did not. Furthermore, not ever culture has a concept of God at all. Many sects of Buddhist religion, however much they may encounter the sacred and the divine, do not suppose any theism, being thus neither theistic nor atheistic but decidedly non-theistic. These examples should suffice to posit that the transcendental God, inasmuch as it is transcendental (in the Kantian sense, beyond time and space) is culturally contingent and insofar as this contingency problematizes translation, such a translation is not possible. Thus incarnation makes possible revelation. The incarnation is the revelation. The incarnation contains the revelation. And it is to all appearances a feasible revelation: indeed, could there be any concept more universal than that of a human being?
Before moving on, it will be worth asking whether not incarnation per se is the only form of revelation, especially as traditional theologies have suggested not. Here we shall deal with a large gap undealt with hitherto in this development. Kant has fixed the boundaries within which this discussion may proceed, namely within the universal forms of time and space since all experience takes place within this circumscription. To this problem, we proposed the incarnation as a solution, but we did not ask, perhaps as we should have, whether the incarnation was the only possibility of God’s disclosure in the world. Surely, God would have to enter into time and space, but can this happen outside of the incarnation. God may enter into history as a substance, but this is no likelier than supposing any other given substance, and such a substance belongs to the positivists and scientific rationalists to discount. The possibility which remains is given unto us in experience, nevertheless. It is the most obvious way we experience God, by divine experience. We may raise the same questions of this then, as were raised for revelation in general: is it translatable?
Prima facie, because the experience ostensibly presupposes a God which, as we established earlier, proved problematic because it was not translatable, we could say that religious experience too is untranslatable. However, such a conclusion requires a certain naivete: it trusts too readily the appearance of the description and discounts the dishonesty of language in capturing experience. It would be natural to assume that if its constituent elements are translatable individually, then there is the possibility that the concept as a totality is also thus translatable–but this may not be so. For one, language makes certain presuppositions in its operation, and in this, creates conceptual premises from which to explain experience, but there is no reason to suppose these conceptual premises identical across cultures; quite the contrary. Therefore, there is no reason to assume that different languages working upon different implicit conceptual premises cannot be signifying much the same thing. A psychologist may describe a human subject in terms of neurological processes whereas a metaphysician may describe the same subject in terms of his soul; yet both describe the same thing. In comparative theology, the typical example given is of the elephant in the room with its lights out, each person feeling some part of the elephant and ascribing it a different definition. Since one couldn’t do more wrong than that which has already been accomplished in likening religious experience to a heresy, so shall we suffice to support it. The problem of language is given in Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki’s parable of the monk who points to the moon, yet whose pupil sees only the finger, the fingers being the signifiers of the signified moon, to use Saussurean terminology. So it is not unreasonable to conclude that revelation by divine experience is translatable inasmuch as the inadequacies of language permit.
CHRIST AND THE HOLY SPIRIT
We can tie both of these types of revelation as modes of God’s disclosure together by a return to the scripture. The incarnation is present in Christ, and we recall, of course that when Christ had died in the scripture, what thereupon proceeded was a pouring out of the holy spirit into the world. It is instructive then, that the first act of God’s secondary form of revelation in the world–we shall assume here that the Holy Spirit is the explanatory recourse of religious experience in Christianity, as the Holy Spirit is presupposed in capturing the divine experience–is a universal one, pentecost, described by Saint Luke in Acts:
“And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other languages, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language” (Acts 2:1-6)
If the Holy Spirit is that which empties itself into the divine contact, then it is no small implication that in the divine moment, mediated thus by the Holy Spirit, the problem of Babel is overcome. The universalism is moreover bolstered by the observation of Christ’s own universalism and blatant disregard for the myriad boundaries that artificially demarcate one human from the next. Walter Rauschenbusch writes,
“Every time Jesus met a Gentile, we can see the Jewish prejudices melt away and he gladly discovered the human brotherhood and spiritual capacity in the alien. ‘Verily I say unto you, I have no found so great faith, no, not in Israel,’ and he immediately makes room at the Messianic table-round for those who shall comes form the east and the west to sit down with the patriarchs, while the sons of the kingdom, the Jews who were properly entitled to it, would be cast out. He reminded the indignant audience at Nazareth that the great Elijah had found his refuge with a heathen Pheonician and Elisha had healed only a Syrian leper. When one leper out of ten thanked him, he took pains to point out that this one was a Samaritan foreigner, and when he wanted to hold up a model of human neighborliness, he went out of his way to make him a Samaritan, an alien, and a heretic. Thus the old division of humanity into Jews and Gentiles began to fade out in his mind, and a new dividing line ran between the good and the evil, between those who opened their heart to the new life and those who closed it. He approached the bold cosmopolitanism of Paul, that ‘in Christ Jesus, there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Christianity and the Social Crisis. 1913 ed. p.61)
Lest we capitulate to the theologians who feel no hesitation in insisting that Jesus nevertheless demands a certain religious commitment, a statement of creed–be it the Apostolic or the Nicene, what have you– on the part of the follower, we shall recall that to be Jewish is not only a signification of nationality but also of religion, a totalized way of life. Thus did Jesus, in abolishing the old dichotomy of Jew and Gentile thereby erase the religious separation which exists between people. Theology has retained its categories of general and special revelation, but no such technicality per se existed for Christ. For him, all was general revelation in the sense in which it has been received, and we may regard the artificial distinction between these two as a propagandistic construct emerging from the agenda of the institutional church, as we shall explore in a later explication.
How do the two modes of revelation–example and experience, Christ and the Holy Spirit, incarnation and pentecost–relate? The relationship is given in the aforementioned passage from Acts in which the spirit descends upon Christ ascension. The consecutive nature of the narrative is important in that it suggests a temporal relation between past and present in God. Professor Paul Knitter suggests that such a relation is demanded by the early Christian community’s need to synthesize its experience of Christ after he had been crucified. Moreover, the absolute identity of the Holy Spirit and Christ, given in standard trinitarian doctrine, suggests that the Holy Spirit is thus the experience of Christ, qualified by temporo-phenomenal uniqueness. The incarnation is the contact with the living Christ. But in order to prevent the historical problem posed by Christ’s own specificity in history, what Kierkegaard writes of as the follower at second hand, the second mode of revelation found in the Holy Spirit is required. If such a mode of revelation did not exist, Christ would have been a historical fact, not an eternal truth; it is the Holy Spirit which perpetuates and perpetually re-enacts the incarnation (in a different sense–phenomenally) in every contact of the subject with God, which allows God to be the “living God” which the Psalmist thirsts for rather than a relic of a time when the fact existed. In this way is the incarnation thus contained within and disclosed by revelation via the Holy Spirit. Because we are not temporally contemporaneous with Christ, it is thus only by the Holy Spirit and only to the extent that the Holy Spirit presents the incarnation that access to the incarnation is possible.
ONTOLOGY OF THE REVELATION
What is the nature of revelation disclosed in the Holy Spirit? An ontology of such revelation, what I shall call secondary revelation, requires a further disaggregation of the concept into its content insofar as it contains truth, and its phenomenology, insofar as it is experienced by the subject. For now, we shall have to postpone a discussion of the former and shall take it up in a discussion on the resurrection, which I shall argue in a separate piece, to contain the content of Christ’s truth. It must suffice us then, to merely assume truth–some unspecified truth–to be contained in the revelation, and we shall simply refer to it, in the context of the present inquiry, as “the truth.” With this preliminary work completed, we may explicate the phenomenology of the secondary revelation. Secondary revelation is the revelation which has been for the greater part already dealt with by theologians adequately, particularly Schleiermacher, who argues that the revelation is an imminent apprehension, which is only later ascribed conceptual apparatuses by which it may be rendered intelligible. Drawing on our knowledge of the philosophy of language, we know that this is perfectly feasible, given the public nature of language: Robinson Crusoe would never have occasion for language or the conceptual apparatus contained therein, but we do not thereby assume him to be devoid of any apprehension of experience. The experience of God is one that is thus immediate to consciousness. The conceptual apparatus which gives intelligibility to the experience is the truth, which is to say the content of the revelation. Thus until the truth is known, divine contact remains an experience for which there does not yet exist a word–the Word. Ergo, if the old distinction between general and special revelation is to be at all preserved, it shall be in this way, not in the propagandistic religious exclusivism. General revelation then is what we call the immediate apprehension of God and special revelation is what we call the imputation of the truth into the apprehension.
This experiencing a feeling–or having the capacity to experience something–already within you, but not yet having a full grasp of a concept until the word is given to it is not strictly the nature of religion pre se, but also literature, and thus we may look to literature for a more adequate phenomenology of revelation, what is presupposed in it, what is logically concordant with it, etc. An example of the dichotomy between general and special revelation is given to us by Professor Harold Bloom who argues that Shakespeare invented the human personality (or the better part of it) inasmuch as subjects, prior to Shakespeare, had in themselves the human personality only latently, as inert capacity. It was not until Shakespeare–to give the moment in the history of mankind–or until one had encountered Shakespeare directly or indirectly–to give the moment in the continuing life of individuals–that the latency was manifested into consciousness. In just this way, revelation gives unto us latency which cannot be rendered into consciousness until the truth is disclosed, both at a historical moment in time, the first time the truth enters into history, and repeatedly, as the truth is encountered by individuals. What, however, does such an account presuppose? It presupposes, at the very least, the truth as inert possibility, given by revelation, and an occasion–in historic time and in common time–by which this truth is manifest into consciousness.
To be less abstract about this, an example may be given. It should be simple enough because it should ring true with one’s own experience. When one reads Walt Whitman, a revelation–though not what Christianity calls THE revelation–occurs. One finds in the encounter with the text that is somehow already contains him; it expresses him better than he can express himself; the poem speaks for the reader. For Whitman specifically, the truth rendered into consciousness from latency upon encounter is the truth of the largeness of the human personality. The occasion for the truth is Whitman himself, who awakened you to this truth already within yourself. In the same way, Christ provides himself as the occasion by which the truth already within ourselves (given by general revelation), though latent, may be transmuted into consciousness. The bible then is merely the means by which we have access to this occasion. It is the encounter with Christ’s own consciousness that we awaken to that consciousness within ourselves. Christ is the occasion for the truth. But because he is the occasion insofar as he lived that truth, he IS the truth. The truth is in the Resurrection.