Revolution and Revelation
by Fr. Dwight Longenecker
Filed under Religion
Many people are surprised when I, a Catholic priest, tell them that God does not exist—at least, he doesn't exist as we exist. He is, instead, the very ground of all existence. He does not exist so much as he is existence.
Yet this often provokes a good question: “How does one move from God who is ipsum esse subsistans (the very substance of existence) to the God of scapulars and rosaries?” In other words, how does one move from the philosophical concept to all the details of a particular religious practice without something called ‘revelation’?
The Catholic teaching is that there are two forms of revelation. The first is called “general” revelation. This is simply the stuff anybody who is observing the world might conclude about the existence and nature of God. General revelation is open to anybody. It’s included not only in the way the world is created, but the way humans are wired. We’re wired to look at the awesome and delicate forces of nature and be filled with wonder and fear and confusion and a sense of worship. It’s part of being human. It is also one of the traits of human beings that atheists need to account for.
Do we feel awe and wonder when we look up at the sun, moon, and stars simply because they’re big and we’re small? That seems like a sensible answer, but then why are we filled with curiosity and wonder when we study a colony of ants who toil in military order and communicate in ways we cannot comprehend to build a gigantic ant colony? Is it just because we are faced with something we cannot explain? If so, then why are we still filled with wonder when we hold a newborn, whose origins we can explain? These feelings of wonder, awe, fear, and joy are not necessarily an argument for the existence of God, but they are a realization that within human experience something greater than mere scientific experimentation and verification is going on. There is a quest for some other form of understanding.
This transaction between our curiosity and what is there to be discovered we might call “general revelation”. It is in this conversation between the natural world and ourselves that we draw the conclusion that there is something beyond—something greater than our five senses. From this many different religious expressions and experiences have arisen.
"Specific" revelation is the next step. Religious people of all kinds claim some sort of communication with beings that from this world beyond. The revelations may come through supernatural experiences of some sort. They may come through individuals in a trance state, they may come through visions or auditory experiences or inner locutions. They may result in a whole range of religious myths, stories, rituals, and beliefs. In this instance, I am still speaking about general human religious experience and not specifically about the Judeo-Christian experience.
Within this wider human experience the Jews said God spoke to their ancestors in particular ways. He called Abram out of Ur. He revealed his name to Moses at the burning bush and gave him a job to do. He appeared to Jacob and Joseph in dreams and to the prophets through visions and messages from angels. Within this tradition God also spoke to Joseph and Mary, and as the book of Hebrews said, “In various ways in various times God spoke to our ancestors, but now he has spoken to us through his Son.”
Jesus Christ is therefore the ultimate self revelation of God to humanity. Christians believe that in a miraculous way God took human form and showed us what he is like through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Do Christians realize that this is difficult to believe? Yes. Theologians call it “the scandal of particularity”—that the one who is ipsum esse subsistans becomes a squawking infant in a cattle stall, grows up to be an itinerant preacher, dies unjustly as a supposed rebel leader and then rises from the dead. Do we realize that this is a stretch? Of course.
We realize that this revelation is a revolution. If it is true, then it turns everything upside down. If it is true, then every other religion really is inferior to Christianity. No others have a historical person who claims to be God Incarnate and rises from the dead. If it is true, then history is turned upside down. Our concept of God is revolutionized. Our own self concept and our destiny are in a spin.
People may, of course, choose to disbelieve. Even worse, they may water down the gospel and turn Jesus Christ into a gentle moral teacher who died a tragic martyr’s death.
However, the reasoning behind the idea of specific revelation is sound—given one’s first principles. If the ipsum esse subsistans is really the ground of all being, then the existent beings which are dependent on that ground of existence cannot be superior to the ground of existence from which they come and upon which they depend. A communicating, thinking, reasoning, feeling, sentient person could not arise from what is a mere force. How can that which is superior come from that which is inferior?
If that superior force—that essence of existence—is indeed sentient and reasonable and able to communicate then it follows that he must do what he is capable of doing: i.e. communicate himself to others.
This self communication we call revelation, and from this revelation comes the revolution Christians propose.
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