Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Models of Revelation 9

Dulles continues in Ch 6 with the fourth model, “dialectical presence.” This means that revelation is always a paradox, simultaneously revealing the mystery of God, and thus concealing Him in the mystery, in the very act of revealing. The origins of this model lie in the inadequacies of liberal theology, displayed with such clarity in the unprecedented social and moral devastation of WWI. It was the juxtaposition of divine transcendence with undisguised human sinfulness that led thinkers like Barth, Bultmann, etc., to deny that “God’s presence and activity could ever be discovered within the realms of historical fact, doctrinal statement, or religious experience.” (85). Yet there is nowhere else to discover God’s presence and activity; hence the paradox.

This model never constituted a school as such, and there are significant differences among those who play with it. What Dulles offers here is a quite artificial schema, which he admits cannot really do justice to any of the thinkers he cites.

The core of this model is the idea that revelation is always of a mystery. God’s self cannot be reified in human terms. Instead, revelation for us is always of God’s saving self, hence of Christ. There is no revelation apart from Christ. (86). This requires a rejection of “natural theology,” of the revelation of some aspect of God’s nature in created natures, which was such a mainstay of medieval theology. But as revelation only in Christ, revelation is also coterminous with grace. (87). Therefore revelation, as the same saving act of God, continues today with the same mysterious divine freedom. The Bible, the Church, and the sacraments are not in themselves revelatory; but they can be the means of the one revelation of Christ, because of grace. By the same token, nothing outside the mystery of revelation is necessary to God’s salvation, and so the Bible, the Church, and the sacraments must be seen as fallible and changeable. (88).

Continuing this logical reduction, the act of faith is also the same as the act of revelation, and is the free gift of God. (89). Apologetics, then, falls into the same category as Bible, Church, and sacrament.

Hence, the form of revelation in this model is the Word itself, Jesus Christ. The problem is that the “residue” of the Word, whether in Scripture, in the Church, in the sacraments, in Tradition, etc., is not the Word itself, and so ultimately is not really a trustworthy witness to Christ.

Dulles is very careful to note the positive aspects of this model (93-4). He finds four positives. It is quite well-grounded in Scripture, at least in the sense that it doesn’t contradict Scripture. It salvages an epistemology of faith (albeit individual and subjective) from the Kantian cul-de-sac. Its rejection of apologetics cleared away accumulated tangles of intellectualizing undergrowth. And its quite spare religiosity renewed a sense of commitment to the absoluteness of God.

The principle weakness of this model is its inner incoherence (94-5). If faith (as the content of faith) cannot be meaningfully communicated, how can it be itself meaningful? If the Bible is not a reliable witness to Christ, how can the experience of revelation, even as a paradox, be judged as true or false to Christ? If salvation history is not actually historical, how can it be salvific? At the root of this incoherence is the divorce of the “Christ of faith” from the “Jesus of history,” which is really at the center of this model.

Dulles’s conclusion is surprisingly positive, however. “In view of these difficulties it is not surprising that dialectical theology, in its acute form, was only a phase in the career of its authors. When they sought to reflect further on the meaning of the gospel, they moved beyond dialectical thinking…. [T]hese theologians took up something like the analogous discourse of the classical tradition…. Whenever theology is tempted to forget its own limitations and to claim mastery of the revealed message, the vehement negations of dialectical theology remain a valuable corrective.” (97).

You might notice that all the thinkers cited by Dulles, and all the assumptions that underlie this model, are Protestant, mostly Lutheran. I've also come across some "post-modern" Catholics who fall for the illusion of clarity in this model, especially in sacramental theology. For example, M.-L. Chauvet wrote "Symbol and Sacrament" (originally in French) very much along these lines. He either coined or popularized the phrase "the absence of the presence of God" in reference to sacramental presence, especially True Presence in the Eucharist. The same criticisms noted above apply here, without any of the offsetting positives.


Cecilia said...

This seems to invite the sort of false ecumenism that's essentially syncretism or merely "can't we all get along?" good manners wandering off into Political Correctness. It seems like a particularly dangerous framework for ecumenical dialogue with Buddhism, or the McBuddhism so common in the U.S.

Deacon David said...

At its best, this model insists strongly enough on the identity of revelation with Christ and with faith in Christ, to resist this false ecumenism. But there are most certainly popularized forms of this (blending also with the "inner experience" model) which keep only the experience of mystery and claim a simplistic inexpressibility. This is indistinguishable in practice from syncretism.