Any attempt to articulate a system of theology faces a challenge from the start. What can we know about God, really? How can we be sure what we think to be true about God really is so?
Philosophers get lost in this kind of question, because you can unravel the threads of knowledge for days. And that’s not just true about God; a couple good philosophers can give you headaches debating whether the screen you’re reading this on, the clothes you’re wearing, even you yourself, are really knowable or even exist at all. If this kind of debate is your jam, well, sorry. My worst grades were in philosophy, and it was this kind of focus that gave me the clear message that I’d gone one exit too far down the academic highway. So this is hopefully going to be short, at least conceptually.
Generally, people talk about two types of revelation, two ways to know God: natural and special. By “natural revelation,” people mean you can figure things out about God based on the naturally world God created. By “special revelation,” they mean specific and more direct revelation of God to humanity – through mystical experiences, prophetic visions, and especially through God’s story with humanity captured in the Bible (and the direct experiences of God by those whose stories are told in that Bible).
I’m not going to fight about natural revelation. There are people, including astrophysicists and molecular biologists, who see a divine hand in the beauty and order of creation. There are people, including astrophysicists and molecular biologists, who don’t see anything of the sort. I’m just going to say this isn’t where I spend most of my attention. I think people can project God onto creation a little too freely, but I also think there’s some pretty cool components to this place that might signal God’s hand.
The one place where I do see natural revelation is in the nature of relationships. As is true with most animals, we humans share a familial and tribal capacity for love – for sacrifice of self for the good of another. Beyond animals, we humans have a capacity for freedom to choose to love or not that provides a power to elevate or destroy those we are in relationship with. We could debate whether the separation of humanity from the rest of creation is one of degree or more fundamental, but for now, let me just say that we can learn something central about God from the natural revelation of human relationships.
My point in putting this chapter in here, though, is to talk about special revelation, because I do think about this a lot, and it is important. Generally, evangelical Christians tend to focus on the centrality of sacred Scripture as the source of revelation. Catholics mediate that a little bit, pointing out that the canon of Scripture arose from the community (the Old Testament from the Jewish community, the New Testament from the Church), so they put Scripture and Tradition forward as twin sources of special revelation.
I was raised in the United Methodist Church, so grew up with a more nuanced understanding based on John Wesley’s teaching of the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” – Scripture, Tradition, Experience and Reason.
But here’s the thing: what we call Scripture, or the Bible, isn’t a unified story, nor was a lot of it written with the intention we’ve since put on it. There are stories, laws, poems, proverbs, songs, and prophecies in the Old Testament. There are gospel narratives, a history of the earliest church, a bunch of letters from one church leader to different particular communities, and an apocalypse in the New Testament. Each has its own author or authors, usually unknown and/or pseudonymous, as was common at the time. Each is written to address particular questions and challenges of particular communities in a particular time. Each uses different narrative structures and images for different effects. Each is specific to a culture.
If we want to understand Scripture, we need to take time to recognize its complexity, and we also need to humbly acknowledge that neither we nor the original communities had a perfect handle on God. If there is a unifying theme of Scripture, it is the attempt by a people to make sense of God as best they can (and its selection as Scripture reflects the seal of the community that settled which works to include that these reflect the images and stories of God that rung most true to them). They may not all stand up in this day. And the images we offer in their stead may not be right either.
The Old Testament, to a greater and lesser degree, sought to give voices to the idea that there was one true God that had selected a people among all the other people. The New Testament, especially the Gospels, is an attempt by the early Christian community to come to terms with the experience by some of the resurrected Jesus. This dazed group of Christians used Old Testament images and contemporary narrative structures to make sense of the idea that a teacher who was executed by the authorities appeared to them in some radical new way that they couldn’t fully describe, much less explain. In both Old and New Testament, people applied the language and institutions they had to try to define the ineffable. We need to take those images seriously, but we also need to recognize their limits.
So we look for themes. And one I’ll mention here, because it’s a significant asterisk to the Catholic and Wesleyan emphasis on Tradition. Throughout both the Old and New Testament, one of the most common themes is that God chooses the unlikely, the outcast, the loser. And the corollary provided by Jesus’ resurrection is that God’s choice of a person doesn’t necessarily end well for them, in this life. So I would offer, just to keep in the back of your mind, that if tradition and community are just shorthand for the leadership of the institutional church, we’re probably getting it wrong and certainly working off of model of what and who God chooses that doesn’t jibe with that which we claim He has chosen.
So what on earth to make of all this? As I said, we look for themes. Most of us, most of the time, don’t think much about what’s knowable and how. But there’s a common phrase that claims a truth that might help here: “We know it when we see it.” And from the earliest records of history through today, people point to examplars of particular virtues as people who most likely have God about right. There are lots of lists of virtues throughout the Bible and tradition (as well as in any number of other religions and philosophies). My personal favorite is in Galatians 5:22-23, but that’s me. Regardless, the most common and central of those virtues, I will argue, is love – is being for the other at the cost of being for self.
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