REVELATION AND REASON
Human Search for an Unknown God
At the starting point there is no ambiguity: apostolic Christianity is based on an appeal to divine revelation. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth." This founding statement is not the conclusion of philosophical argument, nor is it a first principle of natural reason. It is a statement of the truth about God, an uncovering or unveiling. (Revelation is a Latin-derived word for the Greek term apocalypsis, which means uncovering or unveiling.) And the reality revealed is God himself, and what God in his freedom has done for us in Christ. As something "from the beginning," this is as fundamental for our human destiny as the creation of reality itself.
Jesus of Nazareth is a person, not the conclusion to a syllogism. Christ's crucifixion is not something we can deduce from first principles of philosophy or mathematics. We can only know the truth about Christ because we are told about it, and not just by anyone, but by trustworthy sources who testify to us about him. The author of the Gospel of John follows up the announcement of the Incarnation in precisely this way: "John bore witness to him, and cried, 'This was he of whom I said, 'he who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me.'" There are many internal reasons why we come to faith. Some are spurred on by philosophical questions, or a personal search for meaning. Others identify with the mystery of Christ suffering on the Cross. Still others are inspired by the example of friends whose faith seems to make them generous or peaceful. There are as many paths to Christ as there are types of people and moments in history. But he is only available to us because he is proposed to us, because he is put forward by others as the Christ — because others bear witness to him.
The idea of organizing our lives around a truth received on the testimony of others received on trust is often thought to be at odds with universal human reason. How can we base our beliefs about a transcendent God on the words of someone like an itinerant desert ascetic and preacher, John the Baptist, which after all depend on the trustworthiness of the testimony of John's Gospel where they are recorded, which in turn depends on the trustworthiness of the small Christian community that decided to take the Gospel as an authoritative truth? Our beliefs about the ruler of the universe should flow from universal human reason, should they not? Put somewhat differently, given the supreme importance of God — this is a truth we desire most deeply — don't we want to be especially careful to get things right, which means trusting not this prophet or seer or even religious tradition, but relying on the testimony of the reason all human beings share?
Well, no. Universal human reason is capable of coming to considered conclusions about God. We have been deliberating about God for as long as human beings have sought to discipline their wonder with the considered use of reason. But we are not capable of determining the free decisions of God. Reason cannot determine whether the transcendent God chooses to remain hidden from us — or concerns himself with human destiny and reveals himself personally, and not just in the distant past, but here and now, in your life and mine. This is why, if we are thinking clearly, we can conclude that it is rational to be open to the religious search for God. For reason is in no position to know conclusively whether or not God may come in search of us! In fact, it is reasonable to be open to the suggestion of divine revelation, and arbitrary and unreasonable simply to exclude this possibility.
We nevertheless feel a tension between our normal ways of thinking and the claims of revelation, even when it is authentic. This is because revelation clashes with human convention. Christian revelation is not opposed to reason. It surpasses reason. But it contradicts conventional ideologies.
Religious Pluralism and "The True Philosophy"
From the very outset Christianity was at odds with what at the time seemed to be a very successful way of approaching the question of God. Ancient Greco-Roman culture was religiously pluralistic, composed of diverse tribes and nations, and admitted a fairly broad range of incompatible viewpoints, both philosophically and religiously. The political unity of the Roman Empire was maintained not by forging a universal consensus about truth, but by adopting a multiplicity of religions into an ever-increasing pantheon of gods. Conventions of various conquered cultures were not abolished but assimilated. This civilization differed in many ways from today's multiculturalism, but it shared with contemporary sensibilities a flexible attitude toward theological truth-claims, and pragmatic commitment to the basic good of social unity.
Ancient Romans considered this a strength, not a weakness. The great pagan orator Symmachus, writing after Christianity had become politically powerful, deplored the abolition of the pagan cults. He argued on practical grounds: every society needs to maintain continuity with its ancestors. The Greco-Roman system that assimilated diverse religious cultures had provided centuries of stability and peace. Moreover the resulting pluralism encouraged a more humble approach: "What does it matter with what philosophy each individual seeks the truth? It is not possible to reach so great a secret by a single route." Better, then, to cultivate many different paths to God.
The audacity of ancient Judaism and early Christianity was to claim that this system of political assimilation of "every truth" was a betrayal of our most fundamental vocation as seekers of truth. We should be concerned to protect social unity and promote peace, and that may require compromise and a humility that comes from recognizing that our own views might be mistaken. But we were made primarily for conviction in the truth, not doubt, for knowledge, and not only for questioning. At some point the authority of truth itself must govern, not the pragmatic needs of the moment. At times we are arrested by insights and persuaded by arguments so strong and so fundamental that to set them aside compromises our integrity and violates our conscience. Only shared truths can unite human beings in an enduring way.
Ancient Rome endured for so long because it subordinated our search for God to the Roman quest for glory. That ideology was the shared truth behind the supposed humility of their religious pluralism. A refusal to accept this subordination of religious and intellectual conscience was the reason why the earliest Christians made common cause with another group that criticized popular pagan religion organized around civic life: the philosophers.
Already in sixth-century B.C., Xenophanes of Colophon attacked the religious myths of the poets. He claimed that they attributed immorality to the deity, and depicted God in an irrational, anthropomorphic fashion. "Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods everything that is a shame and reproach among men, stealing and committing adultery and deceiving each other." Heraclitus attacked the notion that blood sacrifice could alleviate guilt. Sophocles criticized state obligations of Greek religion in Antigone, suggesting that his heroine's decision to bury her brother was an act of true justice and piety. Most famously, Socrates was accused in his trial, among other things, of denying the gods of the city, and of therefore being an atheist. Plato responds by reversing the charges. In the Republic he says that if a dramatic poet, the muse of the city's gods, comes to visit the ideal state, he should be "crowned with wreaths and sent away to another city." Aristotle in the Metaphysics, in the midst of his own discussion of divine attributes, says that the poets have portrayed the gods mythologically for reasons of political expediency and rhetorical persuasion. They and other spokesmen for the city's pantheon are silver-tongued propagandists.
The earliest Christian apologists took up this tradition of vigorous critique of Greco-Roman paganism to promote Christianity as "the true philosophy." This appeal to reason's power and dignity appears already in the New Testament. In Romans 1:19–25, St. Paul tells his readers that all human beings can come to recognize that God exists. Human reason can know something of the creator from the consideration of his creatures, which are his effects. However, human beings typically have "exchanged the truth about God for a lie ... and served the creature rather than the Creator," by treating physical objects in the creation as absolute causes, or by worshiping God with images of reptiles, birds, animals, and mortal men.
Here Paul echoes the literature of Hellenistic Judaism. In the book of Wisdom (from around 100 B.C.) the rationality of belief in God is contrasted to those who believe the universe to be itself divine, or upheld in being by the mere power of the stars. "They supposed that either fire or wind or swift air, or the circle of the stars, or turbulent water, or the luminaries of heaven were the gods that rule the world." Against this seduction of errant reason, the book of Wisdom proposes a view of God as the transcendent creator of everything rather than a particularly powerful or sublime force within the world. "If through delight in the beauty of these things men assumed them to be gods, let them know how much better than these is their Lord, for the author of beauty created them. ... For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator." God is not the greatest or most powerful force within the cosmos. He is not even "beyond" the cosmos in the sense of being outside or above. He is the source of the very fabric of existence, the transcendent cause of the intelligibility that we discover in all that exists.
St. Paul exposits this view of God in his discourse to the Athenians at the Areopagus in Acts 17. This hill in the northwest of the city was a place for philosophical debates. "Men of Athens I perceive that you are in every way religious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, 'To an unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you." Fundamentally, Paul stipulates that the unknown God of the Greeks is he in whom "we live and move and have our being," "the God who made the world and everything in it." God exists beyond the realm of finite realities we can identify and categorize. For that reason he cannot be found and known in the way we can find and know a new continent or develop a new scientific theory. But he can be known as the source of all finite reality, the ground of being. The truly supreme and transcendent source of all reality is above the cacophony of local religions collected together and harmonized by Roman society for its own political purposes. Sound philosophy itself can show that many conventional religious views of God fail to speak his true name.
Greek philosophy was a powerful ally in the Christian criticism of Rome's ideological subordination of the search for God to the needs of the earthly city. But it too promoted its own conventional wisdom. St. Paul speaks of the Cross of Christ as foolishness to the Greeks. This is because Greek philosophy took it as axiomatic that the infinite, immaterial, and unchangeable supreme being is antithetical to the finite, material, and changeable world of human life. And what could be a more poignant and bitter sign of changeability than death? Therefore, the metaphysical imagination of the ancient world found it absurd to think of God as incarnate, and even more absurd to think that his humiliating death could be "good news" preached by Christians.
Our metaphysical imaginations have not changed much. On occasion one hears a religiously interested person recoil from the dogmatic nature of Christianity. "The mystery of God is too great to put into a box," he says. This resembles the Greek intuition. Transcendence is unlimited. Finite existence is limited. Therefore, the finite historical life of Christ cannot reveal the infinite God. Stated differently, in this way of thinking all particular views about God, including the Christian view, become idolatrous if they are taken as final and ultimate.
In his Confessions, Augustine recognized that this view is erroneous, and that it springs from a crucial weakness in ancient philosophy. The key error is to oppose the transcendence of God with his real presence in the world. Religious awe is set in opposition to spiritual intimacy. Against this false opposition, the Church Fathers developed a deeper understanding of the mystery of creation. God's transcendent mystery is distinct from the finite world, but not antithetical to it. In fact, it is precisely because God is the cause of all that exists that he can be intimately present to all that is. By contrast, the idea of an intrinsic antithesis between God and the finite world implies a paradoxical limit on God, as if he were somehow excluded from his creation. The Church Fathers recognized that the mystery of God is present all around us. God is "He Who Is," the hidden transcendent source who gives existence to all things, and that accounts for their being, goodness, and beauty. This transcendence is not only consistent with God being immanently present in all things as creator, but even entails that it is so. It is God in whom we live, and move, and have our being, because there is nothing he does not sustain in existence. Therefore, God can become human without changing in himself. He can reveal who he truly is to us in a singular human life without diminishing himself in any way. God can become intimately present to humanity by grace and make himself known to us personally, while remaining incomprehensible, transcendent, and omnipotent.
St. Paul also spoke of the Cross as a scandal to the Jews. This sense of scandal stems from a different kind of conventional thinking, one that concerns how we read the scriptures of Israel rather than how we engage in philosophical speculation. Ancient Jews were not religious syncretists. True, they were tempted by the politically convenient pluralism that characterized Greek and Roman religion. The Old Testament presents us with numerous instances when the leaders and people of Israel adapted themselves to the cults and practices of their more powerful neighbors, clearly hoping to juggle theological commitments for the sake of political goals. But the Old Testament prophets, unlike Roman apologists, denounced these strategies as base betrayals of Israel's vocation to be a people uniquely chosen by God, a monotheistic light to the nations.
Nor did the Jews at the time of Jesus object to the notion that God the creator could become intimately present to his people by his own sovereign decision. This is after all a central theme of the book of Exodus. Their objection to St. Paul's preaching stemmed instead from the form this presence took, that of a crucified messiah. It was not the presence of God in history that scandalized. It was his weakness. In the book of Exodus the mirabilia Dei manifest that the God of Israel is omnipotent and unique. God overawes Egypt's Pharaoh, who is representative of the paganism of the nations. God destroys the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, sustains Israel in the wilderness, and eventually delivers them into the Promised Land. God incarnate in Christ employs his omnipotence in a different way. His triumph comes about through suffering and death.
The response to this Jewish sense of scandal is found, of course, in the physical resurrection of Christ. If Jesus is the Christ, why is he crucified? The Christian claim is not that God is uninterested in overcoming the powers of the world, but that he wants to overcome them in a more profound way than Israel had ever before deemed fathomable. The fulfillment of the promises to Israel comes about in Christ, but on an infinitely greater scale than was previously imagined. The death and resurrection of the crucified messiah are the definitive victory of God over the very worst that the human race is capable of, and are the gift of the greatest thing possible. God takes upon himself the consequences of human evil, suffering, and death so as to overcome them once and for all. In return he gives all human beings — "Jew and Greek alike" — the offers of grace, the forgiveness of sins, and participation in eternal life. To the Greeks, the Cross might seem too material and mired in finite reality and thus "foolishness." It may seem a story of failure and humiliation for Jews, and thus a "scandal." But as Paul says, in the resurrection Christ's death is revealed to be the "power of God and the wisdom of God."
Skepticism and the Usefulness of Belief
Of course many of our contemporaries simply find this implausible. Human life is finite and we surrender to death in the end. The real world is comprised of practical calculations and the struggle for material success, not the lofty but ultimately unreal reflections of ancient sages. Christian beliefs about power, money, and sex are unrealistic. Aims of immortality are illusory. We should respond to suffering through scientific research, technological development, and sound political strategies. We can find happiness in this world through aims such as human love, sexual freedom, education, and the civic arts. In short, it is best to be reasonable, and avoid the temptations of religious metaphysics which distract us from realistic goals and our more modest but ultimately meaningful human tasks.