Revelation as Religious Experience

I have cited Mavrodes's manifestation model of divine revelation as including manifestation through act and event, but Mavrodes himself concentrates, under this heading, on manifestation through religious experience. We turn then, finally, to the idea that divine revelation is conveyed primarily through religious experience. It should be noted at once that this idea is strongly contested in much Christian theology, including philosophical theology. Two German theologians, mentioned in chapter 1 as being, like Pannenberg, equally at home in analytic and continental philosophy, namely Ingolf Dalferth and Christoph Schwobel, treat theology of revelation and theology of experience as two quite different, even opposed, categories, the one reflecting on God's initiative, the other reflecting on human reception. Similarly, William Alston, in his major study of the epistemology of religious experience, Perceiving God, treats appeals to revelation as something other than, although in his case complementary to, appeals to religious experience.

But there is another strand in contemporary philosophy of religion, exemplified most clearly in the work of John Hick, that sees divine revelation precisely in the moments of intense religious awareness, whether of mystical union or devotional ecstasy. Hick has expounded this notion particularly in connection with his philosophy of religious pluralism, as we shall see. But already, in his first book Faith and Knowledge, long before his interest in comparative religion, Hick was arguing against what he called the Thomist-Catholic propositional view of revelation as 'the divine communication to man of the truths, belief in which comprises faith'. At that stage, Hick did not locate revelation wholly in religious experience. Rather, he saw it taking place where people experience certain key events, those of salvation history, as revelatory. The way he put the matter in this early book has a particular interest for us in the light of what was said about natural and revealed theology at the beginning of this chapter. 'According to this view', wrote Hick, 'the two objects of''natural'' and ''revealed'' theology, God's existence and God's revelation merge into one. The divine being and the divine self-communication are known in a single apprehension which is the awareness of God as acting self-revealingly towards us.' But Hick's increasing involvement in issues of religious pluralism, as he tries to make sense of the many revelation claims in the world's religions, including the non-theistic religions like early Buddhism, has led him more and more to define revelation purely in experiential terms. Thus in a much later book, The Fifth Dimension, writing of the great spiritual figures behind the rise of world religions, Hick remarks that 'they were men... who were exceptionally open to the Transcendent, experiencing it with extraordinary vividness in ways made possible by their existing religious contexts. Such immensely powerful moments of God-consciousness, or of Transcendence consciousness, are what we mean by revelation.'50

At a certain mid-point of his development, Hick was more conscious of the break with traditional views of revelation which this latest definition involves. In an exchange in the journal, Theology, in 1983, Hick concedes to Philip Almond that the term 'revelation' is more at home in the theistic than the non-theistic religions. 'I have tried to use it, however', he goes on, 'in a wider sense which does not entail divinely disclosed propositions or miraculous interventions in the course of human history, but in which all authentic religious awareness is a response to the circumambient presence and prevenient pressure of the divine Reality.'52 That this much wider sense of revelation is at home in the religions of the east is clear from K. Satchidananda Murty's book, Revelation and Reason in Advaita Vedanta: 'All discovery of God, experience of God and knowledge of God ''must'' be God's disclosure of himself to us; for God is spirit, and can only be known in spiritual encounter.' This is expressed in theistic terms, but, as is well known, the ancient Hindu scriptures, known as 'sruti', a word translated as 'revelation', are not always interpreted as revelations given by the gods. These ancient texts expressed, rather, spiritual insights achieved by the sages through mystical penetration into ultimate reality. This is a very different sense of 'revelation' from that which has dominated the Christian philosophical theology surveyed in the present book.

And yet the comparative religion issue cannot be ignored. The merit of Keith Ward's tetralogy, by contrast with Swinburne's, lies in Ward's resolute attempt to produce an 'open' theology, relating specifically Christian revelation claims to those of other religions. We shall see an example of the way in which Ward does this in the next chapter on Creation. Where revelation is concerned, Ward holds that 'the rational course is to commit oneself to a tradition of revelation', while accepting that 'the Supreme Reality has not been silent in the other religions of the world'. This involves setting out the logic of, say, Christian incarnational belief, but at the same time looking for the common and complementary features in revelation claims elsewhere. Whether or not the central doctrines of the Christian creeds are susceptible to such treatment is one of the key issues in philosophical theology today. It has to be said that most of the philosophers mentioned in the current chapter remain sceptical about the possibility of going very far down the road towards Hick's extreme religious pluralism. As we have seen, the model of revelation as religious experience is the model most open to treatment in these terms. The model of revelation as tradition and interpretation allows for much learning from, and reinterpretation in the light of, other traditions, but, at least in the hands of scholars such as Brown, it remains more of an internal discipline, exploring the continuing, developing, stream of specifically Christian revelation. The model of revelation as God's acts in history is even less open to treatment in pluralistic terms, given its stress on the specificity of the event series culminating in the Incarnation; although there is no reason a priori why the God made known through incarnation could not have acted salvifically elsewhere as well. Similarly the model of revelation as divine discourse does not require the Christian hearer ofGod's Word to deny that the God ofthe whole earth has spoken and speaks at other times, in other places and through other cultural traditions. Much will depend on the commonalities, compatiblities and complementarities that are actually discovered to obtain. This problem will not be pursued in depth in the present book. Here we survey work done on the logic of specifically Christian belief. But it is a clear implication of conviction of the rationality of revealed theology that such comparative work is required and can be done.


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  • clarence
    Does good theology allows religious experience to contradict revelation?
    1 year ago

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