Dulles’s third model is “revelation as inner experience.” This doesn’t mean the bells and whistles of private revelation in the form of visions and whatnot, but an experiential, even existential, model of immediate, interior communion with God. This rejects the objectivity of both the dogmatic and the historical models. It is based on a thoroughly modern set of assumptions: i.e., what is “natural” (immediate and interior, intuitive or instinctive) is “more real” than what is artificial (mediate and exterior, learned objectively); the distrust of authority, here in objective revelation; the denial that noumenal (i.e., the thing as it really is, vs. “phenomenal,” the thing as it seems to my senses to be) reality can be known; individualism.
Again, there are several forms of this model. In this chapter, Dulles is not as clear on the permutations as in the previous. Without clearly defining the differences among them, he notes (p. 69-70) a liberal Protestant version, a modernist Protestant version, a modernist Catholic version, and a “transcendental” Catholic version. This last, he points out, best articulated by Karl Rahner, is “not typical” of this model, and he mostly sets it aside here. (He will return to Rahner under his 5th model.)
The model, in general, works this way: (p 70:) As transcendent and non-contingent Creator, God is in some immediate sense “present to” every point of creation. So then, every part of creation implies at least the theoretical possibility of some kind of “religious” or “mystical” experience of that divine presence. Such experiences, being immediate, are also universal (at least potentially). (p 72:) This experience always communicates the whole of God’s being, therefore not “revealed truth” in dogmatic or even historical form. Dogmas and history, even sacred history, even the Bible, are not “revealed” at all in this sense, but mere human attempts to communicate the reality of this experience in a particular tradition.
Faith and belief, then, are two quite distinct things. Faith is having the experience; belief is only an approximation of the experience in human terms. All belief, then, is necessarily more or less wrong, and therefore any belief is more or less tolerable in itself. (There follows, 73ff, a description of much jumping through hoops in order to try to ascribe some significance to tradition in Christianity; but, if the assumptions be granted, the most that can be said is that certain beliefs, including Scripture, the Church, the sacraments, etc. etc., tend to be more helpful for us, in being receptive to the faith-experience.)
This same problem of tradition and authority must also be faced, in reference to Jesus Christ. Here it can be said that Christ was the highest and fullest example of religious experience, and that following Him in the Church maximizes our potential to have the same experiences. But of course this is a very far cry from claiming that Jesus is the unique and universal Savior.
The substantial weaknesses of this model should be fairly obvious. It is non-Biblical, and even contradicts the Bible in significant ways. “All the passages from Scripture used to support either of the first two models constitute objections to the third.” (p. 78). It denies the prophets' own experience of inadequacy to know and love God. It substitutes elitism for divine election. It cannot be harmonized with a great many traditional Church teachings. It makes the Church herself a secondary, rather than a primary, reality. It disappoints many expectations of what religion is “supposed to do,” such as define the meaning of stuff, especially in the moral and metaphysical senses.
Is there any redeeming feature of this model? Dulles notes two only: “[T]his model made it possible to accept that critique [i.e., the Kantian denial that noumenal knowledge is possible] without falling into skepticism.” (p. 77). There are other, better responses to Kant; nor is it necessary to accept that critique at all, or at least wholly. But the much harder trick, if one is intending to accept Kant, is not to fall into relativism, which this model, by itself, inevitably does. Second, “this model gave striking support to the life of devotion.” (p. 77) By this he means, “New links began to appear between systematic and ascetical theology. The life of prayer and mystical experience… appeared once again as central themes.” (78). To the extent that “systematic and ascetical” theology have been divided since the 17th c. (much more so in Protestant denominations than in Catholicism), this renewed connection certainly is valuable.
One of the most obvious places I think this model has taken root in the Church is in moral theology, specifically in the formation of conscience. Very few Catholics think about the Bible, the Church, or Jesus Christ in these experiential terms, but all too many think exactly this way about their conscience: that it is immediate, rather than needing formation; that it is interior, rather than shaped by our learning and practice of the Faith; and that it is authoritative of itself, rather than needing the authority of the magisterium for full conviction.