A. THE SCIENTIFIC WORLD-VIEW
1. The Galilean Expansion of Horizons
The rise of the natural sciences radically changes our view of the physical universe. Nearly all the great Scriptures were written before the rise of modern scientific knowledge. This means that, not only are particular statements of physical fact in the Scriptures liable to be in error, but the whole view of the universe which they presuppose is almost certainly incorrect. It is not surprising that the sciences were sometimes seen as challenges to religious belief, and opposed by religious authorities with a stake in preserving the status quo.
The best-known case of such a conflict between science and religion was the condemnation of Galileo by the Holy Inquisition for suggesting that the earth circled the sun instead of being at rest in the centre of the universe.1 The fact that Galileo was right and the Church authorities wrong at least establishes that revelation must be subject to correction by observation, and that it is certainly not inerrant with regard to physical facts. Scripture expresses the view of the world which was current at the time it was written; and that is, like all human views, partial and incomplete. Richard Swinburne, who provocatively defends the view that the whole of Scripture is rightly taken as true, in some sense,2 argues that such statements belong to the presuppositions of revelation and so can be discounted.3 But how much are we to take as belonging to presuppositions? Certainly, I suppose, the genealogies from Adam. But, if those, why not the historical records of the patriarchs?
Certainly the six-day story of creation. But, if that, why not the predictions of the imminent end of the world in the gospels? Certainly, the statement in Genesis that the stars are lamps hung on the firmament, together with the statement in Mark that the firmament will be rolled up on the Day of Judgement. But, if those, why not the statement that there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and that this one will pass away?
Once one gives to the physical sciences the ultimate authority to state truths about the nature of the physical universe it may seem hard to say exactly what content revelation has left to it. From one point of view, the history of religion since the seventeenth century can be seen as the driving-back of faith from history, from the physical world, and from the realm of morals. Perhaps, as the writings of Schleiermacher sometimes seem to suggest, only the realm of internal feeling is left; and that, after all, is largely a matter of temperament and inclination. So religion, withdrawing from its claim to give objective truth about the nature of reality in all its aspects, ends by seeking to stimulate certain sorts of inner feeling in those who care for that sort of thing. It becomes an option for romantic sentimentalists, an aesthetic exercise which has surrendered all claims to objective truth, but which, when tastefully expressed, helps to engender a ‘basic feeling for the infinite’ in sensitive souls.4
However, the failure of metaphysical nerve which is so characteristic of modern thought may be only a temporary trauma caused by the metaphysical shock of realizing that the whole world-view upon which the belief-systems of centuries had been built was mistaken. The fact is that, even though we now realize how very precarious our knowledge of the world is, we do have a much more securely founded picture of how things are. Galileo was right about the motion of the earth, and Newton's laws, while they might not be as universal and invariant as he thought, do correctly represent the principles governing the mechanical movements of medium-sized objects in space.
In fact the late medieval world-view, with which Galileo came into such conflict, was not directly founded on biblical revelation at all. It was founded squarely on Aristotle's physics, and the biblical picture was made to fit Aristotle by suitable adjustments wherever necessary.5 What Galileo came up against was an ideology in which the Church had invested all its authority; his crime was criticism of the acknowledged authority, and as such he was viewed as dangerous to an unstable and defensive political system. What does it matter to religion, after all, if the earth moves around the sun? Biblical statements can be made to fit that view as easily as they could be made to fit Aristotle.
Yet there was a deeper theological point at issue. As long as the earth is at the centre of the universe, it is easy to see how human life can be at the centre of God's purposes. Humans can have a very special status, as made in the image of God; and when God becomes incarnate, this only increases the sense that humans are of more importance to God even than the angels.6 Heaven is filled with the (human) saints of the Most High; there are no recorded extraterrestrial beings there. So a human Jesus sits at God's right hand, surrounded by other humans, who have got there after a rather short human history (a few thousand years at most, on the biblical account). This picture of the exclusive centrality of humanity to the Divine purpose is what is, at least implicitly, threatened by Galileo's new picture of the universe.
The science of astronomy has subsequently shown that the earth is just one small planet in a universe in which there are billions of galaxies, each with millions of star-systems, in which there must be millions of planets. In a universe which is between ten and twenty thousand million light-years wide, human beings seem to shrink to virtual insignificance in the cosmic scheme of things. Whatever God was up to, in creation, it can hardly have been just to create Adam and Eve and their descendants. Can a human being any more be seen as sharing the throne of God, when perhaps millions of non-human life-forms exist throughout a million galaxies?
It is in this way that the rise of modern astronomy was a shock to traditional Christian belief. How could it be made consistent with a world-view for which the universe had existed only for 4,000 years, according to the time-span so carefully calculated in the Book of Genesis, with earth at its centre, and would cease to exist altogether within a generation or two, having (as Irenaeus supposed) populated heaven with as many spirits as had fallen from grace in the rebellion of the angels? The whole Christian iconography of heaven and hell was undermined at a stroke.
It is surprising how very anthropocentric the Christian, and in general the Semitic picture of the universe was, compared with that common in the Indian-originated religions. In Hinduism, universes succeed one another without beginning or end, and infinite worlds endure for measureless aeons, filled with gods and finite souls. In Buddhism, there are infinite Buddha-worlds, each with its own Buddha; and within each part of this world there is an infinity of further hidden worlds. Not only are space and time infinitely expanded; but humans are only one small part of the continuum of sentient beings, destined to evolve or devolve into other forms of life before finally attaining release from the round of rebirths. Of course, the physical details of ancient Indian cosmogony are as incorrect as those of biblical cosmogony. For instance, Sankara writes that human souls, after leaving the body, go to the moon in subtle bodies; and return to earth in the form of water which passes into plants, are eaten, and then take new bodies of animals or men.7 It would be naive to think that the Indian scriptures had got it right whereas the Hebrew scriptures had not. Both are quite prescientific. Nevertheless, the Indian view is much more expansive and less human-centred than the Semitic.
Though this is historically true, it does no harm to the biblical tradition to place it within such a greatly expanded perspective. In fact, it magnifies the glory and power of God much more, and fills the mind with a greater sense of the Divine wisdom and infinity. It is also helpful to a more appropriate sense of human humility, when one realizes the peripheral place humanity has in the geography of the cosmos. It clarifies the symbolic and metaphorical nature of the imagery of the biblical tradition in a way which illuminates its real function of forming a pattern of human spirituality, rather than giving a concrete representation of what the supernatural world is like. The heaven in which Jesus, as a human being, sits at the right hand of God with Mary his mother, while various human beings fill up much of the rest of the space, is decisively replaced by the image of an innumerable throng of sentient beings of all shapes and sizes, among whom humans take their due, but not especially important, place.
In such a world-picture, the human Jesus appears as one manifestation in human flesh of the eternal Word of God; possibly as one of many incarnations throughout the universe, of which we know nothing. Mary is still Theotokos, the bearer of the Word, in its human form; but her role is assigned to one small planet among millions. She is the earthly God-bearer; but who knows how many other extraterrestrial worlds have their God-bearers in radically different forms? Of course this is pure speculation. We know nothing of any such other sentient beings. But the Galilean expansion of the cosmos raises the possibility of their existence and calls for a revision of religious imagery to allow for that possibility, even if not committing itself positively to it. Such a revision is not in conflict with belief in God or in the Divine incarnation in Jesus in any way.8 Indeed, it puts the centre where it should be, in God and not in human beings. Nevertheless, it places the incarnation in a context where it becomes apparent that the Word of God is the cosmic Christ, through whom a many thousand-million light-year universe exists and in whom many millions of galaxies are to be united.9 When one becomes aware that this is the Christ one worships, one is perhaps less likely to identify Christ simply and solely with a young Palestinian Jew, and thus wonder how such a remote historical figure can be important to one. It is intelligible to say that the cosmic Christ was truly manifest in that human life. In some way Jesus functions as our clue to the character of the Christie cosmos itself. Yet Christ is the one in whom ‘all things (in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible) hold together’. Jesus is the earthly form of the Word's manifestation; but how many other forms there may be, in countless numbers of worlds, we do not know.
One thing that can be said, however, is that the cosmos itself is the manifestation of the Christ, being created through, in, and for Christ. One may need to speak of the earthly body of Jesus; of the glorified body of the risen Lord; and of the cosmic body of the Christ, as all appropriate forms of the Word's appearing, none of them complete without the others. This parallels in a fascinating way the doctrine held in some Mahayana schools of the three bodies of the Buddha, the Dharmakaya or self-subsistent Buddha-nature, the Sambhogakaya, or body of bliss, and the Nirmanakaya or earthly body.10 Despite the great differences between these religious systems, they both find their ultimate religious principle in a human person who exists in a glorified state and who is in some sense identical with the basic cosmic principle. Of course the Christian faith stresses to a much greater degree the active, personal, and loving nature of God; but it is concerned from the first with a cosmic vision, not merely with the preaching of a Semitic prophet. The Galilean expansion of the universe reinforces the grandeur of that vision, and it may suggest the possibility that, as many of the Church Fathers thought,11 there may be many forms of manifestation of the Word who was truly incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.
2. Miracles and Physical Explanation
Though there is no real conflict between astronomy and religion, the possibility of conflict between science and religion increased with the work of Newton. It was ironic that this should be so, since Newton himself was a pious believer (though a non-Trinitarian) whose work was inspired by the thought that a perfectly wise and rational God had created the universe according to the most elegant mathematical laws.12 Yet the very order and elegance of natural laws was what caused the problem. If they had been ordered by a supremely wise God, surely that God would not need to ‘interfere’ to adjust them to effect his purposes. Though Newton himself believed in miracles, precisely as Divine interferences in the clockwork of the universe, it quickly became clear that the better the clock-maker, the less he would have to interfere. In a universe wherein everything that happens can be explained according to laws of physics, the hypothesis of God becomes superfluous, except as something to start the whole system going.13 And even that last remaining role comes under threat when mathematicians begin to speak of the universe originating through quantum fluctuations in a vacuum—though Newton was happily innocent of such thoughts.
The clockwork model of the universe, and the idea that the natural sciences entail that there is a seamless causal web of physical causality which explains everything that happens, have been largely instrumental in undermining belief in the miraculous and in Divine intervention. Of course, the very idea of ‘intervention’ by God presupposes that there is a distinct and self-maintaining structure which can be intervened in from outside. For some people, physics provides, at least in principle, an exhaustive explanation of everything that exists. Moreover, the model of causation used is a one-way, bottom-up model. From the motion of tiny fundamental particles everything that happens on more complex levels can be explained. In such a universe, anything God does will have to be an interruption of causal laws, which should be experimentally verifiable, and which will in any case break the law of the conservation of energy with embarrassing frequency.
I think the theist has to admit—or, better, insist—that there is a basic conflict here between a bottom-up, exhaustive, and mechanistic explanation for why things are as they are and an explanation in terms of creation and sustenance by God. The theist sees the universe as created in the sense that it exists, as a whole and in every part, as intentionally produced by a wise, powerful, and fundamentally good being.14 If this is so, an important part of any explanation of why things exist will be the demonstration that they realize or contribute to the purpose of a good creator. This has been called a ‘personal explanation’ in terms of the realization of purposes.15 Where God is in question, a more appropriate term might be ‘axiological explanation’, explanation in terms of the realization of value. For this makes the point that the Divine purpose is not arbitrarily selected by some personal whim. It must be a rational intention justifiable by reference to the value or worth of the ends realized in the universe, or of the process of value-realization itself.
The universe disclosed by physics does seem to be amazingly elegant, mathematically speaking, expressing vast power and wisdom in its size, order, and intelligible complexity. That is perhaps the basic Newtonian insight, which has been well confirmed by subsequent work in physics. The heavens do seem to declare the wisdom and power of a vast intelligence. At the very least, they are suggestive of such a thing, and to most people the suggestion seems powerfully convincing. Of course physics has changed fairly radically since Newton's day, especially after the discovery of field theories and quantum theories. The universe is no longer seen as a clockwork machine, but as ‘a system of inseparable interacting and ever-moving components with the observer being an integral part of this system’.16 Fritjof Capra, a successful popularizer of modern physics, argues that ‘the philosophy of mystical traditions… provides the most consistent philosophical background to our modern scientific theories’.17 By this he means to point to a deep consonance between certain Buddhist ideas of reality and those of modern physics. He juxtaposes two quotations, one from the Buddhist sage Nagarjuna and one from the modern physicist Heisenberg, which make his point admirably: ‘Things derive their being and nature by mutual dependence and are nothing in themselves’;18 ‘The world thus appears as a complicated tissue of events, in which connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or combine and thereby determine the texture of the whole.’19
It is a striking fact that the universe of contemporary physics is not so much a machine as an integrated, almost organic, totality of continual energy-interactions. The distinction of mind and matter in such a mutually enfolding universe does not seem so clear and exclusive. It may nevertheless be more than chance that natural science originated in Christian Europe and not in the Buddhist world. Historians of science like Stanley Jaki have argued that the rise of science requires the idea of a law-maker who creates a relatively autonomous universe freely but for wise ends, so that understanding of the world requires both observation and a faith in intelligibility, conditions provided by the Christian doctrine of free creation.20 Buddhist thought has a problem about discovering any ultimate or any axiological explanation of the universe, since the universe is rooted in ignorance and desire, and it remains obscure how or why such things could have arisen. The Christian tradition, partly because of the very duality which Capra deplores—a duality between a wise and good Creator and a universe which does not derive its values from its own being alone—is able to look for positive reasons for creation in the will of a wise, good, and free creator. Buddhist insights into the interrelations of all things are helpful in counteracting the mechanism of much in the scientific outlook. There is some religious point, however, in distinguishing clearly between Creator and creation, in a way which allows experimental observation to proceed and which can find positive values to be realized within the universe without giving to the structure as it exists final moral or evaluative authority. At this point, as in so many others, it may turn out that the Indian and Semitic traditions emphasize aspects of the nature of reality which are both needed for an adequate account. Recognition of the holistic and closely interconnected nature of the universe needs to be complemented by recognition of the transcendence and self-subsistence of a Supreme Value in which the being of things can be intelligibly rooted and in terms of which their existence can be explained.
If one sees the universe, in the light of modern science, as a vast, intelligible, holistic, and interconnected web of energies, which can be plausibly interpreted as a value-realizing process, one need no longer see miracles as arbitrary interruptions into a closed mechanistic system. They may rather be seen as special and extraordinary manifestations in the physical realm of the enfolding spiritual reality which sets the nature and goal of the total process. In a sense, the theistic problem about miracles is just the problem of mind-matter interaction writ large. Do human decisions and thoughts play any causal role in how things go? Most us of believe that they do, though we have little idea how. I believe my intentions now cause these words to appear on a page, and if I was offered a physical account in terms of the movement of atoms in my brain or body, I would regard it as irrelevant—unless, of course, it showed that my belief in intentional causality was illusory. Of course I believe there is a physical account; but it seems implausible to regard it as quite unaffected by my intentions.
A very obvious solution to this problem is to say that physical laws provide an ‘other things being equal’ explanation. If there are no other factors affecting a closed physical system, then its constituents will act in accordance with regular patterns of energy-interaction, which enable the universe to exist as a stable and predictable system. But such patterns are modifiable in various ways when other physical factors, such as change of motion or gravitational field, interact with the system. Why should it not be the case that mental factors also modify the behaviour of energy-systems, in accordance with intelligible factors that are at present unknown to us?21 If one can say that of human minds, then there is no greater difficulty in saying it of a Divine mind, which is in any case, on the theistic hypothesis, the causal ground of the system as a whole.
One can plausibly conceive of God's intentions as modifying the patterns of behaviour that obtain in the physical universe. This will presumably not happen at random or in arbitrary ways. God will modify causal patterns only for a good reason—in general, to realize great values or inhibit disvalues; and God will do so only in accordance with the general limits that God sets for relationship with a relatively autonomous yet open system.22 There is no need to think of this as an interference with a closed system, any more than we think of human acts as interfering with our bodies. The whole system, including the patterns of regularity which normally obtain within it, depends at every moment for its existence upon God; and it exists in order to realize specific values. When God modifies normal regularity patterns to realize values, this is a natural part of the system as it is meant to be. Divine action realizes the potential of parts of the system; and it would be very plausible to suppose that sometimes it discloses the spiritual source and goal of all things by an intended modification of the system. Miracles, in this context, will be revelatory acts of the underlying spiritual basis of nature, not violations of a closed system of nature.
Seen in its widest cosmic context, the resurrection of Jesus is, for Christians, the paradigm miracle on the planet earth, which shows the ultimate goal of the universe to be the divinization of sentient life. Jesus is said to have had paranormal powers, not through personal discipline of life, but through the closeness of his relation to the Father, which made his person transparent to the Divine power. Miracle, in Christianity, is the uniting of physical and spiritual, of human and Divine, in such a way that the former becomes the vehicle and the creative particularization of the latter.
One could at this point make a contrast between Semitic and Indian approaches to miracle by saying that the Indian approach stresses the element of personal spiritual attainment, manifesting the superior reality of spirit over matter, while the Semitic approach stresses the element of Divine initiating action, which the prophets may enable and encourage, but which they do not control. In both traditions, however, the fundamental point is that the physical can, though only rarely, be brought under the control of the spiritual. Moreover, in so far as Indian traditions think of the ultimate reality as Isvara, a personal Lord, they are open to ideas of ‘objective miracle’, of a manifestation of this Lord in objective events. What they rarely have is any idea of miracle occurring in the context of a particular social history, helping to bring about quite new historical situations. On the other hand, in so far as Semitic traditions think of God as responding to the prayers of the prophets, they perceive a connection between spiritual insight and paranormal power. What they do not have is any idea of a long development of such powers through many rebirths, so that Semitic thinkers attribute the possession of paranormal powers more to Divine calling than to personal achievement.
One might therefore not implausibly claim to see a common idea of miracle as a spiritually transforming manifestation in the physical realm, with both objective (the cosmic mind) and subjective (the advanced human mind) aspects. The major interpretative differences arise from divergences about the importance of time and history, on the one hand, and about the nature of the human person, on the other. It is clear that the sheer occurrence of miracles does not decide between the truth of these general interpretations. But it does confirm the view that the spiritual realm is the underlying causal basis, and perhaps also the goal, of the physical universe. Miracles, in all religious traditions, are therefore important confirmatory components of revelation; and if not quite necessary, are certainly highly desirable in making a justifiable claim to revealed knowledge.
The rise of physical science greatly increases appreciation of the beauty and intelligibility of the universe. It does not, however, rule out the possibility of miracles, understood as the exercise of intentional causality to modify normal behaviour patterns and disclose the nature and purpose of the Mind which is expressed in the total process. Once again there is an enormous expansion of horizons, as one sees the vast extent of the Divine purpose and the way in which miracles must be set within an intelligible pattern of cosmic Divine action, and not seen as sudden, inexplicable interferences in physical systems. Physics can disclose the general nature of Cosmic Mind but not its intentions. They must be expressed in particular physical processes which can plausibly be taken as signs of the spiritual basis of the physical system; as a revelation of the basic values which God is concerned to see realized; and as a foreshadowing of the goal of the cosmic process. The success of physics in giving explanations of regular patterns of behaviour in the physical world does not therefore throw doubt on the existence of wider forms of explanation in terms of value and purpose, elements which may make specific but not routinely repeatable differences to physical occurrences and which, in a religious context, one may characterize as miraculous.
3. The Evolution of the Cosmos
Another main feature of modern science, which has been enormously influential on religious belief, is evolutionary theory. From the time of the infamous debate between Huxley and Wilberforce it has seemed to many that there is a conflict between biblical faith and evolutionary biology.23 This is only so, however, if the Genesis account is taken as literally historical. If it is a hymn celebrating the glory of creation and setting out symbolically some basic facts of the relation between deity and humanity, it does not offer a scientific account of the origins of life at all. Christian theologians have almost invariably treated the creation stories as symbolic narratives presenting in story form a very sophisticated doctrine of creation, as the total dependence of all things at every time upon the trans-temporal reality of God.24 It does not matter whether this universe began, or how exactly the things in it developed or came into existence. The doctrine of creation is that, whether or not the universe had a first temporal moment, whether or not species developed gradually or appeared all at once, they all depend at every stage solely upon the being of God. Christians do not say that creation is God starting the universe going, with all its species fully developed. They say that creation is a non-temporal relation between every temporal event and the sustaining reality of God.25 Thus the theory of evolution never was in conflict with the understanding of the biblical narratives that was in fact widely accepted in Christian tradition—though unfortunately this understanding was not always consistently applied.
Of course there are interpretations of evolutionary theory which would conflict with Christian beliefs. For example, if it is said that evolution proceeds by purely random mutation and selection by environment, in such a sense as to rule out any purpose in the process, this would conflict with the Christian view that human existence is intended by God.26 If humans are solely the result of random mutations, cosmic accidents, belief in Divine providence is hard to maintain. However, such an interpretation is by no means entailed even by neo-Darwinian theory. In the first place, mutation is never entirely random, in the sense that absolutely anything might happen. Mutations occur in accordance with the ordinary laws of physics, and though, in accordance with quantum theory, there may be elements of indeterminacy, the overall patterns of mutational change will be perfectly predictable by an omniscient being. The most plausible physical model of evolution is of explorative change within laws which constrain the emergence of new properties in an ordered way.27
In the second place, selection by environment simply locates the development of organisms within their wider eco-systems, so that their development is a function of the wider systems of which they are part. Thus it is clear that Darwinian explanations of evolution are quite compatible with a purposive ordering of physical laws so that the development of new qualities—and specifically those of consciousness and rational agency—will inevitably emerge as parts of a total ecosystem that sets constraints upon the sorts of organism which evolve. The only thing evolutionary theory rules out is a specific, instantaneous interruption of the laws of nature to create a species. There is no reason at all why theists should postulate such a thing. It glorifies the wisdom of God more to see how the whole system of nature is ordered so that from it, by its own internal and God-given principles of structure and development, emerge forms of conscious reflective life capable of realizing great and unique values.
Nevertheless, an evolutionary world-view does provide a breathtaking new context for religious belief, one of which no pre-Enlightenment religion was explicitly aware. It is interesting to see how traditional Indian ideas of reincarnation have been reinterpreted in an evolutionist way by recent thinkers such as Aurobindo.28 Traditionally, reincarnation is enormously depressing. One is trapped in an endless cycle of suffering; there is no final advance, but only a perpetual ascent and descent through various modes of being, all of them imperfect and unsatisfactory, and all to be endlessly repeated time after time. The only true spiritual goal is moksa, release from this wheel of rebirth. In accordance with evolutionary thought, however, Aurobindo rethinks rebirth as a continual progress towards a cosmic goal, and thus he revises Hindu thought in rather the same way that Teilhard de Chardin revised traditional Christian thought. In these thinkers, both traditions can be seen coming to terms with what one might call the emergent vision: the vision of the universe as a creative ground of emergent properties. This process of emergence begins with the ‘Big Bang’, when very few physical properties existed. It continues through the formation of atoms, galaxies, and planetary systems. The evolution of organic life on earth is a small part of this process, and in it new qualities are still emerging—the social forms of life and value (and unfortunately disvalue) that distinguish the human race. One can in the light of modern science plausibly see the cosmos as an emergent, value-oriented, integral totality, moving towards the personification of matter, wherein matter becomes a sacramental expression of Spirit, in its ordered structure and its dynamic vitality.29 Sentient beings are the guardians of the emergence of Spirit, makers of beauty, appreciators of value, loci of understanding. Their task is to realize beauty, joy, and knowledge out of the interplay of energies which form the foundation of their being. One must note, however, that any speculative hypothesis that the whole universe will become merged in an omega point of pure Spirit is generally taken to be baulked by the second law of thermodynamics. In accordance with this law, emergence is a temporary eddy in the inexorable flow of entropy. After billions of years the whole universe will run down, unless, of course, some new form of its development occurs.
This sets a new context for theology. Instead of creation in a garden some few thousand years ago at the centre of the universe, one has the emergence of humanity on the edge of a small galaxy out of vast cosmic processes of conflict and development. Instead of an ‘end of all things’ in a few generations, one has a billion-year future in which the emergent process can develop. Instead of a golden age of prophecy, in which Divine truth emerged fully fledged, followed by a long dark age in which it needs to be closely guarded thereafter, one has a development from primitive and confused ideas towards a greater knowledge of and control over the physical structure of things.
What this forces upon theology is the realization that its presentation of the origin and consummation of all things must be taken in a metaphorical sense. In the hymn of creation, a story of the beginning of all things actually conveys a depiction of the relation of all times to God, so far as their existence is concerned. So the hymns of apocalypse, of judgement and new creation, actually convey a depiction of the relation of all times to God, so far as their true actualization is concerned. The creation stories tell me that my existence is wholly dependent upon God. The judgement stories tell me that what I make of my existence will determine my subsequent relation to God. The stories of a New Jerusalem and the gathering of the elect by the angels tell me that all that is good in what I now do will be conserved in God eternally.
On many neo-Darwinian interpretations, human life has no purpose; it just happens to have been favoured by the environment. For theists the whole process is purposive; but what is that purpose? One might say that it lies in the process itself, as it realizes values of distinctive sorts. Yet there are two major problems in this view for a theist. First, many parts of the process do not realize the values they should, because of misfortune or the evil choices of others; so it seems that many parts of the process are non-purposive. Then, individuals discern only small parts of the process, and many of them die without realizing anything of their potential. The frustration of purpose by evil and the exclusion of many individuals from a share in the fulfilment of purpose are very obvious features of the universe as we experience it. Thus arises the hope for a destruction of evil, a fulfilment of frustrated potential, and a sharing by all in that fulfilment.
How can such things be conceived? The evolutionary view does seem to be ruthless with regard to individuals. In the progress of the cosmos towards greater perfection, the experiences of individual persons can often seem to be means to ends beyond themselves. It is little comfort to someone who suffers violent oppression in starvation conditions to be told that the whole universe is moving to an ever-fuller realization of value. It is my potential that I wish to see fulfilled; and in so far as I am impartial and rational I wish this for all sentient beings. Thus religious faiths develop ideas of an ultimate goal of human life which lies beyond the physical cosmos. The Indian traditions speak of a changeless realm beyond samsara, the wheel of birth and death. The Semitic traditions speak of the resurrection of the body, of a new heaven and a new earth, beyond corruption and decay. These beliefs may seem very different. Taken in a crudely literal sense, they are. One tradition speaks of a spiritual transcending of individual personality, while the other speaks of a physical re-creation of the individual personality. However, closer consideration of the Christian idea of resurrection may suggest that the differences are not so great—especially since all agree that one must speak in metaphor of things that are not literally conceivable in our present state. The Indian views do, after all, speak of the liberation of oneself from suffering, not of sheer extinction. Semitic views stress the difference between the resurrection life and present forms of embodiment. If both traditions speak of a liberation of self from suffering and passion, and of fulfilment in a radically different state of being, the gulf between the two is not as wide as it may have seemed.30
4. The Resurrection and the Physical Cosmos
The early Christian faith spoke of resurrection and a new heaven and earth, in which evil would no longer exist and all could freely explore their natures in an unhindered environment and in consciousness of God.31 But if this was ever conceived as a literal destruction of the planet and its replacement by God (and it is not clear that it was), modern science makes it unthinkable that resurrection will take place on the surface of this planet in the near future.
The core of belief in resurrection seems to be that individuals will exist with the same natures that they now possess, but in a social environment in which they can freely realize those natures, by Divine help.32 It seems obvious that this could not be in this physical universe, at least in its present structure. The resurrection life will be incorruptible and glorious; so the laws of physics will not be those of conflict and entropy, as they now are. This suggests that the final purpose of the physical universe lies beyond it. Physical processes generate conscious free agents, capable of relating to the Divine in love or of being immersed in passion and self-absorption. There may be many forms such beings take, and they may reach many levels of knowledge and creative structuring of their environments. They will be the individuals they are because of their particular place in the cosmic structure, which will provide them with their basic set of dispositions and capacities. However, such dispositions may be frustrated, sometimes almost wholly. The doctrine of resurrection requires some form of embodiment in which those dispositions can be realized, though it will not be in this space-time. The world-view that evolutionary theory, in its broadest sense, suggests, is of the emergence from matter of sorts of consciousness which are to find fulfilment beyond their material origin.
This fits remarkably well the Pauline teaching that the resurrection body stands to our physical bodies as corn stands to seeds.33 In the first letter to the Corinthians, the writer distinguishes the soma psychikon, the body in which humans live on earth, from the soma pneumatikon, the body of the resurrection. The former, literally the ‘mind-imbued body’, is corruptible, trapped by passion, and destined for death. The latter, the ‘Spirit-filled body’, is incorruptible, free from passion, and filled with eternal life. What the writer stresses is the difference of these bodies, even though it is the same persons who will be embodied in these different ways. He emphasizes that we cannot imagine what the resurrection world will be like. The fundamental image he provides is of seeds sown in the darkness of the earth, destined to grow towards the eternal light. This space-time generates the seeds of the Spirit, to flourish in a spiritual realm beyond it.
Thinkers like Teilhard de Chardin have accepted the vision of creative emergence, and speak of the evolution of the cosmos towards an omega point at which a community of Spirit will exist.34 The drawback of this vision is that it leaves those individuals who are perhaps early parts of the process without a share in the final fulfilment. This has the same disadvantage as those Marxist views which see the classless society of peace and justice as a future goal which, however, requires class conflict and suffering for all actual persons here and now. Christian eschatology envisages all generations as sharing in the resurrection life. One is not hoping for a perfected society for other people far in the future. One hopes to share in it, and to become fitted to share in it by a development of whatever dispositions one had in this universe and whatever realizations of them one had achieved.
In such a context the resurrection of Jesus is not seen as a total oddity, a corpse coming back to life in a reversal of all the laws of biology. It is the appearing in this space-time universe of a form of being which, having been generated in this universe, has transcended space-time. In its accomplished unity with God, it foreshadows the goal of every human life in a similar transforming unity. The resurrection shows that the individual life continues to exist beyond the limits of the physical and finds its fulfilment in God. The resurrection is the Christian paradigm of revelation, as the appearing of the suprasensory in the realm of the sensory, disclosing the final goal of human existence in its unity with the spiritual source of all things. Christ is the apotheosis of the cosmos, as he was the matrix of its being, through whom all things were created. He manifests the fulfilment of the physical by its complete conscious enfolding in the ultimate reality of Spirit, which was the primary source of its being.
This Christian view is deeply consonant with the scientific view of the cosmos as an emergent, value-oriented, integral totality, the optimal solution of a supremely elegant set of boundary conditions; yet a totality which is destined to pass away as its ordered complexity eventually breaks down towards a state of final entropy. At the heart of its complex emergence, communities of conscious subjects of experience and action are generated, with natures dependent on their physical origin and yet fulfillable only beyond their physical environment. The human person of Jesus finds its fulfilment in God; but as that person always manifested the cosmic Christ in its human form of existence, so in resurrection it manifests the power of Christ to take the physical into itself in a form beyond corruption. In such a context the incarnation is not an explosive anomaly in a desacralized universe. It is the reintegration of matter to its spiritual source and goal, in a fully conscious return of the temporal to the eternal.
The rise of the natural sciences provides a new context for religious belief. It can generate a picture of the universe as a purely physical, self-explanatory system with no room for God, and as only a problematic place for human freedom and consciousness. For this reason, modern science has sometimes been seen as atheistic in its implications. Science, however, can also generate a picture of a vast, intelligible, emergent cosmos, actualizing possibilities which have their source in a spiritual reality at once enfolding and transcending it. The cosmos is the arena in which many values, which could only exist in such a unique process, are realized. Sentient beings within this universe can find their fulfilment in a conscious and freely willed ascent of all things to their spiritual source and goal.
As religious traditions respond to the new scientific outlook, they may find new resources for developing their canonical doctrines of the final human goal. I have suggested how contemporary science prompts an expanded perception of Christ as the cosmic Lord, an understanding of the resurrection as a temporal foreshadowing on this planet of the purpose of the whole creation, and a vision of the Kingdom of God as a trans-historical fulfilment of all things in God. Other traditions will make their own responses to the picture of an emergent, intelligible yet open-textured universe which modern science provides. It may be that the various faith-traditions of the world can find new possibilities of convergence as they reintegrate their basic revelatory paradigms into a wider cosmic context.
B. AUTHORITY AND AUTONOMY
5. The Basis of Religious Authority
Two elements of Enlightenment thinking have now been considered as setting a new context for theological reflection: the effect of historical criticism and the rise of the natural sciences. There is a third main element of Enlightenment thinking that poses a threat to the very existence of revelation—the attack on authority in the name of the freedom and rational autonomy of the individual. Immanuel Kant, in his essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’, wrote: ‘Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another.’35 For Kant the greatest virtue was autonomy, that property of the will by which it is a law to itself;36 a virtue which is wholly opposed to heteronomy, or the determination of will by another. All religious and conventional authorities are to be put in question, and each individual must decide alone what is worthy of belief and what principles one should act upon.
One can see the appeal of such a principle as a protest against the stifling of criticism by reactionary political forces and the prohibition of questioning by entrenched religious hierarchies. Yet taken literally it would make the growth of knowledge in a scientific community quite impossible. If every physicist, for example, refused to be guided by others, but insisted on starting all over again with personal observations and hypotheses, physics would never progress. It would be folly to deny that some physicists are just immensely more gifted (or lucky) than others, or that a long tradition of expertise is usually to be preferred to one's own fumblings after truths. In any reasonable account of human knowledge, there must be a place for deference to greater expertise and to established bodies of knowledge and practice. So one cannot reasonably interpret ‘autonomy’ in any cognitive discipline as an insistence upon making all decisions for oneself.
There are a number of factors which give some individuals or groups a justifiable authority, in specific areas of knowledge or belief. The most obvious is the possession of relevant knowledge. One would be well advised, in chemistry, to defer to someone who has accurate knowledge of the laws of physical chemistry, rather than attempt to work everything out from the beginning for oneself. Closely connected with the possession of knowledge is the possession of relevant cognitive skills. Logical acumen, the ability to draw inferences from available data; judgement, the ability to select the most fruitful sets of data for study; and the imaginative capacity to see new applications or extensions of theory, would be important skills which some people possess to a greater degree than most. Possession of such skills will not make such people infallible; but it will put them in a better position to make true judgements in their area of expertise, and make them authorities well worth consulting in that area.
Another important factor is experience in the field. Over time, individuals and groups develop a ‘feel’ for how to do things, which only experience can bring. Each individual begins by learning from others with greater relevant experience. To refuse to be guided by one of greater experience, especially in the early stages, is mere stupidity. Finally, there are very different levels of practical expertise. However much knowledge or experience some people have, they may remain ‘under-labourers’ in the fields of science. They do invaluable work in maintaining the disciplines of science, but they do not make great discoveries or win Nobel prizes. A few individuals, however, possess a remarkable capacity for innovative and original work. They are usually, though not always, recognized at once by others as pre-eminent, as having a level of expertise which is quite extraordinary. Most ordinary mortals would again be well advised to listen and learn from them.
In cognitive disciplines, therefore, it is possible to list the factors which give a person justifiable authority. Groups similarly come to have authority by pooling the resources of many individuals to maximize the common knowledge, experience, and expertise which is at their disposal. In such disciplines, a reference to relevant authority is more rational than an insistence on deciding every issue anew for oneself. It would be totally absurd to insist on deciding matters of quantum physics for oneself. Though no quantum mechanist is infallible, and even the greatest make mistakes, it is still wholly rational for most people, and especially for non-scientists, to defer to proper authorities when they speak of the areas in which their authority applies. If religion is a cognitive discipline, if it seriously makes assertions which are meant to be true, there is no reason why religious belief should be treated in a wholly different way.
There is, however, one obvious difference between these cases. In physics there is general agreement on who the relevant experts are. In religion, however, there are basic disputes between different sorts of believers, not only between religions but between different varieties of one religion. One can nevertheless identify what it is to be an expert within a tradition; one can outline a set of characteristics which qualify people as authorities in religious traditions. This does not entail that one accepts the tradition or teacher for oneself, but only that one admits that they can be rationally identified as authorities.
First there is the possession of relevant knowledge. In religion, this will consist mainly in knowledge of a particular tradition of thought about the Supreme Reality, which is assumed to be basically correct. In subjects such as physics, there is no place for revealed knowledge. The entire content of knowledge has to be discovered and formulated by human effort. In religion, however, revealed knowledge consists of truths which are given to human subjects by inspiration. Beliefs about the Divine nature and purpose may seem to be revealed in this way. One can justifiably gain authority in religion by the possession of such revealed knowledge, on condition that it coheres with other well-established knowledge, extends understanding of God and the Divine relation to the world, and provides a way of identifying and overcoming the sense of alienation or estrangement which marks human existence.
The possession of various cognitive skills is also relevant. As in the sciences, these will include skills of logical acumen, enabling one to discern patterns among cognitive data and infer consequences from them. They will include skills of judgement, enabling one to discern and interpret the moral and spiritual factors of historical situations, and to decide upon an appropriate course of responsive action. And they will include imaginative skills, enabling one to apply concepts creatively to express and evoke new insights and interpretations. In a revealed tradition, the extraordinary exercise of such wisdom, discernment, and imagination will normally be attributed to special Divine inspiration. The possession of such skills will increase the plausibility of a claim that their possessor is a prophet or reliable authority concerning religious truth.
In religious matters, the possession of relevant experience is particularly important. In a life of prayer and meditation, the occurrence of intense, prolonged, or particularly clear experiences of a spiritual reality will increase the authority of one who lives within a tradition already assumed to be generally reliable. It is only natural that such experience will put one in a better position to make true judgements about the nature of such a reality. It is proper for those with relatively weak, infrequent, and vague experiences to pay special attention to the words of those who enjoy incomparably superior experience.
The possession of practical expertise is also a factor which needs to be taken into account. In early religious traditions, such expertise consists largely in the practice of techniques for averting evil and assuring good fortune. In the scriptural traditions, ways to accomplish the release of persons from evil and their attainment of salvation or liberation become central. Supreme authority will be possessed by one who has attained such liberation, who is enlightened or sinless, and who is able to mediate to others the spiritual power which brings such liberation. On a slightly lower level, the possession of sanctity (of heroic selflessness and inner peace), or of paranormal powers of healing, will be prima-facie evidence of special closeness to the source of spiritual power. It will accordingly increase the authority of the religious teaching that such persons give.
There are thus fairly clear criteria for ascribing authority in religion to people who possess certain qualities. These qualities are closely analogous to those one would apply in any cognitive science. In religion, they increase the likelihood that a claimant to supernatural revelation is genuine. It would certainly be foolish to insist on trying to work out all religious truths for oneself. It is rational to listen attentively to what properly qualified religious authorities say. In a given religious tradition, these qualities will be possessed in various degrees by many different people. Generally speaking, theologians, visionaries, prophets, law-makers, saints, poets, and priests can be rather different types of people, and they complement each other in religious communities, building up over many generations a cumulative tradition in which a distinctive way of relating to the Spirit is sustained. A religious tradition comes to have authority because of the authority of knowledge, wisdom, experience, sanctity, imagination, and power which has accumulated over many years, the personal sources of which have often been forgotten by being incorporated into the wisdom of the group. If revelation is embodied in such a tradition, it will be expressed in a many-stranded and gradually developing body of practice, belief, and experience within a religious community. Such a practice will be seen in theistic traditions as a response to the active guidance of God and in non-theistic traditions as the attainment of a higher understanding of the nature of reality, derived from the reflective experience of liberated souls.
6. The Authority of Jesus
Most scriptural traditions trace their authority back to one individual, who embodies the authority-justifying properties in a pre-eminent manner. For Christians, Jesus has an unparalleled knowledge of Torah, of the revealed tradition that became the Hebrew Bible. According to Luke's gospel, even at the age of 12, Jesus talked with the teachers in the Jerusalem Temple, ‘And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers’.37 He also claimed a directly inspired knowledge of the nature and purpose of God. As John's gospel puts it, ‘The Father who sent me has himself given me commandment what to say and what to speak.’38 Moreover, Jesus had great dialectical skill, continually reducing the established teachers of the law to silence. Matthew records how ‘the Pharisees went and took counsel how to entangle him in his talk’.39 His reply was so infuriatingly cunning, however, that ‘when they heard it, they marvelled; and they left him and went away’.40 He had the gift of authentic prophecy, interpreting the signs of the times and the destruction of Jerusalem.41 He possessed an extraordinary gift of imagination, uttering parables and aphorisms that stayed in the minds of his hearers, even when their meaning was utterly obscure. Even allowing for the fact that all these accounts are given by disciples of Jesus, not by his enemies, they record the possession of quite extraordinary knowledge, wisdom, discernment, and imaginative power, which were apparently ascribed by Jesus himself to the inspiration of the Spirit of God.42
Jesus’ experience of God also had an intensity and character which struck the disciples as quite unique. Matthew records the saying: ‘No one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’43 While this saying is unique in the Synoptic Gospels, it only makes explicit what is everywhere presupposed by the authority unreservedly given to Jesus by the disciples. Jesus had a unique knowledge of God as Father, ‘Abba’,44 which was founded on the unique character of his own experience.
In the area of what I have called the practical expertise of religion, Jesus was, or was certainly seen as, a liberated soul. He was without selfishness, filled with other-regarding love, ‘one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin’.45 Being liberated from self, he was filled with the power of God. He healed the sick,46 forgave sins,47 and baptized with the Spirit of God,48 mediating to his disciples the very life of God.49 For those who accept the reliability of the gospel records, Jesus’ knowledge, experience, and spiritual power entitle him to be justifiably seen as a supreme authority in matters of religious truth.
The value of autonomy is entirely acceptable, if it means that one is entitled to hold and express one's own opinion as to whether there is any truth in religious matters at all. If one thinks that there is, however, it would be irrational to insist upon accepting only those truths in religion that one could discover for oneself, with very limited knowledge, experience, and spiritual capacity. Jesus is one of those whose claim to authority is very great. If one accepts the reliability of the Jewish tradition, Jesus’ claim must be taken seriously. The fact that there are disputes about the authenticity of his claims, and that there are rival claimants, makes claims for him less than overwhelming. Nevertheless, it would be irrational to decide that his claims were well founded and refuse to accept his guidance in matters of religious truth. In this sense, religion makes an essential and rational claim to authority, which it is important to recognize.
There are, of course, limits to the authority of Jesus. He possessed a very limited human experience, having had a relatively short life as a male Jew in a predominantly rural culture. His factual knowledge was limited by the normal beliefs of his day, with regard to the age and size of the world, for example.50 His thought-processes would be those of a Jewish teacher, steeped in Rabbinic exegesis and study of Torah rather than in, say, Platonic philosophy or nuclear physics. He does not have authority as a physicist or even as a philosopher, in the technical sense. His authority is in regard to the nature of the supreme spiritual reality and value which defines the final goal of human life, a goal which was actually attained in his own life.
The way in which he expressed his apprehension of that supreme reality was naturally determined by the concepts of his culture. It cannot be understood without some awareness of that background; and its reliability depends upon the general accuracy of that long, developing tradition. Jesus’ teaching does not spring fully-fledged and wholly original out of nowhere. It is the teaching of a person of supreme selflessness, trained in knowledge of Torah and the prophets. Such a person could be the medium of an adequate revelation of the Supreme Good and of the way to human fulfilment in relation to it. Christians would wish to claim that Jesus stands in a tradition of authentic knowledge of one supreme, morally demanding creator, and that his life therefore realizes the authentic human goal. There might well remain cultural inadequacies in the tradition, even if not of primary importance, which need to be reinterpreted or complemented by further reflection. Nevertheless, the teaching of Jesus in regard to the character of God and the realization of the Kingdom of God possesses an authority which Christians may justifiably take as definitive.
One must bear in mind that there is no direct access to Jesus’ life and teaching. All that is available is the picture of that life and the interpretations of its meaning which are preserved in the New Testament. This means that the available data of revelation are interpretations of Jesus’ life and teaching generated within the early Church. One must therefore consider not so much the exact accuracy of a historical record as the reliability of the general interpretation generated in the early Christian communities, including a way of conceiving the world which makes sense of it and provides a practical orientation for human living. The original source—Jesus’ life and words—has been interpreted by poets, theologians, priests, law-makers, and visionaries, each bringing their own perspectives and capacities to bear and contributing to the building-up of a developing set of traditions in Christian communities. The New Testament forms an early and canonical (normative) pattern for the subsequent development of tradition. Thus the immediate source of revelation for contemporary Christians is the New Testament, seen as embodying memories concerning Jesus, shaped into iconic mediations of God by the apostolic community. It is important that the Scriptures are read in a community in which Christ is believed to be made sacramentally present by the Spirit. Within that community, tradition is the developing form of life in which the Spirit makes the original Divine self-manifestation present and effective. It always remains subject to Scripture, as the original human witness and response to the self-manifestation of God in the person of Jesus. Yet it is open to new interpretations as the context of human knowledge enlarges. The available source of Christian authority, then, is Scripture and tradition; and the proper scope of that authority is the nature of the supreme reality and the final human goal in relation to it.
C. RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY
7. Pluralism and the Ineffability of the Real
As a Christian, I have naturally concentrated upon the Christian source of authority. But what I have said suggests that there may be, and that in fact there are, many liberating ways to supreme value as a final goal, enshrined in different cumulative traditions and looking back to different supremely authoritative teachers, existing in diverse cultures and generating diverse general frameworks of interpreting the nature of human existence. Little has been said so far about assessing these diverse traditions, though I have suggested that the primal traditions need to be developed in accordance with rational and moral reflective criteria. There is little reason to think that different traditions and beliefs must be equally valid or true. Indeed, that is most unlikely to be a defensible view. The only caveat I have placed on assessments of truth so far is that beliefs about the Supreme Reality itself, which are not straightforwardly descriptive, will need more subtle treatment than a simple contrasting of one with another, as if the truth of one necessarily excludes the truth of the other. Symbols do not straightforwardly contradict one another, though there may be reasons for preferring some to others, and though they may rest upon beliefs which do contradict when precisely stated.
The issue of truth, however difficult it is to deal with in religion, is a central one. The excellent work done by John Hick on placing religious beliefs in a global context is inevitably associated with his own hypothesis of religious pluralism. According to this hypothesis, every religious tradition is a way to salvific relationship with ‘the Real’, and one cannot say that any tradition contains more truth than any others. All the ‘great traditions’ are ‘more or less equally effective’ soteriologically, and ‘truth lies in soteriological effectiveness’, that is, in effectiveness to convey salvation or liberation.51 This blunt statement of what seems to be a pragmatic theory of truth brings out the main difficulty with the pluralistic hypothesis, which is its treatment of the concept of truth. Hick says that ‘the great world traditions constitute different conceptions and perceptions of, and responses to, the Real from within the different cultural ways of being human’.52 With that I am in strong agreement. But he goes on, much more controversially, to suggest that the Divine personae and metaphysical impersonae—that is, gods like Allah, Yahveh, and Vishnu, and the Tao, Nirguna Brahman, and Sunyata—are ‘real as authentic manifestations of the Real’.53 If one is to speak of authentic manifestations then, as a matter of logic, inauthentic manifestations must be possible; there must be some difference between authentic and inauthentic manifestations. What makes a god or metaphysical principle an authentic manifestation of the Real? The obvious thought is that an authentic manifestation gives a more adequate expression of what the Real actually is, whereas an inauthentic manifestation gives an inadequate or even misleading idea of it. For example, the idea of the Real as a blind, purposeless source of energy is less authentic than an idea of it as a person, which is in turn less adequate than the idea of it as ‘a being of unlimited perfection’.
Unfortunately, Hick deprives himself of this possibility of discerning more or less adequate expressions of the Real, since he says, ‘The Real an sich… cannot be said to be one or many, person or thing, conscious or unconscious, purposive or non-purposive, substance or process, good or evil, loving or hating.’54 If nothing at all can be said of the Real, then one cannot say that some expressions are more authentic manifestations of it than others. Indeed, we cannot say that anything is a manifestation of it at all since that would make it a causal substratum. If A manifests B, then A must be caused by B. But that means that B must be described as ‘a cause’, and we are not allowed to say that either. Why not omit the concept of the Real altogether, especially since we should not really say that it is real or unreal, in any case?
Hick's attitude to the Real is ambivalent in the extreme. Since everything that exists is real in some sense, the expression ‘the Real’ seems almost vacuous. One could be speaking of the real fog or the real mathematical equation. It needs to be given some content. Hick does this by admitting that ‘we can make certain purely formal statements about the postulated Real in itself’.55
Such statements, he says, include Anselm's formula, defining God as ‘that than which no greater can be conceived’. This does indeed capture the element of unsurpassable value that is essential to a religious conception of the Real; but it is far from being purely formal. It clearly entails the possession of perfect goodness, since no being can be unsurpassably valuable without being good, together with whatever other properties belong to a supremely perfect being. These properties need to be worked out by reflection and there may be disagreement about them, especially in detail; but one has here the basis for a much more specific concept of ‘the Real’ as an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good being.
In practice Hick does work with such a concept; for he says that ‘most forms of religion have affirmed a salvific reality that transcends human beings and the world’.56 He thus assumes a unitary being that is of greater value than anything in the cosmos and that is ‘salvific’; that is, has the power to bring humans to a ‘limitlessly better state’. In one sense, he is not really a pluralist at all—that is, a person who really believes that all the great religious traditions are equally authentic. For he restricts the traditions he counts as authentic to those which accept the existence of a salvific transcendent reality. Many traditions do speak of such a reality; but not all. Paul Williams, himself a follower of Tibetan Buddhism, writes that for his tradition ‘there is no Being, no Absolute, at all’.57 There are religious traditions which deny any transcendent Real; others which assert more than one; and yet others which explicitly deny the unknowability of the Real. Thus it does not seem possible to find any non-vacuous concept of ‘the Real’ which all traditions could accept as the substratum of their beliefs.
To support his case, Hick quotes a number of authoritative sources from a range of religions to show that ineffability is a common characteristic of the ultimately Real. ‘The Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao’ (Tao Te Ching); God is ‘incapable of being grasped by any term’ (Gregory of Nyssa); ‘Nirguna Brahman is such that all words fall back from attaining it’ (Sankara). Inexpressibility by any human concepts is certainly a feature of the ultimate object of devotion or striving in many religious traditions. And it may seem a short move from saying that two ideas are of an ineffable reality to saying that they are of the same reality; for what could distinguish two ineffables?
Such an argument would be invalid, however. If X is indescribable by me, and Y is indescribable by me, it does not follow that X is identical with Y. On the contrary, there is no way in which X could be identified with Y, since there are no criteria of identity to apply. It is rather like saying, ‘I do not know what X is; and I do not know what Y is; therefore X must be the same as Y.’ If I do not know what either is, I naturally do not know whether they are the same or different. To assert identity is thus to commit the quantifier-shift fallacy, of moving from ‘Many religions believe in an ineffable Real’ to ‘There is an ineffable Real in which many religions believe’. Indeed, we have good reason to distinguish the ineffable God of Gregory of Nyssa, who is after all truly said to be the one perfect cause of all finite things, from the ineffable posited by Zen Buddhism, which is said to be beyond all duality of good and evil, creator and created.58
Traditional doctrines of the ineffability of the religious object cannot plausibly be taken to support the idea that there is one wholly unknowable Real an sich, perceived in different and equally adequate ways in the world religions. For the fact is that each tradition has its own ‘correct’ description of the Real, or of the nature of reality, to offer; and the thesis of ineffability serves not to undermine such descriptions, but to affirm that the Real is more than, but decidedly neither less nor wholly other than, what is describable by their conceptual frameworks.
8. Justification, Truth and Salvation
Why, then, should Hick wish to assert that the great religious traditions are all authentic appearances of one unknowable Real? He states that he postulates it because we cannot reasonably claim ‘that our own form of religious experience… is veridical whilst the others are not’.59 The argument, which derives from Kant's treatment of the Antinomies of Reason in the Critique of Pure Reason, goes like this:
- A is justified in thinking that what seems to her to be the case probably is the case, in the absence of strong countervailing reasons. So if A seems to apprehend God's presence, she is justified in thinking that God is in fact present.
- B is similarly justified in believing that reality is non-dual, on the basis of her experiences of samadi.
- Since ‘A is me’ is not a relevant reason for giving A's views greater force than B's, A and B are equally justified in believing contradictory things.
- There is no good reason for preferring one view to another equally justified view.
- Contradictory beliefs can be true of appearances, though not of Reality.
- Therefore all such beliefs are true of appearances but not of Reality-in-itself.
However much one tries to refine this argument, it will be invalid or self-defeating. In the first place, the situation in which two people are justified in believing contradictory things is not uncommon. For example, a thousand years ago someone might have been justified in believing the earth was flat; but most people today are justified in believing it is roughly round. There is no reason to suppose that all justified beliefs are true. In fact, if I am justified in believing X, I am equally justified in believing that not—X is false. So A has a good reason for believing that B's belief is false, and B has a similarly good reason for believing A's belief is false. Proposition 4 does not in any way follow from 1, 2, or 3. To say that A and B are equally justified in believing X and not—X, respectively, is not to say that one and the same person is so justified. The argument shows only that different people are justified in believing contradictory things. Thus there is a good reason, for A, for preferring one view to its contradictory; namely, that she is justified in doing so. The same is true of B. But there is no one person who is justified in believing both X and not—X. What does follow from this argument is that one believer, or possibly both, is not in a good position to know all the relevant facts. So it becomes important to try to broaden one's experience to make sure that one can give the widest consideration to as many sorts of relevant data and argument as possible.
The argument is also self-defeating, as becomes clear if one considers the case of someone, A, who holds that X (e.g. that God is good) is true of reality in itself, while B denies this. Then A is justified in believing that X is true of reality in itself. But the conclusion (6) asserts that X is not true of reality in itself. So, by the argument, A is justified in believing X only if X is false, which is absurd. Some of the steps of the argument must be modified; 4 has already gone; and now 5 and 6 must go too. One is left with the coherent, if slightly depressing, view that people are often justified in believing conflicting things, though they cannot all be right. However, Hick himself accepts this situation when it comes to disputes about whether there is any future good to be looked for in human life. He says, ‘the issue… is ultimately a factual one in which the rival world-views are subject to eventual experiential confirmation’.60 I am simply pointing out that the same must be true of many religious disputes, when I must admit that someone is mistaken and I am not going to think it is me.
Of course this is not a matter of ‘all or nothing’. I need not say that all my truth-claims are valid and none of anyone else's are. An obvious move is to see all religious experiences as subject to conceptual interpretation, which will qualify the character of the experience. The validity of the experience will depend on the accuracy of the interpretation. It may well be true that no interpretation is adequate to the richness and complexity of the religious object. One will have a range of more or less adequate interpretations, caused in part by an object which transcends any of them in some respects. The practical consequence is that I will be on the look-out for restrictive and unduly partial elements in my own belief-system, and for elements in other traditions which may complement my own.
It is necessarily the case that not all propositions reporting experiences of the Real can be true. There must be some distinction between true and false, between authentic and inauthentic manifestations of the Real. That entails that we have some true information about the Real, and therefore that some beliefs in religion must be false. Hick makes one last attempt to avoid this conclusion, by suggesting that statements about the Real may be ‘mythologically true’. A statement is said to be mythologically true if it ‘tends to evoke an appropriate dispositional attitude to X’.61 Exactly the same problem recurs here, for if some attitudes are appropriate (love and wisdom), then others must be inappropriate (hate and resentment). How can one tell which are appropriate without knowing something true about X? It seems that Hick wishes to eliminate factual considerations and make a preferential selection solely on the basis of the ‘soteriological efficacy’ of a religion. But a religion is soteriologically efficacious only if it succeeds in leading one to the true goal of human life. All the problems about what the true goal is will recur yet again.
The only way left to Hick is to interpret soteriological efficacy solely as moral heroism or the achievement of spectacular virtue. The problem is that many clearly false ideologies can lead to morally heroic conduct on the part of believers, from Marxist-Leninism to Existentialist Humanism. Moral efficacy may be one test of an acceptable belief; but it is not even a necessary condition of a belief's being true, much less a sufficient one. As Harold Netland points out in his discussion of Hick's thesis,62 since the Real an sich is neither good nor evil, how can one have an ethical criterion for distinguishing appropriate from inappropriate responses to the Real?
Hick asserts that ‘it seems implausible that our final destiny should depend upon our professing beliefs… concerning which we have no definitive information’.63 But the very concept of what salvation is involves beliefs which are theoretically unsettlable. Even Hick's own belief that there is a proper goal of human activity is unsettlable, but that does not stop him from holding it. If there is such a goal, one may assume that it will not be attained without correct belief about what it actually is. In this sense the possession of some particular beliefs is necessary to salvation. People without those beliefs will not attain salvation, for the simple reason that salvation consists in attaining a state which entails possessing such beliefs; that is, it entails that one knows what salvation is and that one has attained it.
If, however, one is asking whether any beliefs are requisite now if one is to have a reasonable hope of attaining salvation later, Hick seems to me correct in thinking that if there is a God of universal love, he will not make our loss of eternal life dependent merely upon making an honest mistake. So one might suppose that a positive response to whatever seems to be good and true, by a conscience as informed as one can reasonably make it, is sufficient to dispose one rightly towards salvation.64 As the Roman Catholic document Gaudium et Spes puts it, salvation is attainable by ‘all men of goodwill in whose hearts grace is active invisibly’.65 In brief, being set on the way to salvation does not depend on holding Christian beliefs; but being ultimately saved will depend on acceptance of the basic truths about Christ as Divine self-revelation—at least, if they are indeed truths. Other religions will naturally make analogous claims. Thus a Buddhist may hold that it is not necessary to accept Buddhism in order to follow the course of life that is most appropriate now for a given individual. To achieve final liberation, however, one must have correct (Buddhist) beliefs about the way to the ending of sorrow. Each religion must make the same logical move. Naturally, they cannot all be ultimately true.
9. Criteria of Rationality in Religion
It is possible to distinguish a hard and a soft version of pluralism. The hard pluralist will assert that all great traditions are equally authentic manifestations of ultimate truth; and that, I have argued, is incoherent. The soft pluralist will assert that the Real can manifest in many traditions and humans can respond to it appropriately in them. One may hold that view, while also holding that such traditions may contain many false beliefs. Hick explicitly states this in any case, holding that ‘the basic fact of innumerable broad oppositions of religious doctrines remains’.66 The Real at least begins the process of uniting human lives to itself in many religious systems. However, the presence of false beliefs is bound to affect the way the Real is conceived and represented. After all, the Real is mediated through human concepts and experiences, and it will be characterized in terms of those concepts. To the extent that they are deficient or false, therefore, one would expect that there would be deficient or false views of the Real in such systems. As Karl Rahner says, man's attempt to know God ‘is only partially successful, it always exists within a still unfinished history, it is intermixed with error, sinful delusions and their objectifications’.67 If that is so, not all views of the Real can be equally authentic, and ways must be found of distinguishing between them.
It is implausible to suppose that the Real inspires prophets in only one tradition, and that it does so in a wholly inerrant manner. The idea that God infallibly inspired some of Paul's letters, some hymns and proverbs, some historical chronicles and law-codes, and nothing else in the same way, privileges one revelatory tradition in a way that seems completely arbitrary, unless a very good reason can be given for such preference. As I have argued, exactly the same sorts of reasons can be, and are, given, albeit by different persons, for preferring incompatible revelations. Hick is right in suggesting that one must see Divine inspirational activity at work in many cultures, where people seek to meditate on the ultimate nature of things in relation to a suprasensory realm. In the late twentieth century believers are called, as Cantwell Smith has argued, to a wider view of how God is working in the great religious traditions of the world, so that ‘henceforth the data for theology must be the data of the history of religion’.68 They are called to affirm that God is encountered through the symbols of many traditions and that none of them is complete, in the sense of needing to learn nothing from others. Yet one may and indeed one is logically compelled to find in those cultures and in their history reasons for preferring some patterns of canonical revelation to others, and in that sense to find a more adequate view of the Real in some traditions, and perhaps in one tradition, than in others, even though the others are not uninspired and the most adequate is not in every respect inerrant.
If one asks how one can decide between competing religious authorities, it is quite unrealistic to think of this as a decision made from a completely neutral position, as though one was a discarnate reason impartially assessing all religious positions and then opting for one. As soon as one begins to reflect, one will already have a set of learned beliefs, a set of characteristic interests and evaluations which will influence one's thoughts and responses. One will have grown up in a culture and in a historical setting which provides a noetic framework into which all new information must fit, whether by easy integration or by a more radical restructuring of the framework. Some doctrines will seem more compatible with one's factual beliefs than others, to be able to integrate various sorts of knowledge into a coherent whole, and to give more adequate interpretations of human existence.
It seems to me quite false to say, however, as Gavin D'Costa argues,69 that ‘there are no neutral criteria for adjudicating between religions’; so one can only judge religions ‘by the criteria and standards of one's own tradition’. There are some very basic rational criteria which can be brought to bear upon all claims to truth, in religion as elsewhere. Rationality involves the use of intelligent capacities, including the capacity to register information correctly, to compare similar pieces of information, to deduce and infer in accordance with rules of logic and relate means to ends effectively. A rational person can act on a consciously formulated principle in order to attain an intended goal. In all human societies, however odd they may look, it is necessary to the pursuit of a social life that individuals agree on how to obtain basic perceptual information, on how to draw inductive conclusions from it and on how to use that information to obtain agreed ends (like obtaining food and warmth). Such simple forms of reasoning are necessary to any form of intelligently ordered social life. They are not, and cannot be, culturally relative.
However many strange rules a society has, it must at least have those basic rules of co-operative action which are necessary to its existence as a community. There is therefore a minimal level of rationality present in all societies, which does not vary from one society to another. Minimally, to be rational in any society is to be capable of collecting and ordering information, deducing and inferring, and relating information to the attainment of formulated goals. If one is not capable of doing that, one is not even capable of receiving and conveying revealed information correctly; or at least one cannot be justifiably thought to be capable of doing so.
If one asks to what ‘tradition’ these basic criteria of rationality—self-consistency, coherence with other knowledge, and adequacy to available data—belong, the answer must be that they belong to the tradition of being human, as such. Not all humans may exhibit them; perhaps few exhibit them anywhere near fully. But they are principles of rationality which are built into the necessary structure of human social life, and thus function as desirable ideals for any community that wishes to survive for any length of time.
All truth-claims must be consistent, since a self-contradiction entails that one can prove anything at all, including the falsity of one's own deepest beliefs—which is hardly satisfactory for a believer.70 All truth-claims must be compatible with what one takes to be well-established knowledge with regard to facts and morals. Truth-claims should be adequate to the various sorts of experience one takes to be non-delusory. And they should aim at as unified a perspective on the world as possible, though this is an ideal rather than a requirement.71 Naturally, agreement in the use of such criteria does not necessitate agreement in conclusions. One can seek to eliminate an inconsistency by adjusting various other beliefs, or by interpreting some of those beliefs in an analogical or metaphorical sense. One may dispute as to what knowledge is well established in matters of fact or morality. One may evaluate different sorts of experience differently. One may attempt to integrate different types of knowledge in a number of different ways. Personal judgement and disagreement is ineliminable. The use of these rational criteria does not serve to pick out one religion as the only true one. It serves to encourage a reassessment and revision of particular religious claims in the search for a truly comprehensive and integrated view of the world within which revelatory claims will make sense. So it is still immensely important to maintain that rationality is present in religion as elsewhere, and that it is not different in kind from rationality in general.
But what of the particular counter-examples D'Costa mentions? Do they indeed show that even basic rational criteria are much more tradition-constituted than one might have thought? When looked at in detail, they are hardly convincing. His first example is Zen Buddhists, who are alleged to hold that ‘satori transcends logical conceptuality’. He also mentions that many people hold that the concept of the Trinity is contradictory; and of course one can find Christians who write as though it is. Emil Brunner, for example, writes: ‘The idea of God bursts through and destroys all the fundamental categories of thought: the absolutely antithetical character of the basic logical principles of contradiction and identity.’72 However, in the same book he also writes, ‘That which seems to be a double truth, that is, the equal truth of contradictory statements, always proves to be either the result of drawing an inadequate distinction between various aspects of a question or of exceeding on one side or the other the rightful limits of the subject in question.’73 Precisely so!
It may well be that concepts are suited only to deal with finite spatio-temporal objects in a straightforward way and that there are realities that cannot be said. But if so, they cannot be said in contradictions either. The Buddhists to whom D'Costa refers may be saying that there are cognitive non-conceptual states. If so, they are literally indescribable, and all one can do is evoke them by the use of various techniques. With regard to the ideas of God's mercy and justice, which Brunner suggests are contradictory, one needs only to say that these terms are analogies which must both be applied to God, on grounds of revelation. They are not contradictions, but inadequate attempts to articulate the Divine nature, which we cannot grasp in itself. Like the wave-particle duality in physics, they may seem like contradictions to the uninformed, but they have a consistent application in fact. It is the analogous nature of the concepts that saves them from contradiction.
It may seem that the principle of contradiction cannot function as a criterion for the acceptance of revelation, or authoritative teaching, if revelation offers concepts which seem contradictory to us. However, the principle of contradiction in fact plays a vital role in such cases. It shows that such concepts are used analogously; that the Divine nature is not straightforwardly describable; and therefore that many of the logical inferences we might otherwise draw from such concepts are precluded precisely by the analogous nature of these concepts. It shows the necessity for a very sophisticated theology of Divine ineffability and prevents us from saying that such concepts apply to God in the way we understand them in other contexts. It is vital that one should continue to maintain that revelation cannot contradict other knowledge and that it cannot simply be expressed in contradictions. If this is correct (and I suspect that it is) the principle of contradiction helps to show that the Divine reality does transcend human conceptual abilities, but that acquaintance with it may be realized by training the mind both to use concepts in a certain way and finally to transcend them.
There remains a difference between the Zen and the Christian claims mentioned here. Zen speaks of acquaintance with a non-dual reality in which all distinctions fall away; whereas apophatic theology speaks of an ineffable Godhead which is yet distinct from the cosmos, though it may be imaged in the cosmos in certain ways. Logical criteria naturally cannot be used to ‘choose’ between these variant interpretations. That is done by a much more complex process of critically assessing the case for non-dualism and for Divine ineffability respectively, trying to see what the consequences are for one's basic moral and factual beliefs and how they could integrate into one's own convictional stance. It is no part of my case that one can stand on neutral ground and choose with objective dispassion between all world-views. But it is an important part of rational believing that one should use rational criteria, which are universal in that every person uses them even while denying it, to articulate and render more coherent one's own view of human existence.
The other example D'Costa gives of a radical incommensurability of criteria is the dispute between free-will theodicists and those who reject all theodicies as immoral. But in fact participants on both sides of this dispute (which is internal to the Christian tradition anyway, and thus is not an example of ‘different traditions’ having different criteria of rationality) accept the same rational criteria of assessment. Both see a prima-facie inconsistency between God's power and goodness and the suffering of the innocent. Some think that the charge of strict logical inconsistency can be rebutted by appeal to a possible greater good, while others argue that suffering can never be justified in terms of a greater good. Both agree that they cannot see this greater good with any clarity. What remains is a difference of value-judgement which is amenable to further assessment in terms of consistency, coherence, and adequacy within a wider world-view, but which cannot be decided neutrally or in isolation. Logical considerations will lead one set of disputants to deny objective metaphysical reference to the concept of God and to take the consequences for such beliefs as the resurrection. They will lead the other set of disputants to insist on life after death and on real causal agency in God. Rational considerations force various consequences on the disputants; but of course they cannot decide what ultimate axioms or basic principles will be accepted. This illustrates the important point that agreement in rational criteria does not eliminate all differences in basic value-judgements. It may in fact make such differences sharper, as one is forced to make a choice consistent with one's own more general attitudes.
I have been at pains to stress that religion is not just a matter of theoretical belief. When a religious tradition is contemplated, some of its central myths will resonate more than others and seem to illuminate human experience more; some forms of religious experience will match one's own feelings more closely and suggest fruitful ways of extending one's own experiences; some ritual practices will seem more natural and effective and less superstitious or manipulative of the suprasensory realm; and some ethical rules and ideals will seem more consonant with one's own moral beliefs than others and to extend one's own insights more deeply and widely. It is not that a religious system has to fit one's noetic framework before it is acceptable; that would make any notion of revelation hard to sustain. But in a world of conflicting claimants to revelation some systems will seem better candidates than others to people with particular noetic frameworks.
It seems, then, that there are general rational criteria to be applied in matters of religion, and that they are much the same as those to be applied in matters of human belief generally. One looks for consistency, coherence with other knowledge, integrating power, and adequacy to experience. One needs to bear in mind that religious beliefs operate in the context of cultural forms which have their own impact on human minds, and by which particular minds will have been shaped. There is no question of a neutral adjudication between religions. It is unintelligible to think that one could decide between religious beliefs. One cannot decide to believe something, though one can decide to do things which may be likely to bring one to hold specific beliefs. Belief, however, is basically assent to what seems to be true, and all human beings begin from a set of beliefs which seem true to them, prior to any conscious process of decision.
Individuals respond to the impact of the supernatural as it has come to them in their own historical situation. The rational criteria operate as methodological principles for critical reflection, not as rules for producing correct answers. The rational course is to commit oneself to a tradition of revelation, which delivers one from the pretence that one can work out the truth entirely for oneself. Such commitment should, however, involve an acceptance that the Supreme Reality has not been silent in the other religions of the world, which delivers one from a myopia which confines God to one small sector of human history. A comparative theology is the beginning of a true and serious conversation, which has the possibility of holding together critical thought and loyalty to revelation in a more positive way than that envisaged by the thinkers of the Enlightenment.
D. THE STRUCTURE OF REVELATION
10. Models of Revelation
One traditional view of the nature of theology is that it is a science whose data are given in an inerrant textual source. The task of the systematic theologian is to trace the teachings of the Church back to their implicit or explicit sources in the text or an unwritten tradition, and to suggest connections and implications of these data in diverse cultures and histories. Whatever changes occur, the basic text will remain unchanged and the basic teachings derived from it will also be a secure, certain deposit of doctrines, to be accepted on authority by the faithful. The strength of this view depends entirely upon the certainty and inerrancy of its textual source. Such certainty and inerrancy can no longer be taken for granted or founded upon the two traditional evidential supports of miracle and fulfilled prophecy. For acceptance of the occurrence of these things depends upon prior acceptance of the authenticity of the revealed text, which is precisely what is in question; and the existence of many competing revelations must put in doubt any claim that it is just obvious without argument to any enlightened person that one text is Divinely revealed. The growth of historical and textual critical study has made belief in inerrancy tremendously hard to affirm, and at best highly contestable. Moreover, as this study has made clear, the belief that a particular text is an inerrant copy of an eternal original is a belief that seems to occur naturally in most religious traditions (even the Buddhist) so that it looks more like a natural propensity of the human religious imagination than an objectively ascertainable truth. That would be acceptable, if only the imagination arrived at a consistent set of truths; but alleged revelations only too clearly conflict, so that it looks merely arbitrary to say that one is authentic whereas the others are not, unless a good reason for distinguishing them can be found.
The theologian is therefore bound to look for some sort of validation of revelation which is more than the unsubstantiated assertion that it is true. That suggests that a necessary prolegomenon to a contemporary theology must be a study of the various claims to revelation which have been made in human history, in an attempt to clarify the sources of theological knowledge, the limits of its authority, and the nature of the content of revelation. No such study can be undertaken from a wholly neutral standpoint, though it is reasonable to aim to describe views in ways which would not immediately be disavowed by their proponents. This study has been undertaken from a specific Christian standpoint, so that the immediate aim is to clarify the nature of Christian revelation and to locate it in relation to other religious views as justly as possible. It is for non-Christian theologians or practitioners to develop their own views, which will then have to be taken account of in a continuing discussion. It is possible, and I think likely, that such discussion will enable the Christian faith to come to a clearer and more adequate view of itself, as knowledge of the wider context in which it exists becomes better known and thus deepens Christian self-understanding.74
I have argued that most major religious traditions have a revelatory structure, though what revelation is understood to be varies from one tradition to another. Beginning from a preliminary characterization of religion as a set of practices concerned with special knowledge of a suprasensory realm, a consideration of the sorts of primal traditions which can be found in many parts of the world today, and which have analogies to extinct tribal traditions which have left their marks on the early stages of more global faiths, suggests a basic threefold structure of primal revelation. This structure reflects the elements of special knowledge, experience, and practical expertise which, it was suggested in Section 5 of this Part, provide the basis for justified religious authority. Thus it provides a systematic set of categories for understanding possible forms of revelation.
In inspired oracular utterances (reflecting the element of special knowledge), holy men and women convey messages from the spirit-realm to those who seek advice or consolation. In visions (reflecting the element of experience), the spirits appear, perhaps in drug-induced trances or in dreams, to shamans, men or women skilled in ascetic practice and magical lore. And by the use of divination (reflecting the element of practical expertise), by the casting of lots and the consultation of signs interpretable only by them, the shamans foretell the future or reveal the significance of occurrences of vital interest to the tribe. These basic strands of oracle, vision, and divination remain important to more developed forms of religious life, though with differing degrees of emphasis in different cultural and historical traditions; and they seem to form the basis for developing conceptions of revelation.
The oracular element is transmuted into doctrines of inspired utterance, though such utterances can provide many forms of ‘speech’, from straightforward factual information and prophecy to highly symbolic and cryptic oracles interpretable only by spiritual teachers, or to prescriptions for social and ritual conduct. One can discern here a polarity of passivity and activity on the part of the recipients of revelation. A stress on passivity might lead to notions of possession by a spirit which dictates words to the hearer,75 whereas a stress on active participation is more likely to lead to some idea of the attainment of paranormal wisdom. In the Semitic tradition, the passive element dominates, so that prophecy is seen as the ‘words’ of a personal creator. However, the wisdom tradition is also an important ingredient of the Scriptures. In the Indian tradition, the idea predominates of seers practised in meditation and thus able to achieve heightened mental perception, giving insight into the nature of the Self or of nirvana. The passive element is also present, however, since the primal sages ‘hear’ the words of Scripture,76 which are copies of eternal spiritual records of mystical truths. The passive pole gives rise to what might be called a ‘propositional model’ of revelation, with its stress on the passive reception of words in a particular language.77 The active pole might be called an ‘insight model’, stressing the attainment of the sage through rigorous self-discipline.78 In both cases there is an appeal to a person of authority, prophet or seer, who by personal charisma or by Divine grace is in a privileged position to obtain supranormal knowledge concerning the final goal of human existence in relation to a reality of supreme value.
The visionary element is transmuted into the occurrence of significant experiences, which become the foundation for claims about the nature of that which seems to be experienced by persons accredited with some religious authority. Such experiences can vary from the ecstatic frenzies of the spirit-empowered prophets which are attested in the Old Testament79 to the mystical attainment of a non-dual consciousness which becomes normative for some forms of Indian religion.80 This polarity again seems to express a difference between seeing such ecstatic experience as a relatively passive encounter with a personal spiritual reality, and seeing it as the result of long spiritual practice which is felt to culminate in a direct union with supreme reality. In either case, it provides a sense of experienced unity with a reality of great, even unsurpassable worth, a disclosure of a transcendent spiritual reality in some way underlying the realm of sense-experience. The former would roughly correlate with what in Jewish and Christian thought has sometimes been called an ‘encounter model’ of revelation, wherein a personal Spirit is encountered in an experience of peculiar urgency and intensity.81 The latter is more reminiscent of what Avery Dulles calls an ‘inner experience’ model.82 Dulles considers only the Christian use of this model; but one can perhaps see how such basic approaches are spread over the whole complex of religions with, of course, a huge variety of specific differing emphases in each.
The divination element is transmuted into a way of achieving liberation from suffering. In the case of this element, the polarity of activity and passivity is expressed in the contrasting ideas of the providential actions of a personal God,83 who liberates from oppression and evil, in one set of traditions, and the impersonal workings of the law of karma, from which one can be freed by the practice of non-attachment and meditation, in the other.84 In both traditions, there is an ambivalent attitude to the natural world. On the one hand, it is created good and beautiful. In the Hebrew Bible, ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’.85 In the Indian tradition, the whole world is the expression of Brahman: ‘He is the life that shimmers through all contingent beings.’86 On the other hand, God's liberating action is needed to free his people from oppression and slavery. And the true Self of All is only realized when one achieves liberation from the ‘law of one's own deeds’, the cycle of samsara. Thus the notion of liberation is central to both traditions, and the primal divination of signs develops into the discernment of a way to liberation from evil, either in social history or in personal life. Both traditions thus have a central concern with liberation, the discernment and realization of a truly fulfilling goal hidden beneath the veils of desire and injustice.
Miracles are signs of the spiritual presence which has liberating power. In the Semitic stream of thought, miracles are seen as mighty acts of an objective God, accomplishing an objective liberation from evil. In the Indian traditions, miracles will be expressions of the psychic powers of advanced spiritual teachers. The former generates a model of revelation as historical event.87 The latter might be called a ‘cosmic law model’, to point to the fact that in it revelation is concerned with discerning the ultimate nature of objective reality and with expressing the power of Spirit to accomplish liberation either from or within the material world.
11. The Semitic and Indian Traditions
If one uses this as a plotting device, though always being wary of the ways in which it might distort the data one is considering, one can examine the forms of revelation which are emphasized in various traditions in relation to one another, and thus come to some view of how Christian claims to revelation stand in relation to at least a fair range of others, and how Christian revelation takes its place within the development of revelatory traditions in general. In the Semitic tradition, the early rapture of trance-states gives way to the eighth-century BCE prophets who proclaim the ‘word of God’ in moral judgement and the offer of social liberation on condition of obedience to God's law. There emerges the idea of one supreme Spirit who is ‘other’ than the created world, since he stands in judgement over it and is able to promise deliverance from the oppressive powers within it. Such a view often threatens to turn into a dualism of good and evil powers, and in Zoroastrianism, which left as its legacy the idea of Satan as a fallen angel, it in part did so. Yet the Hebrew prophets retained a belief that God is the only creator of a fundamentally good creation, so that evil is a perversion which can be removed by God in the end, by decisive Divine action. When Satan, first seen in the Hebrew Bible as a servant of God, turns into an angel opposed to God, in the intertestamental period, he is also seen as destined for destruction in the Lake of Fire, when God brings creation to its final intended purpose.88
The fundamental idea of revelation at work here is that of encounter with a supreme, morally demanding Will. That Will expresses itself in historical actions of judgement and deliverance and in the disclosure of what it demands (the Torah) and what it promises (the Messianic Kingdom). There is an experiential element, in the prophetic encounters with God which disclose the Divine as a terrible and awe-inspiring power. There is a pro-positional element, in the ‘words’ of judgement and promise which come to the prophets and in the commandments which Moses hears on the Holy Mountain. And there is a salvific element, as God delivers Israel from Egypt and Babylon and directs the people's history in accordance with their obedience or lack of it. Faith is primarily obedience to the Torah, which establishes and sustains the covenant relationship of this people to God. But Torah is not just an abstract, timeless set of commands. It is given in specific historical circumstances to one particular people, and it is to be interpreted by that community as a living form of relationship between God and a community with a specific, morally ordered history, vocation, and destiny. Revelation is thus the discernment of the moral purpose and vocation of a particular people by prophets who are called into special relationship with one supreme, morally purposing, providentially acting God.
In the Indian tradition a rather different development occurs. There is a movement towards belief in one supreme Spirit; but this is seen as ‘identical’ with the names and forms under which it appears in time.89 It is sages who, by ascetic discipline and practice in meditation, pass beyond attachment and desire to achieve salvation or liberation and become able to unveil the true nature of the one reality. Their experience is construed in terms of a non-dual experience which passes beyond all the limitations and conceptual constructions of the everyday world of appearances. They discern time, not as expressing the purposive acts of a providential God, but as an unfolding of the cosmic law of ignorance, desire, and suffering and as an expression of potentialities somehow inherent in the nature of the one unchanging Real, Brahman. The propositional element of their discernments is found partly in dharma—social laws which reflect the cosmic law of moral order—and partly in the teaching of the true nature of reality and its concealment by desire or ignorance. The fundamental idea of revelation is that of the enlightened apprehension of the nature of reality, as the true and unchanging substratum of manifold appearances.
It seems that in almost every respect the Semitic and Indian traditions are complementary, emphasizing the active and unchanging poles respectively of the Supreme Spiritual Reality to which they both seek to relate. Such complementarities can be, and often are, hardened into contradictions. Thus one can contrast a personal God with a non-dual Absolute; a temporal moral purpose with a timeless and all-including Real; the exclusive worship of one God with an acceptance of many gods and forms of devotion; and prayer as personal relation with meditation as individual enlightenment.90 It is clear, however, that such contrasts are only contradictory if the meaning of the terms used is clear and precise enough to enable one to see just what they exclude. If I say, ‘This book is red’, and you say, ‘It is green’, that is a contradiction, since no book can be both red and green. However, if I say, ‘This book looks red to me, or in this light’, and you say, ‘It looks green to me, or in this different light’, there is no contradiction, since objects can look differently to different people or in different lights. In a similar way, if I say, ‘God is a person’, and you say, ‘God is not a person’, that is a contradiction, since nothing can both be a person and not be one at the same time. But if I am really saying, ‘God relates to me as a person would’, and you are saying, ‘God is a limitless ocean of being’, the contradiction is no longer apparent. One will have to enquire whether a limitless ocean of being can relate in personal ways to creatures. If I am prepared to concede that God is much more than a person, as I understand the term, and you are ready to say that unlimited being can take a limited form for the sake of creatures, then a straight contradiction has disappeared.
The point is not that everyone really agrees, though they do not realize it. It is rather that some people, who are prepared to concede the inadequacy of human concepts to describe a supreme being, may be able to allow that different concepts may apply in different respects or from different points of view. There is still room for disagreement and discussion. In what sense can something be ‘more than personal’, or can an unlimited being come to possess limits? Such questions are not finally settlable; further enquiry and reflection is not only possible, but positively mandated. In the end, disagreements will remain (or these issues would have been settled long ago, one would think); but they might not be where one thought they were, and they might not always remain in the same place.
12. The Buddha and the Christ
Hinduism in its traditional forms retains a strong element of particularism, being committed to a complex set of social and religious rules which ties the religion to conditions of birth and race. Buddhism can be seen as a rejection of this aspect of dharma and also of the idea of an all-inclusive Self of which the gods are manifestations. Founded on the enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama, it teaches a way to liberation which issues in the experience of nirvana, or the Unconditioned. The three major revelatory elements are clearly present in Buddhism. It normally includes a teaching on the cosmic law of karma and the moral and spiritual ordering of sentient life towards release from that law. It has an authoritative revelation from the Buddha into the true nature of reality as dependent co-origination. It centres on the paradigm experience of Enlightenment, as the goal of the religious life. The fundamental idea of revelation, however, is the experience of nirvana itself, to which, in many streams of Buddhism, any form of conceptual teaching is relativized, such teaching being a vessel which one can discard when one has reached ‘the further shore’.91
In a manner not wholly dissimilar, Christianity emerged from being a sect of Messianic Judaism to be a distinct religion when it rejected Torah and thus radically modified its understanding of the Divine covenant between God and humanity. Christianity, too, is founded on the life and teaching of one individual, Jesus of Nazareth, who comes to be seen as a self-manifestation of God, sacrificially offering his life to bring forgiveness and a non-political form of liberation to a new covenant community.92 The paradigm revelatory experience is primarily that of Jesus himself, bound in a uniquely close union with the Divine; but his followers can participate in this unitive experience to some degree (being ‘sons and daughters by adoption’) as the Spirit makes his life present within and among them. Jesus authoritatively teaches the goal of human life as the coming of God's Kingdom, though this is neither a teaching on the true nature of ultimate reality (as in Hinduism) nor a teaching of the true law which humans must follow to be rightly related to God (as in Judaism). It has a peculiarly elliptical character, but it does set out the pattern of true human relationship to God which is also expressed in his life, death, and ascension, and which is the exemplary model for the lives of his followers. Finally, Jesus embodies in himself what is seen as the decisive act of God for human salvation—healing, forgiving, empowering, and triumphing even over death itself, in a manifestation of the final goal of the whole created order. This act is not merely seen as a great wonder brought about by God; it is seen as a self-manifestation of the Divine Being itself, in its energizing impulse towards the consummation of all things. So the fundamental idea of revelation in Christianity is that of a self-manifestation of the Divine Being which sets the exemplary model for human life and effects participation in the Divine Life. The new community of the Church is one which unites humans to God as they participate in Christ.93 The Jewish model of encounter and law is radically modified by a stress on participation and a universalizing and internalizing of the prophetic promises. At the same time, the transcendence of a personal God and the moral teleology of creation is strongly affirmed. Thus Christianity may plausibly be seen as combining elements of the Semitic and Indian traditions, being basically Semitic but with a new emphasis on the Divine self-manifestation in time (incarnation), human participation in the Divine Life (atonement), and a replacement of social regulations by a model of interior growth in response to prevenient love (sanctification by the Spirit).
As both fulfilling and transcending their respective traditions, the Buddha and the Christ seem to stand opposed to one another in all the major elements of their teaching. Between the intense love of God who has a positive redemptive purpose for the world, and the transcendence of all conditioned realities in the attainment of total non-attachment there can, it seems, be little common ground. It is useless and superficial to claim that both are somehow the same, or equally correct construals of ultimate reality and the final human goal. Yet the greatest Christian saints, who speak of an intense love of God, also speak of the necessity of passing beyond any subject-object duality which would reduce God to the status of an object and leave God in an external relation to the loving self. They speak of the necessity of passing beyond self to achieve an experience of supreme bliss, wisdom, and compassion; and that would not be an unfamiliar concept for one who follows the Buddhist way.94 On the other hand, many Buddhist sages find themselves speaking of nirvana, the Unconditioned, as supreme joy, wisdom, and compassion—terms only properly applicable to personal forms of reality. They speak of the unsatisfactory nature of the sensory realm and the necessity of passing beyond it to find a changeless and uncaused reality of supreme perfection, which would not be an unfamiliar idea for one who follows the Christian way.95
This suggests the thought that these icons of the Christ and the Buddha stand as complementary polarities marking out the path of human spiritual experience. They are the universalized epitomes of historically and culturally determined polar models of the suprasensory realm, as it has been apprehended by spiritually devoted individuals. The Buddha commits himself wholly to the path of non-attachment and discovers release from self and union with a supreme bliss, wisdom, and compassion. The Christ commits himself wholly to devotion to God and discovers in himself the Divine love, purpose, and power working actively to found the dawning of God's rule in a new community of the Spirit.
Seen in this way, neither Gautama nor Jesus are sudden arbitrary eruptions of the supernatural into an otherwise closed web of natural causality. They represent the fulfilment of natural human potentialities, whereby the suprasensory is brought into living relationship with the sensory realm.96 The goal of human life is attained; what has to be done is done; the Eternal achieves embodiment under the forms of time. One major difference is this: in the person of the Buddha, the temporal is decisively transcended in the unbroken calm of the Unconditioned and a human person achieves liberation from the chains of desire and ignorance. But in the person of the Christ, the eternal dynamically enters into and transfigures the temporal, so that individuality, creativity, temporality, and community are positively affirmed as that person finds its fulfilment in a transparency of feeling, mind, and will to the creative source and goal of all things. The Christian will naturally say that this element of creativity and Divine prevenience is a fundamental aspect of reality which the Buddhist viewpoint misses, and many forms of Buddhism witness to this by introducing more devotional, dynamic, and purposive elements into their basic model.97 The Buddhist witness is, the Christian may add, nevertheless necessary to remind Christians of their tendency to turn faith into acceptance of external dogma, and forget the primary and fundamental impulse of religious faith to facilitate the interior realization of the human goal of true joy, wisdom, and compassion.
13. Towards an Open Theology
There are many other religious movements in the world, some of great importance both spiritually and socially; it would be quite impossible to do justice even to a fair range of them. I have simply tried to elucidate some major patterns which help to locate Christian revelation in a wider religious context. I have, however, discussed one post-Christian faith which stands out as a particular problem for the Christian view, placing question-marks against Christian claims to final revelation, to complete spiritual adequacy, and to a unique global mission. That is Islam, which calls for a return to the simplicity of belief in one transcendent Creator, moral judge of humanity, who reveals to the prophets the Shari'a, the laws by which society must be structured to relate it rightly to God. In Islam, human experience and the discernment of Divine action or of an innate moral structure in reality are de-emphasized, so that all the weight is put on the revealed words of God. Ironically, the transcendence of God is emphasized to such a degree that analogies of personal relationship fall away and experience of the wholly other God becomes almost indistinguishable from the non-dual experience of the Indian traditions.98 If the object of my experience bears no relation to any finite or conceivable object, then it is truly akin to ‘Nothing’, to that of which nothing can be said. Not being an object, it cannot be clearly separated from any apprehending subject; no proper subject-object relation exists between One on whom the subject wholly depends for its being and one who has no being except in the One. Total transcendence and total dependence, taken together, lead to a form of experience of God which is best construed as wordless union with the Unknown. In this sense, the Sufi experience is a natural consequence of Islam, though orthodox Muslims often feel uncomfortable with any talk of ‘experience of God’ at all, precisely for this reason, that it brings Islam uncomfortably close (it may seem) to the possibility of an orthodox Christian doctrine of incarnation, with its notion of a unity of being between Divine and human. The fundamental nature of revelation in Islam is the aural or mental reception of a social law for relating society rightly to God. Torah is taken out of its historical and covenantal context and universalized so that it drastically simplifies the requirements of faith and insists only on the unity and perfection of God and the Divine claim to sovereignty over the whole of life.
Islam questions the exclusivism of many Christian views, which reserve Paradise for Christians alone.99 It questions the Christian tendency to become involved in highly abstract disputes about the intra-Trinitarian relations or the exact nature of incarnation. It questions the Christian stress on human sinfulness and the frequently heard teaching of the necessity of atonement by the shedding of the blood of an innocent victim. It questions the tendency of Christians to divinize the Church by giving it a strongly hierarchical authority which possesses the power to save or damn individuals and decide their beliefs for them. It questions the often-heard Christian demand for a degree of individual perfection, construed in terms of pacificism, poverty, and chastity, which makes any realistic social policy impossible.100 Above all, it questions the identification of God with one human individual, historically remote from most other persons. The faith of Islam issues from an unwavering insistence that God has no kinship with anything created and that God is wholly one and transcendent. The rejection of Christianity follows from just those elements of an incarnational and redemptive faith which bring the Semitic tradition closer in some respects to the Indian. However, as I have suggested, within Islam itself strong movements exist which come near to a doctrine of the manifestation of God in wholly obedient human wills and of human fulfilment as lying in a relationship of such total dependence upon God that it is very hard to distinguish it from unity. Yet its religiously motivated opposition to Christianity shows, with regard to religion as a social phenomenon, that complete universality in religion is an impossible hope; and this may lead one to be more keenly aware both of the distinctiveness and of the shortcomings of one's own religious tradition.
In this necessarily restricted survey of religious traditions, I have tried to counteract the inevitable element of generalization and therefore of superficiality by considering one topic in some detail from each tradition I have considered. My conclusion is that it does make sense to speak of a common structure of faith at the heart of many religious traditions, and that it makes sense to speak of a common, if rather general, core of belief in a number of traditions about the ultimate goal of religious practice.101 All the faiths mentioned here have a common concern to know suprasensory reality and to relate to it in ways conducive to true human fulfilment. They are concerned to provide a diagnosis of the human condition, as one from which liberation is desirable; an authoritative teaching of a final goal of human striving in which liberation is to be found, which is characterized in terms of knowledge, bliss, and compassion; and a disclosure of a supreme intrinsic value which is actualized or actualizable in reality. They are revelatory of that supreme value (in Christianity, God as self-giving love); they are exemplary, in providing a delineation of the final goal (in Christianity, participation in the Divine love); and they are charismatic, in providing an empowering way towards that goal (in Christianity, the Spirit patterning human lives on the model of Christ). All are centrally concerned to preserve the insights given in an authoritative liberating disclosure, realized in or through one or more prophets or seers who promulgate a form of experience and teaching which is ultimately salvific for human life.
It is thus possible to hold that, in an important sense, many faiths may offer different paths to a common goal, conceived in a number of rather different ways. ‘Truth is one: the sages call it by many names.’102 Yet there are some distinctive truth-claims made in each tradition which distinguish it from others. In Christianity, it is said to be true that God spoke to the prophets, was incarnate in Jesus, and is present in the Spirit. These are, or entail, historical truth-claims, not just elements of one imaginative story among others. Beliefs in the incarnation, atonement, and the Trinity, which are founded upon and develop from such historical claims, are not shared by other faiths and exclude all beliefs which contradict them. These beliefs, in turn, are interpretable in a number of distinctive ways, which constitute diverse doctrines within the Christian spectrum. To the extent that such beliefs are understood to be partly metaphorical attempts to express matters too difficult, complex, or mysterious to comprehend, they may be regarded as complementary. However, to the extent that they are taken to embody or presuppose straightforward truths (as, perhaps, that Jesus is fully human and fully Divine), they are exclusive truth-claims. One might thus envisage a branching tree of doctrines, from the most general and basic belief in one perfect reality, up through distinctive claims about how that reality is revealed, to very particular claims on a relatively straightforward observable level (as that Jesus died on the cross). Different religions might share, to varying extents, parts of this tree, and then diverge as more particular claims are made. They may also overlap at a number of points, so that the branches may often intertwine, and not simply grow apart.
I have occasionally spoken of the possibility of a ‘convergent spirituality’103 in the modern world, referring to a possible convergence of the central focal concepts of various religions. This is especially true of the Semitic and Indian traditions, as they encounter one another and reinterpret themselves in the light of new, scientifically based knowledge. Convergences may arise at many points between traditions, though new contrasts and insights may also continually be expected to arise. There will be some basic insights which a tradition will not be prepared to surrender—for Christians, a belief in God's redemptive love, focused in the person of Jesus and spreading out to offer conscious unity with God to all humanity. Even here, however, it is possible that severe polarities of belief may be mitigated by a more nuanced understanding of their complexity and their potential for recontextualization.
The convergence in question is not a movement of all traditions to a new, universally accepted tradition. It is a recognition that many cultures and traditions are engaged in a common quest for unity with supreme perfection; a hope that they may seek and achieve a convergence in common core beliefs, as complementary images come to be more widely recognized; and an acceptance of the partiality and inadequacy of all human concepts to capture the object of that quest definitively.
One might perhaps speak of an ‘open theology’, which can be characterized by six main features. It will seek a convergence of common core beliefs, clarifying the deep agreements which may underlie diverse cultural traditions. It will seek to learn from complementary beliefs in other traditions, expecting that there are forms of revelation one's own tradition does not express. It will be prepared to reinterpret its beliefs in the light of new, well-established factual and moral beliefs. It will accept the full right of diverse belief-systems to exist, as long as they do not cause avoidable injury or harm to innocent sentient beings. It will encourage a dialogue with conflicting and dissenting views, being prepared to confront its own tradition with critical questions arising out of such views. And it will try to develop a sensitivity to the historical and cultural contexts of the formulation of its own beliefs, with a preparedness to continue developing new insights in new cultural situations.
A ‘closed theology’, by contrast, is one which insists on the total distinctiveness of its own beliefs, excluding others from any share in important truths. It rejects all contact with other systems of belief. It rejects any developments of knowledge which would force a reinterpretation of its own tradition. It will, if possible, restrict or prevent the expression of criticism or dissent. It will seek to suppress other religions. It will insist that it possesses a complete or sufficient understanding of truth, which change could only impair or destroy.
Perhaps no theology is wholly open or wholly closed. But if truth is indeed one; if humans come to apprehension of it from various cultural backgrounds, usually by a laborious development of understanding; and if there is a Supreme Reality which wills all to be consciously related to it; then one will hope for a convergence of beliefs between the great religious traditions. If that remains a distant, asymptotic goal, we can each at least hope to develop a more open theology, built on the insights and restrictions of our own historico-cultural viewpoint.
14. Concluding Remarks
Within such an understanding of religions and theology, an intelligible account of the nature, sources, and limits of revelation can be given. That is what this volume has attempted. So Part I began with an account of theology as an enquiry into the truth and rationality of religious claims about the nature of ultimate reality and an alleged final goal of human life. Theology must take claims to revealed knowledge seriously, but I contrasted confessional theology, which expounds and defends one set of revelatory claims, with comparative theology, which enquires into the whole range of such claims in human history, without any methodological commitment as to their truth. Proper method in comparative theology will be pluralist, dialectical, and self-critical. It will accept the existence of many competing alleged revelations, none of which is uniquely privileged. In this context, revelation was characterized as a direct intention by God to communicate truths beyond the range of ordinary human cognitive capacity. Such communication occurs in diverse cultures and histories and takes its particular form from those contexts. It requires, for its reception, a practical commitment to the possibility of a worthwhile goal and of a liberation from evil, involving obedience to the perceived demand of Divine disclosure, trust in its liberating power, and hope for its final fulfilment. Revelation is thus primarily a Divine existential challenge. It exists in many diverse cultural forms. It can justifiably give rise to a practical certainty of commitment, though not to the sort of dispassionate theoretical certainty that may be thought to be characteristic of the experimental sciences.
In Part II, I tried to place the genesis of revelatory traditions in a global historical perspective. I suggested that a development is traceable from the use of spirit-powers to gain good fortune, to the idea of one supreme value and goal, which can be discerned, participated in, and mediated to others. The main criteria governing such a development are those of rational coherence, moral universalism, and capacity to achieve personal integration. I suggested that the best model of revelation to explain this process is a model of co-operative persuasion, with human imagination, poetic thought, and reflection playing an important part.
By a consideration of four main world religions, Part III sought to elucidate a common structure in religion, of liberation from self to union with a reality of supreme intrinsic value. Different cultural traditions, interpreting basic concepts of causality, reality, and identity differently, and making differing evaluations of action and desire, develop their own canonical models of Supreme Reality. The main models in the traditions considered can be described as the models of objective moral will (Judaism), the supreme Self (Hinduism), transcendent sovereignty (Islam), and Pure Bliss (Buddhism). Embodied in Scripture, these are often taken as inerrant and final. Comparative study suggests, however, that they are all culturally influenced, with primitive traces remaining in them, and with the capacity of further development through a process of dialectical interaction—in which oppositions remain, but are seen as in dynamic and complementary interaction.
In Part IV, the Christian view of revelation was explored in its global context as a distinctive model which emphasizes individuality and creativity as temporal expressions of the Supreme Reality. The Christian canonical model is that of self-manifesting and unitive love. Jesus is the foreshadowing manifestation of the final goal of creation, and the Christian Scriptures present theological meditations on his life to bring out its function as a historical disclosure of the Supreme Reality and Value. A preliminary interpretation of a doctrine of incarnation was sketched, so that the full and distinctive Christian concept of revelation can be seen as that of a historical self-disclosure with the power to effect liberating union with the Divine.
Also in Part IV, the question of the response of revealed faith to the challenge of modernity was addressed, specifically with regard to the growth of historical criticism and consciousness. I argued that the extreme historicism which undermines any possibility of understanding distant cultures and any hope of founding faith on historical claims is indefensible. Yet it is important for religious faith to understand its own historical roots, development, and limitations, and this may make an important difference to the way one's religious beliefs are held.
In Part V, two further aspects of modernity were considered, the rise of the natural sciences and the Enlightenment emphasis on the ethical value of autonomy. In each case, extreme views which deny any truth or authority to religious claims were rejected, but both aspects were judged to have important implications for an understanding of revelation. The rise of the natural sciences places revelation in a vastly expanded cosmic context. In an emergent, value-oriented cosmic process capable of a trans-historical fulfilment, the diverse revelatory traditions may be seen as manifestations of Supreme Value to finite human consciousnesses. A certain complementarity of canonical models may be looked for, though each tradition must be loyal to its own insights. This view is consonant with the Christian claim that the fullness of revelation lies in the future (in the parousia), that Christ truly manifests and foreshadows it, but that we may only understand his reality in part.
With regard to the questions of autonomy and authority, an analysis of the basic structure of religious authority was developed from the threefold distinction of thought, feeling, and will. This traditional distinction correlates with revelatory elements of oracle, vision, and divination or empowerment, which can be found in religious structures from the primal to the canonical traditions. One can distinguish in each tradition elements, differently emphasized, of inspiration (whether interpreted primarily as insight or as Divine dictation), of experience (interpreted as encounter or as non-dual awareness), and of empowerment (the social or individual attainment of the human goal). It is within this complex of elements that revelation, as the extraordinary Divine communication of suprasensory truth, takes form. Thus one can see how the person of Jesus is accepted by Christians as the supreme spiritual authority, because he is supremely aware of God (the element of experience), liberated from sin (the element of empowerment), and inspired by the Spirit (the element of inspiration).
In summary, revelation may be characterized as a direct intention of God (or of a spiritually enlightened person) to communicate truths beyond normal human cognitive capacity. Its form is influenced by the cultures and histories in which it occurs. It is properly received only by commitment, trust, and hope. It is a blend of human imagination and reflection and Divine (or enlightened) co-operative persuasion, which leads, in the great scriptural traditions, to a canonical model of one supreme value and goal. In the Christian tradition, revelation takes the form of a historical self-disclosure of the Divine. The source of revelation lies in an authoritative empowerment, experience, and inspiration, to which Scripture witnesses. It thus involves elements of reflective thought, experiential awareness, and cognitive, moral, and mental empowerment. For each canonical tradition, the paradigm revelation is given through an authoritative experient in whom these elements are found in their fullest form, in a culture which is believed to be conducive to the development of an adequate canonical model. It is directed towards liberation from self and union with supreme intrinsic value. Its proper purpose is to show the nature of Supreme Value, the final human goal in relation to it, and to originate a way of life which leads to that goal.
If there is a suprasensory reality of supreme worth, and a human goal to be attained by unity with it, one would expect revealed knowledge to exist. Theology is the systematic articulation of such revealed knowledge. This account has sought an understanding of what revelation is, of what its sources and limits are, and of how the world's revelations can be viewed from a particular, in this case a Christian, standpoint. If one can get reasonably clear about these things, then one can proceed to ask what sort of positive theological construction is possible in one's own historical epoch.
Galileo was condemned in 1633 for his defence of the Copernican account of the solar system, in his Dialogo dei due massimi sistemi del mondo.
Richard Swinburne, Revelation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 197: ‘God did provide a later context which made what they wrote down… express statements which were entirely true.’
The expression is from F. Schleiermacher, On Religion, trans. Richard Crouter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 103.
A detailed account of the development of modern science in its relation to theology can be found in Stanley Jaki, Science and Creation (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1986).
‘Are they [the angels] not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation?’: Hebr. 1: 14.
Sankara, The Vedania Sutras, trans. George Thibaut, in Sacred Books of the East, ed. Max Muller (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1962), xxxviii. 102 ff.
Augustine expressed the view that there may be many universes other than this one, for all we know: City of God (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1957), 359.
‘In him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities-all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together’: Col. 1: 15–17.
This doctrine is clearly expressed in Asvaghosa (attributed), The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana, trans. Shomo Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963).
Justin, Apology, 2.13: ‘All the [pagan] writers were able to see realities darkly through the sowing of the implanted word that was in them.’
‘Whence arises all that order and beauty which we see in the world?… Does it not appear from phenomena that there is a being incorporeal, living, intelligent?’: Isaac Newton, Optics, 3rd edn. (London, 1721), 344.
Thus Pierre Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities, trans. F. W. Truscott and F. L. Emory (New York: Dover, 1961), 4.
Schleiermacher expresses this especially clearly, in The Christian Faith, eds. H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1989), 142–56.
Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 32 ff.
Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics (London: Fontana, 1976), 30.
Nagarjuna, quoted in T. R. V. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (London: Allen and Unwin, 1955), 138.
W. Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy (London: Allen and Unwin, 1963), 96.
Jaki, Science and Creation.
John Polkinghorne suggests that ‘the physical world participates in a wider noetic world’, which may act ‘within whatever flexibility there might be in overall process’: Science and Creation (London: SPCK, 1988), 76–83.
‘There is an intrinsic openness to the future built somewhere into the structure of quantum theory’: ibid. 40.
At the meeting of the British Association at Oxford in 1860. It seemed to Bishop Wilberforce absurd to say that he was physically descended from a more primitive life-form. But it is hardly more absurd than being physically developed from a single fertilized cell.
The standard classical treatment is in Augustine, City of God, esp. bk. II, chs. 4–6 (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1957).
Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, paras. 36–41, phrases it thus: ‘The world exists only in absolute dependence upon God.’
The antitheistic case is strongly argued by R. Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (London: Longman, 1986).
A. R. Peacocke, God and the New Biology (London: J. M. Dent, 1986), 100: ‘The processes of the universe are continuous and evolutionary and in them arise new organisations of matter-energy.’
Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1987).
This view is worked out, with a speculative exuberance and a degree of cosmic optimism which even I find daunting, in John Barrow and Frank Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), esp. ch. 10.
Interesting work in this area has been done by: John Hick, Death and Eternal Life (London: Collins, 1976); and Paul Badham, ‘Death and Immortality: Towards a Global Synthesis’, in D. Cohn-Sherbok (ed.), Death and Beyond (London: Bellew Publications, 1993).
Rev. 21: 1–4.
1 Cor. 15: 42–54.
1 Cor. 15: 37.
Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, trans. B. Wall (London: Collins, 1959), bk. 4, ch. 2.
Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment? , trans. L. W. Beck in On History (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963), 3.
Kant, Groundwork to the Metaphysic of Morals (1785), trans, by H. J. Paton as The Moral Law (London: Hutchinson, 1948), 37. But for the complexity of Kant's view of autonomy, cf. K. Ward, The Development of Kant's View of Ethics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1972), ch. 7.
Luke 2: 47.
John 12: 49.
Matt. 22: 15.
Matt. 22: 22.
Mark 13: 2.
John 17: 8: ‘I have given them the words which you gavest me’.
Matt. 11: 27.
Mark 14: 36.
Heb. 4: 15.
Mark 1: 34.
Mark 2: 5.
Mark 1: 8.
John 6: 68.
In Mark 2: 26, Jesus is apparently mistaken about the name of the High Priest at the time of a particular incident in the life of David.
John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion (London: Macmillan, 1989), 369, 373.
John Hick, 6.
Paul Williams, ‘Some Dimensions of the Recent Work of Raimundo Panikkar’, Religious Studies, 27/4 (Dec. 1991).
This argument is taken from: K. Ward, ‘Truth and the Diversity of Religions’, Religious Studies, 26 (Dec. 1990), 1–18.
Hick, An Interpretation of Religion, 235.
Harold Netland, Dissonant Voices (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1991), 227.
Hick, An Interpretation of Religion, 369.
This is essentially the position argued for with force by Karl Rahner; cf. Foundations of the Christian Faith, trans. W. Dych (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1978), ch. 6, sect. 10.
Gaudium et Spes, in W. M. Abbott, The Documents of Vatican II (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1966).
Hick, An Interpretation of Religion, 363.
Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, 173.
W. C. Smith, Towards a World Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1981), 126.
Gavin D'Costa, ‘Whose Objectivity? Which Neutrality?’, Religious Studies, 29 (March 1993).
The proof is simple and well known. If (P and not P), then, since P entails (P or Q), and [(P or Q) and (not P)] entails Q, Q must be true, whatever Q may be.
These criteria are implicit in all rational activity; they agree with those set out, for example, in Netland, Dissonant Voices, 192.
Emil Brunner, Revelation and Reason, trans. Olive Wyon (London: SCM Press, 1947), 47.
This is the programme for ecumenical theology outlined in Smith's Towards a World Theology, esp. ch. S. An excellent illustration is: Hans Kung, Christianity and the World Religions (New York: Doubleday, 1986).
‘Your Companion is neither astray nor being misled, nor does he say anything of desire. It is no less than inspiration sent down to him’: Koran 53. 2–4.
‘Veda is eternal; Prajapati causes Rishis to see them, perfect in all their sounds and accents’, Sankara, The Vedanta Sutras, xxxiv. 333.
This is an important part of Dulles's model of ‘revelation as doctrine’: Avery Dulles, Models of Revelation (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1992), ch. 3.
The clearest case is the Buddha, who attained to nirvana through following the eightfold path to its end: ‘Because it can be arrived at by distinction of knowledge that succeeds through untiring perseverance… nibbana is not non-existent’; Buddhaghosa, Visuddhimagga, trans. Bikku Nanamoli as The Path of Purification (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1979).
‘The spirit of the Lord will take control of you and you will join in their religious dancing and shouting and will become a different person’: 1 Sam. 10: 6.
‘When Bodhisattvas become free from activating mind, they will be free from the perceiving of duality… the Dharmakaya knows no such thing as distinguishing this from that’: Asvaghosa (attrib.), The Awakening of Faith, trans. Y. S. Hakeda (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967), 71.
The classic and most influential exposition is in Martin Buber, I and Thou (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1958).
Dulles, Models of Revelation, ch. 5.
‘He led his people out like a shepherd and guided them through the desert’: Ps. 78: 52.
‘Like light and shade there are two selves: one here on earth imbibes the law of his own deeds; the other, though hidden in the secret places of the heart, dwells in the uttermost beyond; so say the seers who Brahman know’: Katha Upanishad, 3.1.
Ps. 19: 1.
Mundaka Upanishad, 3.1.4.
Dulles, Models of Revelation, ch. 4, outlines what he terms a model of ‘revelation as history’.
Rev. 20: 10.
‘The Real became everything’: Taittiriya Upanishad, 2.6.
Such a stark statement of doctrinal opposition is expressed in H. Kraemer, Religion and the Christian Faith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956), 340 ff.
The Chinese Buddhist master of the Madhyamika school, Chi-tsang, expounds the position that one should be attached to no views at all. Some of his work is translated in: Sing-tsit Chan, A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963); cf. esp. pp. 365 ff.
Jesus said: ‘This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many’: Mark 14: 24.
‘The Church is Christ's body, the fullness (pleroma) of him who himself fills all things everywhere’: Eph. 1: 23.
Cf. for example, John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle B, 38.2–3, where he speaks of the soul loving God with the very same love with which God loves it.
‘Beyond the transience of time, he will find the joy of Eternity, the joy supreme of Nirvana’: Dhammapada, 25.381, trans. J. Mascaro (London: Penguin Books, 1973).
Thus Karl Rahner: ‘[it is possible] for there to be a man, who, precisely by being man in the fullest sense (which we never attain), is God's existence into the world’: Rahner, Theological Investigations (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1966), 1.184.
This is particularly true in some forms of Japanese Buddhism, such as Yodo-Shin-Shu. Cf. A. Bloom, Shinran's Gospel of Pure Grace (Tucson, Ariz.: University of Arizona Press, 1965).
‘Everything will perish except his own Face’: Koran 28.88; a text used by many writers, including al-Ghazzali, to express the extinction of all sense of duality, the stage of ‘extinction in God’, in the final vision of God.
‘They say, none shall enter Paradise unless he be a Jew or a Christian… nay, whoever submits his whole self to God and is a doer of good—he will get his reward’: Koran, 2.111.
This is the basic accusation made in the ecumenically unhelpful but instructive work of Sayyid Qutb, Islam: The Religion of the Future (Beirut and Damascus: Holy Koran Publishing House, 1977); from which a revealing extract is reprinted in: Paul J. Griffiths, Christianity through Non-Christian Eyes (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1990), 73–81.
This case is argued in a rather different way in my Images of Eternity (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1993).
Rig-Veda, 10. 164. 46.
Cf. above, 95 f.; 302.