Revelation and Ecstasy

William James relates the testimony of a man who, while hiking in a coastal range, experiences the momentary obliteration of "all the conventionalities which usually surround and cover my life":

[F]rom the summit of a high mountain I looked over a gashed and corrugated landscape extending to a long convex of ocean that ascended to the horizon, and ... I could see nothing beneath me but a boundless expanse of white cloud. ... What I felt on these occasions was a temporary loss of my own identity, accompanied by an illumination which revealed to me a deeper significance than I had been wont to attach to life. It is in this that I find my justification for saying that I have enjoyed communication with God. Of course, the absence of such a being as this would be chaos. I cannot conceive of life without its presence.24

This combination of self-annihilation and communion with God that he attributes to peering out over an immense and rugged landscape richly illustrates the double-effect of the holy. But there is an additional element, which Tillich would say flows naturally from an encounter with the holy, namely, "an illumination which revealed to me a deeper significance than I had been wont to attach to life." In Tillich's terms, the young man underwent a moment of revelation by momentarily losing himself in the divine ground of being (God) through the medium of some part of the finite world.

"Revelation," Tillich writes, "is the manifestation of what concerns us ultimately."25 At its root it means to remove the veil, exposing to view the depth of reality. It has both an objective side and a subjective side. Its objective side is what Tillich calls "miracle": the unconditioned ground and abyss of being (the holy) makes an appearance. The subjective side is "ecstasy": for the receiver of revelation, the normal cleavage between subject and object that is present in all ordinary experience is briefly overcome. The person who receives the miracle of revelation is thrown beyond herself, transcends herself, as she is grasped by the mystery of being. Etymologically, "ecstasy" means standing (stasis) outside (ex-) of oneself, and, Tillich adds, this occurs without one's ceasing to be oneself.26 In a few shining moments, one's consciousness converges with the object, mixes with it, then returns to oneself convinced that reality, in some large or small way, is not what one had thought it to be. Tillich writes:

It is as in a thunderstorm at night, when the lightning throws a blinding clarity over all things, leaving them in complete darkness the next moment. When reality is seen in this way ... it has become something new. Its ground has become visible in an "ecstatic" experience.27

Virtually any object, person or event can serve as a medium of revelation - oceans, stars, plants, animals, mountains, natural catastrophes. Since all of reality receives its power of being from the ground of being (God), in the moments when any bit of finite reality becomes transparent, it reveals "the ground of its power." But because revelation of the infinite is always mediated by something finite, what is disclosed is always a distortion. Even when finite objects become transparent, they retain a certain opacity. As the apostle Paul put it, "we see through a glass darkly," even in the instant of ecstasy. Or, to think of it in terms of an old Javanese proverb, we are like water buffaloes trying to comprehend a symphony. Our powers of comprehension are miniscule in relation to the majesty that confronts us.

Revelation is not so much new knowledge as it is a new perspective on the world. It repositions the world in a new light. It does not add to our knowledge about the structures of the natural world, history, or humanity. It deepens our conviction that these things matter, that existence itself is meaningful. This is the difference between ecstatic understanding and more ordinary ways of acquiring knowledge.28

In his description of revelation Tillich has given us a versatile tool for locating eruptions of religion1 in popular culture. The ecstatic experience is a signal that one has come into the presence of one's ultimate concern. When many report that they are undergoing experiences of ecstasy around a common concern, a theological analysis of the culture should pay attention. Keeping in mind that an ultimate concern may not be genuinely ultimate, but merely functioning in that capacity for individuals or communities, it is not hard to appreciate that a phenomenon such as patriotism, which can generate in people intense feelings of ecstasy, might indicate the presence of nationalism as one's ultimate concern. The stirring of hearts when patriotic anthems are sung, or when tales of heroism and sacrifice are told, or at the sight of a flag hoisted in a battlefield or amidst the ruins of the World Trade Towers can occur at the level of ecstasy, and does indicate the extent to which the nation is revered. Simply having these emotions does not mean that the nation is one's ultimate concern, but it does provide a measure of the relative weight of one's concerns. What other events or circumstances give rise to ecstatic experiences of this intensity - family gatherings, alpine vistas, weddings, funerals, the birth of a child, news reports on children starving in sub-Saharan Africa or on children who are victims of violence in our own cities, pictures of wild animals suffering from the pursuit of commerce, pornography, the celebration of religious holidays, entering a shopping mall or a big box electronics store? Monitoring the sources that activate this experience of losing oneself in an ecstatic moment is a way to map one's concerns, and to draw conclusions about which concern serves as ultimate.

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