The scandalous Word of God

If a Bible is read in the forest and no one is there to hear it, is it still God’s Word?

This column aims to get at the “so what?” of Revelation, a doctrine that makes the audacious claim that human beings, who are finite, can know something true about God, who is infinite.

The content of Revelation: To know or not to know?

This is not the favorite doctrine of many of my friends and neighbors these days. They are sick and tired of those who use it to argue that God has revealed such-and-such for the purpose of arguing that they are in the right. These friends – from exvangelicals (former evangelicals of all ilks) to born-and-bred Presbyterians to agnostics – seem to have given up on the language of knowing God for that of mystery; that of certainty for uncertainty.

I stand with these friends in believing tyrants are misusing revelation when they justify their oppressive actions by invoking special access to God. Even if God did speak directly to them, it would be to chastise them for their abusive behavior, not affirm them for being right. But I also have a quieter, more respectful concern for my friends who are so sick of bad theology and the damage that goes along with claiming to be right that they sign off on the other side of certainty. God remains only hidden, only mysterious.

One problem with this way of thinking is to say that mortals do not have the capacity, in and of their own strength, to know the God who is totally other (totaliter aliter) is no mystery — it makes perfect sense. The mystery, rather, is this: that human beings do come to know God; they know God in God’s hiddenness, which means God remains hidden, even in God’s self-disclosure. How can this be?

Allow me to attempt an illustration. (If you are a person who meditates or does deep breathing exercises, you may want to spend a little time on these next few sentences.) Even though it’s closer to Lent than Christmas, come with me to Bethlehem to see the extraordinary event that has just happened. Peer over the manger and greet Mary’s newborn son. Pick him up, kiss him, cuddle him, maybe change his diaper. Marvel at his tiny fingers and toes, his soft hair, his strong cry. Now, think: this is the one through whom all things were made (John 1:3).

Finally: Does the revelation of God as this newborn baby lessen your appreciation of God’s mystery or deepen it?

The scandal of Revelation: Particularity

Here is a thing about revelation: a lot of times, we expect it to be BIG and impressive, and we too often miss it when it’s not.

There is a block of concrete in front of Saint Martin’s of the Fields Church in Trafalgar Square, London. I noticed it there when I was with my family, going to see a play. It was the ugliness of it juxtaposed against the beautiful entrance, to tell you the truth. So I raced over to check it out, my kids calling, “But where are you going?”, my husband Bill holding their hands and staring, trying to make out where I am headed. As I get closer to the gray block of concrete, I realize it is a sculpture. It has John 1:1 and 1:14 printed on the otherwise plain sides, about the Word becoming flesh and living among us. And on the top (reachable to me, at 5’3″, only by step stool) there is a perfect, detailed, anatomically correct, carving of a Jewish, Palestinian newborn boy.

Here is a thing about revelation: a lot of times, we expect it to be BIG and impressive, and we too often miss it when it’s not. When God was revealed in the burning bush to Moses in Exodus 3, for example, Moses tried to improve upon God’s message: Can you send someone with me who does not stutter? And give me a miracle or two to perform? And can we work on your branding? Best practices indicate that “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” will only work for those who know who Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are. And when Moses tries to chide God into using a bigger name – into taking out the platinum calling card – I imagine God answering Moses the way a confident teenager would a parent: Hey, Moses. Don’t try to force me into something I’m not. I am who I am. And I will be who I will be, whether it fits with who you think I should be or not.

Annie Dillard worries about believers who look for dramatic, extraordinary incidences of revelation and miss the fact that the water we swim in is particular and ordinary, and God is in that water, too. Chiding us for our grandiosity, she writes:

“the ‘scandal of particularity’ is the only world that I, in particular, know. What use has eternity for light? We’re all up to our necks in this particular scandal … I never saw a tree that was no tree in particular; I never met [someone], not the greatest theologian, who filled infinity, or even whose hand, say, was undifferentiated, fingerless, like a griddle cake, and not lobed and split just so with the incursions of time.”

Dillard reminds us that we, with Moses, are going to miss God’s Word if we think of it only conceptually, as separated from ordinary words, ordinary life. Even then it may change us simply by forcing us to walk around it to view the more obviously magnificent.

I once had a person come to me all dressed up and acting pious. “Tell me,” he said, “how do I know if God is calling me into the ministry?” I sensed that he maybe wanted me to open my desk drawer and pull out a fleece, complete with calligraphy-penned instructions. Instead, something (I hope it was the Holy Spirit, but it may have been the human spirit) led me to the banal.

“Well … do you have keys to your church?” I asked. He looked a little confused and very offended, and I tried to redeem the situation by jabbering about how they give you keys to the church when you love it so much that you are there night and day, setting up, breaking down, planning events … but his pockets were empty.

The challenge of Revelation

Poet Christian Wiman takes the discussion of particularity and revelation in a way some find disturbing but is essential for our spiritual growth. Both fideists (people who hold to “God said it. I believe it. That settles it” ways of thinking) and purely skeptical people (who can tend to say “I don’t know … it’s a mystery”) are apt to not themselves submit to the transforming power of God’s Word because they are dealing in broad strokes that keep them from having to change. Wiman boldly goes where most of us fear to tread (see Philippians 2:16 and Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling), showing how it looks to encounter God, to hear God’s Word, to feel like you aren’t always right, and to be annoyed at the fact that you will inevitably have to change.

He tells the story, for example, of being compelled by Christ to give his bag lunch to what he describes as a frightening-looking homeless person. While his experience of God is “mystical and valuable, but distant, Christ is,” Wiman says, “a shard of glass in your gut.” Christ is God crying, “I am here, and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you, but here in what appalls, offends, and degrades you, here in what activates and exacerbates all that you would call not-God.” To walk through the fog of God toward the clarity of Christ is difficult because of how unlovely, how “ungodly” that clarity often turns out to be.

Wiman is reflecting a principle Reformed theology has always emphasized: that God cannot be kept at a distance, especially in Christ, and that no anonymity for God means no anonymity for us. It matters how we live, we are integral to God’s redeeming work, and we are told, along with the disciples, that we can know the mystery of God’s will (not something my friends in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) would say, for fear of appearing too self-righteous). But ponder this: Jesus, not us, is the one who says this, and he isn’t saying it so we can be smugly right, but so we can be disciples. We can join him in the work of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5), even to the point of laying down our lives as those who are called Jesus’s “friends.” It is in the context of this friendship that we can begin to dissolve the polarities of who’s right and who’s wrong, certainty and uncertainty, and knowing and not knowing.

God cannot be kept at a distance, especially in Christ, and … no anonymity for God means no anonymity for us.

We do, indeed, know the mind of God (whether we realize it or not, apparently). And we should spend a lot of  time in the forest listening carefully for God’s Word. Revelation is not complete without our hearing, after all.