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 work.

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 enemies).

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
Of revelation,
Then ask pardon for revealing
Your impatience
Forgive God
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.

Andrew Furlong

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