Interpretation through Revelation

By revelation in our history, then, we mean that special occasion which provides us with an image by means of which all the occasions of personal and common life become intelligible. What concerns us at this point is not the fact that the revelatory moment shines by its own light and is intelligible in itself but rather that it illuminates other events and enables us to understand them. Whatever else revelation means it does mean an event in our history which brings rationality and wholeness into the confused joys and sorrows of personal existence and allows us to discern order in the brawl of communal histories. Such revelation is no substitute for reason; the illumination it supplies does not excuse the mind from labor; but it does give to that mind the impulsion and the first principles it requires if it is to be able to do its proper work. In this sense we may say that the revelatory moment is revelatory because it is rational, because it makes the understanding of order and meaning in personal history possible. Through it a pattern of dramatic unity becomes apparent with the aid of which the heart can understand what has happened, is happening and will happen to selves in their community. Why we must call this a dramatic pattern and how it differs from the conceptual patterns of the observer's reason can be most clearly indicated through an examination of the way in which the heart uses it to understand life's meaning.

First of all, the revelatory moment is one which makes our past intelligible. Through it we understand what we remember, remember what we have forgotten and appropriate as our own past much that seemed alien to us. In the life of an individual a great occasion may make significant and intelligible the apparently haphazard course of his earlier existence; all that has happened to him may then assume continuity and pattern as it is related to the moment for which he knows himself to have been born. So prophets, being called to prophecy, may understand with Jeremiah how birth and nurture were for them an ordination to their office or an Augustine may see blessing even in the "sin which brought so great a salvation." When Israel focussed its varied and disordered recollections of a nomad past, of tribal bickerings and alien tyrannies in the revelatory event of its deliverance and choice to be a holy people, then it found there hitherto unguessed meaning and unity. What had been a "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," became a grand epic; every line, stanza and canto fell into its proper place. The tribal chants, the legends of the unheroic past were not forgotten; they were remembered in a new connection; meanings hitherto hidden became clear. To be sure, the labor of prophets and poets and priests who searched the memories of Israel and ordered them with the aid of the revelatory image was necessary before a unified understanding could be achieved. They had to carry the light of revelation into their past;

revelation did not excuse the reasoning heart from toil but equipped it with the Instrument whereby it could understand what it remembered. So the Scriptures were written not as the history of revelation only but as the history of Israel understood and unified by means of revelation. The labor of Israel in seeking to understand the past has never been completed, being continued by the rabbis of a later and the present day; but the revelatory occasion and idea have remained constant.

In the Christian church the function of the revelation in Jesus Christ has been similar. Through it the early apostles understood and interpreted the memories not only of Hebrew but also of Gentile Christians. The whole past of the human race assumed for them a unity and significance that had been lacking in the national and religious recollections of men. That Jesus had been born in the fullness of time meant that all things which had gone before seemed to conspire toward the realization of this event. Not only the religion of the Hebrews but the philosophy of the Greeks also was now intelligible as prophecy of the coming of a great salvation. The work of the apostles has been carried on through the following ages of the church. The rise and fall of pagan empires as well as the destiny of the chosen people, Socrates' martyrdom as well as Jeremiah's, the wanderings of Greeks as well as of Hebrews, have come to be understood not simply as illustrations of a general principle of creative love and judgment in history but as parts of one inclusive process. The work has not been completed, for the past is infinite, and thought, even with the aid of revelation, is painful, and doubt assails the human heart. But for the Christian church the whole past is potentially a single epic. In the presence of the revelatory occasion it can and must remember in tranquillity the long story of human ascent from the dust, of descent into the sloughs of brutality and sin, the nameless sufferings of untold numbers of generations, the groaning and travailing of creation until now -- all that otherwise is remembered only with despair. There is no part of that past that can be ignored or regarded as beyond possibility of redemption from meaninglessness. And it is the ability of the revelation to save all the past from senselessness that is one of the marks of its revelatory character.

By reasoning on the basis of revelation the heart not only understands what it remembers but is enabled and driven to remember what it had forgotten. When we use insufficient and evil images of the personal or social self we drop out of our consciousness or suppress those memories which do not fit in with the picture of the self we cherish. We bury our follies and our transgressions of our own law, our departures from our own ideal, in the depths of our unconsciousness. We also forget much that seems to us trivial, since it does not make sense when interpreted by means of the idolatrous image. We do not destroy this past of ours; it is indestructible. We carry it with us; its record is written deep into our lives. We only refuse to acknowledge it as our true past and try to make it an alien thing -- something that did not happen to our real selves. So our national histories do not recall to the consciousness of citizens the crimes and absurdities of past social conduct, as our written and unwritten autobiographies fail to mention our shame. But this unremembered past endures. An external view can see its embodiment in the boundaries of nations, in the economic status of groups, such as that of Negroes in America, in folkways and customs whose origins have been forgotten, in national policies and in personal habits. When we live and act in accordance with our inward social constitution in which there are class and race divisions, prejudices, assumptions about the things we can and cannot do, we are constrained by the unconscious past. Our buried past is mighty; the ghosts of our fathers and of the selves that we have been haunt our days and nights though we refuse to acknowledge their presence.

The revelatory event resurrects this buried past. It demands and permits that we bring into the light of attention our betrayals and denials, our follies and sins. There is nothing in our lives, in our autobiographies and our social histories, that does not fit in. In the personal inner life revelation requires the heart to recall the sins of the self and to confess fully what it shuddered to remember. Every great confession, such as Augustine's or St. Paul's, indicates how this rationalizing of the past takes place. And every social history, not least that of the church itself, when recollected in the light of revelation, becomes a confession of sin. It is true that in this realm the work of revelation has never been completed and that, indeed, in many spheres it has not even been started. Yet it is also true that for Christians critical history of self and community, wherein the forgotten past is recollected, is the possible and necessary consequence of revelation.

The third function of revelation with respect to the past we may call appropriation. When men enter into a new community they not only share the present life of their new companions but also adopt as their own the past history of their fellows. So immigrants do not become true members of the American community until they have learned to call the Pilgrims and the men of 1776 their fathers and to regard the torment of the Civil War as somehow their own. Where common memory is lacking, where men do not share in the same past there can be no real community, and where community is to be formed common memory must be created; hence the insistence on the teaching of history in modern national communities. But by the aid of such provincial memories only partial pasts can be appropriated and only limited human communities can be formed. To Christians the revelatory moment is not only something they can all remember as having happened in their common past, be they Hebrews or Greeks, slaves or free, Europeans or Africans or Americans or Asians, medieval men or modern. It becomes an occasion for appropriating as their own the past of all human groups. Through Jesus Christ Christians of all races recognize the Hebrews as their fathers; they build into their lives as Englishmen or as Americans, as Italians or Germans, the memories of Abraham's loyalty, of Moses' heroic leadership, of prophetic denunciations and comfortings. All that has happened to the strange and wandering people of God becomes a part of their own past. But Jesus Christ is not only the Jew who suffered for the sins of Jews and so for our own sins; he is also the member of the Roman world-community through whom the Roman past is made our own. The history of empire through which his life and death must be understood is the history of our empire. Beyond all that, he is the man through whom the whole of human history becomes our history. Now there is nothing that is alien to us. All the struggles, searchings after light, all the wanderings of all the peoples, all the sins of men in all places become parts of our past through him. We must remember them all as having happened in and to our community. Through Christ we become immigrants into the empire of God which extends over all the world and learn to remember the history of that empire, that is of men in all times and places, as our history.

Such interpretation and apprehension of our past, such rationalization of all that has happened in our history is not an intellectual exercise but a moral event. The heart of the participating self is engaged in this work and through it the soul is reconstructed. For the past which we remember through Jesus Christ is not the serial but the enduring past. When we speak of the past in internal history we do not refer to events which no longer have reality in the world; we mean our constitution, our enduring inheritance. Our past is what we are, since what we are now is the impulse and the go, the habit, custom, commitment to community and principle, which an external view refers to causes no longer existent but which from the internal viewpoint have their origin and, meaning in the self and its community. Our past is our present in the drives, desires, instincts which an external view traces to our animal origin; it is present in the ways of social behavior that an observing history derives from forces operative long ago but which make us what we are. Our past is our present in our conscious and unconscious memory. To understand such a present past is to understand one's self and, through understanding, to reconstruct. The apprehension and interpretation of our living past through the revelatory moment may be likened to the psychiatrist's method of seeking to induce a total recall on the part of a patient or of bringing into the light of day what had been a source of anguish while it remained suppressed. To remember all that is in our past and so in our present is to achieve unity of self. To remember the human past as our own past is to achieve community with mankind. Such conversion of the memory is an important, indispensable part of the soul's conversion. Without the integration of the personal and social past there can be no present integrity of the self nor anything like human brotherhood. Through Jesus Christ Christians can and must turn again and again to history, making the sins and the faiths of their fathers and brothers their own faiths and sins.

That such conversion is not easily completed but rather a permanent revolutionary movement is evident. It must go on throughout the whole of a life-time because the past is infinite and because sin enters anew in repeated efforts to separate ourselves from God and our fellow-men through the separation of our past from them. So the Christian church sins anew in separating its past from that of the Hebrews, or in attempting to eliminate from its history part of the common life, as when Protestants try to forget medieval Christian history or Catholics regard the development since the Reformation as no true part of their story. The conversion of the past must be continuous because the problems of reconciliation arise in every present. Today, for instance, the reconciliation of the various parties and sections of the Christian church is not only desirable but imperative. The obstacles to that reunion are multifarious, but one of the greatest of them is that every part of disunited Christendom interprets its past through an image of itself and holds fast without repentance to that image. It carries with it a great wealth and burden of tradition, but acknowledges and confesses only that part of it which fits in with a self-centered image. Hence each part of Christendom is unable to understand what other parts mean with their theologies, rituals, orders and systems of ethics. Moreover the groups use their separate histories as means for defending themselves against the criticism of others and as weapons for warfare upon rival parties. We cannot become integrated parts of one common church until we each remember our whole past, with its sins, through Jesus Christ and appropriate each other's pasts. There will be no union of Catholics and Protestants until through the common memory of Jesus Christ the former repent of the sin of Peter and the latter of the sin of Luther, until Protestants acknowledge Thomas Aquinas as one of their fathers, the Inquisition as their own sin and Ignatius Loyola as one of their own Reformers, until Catholics have canonized Luther and Calvin, done repentance for Protestant nationalism, and appropriated Schleiermacher and Barth as their theologians. In the narrower sphere of Protestant reunion this work of reconstructing the past through Jesus Christ must go on very diligently before we can be truly one. No mere desire to overcome differences of opinion is of any avail unless it expresses itself in such reinterpretation and appropriation of what lies back of opinion -- the memory. The adoption of John Wesley into their own history by Anglicans, of Calvin and Zwingli by Lutherans, of Fox and Woolman by orthodox Protestants is not only a necessary prelude to union; it is union. All such recall and interpretation of the past is impossible when we use the images of Luther, Wesley, Calvin and Fox or of the segments of history connected with such names. We cannot understand Calvin through Fox nor Wesley through Laud. We need a larger pattern, a more inclusive hypothesis through which to understand each other's and our own memories. Such a pattern we have in the revelation of Jesus Christ. In him we see the sin of man, not of some men; in him we find the faith of man, not of Protestants or Catholics, of Lutherans or Presbyterians. He reveals the faith and the sin of all the fathers of all the churches; through him we can repent of our own fathers' sins and gratefully adopt as our own the faithful, sinful fathers of those from whom we are now separated.

The problem of human reunion is greater than the problem of church reunion. It also must be approached through memory. The measure of our distance from each other in our nations and groups can be taken by noting the divergence, the separateness and lack of sympathy in our social memories. Conversely the measure of our unity is the extent of our common memory. As in the United States, North and South give evidence of present disorder through the recollection of sectional histories and bear witness to union through histories wherein Lee is a national hero and Lincoln a common deliverer, so in mankind national histories testify to actual animosities or isolations while common memories indicate true peace. Our human history cannot be reconstructed save with the aid of repentance and faith; none of the national images men employ in interpreting and recalling their past suffice to bring unity. But in Jesus Christ Christians recall and appropriate as their own all that men have done and suffered in the one human world where there are neither Jews nor Greeks, neither Orientals nor Occidentals.

Revelation does not accomplish the work of conversion; the reasoning heart must search out memory and bring to light forgotten deeds. But without the revelatory image this work does not seem possible. In the reconstruction of our living past revelation is the hand-maid of reason; yet the figure is misleading for the partnership is not one of mastery and servitude but of indispensable cooperation. Without revelation reason is limited and guided into error; without reason revelation illuminates only itself.

The heart must reason not only about and in the past but in the present too. We do not call those events in our history revelation which cast no light upon the things that are happening to us or which we now do in the company of other selves. If our past in inner history is everything we carry with us, or what we are, our present is our action, our doing and our suffering of deeds done to us. As an evil imagination hides from us what we are so it also obscures what we are doing. The words of Jesus on the cross, "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do," are applicable to us in every moment. We are particularly aware of this in times of great social crisis when our complacent dogmatism is shattered and we realize that what is going on and what we are participating in is too great for our imagination or interpretation. We have no pattern of personal thought inclusive and clear enough to allow us to discern any orderly connections between the wild and disturbed actions of men and nations. We do not know what we are doing by our aggressions and participation, our inaction and isolations from conflict. We move from day to day, from moment to moment, and are often blown about by many winds of political and social doctrine. What the sources and what the issues of our deeds and sufferings may be remains obscure.

In our smaller communities, in our families and with our friends the same ignorance is our portion. We do not know as parents, save in fragmentary ways, what we are doing to our children. We do not understand what our most intimate friends, or our husbands and wives are doing to us and neither do they know.

As we move about among these mists we employ imaginations of the heart to make intelligible in a narrow sphere the actions and sufferings of selves. So we interpret international events by means of the pattern of a national peace, conceiving this peace as absence of disturbance of our customary conduct, or we use the ancient image of the war between darkness and light to understand and justify our defense and aggression. We understand the meaning of strikes and of unemployment with the aid of an hypothesis which makes our continued possession, of advantages or otherwise, the victory of our class, the central value. We use the images of French or Russian Revolutions, with accent on the fate of persons, as the concepts by means of which to understand what is going on. Ideal patterns of domestic peace, of parental authority, of mother love or friendly loyalty become the explanations of what we are doing and suffering. In all this effort to understand or at least to justify our actions the self is likely to remain the central figure. We explain ourselves by ourselves or by means of the picture we have made of ourselves. So in the Christian church we dramatize our selves, thinking of this community as the world's savior by great deeds of teaching or noble sufferings. But with the aid of such patterns we succeed more in obscuring than in illuminating what we are doing.

This becomes apparent when we bring to bear upon our actions the larger image given us in revelation. Through the cross of Christ we gain a new understanding of the present scene; we note relations previously ignored; find explanations of our actions hitherto undreamed of. Deeds and sufferings begin to compose themselves into a total picture of significant action in which the self no longer occupies the center. We now begin to comprehend the tragedy of contemporary life as a connected, unified affair in which one act succeeds another by a moral necessity in view of the great divine, dominating purpose.

First of all, in interpreting our present, we use the life and death of Christ as a parable and an analogy. The scribes and Pharisees now sit in Peter's seat, and in the churches of St. Paul priests plot defense against the disturber of the people; disciples are corrupted by thirty pieces of silver; money-changers and those who sell human victims for vain sacrifices conspire with Pilates who wash their bloody hands in public; poor unreasoning soldiers commit sins which are not their own; betrayals and denials take place in every capital; and so, out of cumulative self-deceit and treachery, out of great ignorance, out of false fears and all the evil imaginations of the heart, crosses are constructed not only for thieves but for the sons of God. We see through the use of the great parable how bodies are now being broken for our sake and how for the remission of our sins the blood of innocents is being shed. Not with complete clarity, to be sure, yet as in a glass darkly, we can discern in the contemporary confusion of our lives the evidence of a pattern in which, by great travail of men and God, a work of redemption goes on which is like the work of Christ. We learn to know what we are doing and what is being done to us -- how by an infinite suffering of the eternal victim we are condemned and forgiven at the same time; how an infinite loyalty refuses to aband6n us either to evil or to nothingness, but works at our salvation with a tenacity we are tempted to deplore. The story of Jesus, and particularly of his passion, is the great illustration that enables us to say, "What we are now doing and suffering is like this."

Yet we employ the revelatory moment as more than parable or analogy. It is the rational image; by its means we not only try to understand what our actions and sufferings are like, but what they really are. In theology, therefore, we tend to turn away from the preacher's use of the great history as parable and to think in conceptual terms. From the great occasion we abstract general ideas of an impersonal character which we find illustrated also in other occasions. So we speak of original sin and the forgiveness of sins, of reconciliation, of the principle of obedience as manifested in Jesus, of the meaning of suffering in general. The revelatory moment now is not itself the rational image but affords opportunity for the discovery of concepts of great generality whereby we are enabled to explain contemporary action in the moral or personal realm. Revelation now is concentrated in doctrines and it seems possible to state these without reference to the historic occasion in which they first became evident. As in natural science it is not necessary to remember the person of Newton and the incidents of his life in order that the theory of gravitation may be employed, so it would appear that in theology we do not need to use the historic event in order to apply ideas which became evident through it but are independent of it. Theology, thinking in this fashion, is then inclined to identify revelation with the publication in an historic moment of great doctrines or ideas.

The course of Christian thought through the centuries indicates, however, that there is something very unsatisfactory about such abstraction of general ideas from the great occasion and that the preacher's use of the dramatic image comes nearer the requirements of the reasoning heart than does the theologian's application of a conceptual pattern. Despite repeated efforts to state theological ideas abstractly it has been necessary for the church to return again and again to statements about historic actuality. It will not do, apparently, to define revelation in a dual fashion as the "intuition of special occasions" and the reception of concepts by means of which all occasions can be elucidated. The relation between the special occasion and all other occasions is more intimate or the concepts possess a generality differing from that which belongs to the impersonal ideas of contemplative reason. Theology cannot speak simply of general ideas of sonship to God, of forgiveness of sins, of obedience to death, of humility or kenosis, as illustrated in the great occasion and elsewhere. It must speak of a unique sonship, a unique obedience, a single sacrifice. The revelatory occasion, it appears, does not simply illustrate great uniformity of divine and human behavior -- though it does that also -- but exhibits a unique, unrepetitive pattern. Hence there arises a seeming dilemma for theology and the church. Revelation, it appears, must either mean the general ideas through which we understand our present human world in its relations, its actions and sufferings, but then it cannot mean the historic occasion in our memory save as an illustration; or revelation means the historic occasion and then it cannot explain present experience save in analogical or parabolic fashion.

The dilemma, however, appears to be somewhat unreal when we recall that the reality we are dealing with and trying to understand is our history, in which we seek less for uniformity of behavior than for a principle of unity in a duration. Concepts which describe the recurrent features in events are necessary for that external contemplation of our lives to which we must return frequently in order that we may put checks on the inner imagination. But the real work of reason in our history is that of understanding in terms of persons, communities and values what we are doing and suffering. In this history, time is duration and unrepetitive in character. Here we try to understand, not how features in our past are repeated in our present, but how our present grows out of our past into our future. A traveler on the road does not undertake to discover what he is doing, where his road is taking him, by remembering similar occasions in his past and by abstracting from them general ideas. Conceptual knowledge, indeed, can be of help to him as when he uses the compass and consults the sun's position. But no such general knowledge will let him understand the position of the city he seeks, the relation of the place he occupies to human habitations, to his own purposes, fears and hopes. To understand his present situation he needs a map of the individual, unlimited territory in which he is traveling; he needs to recall whence he came and what the direction of his particular journey. He must reason with the aid of an image that is unique though mental. The revelation which we use to understand our present situation and what we are now doing is more like such a map than like a dictionary through which we seek to understand the meaning of words frequently repeated.

We may employ other parables to clarify to ourselves how we actually employ the revelatory moment as a rational principle for the understanding of present experience. Revelation is like a classic drama which, through the events of one day and place, makes intelligible the course of a family history. Or it is like a decisive moment in the common life of friends. In the face of some emergency a man may act so as to reveal a quality undisclosed before. Through that revelatory moment his friend is enabled to understand past actions which had been obscure and to prophesy the future behavior of the revealer. But the revealing moment not only disclosed constant features of conduct which had previously been hidden; it also introduced a new relation between the persons and remains a unique point in their history. Again, a conversation between friends can become very confused so that they do not understand each other. In such a situation they not only seek to define their words but go back to a critical point in their dialogue, starting once more to think from that beginning. So when we attempt to interpret our present experience by means of revelation we return to a critical point in man s conversation with God and try to understand the present as a continuation from that beginning. The law-books and dictionaries which describe the content of divine prescriptions or the meaning of divine words are helpful yet of secondary importance in our attempt to understand what we are doing and where we are. Concepts and doctrines derived from the unique historical moment are important but less illuminating than the occasion itself. For what is revealed is not so much the mode of divine behavior as the divine self.

We reason in our hearts in order that we may know the whither as well as the whence and where of our personal lives. If the past in inner history is what we are and the present what we do, our future is our potentiality. Through revelation we seek to discover what is implicit in our lives and will become explicit. And the revelation which illuminates our sin prophesies our death, the death of self and that of the community. The small, deceitful patterns of false prophecy will always assure us that we and our communities are immortal, that the worth of our selves is so great that they cannot die and the value of our chosen peoples so immense that they will last forever. But in the light of revelation we see the end because we discern the beginning of the end in the present. No honest Old Testament prophet ever promised eternal joy to his nation save on the other side of disaster. Much less can an honest New Testament prophet, using the cross of Christ for his understanding of human fate, predict for men and societies immortality without judgment. To show up as clearly as may be the potentiality of catastrophe in our lives is as much a function of reason using revelation in our day as in any ancient time.

Yet in the light of the revelatory occasion the Christian discerns another possibility; it is not his own possibility in the sense that it is implicit in him. But it is possible to the person who reveals himself in the historic occasion as the Lord of life and death. It is the possibility of the resurrection of a new and other self, of a new community, a reborn remnant.

Thus the heart reasons with the aid of revelation. All reasoning is painful and none more so than that which leads to knowledge of the self. In the Christian community we do not use our revelation faithfully but seek by a thousand devices to escape from this rational understanding of ourselves. By means of dogmatism which assures us that nothing more is necessary to our knowledge than the creeds supply, or by means of a skepticism which declares all things unintelligible, we seek to evade the necessity of illuminating and reconstructing our memories and acts. Sometimes we regard revelation as though it had equipped us with truth in such measure that no further labor in historical and psychological searching is necessary; sometimes we dismiss it as offering no basis for the reason of man. Fundamentalism in its thousand historic forms escapes m one way; modernism, which exists in as many disguises as there are climates of opinion, escapes by applying to life the short and narrow ideas of some present moment. Emotionalism reduces the historic revelation to a demagogic device for arousing fear, anger and pity in the service of some petty cause. The figures of the Christian drama are even made to act out the puerile and vicious farces of racial, nationalistic and ecclesiastic imaginations. But revelation is not the source of such irrationality and absurdity. We become fools because we refuse to use revelation as the foundation of a rational moral life.

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