REVELATION: DOES IT HAPPEN?
An old man opened his mouth to laugh, and in doing so, revealed one
solitary tooth. It was said of the same old man that, through his love and
compassion, he revealed to people the face of God. The word “revealed”
is being used differently in these two sentences. In the first, the tooth
which would not normally be visible, is seen, when the man laughs. In
the second, the face of God does not become visible; so what do we
mean by “revealed” in this use? It is a paradoxical use of the word, for
God always remains hidden, unseen and mysterious, and strictly
speaking, unknowable by us in this life. As Hegel said: “God does not
offer himself" (/herself) "for observation.” The old man’s love made people think
“that’s what God’s love is like too”. This result depended on two factors:
that some people who knew him had a faith in God; and that they
believed that human love and compassion helped people imagine what
the love of God might be like.
On the other hand, it could have been said that God had revealed
himself/herself through the old man’s love and compassion. This is often the
sense in which the word is used in religious discourse and points to a
God who, though unseen, is believed to act and communicate in his/her
world and with his/her people. The difficulty in speaking like this is that
people need to find grounds for believing that God is taking the
initiative and finding a way to reveal himself/herself, or his/her will, or his/her plans or
purposes. One use of “reveal” stressed the human side, where people
themselves came to believe that the old man’s love spoke to them of
divine love; another stressed that it is the unseen and hidden God who
chose to reveal herself/himself through this man’s love for others.
Can believers in God really have good grounds for their beliefs (not
knowledge or certainty) about what such an unseen God is doing? Some
people use a simple interpretative framework of belief: if something
good happens, it is God rewarding them; if something bad happens, it is
God punishing them, if they have to do something difficult, it is God
testing them. Such an interpretative framework, however, will often not
For myself, I think of God as ceaselessly active and involved. However we cannot
observe her/his work. What we know about our world is an incomplete picture of all
that is going on; and consequently we do not fully understand the meaning of all that is happening.
In religions such as Judaism, Islam and Christianity the emphasis has
been on divine initiative when speaking of revelation. Over the centuries
the content of what has been claimed to have been revealed has been
very diverse: some of it has presented a moral God, some an immoral
God; Jews had “Jewish revelations”, Muslims had “Islamic ones”, and
Christians had “Christian ones”; in many cases what the God,
supposedly, said she/he was about to do never in fact took place. Revelations
were claimed to have been received by both the psychologically stable
and by others suffering from psychiatric illnesses. They came through
dreams and visions, through thoughts entering the mind or voices heard
in the head, through events or people in which a divine message was
discerned, through meditation on the Scriptures and through
worship. Incidentally, if a God allegedly revealed herself/himself by becoming a
human being (and nothing but that), what reasons could there be for
thinking such a person was anything more than a human being?
In the situations, where the emphasis was on divine initiative, such
revelations can never be proved to have taken place, and are always
open to doubt. They might have been created by the person’s own
imagination, come out of their religious fantasising, or have come from
their sub-conscious or the outer limits of some other part of their mind.
Revelation is conditioned in its character by the person’s beliefs
(Christian, Jewish, Islamic etc.), culture, and socio-economic position. It
is influenced by the person’s mental state, and by their convictions of
what it would be appropriate for their God to do or not to do (such as
calling for a child to be sacrificed or helping to destroy a people’s
All this tends to push the argument towards thinking that in fact
“revelation” is a product of human religious experience. Even if it is a
matter of both/and; yet still the activity of God, whatever it may be,
remains hidden, inaccessible to human investigation and mysterious.
This does not mean that having faith is not a valid activity; rather it
means that the mystery in life deepens.
“First forgive the silence
That answers prayer,
Then forgive the prayer
That stains the silence
Excuse the absence
That feels like presence,
Then excuse the feeling
That insists on presence
Pardon the delay
Then ask pardon for revealing
For being only a word
Then ask God to forgive
The betrayal of language.
Mark Jarman “Psalm: First Forgive the Silence”
I found this poem in Mark Oakley's book "The Collage of God", page 73.
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