The Matter of Theology – Revelation
Religious belief is trust in God revealed through experience: through ordinary experiences we glimpse, now and then, God’s liberating love at work. What we believe – the content of our faith – is derived from these experiences of revelation. *
- Revelation did not stop with the Bible. The Bible is a witness to the revelations of God’s experienced by the first Christians, but revelations continue in new and different circumstances.
- Revelation as illumination and encounter: Revelation is the sort of insight about God and the world that changes your life, the sort of insight that you have to do something about. As we enlarge our picture of who our neighbors are (third world peoples, other living creatures, even oceans and forests), we will begin to experience God’s liberating love in those places as well.
- A revelation may start small, but then tends to grow outward. For instance, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s realization that Christ was still with him in prison life became the foundation for his belief that God is with every one of us in our ordinary, secular lives.
- Today, we are receiving revelations about the network of creation, about all the ways its parts work together for life and health, or for death and decay. Each of our revelations usually focuses on some aspect of that network; and each of us can work from our revelatory insight, the place that contains our passion and our persistence.
What makes a new revelation Christian? We can ask three questions:
(1) What does Scripture say?
The Bible, and the tradition built upon it, has proven revolutionary over many generations. The Bible has changed lives, and it still has the power to illuminate and transform. However, the experiences recorded in the Bible came to people who were limited by their own times and cultures. If we remember that the church – ongoing communities of faith – produced the Bible, not vice versa, we are less likely to deify the Bible.
We can consider the New Testament as a ‘classic,’ a piece of literature that continues to speak to people across generations and still has the ability to change lives for the better. We could also consider the New Testament as a ‘constitution,’ a founding document, essential but not absolute. Insights derived from a ‘classic’ or a ‘constitution’ – even though they often emerge from misogynist, patriarchal, racist, or imperial contexts – can still lead to new understandings for different times.
For Christians, the Bible is a window, a set of lenses that allows us to speak about things that words can’t fully describe.
(2) What is does Christian Tradition say ?
In addition to the Bible, Christians also have all the texts (in many genres, orthodox and otherwise) that make up the tradition known as ‘Christianity.’ What we call ‘Christianity’ is composed of many theologies, which are loosely connected by some common threads:
- God: Christianity is a theistic religion. The most common image of the Christian God has been relational: God is Creator who is also Redeemer and continuing Spirit; and this relational God is also in relationship with humans and the world.
- World: Christianity holds that the world is created by God and depends for its existence and continuation on God. The world is understood to be real and good.
- Human being: Just as God is relational, so are human beings. We humans are defined by our radical dependence on God, and by our interdependence with other humans. Recently, we have begun to see that we are also interdependent with other life forms and with the earth itself.
- Christ: Christianity looks at God, the world, and human beings through the lens of Jesus Christ. Over many centuries, a portrait of Christ has emerged: Jesus was so deeply at one with God that his life on behalf of outcasts came to be seen as God’s own love for the oppressed. His distinguishing characteristic is his two-dimensional love, both for God and for others.
(3) What do contemporary resources say?
It is not sufficient to know Scripture and understand the Tradition because a working theology cannot come from the past alone. The theologies of other eras fit their contexts: in the first centuries after Jesus, salvation as ransom from the devil; in medieval times, God as King with his loyal serfs; in the 18th century, a clockmaker God who started up the world. Each of those metaphors developed in different contexts for different worlds.
Our own working theology must reconstruct its basic understanding of God and the world for our world. If we don’t reconstruct our theology, Christian faith will appear to be a scandal to the intellect; it will become irrelevant because it is not connected to the vital issues of our times – and we Christians will continue to deny that we need to attend to the world’s well-being.
To sum up the ‘matter’ of theology:
Theology is not God’s Word, but our words about God and the world. Since theologies come from many contexts, with varying understandings of God’s relation to the world, all theologies will eventually need to be reworked.
Today, if we work together to reconstruct Christian theology – using Scripture and Tradition as guidelines – our goal is not just to refine our doctrines about God and the world. The goal of our theology is the well-being of the planet – and justice to all its peoples.
* See ‘Definitions’