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Archbishop preaches Hulsean Sermon 'Seeing the Question: Revelation and Self-Knowledge'

Sunday 25th January 2009

Given before the University of Cambridge at Great St Mary's Church, as part of his pastoral visit to the Diocese of Ely as it launches its 900th anniversary celebrations this weekend, 23-25 January.

'There is no part of him/ that does not see you', says Rilke at the end of one of his best-known poems, responding to the archaic statue of a Greek god.  Part of what he is trying to articulate as the experience of encountering radical and unexpected beauty is the sense not only of being forestalled by something but of being yourself exposed and questioned.  What you thought were the relationships between active observer and passive object are reversed: you thought you were doing and you find you are being done to.  Hence – as Rilke concludes – 'you must change your life'.  You cannot continue as if you were indeed the primary agent in your universe; and you will be looking for ways of staying with the scrutiny that you sense but cannot share, recognising that somehow in this new state of being looked at you have been brought into a larger world and released from some sort of imprisonment.

The Hulsean preacher is required to speak about the excellence of revealed religion; and to understand quite what is involved in talking about revelation in a properly religious way, we need help from words like those of Rilke.  It's too easy to speak as if revelation were essentially the adding on to the world of 'ordinary' seeing and knowing some extra items otherwise hidden.  For if it is really revealed religion we want to think about, it is to do with an agency, a freedom, not contained in any possible version of my world, however much expanded.  However much I know, however deeply I am aware of myself, I shall still be the object of a vision exercised from no perspective I could begin to imagine, no place that I could in principle occupy.  I am always forestalled, always exposed.  I have been shown not a few significant extra facts but the truth of where I am: before the 'eyes' of another.  Revelation is first the moment when I know not that I see but that I am seen.  

Hence the teasing truth that revealed religion, when it understands its own character, is properly hostile to any idea that the human mind will ever be able to say that it has now compassed what there is to know.  A teasing truth because one of the commonest reproaches against claims to revealed knowledge is that such claims are a bid not only to put certain truths beyond criticism but to guarantee unchallengeable personal authority for the claimants.  It is the sort of reproach that from time to time surfaces as a reason for keeping a safe distance between revealed religion and the university, and it is part of the moral and spiritual legacy of the European Enlightenment which rightly and boldly defied appeals to authority that were not open to scrutiny.  The Enlightenment's mistake was not to object to arbitrary authority but to imagine that the only kind of scrutiny that mattered was one grounded in a narrow view of reasoning and criticism – a view that' left to itself, would have paralysed scientific research as much as theological reflection.  Professor Sarah Coakley has outlined in a very percipient essay the way in which the metaphors of veil and cloud have found their way into the rhetoric of scientific discourse as much as mystical theology to express the recurrent and obstinate sense of a not-yet-finished penetration of the natural order, despite all the hopes for ultimate clarity that Enlightenment science encouraged.  And Richard Holmes' superb study, The Age of Wonder, has outlined the close interaction between late eighteenth century science and the Romantic Movement, in a way that challenges many myths and clichés.  Yet all this is still a sobering reminder to the believer that the way in which appeal to revelation has been and can be made may yet be pretty much what the Enlightenment objector has in mind.  Talk about revelation, in other words, has to become self-aware in new ways, once the modern revolt against authority has been taken seriously.

Karl Barth, the fortieth anniversary of whose death we commemorated in December last, insisted in the early volumes of his monumental Church Dogmatics that the claim about revelation was initially and decisively a claim about the nature of the revealer rather than about the content of revelation – or rather that the nature of the revealer simply was the primary content of revelation.  What, ultimately, does God have to reveal except God? To say that God has revealed himself is to say both that God is free and that God's freedom is directed towards a sharing of the secret of who or what he is, so far as this is possible.  But to begin to apprehend the idea of an unbounded freedom and an eternal will to relationship is already to acknowledge the radical gulf between what can be known or said by finite minds and the reality itself.  Revelation is not a reinforcing of the sovereign clarity of the mind by providing a set of facts that will trump all other claims to truth, but the drawing of the mind into a place where it is overwhelmingly aware of being acted upon and thus of its own secondary and vulnerable character.  And, as we shall have occasion to see later on, this has its own message for intellectual practices and institutions in general.

In its context, the exhortation to display in this sermon the excellences of revealed religion was an implicit caution against accepting an overenthusiastic valuation of 'natural religion'.  Our forebears, faced with the beginnings of Enlightenment suspicion, were under some pressure to accept that what was timelessly encoded in the order of nature and accessible to all human beings was a much safer and morally better place to begin in thinking about religious conviction and practice than any claims to a historically rooted revelation.  Divine communications anchored in the contingencies of history suggested an unreasonable God, one who was content to show himself here and not there, now and not then; and did not that mean an inevitable injustice for some, cut off from knowing God by the chance that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time?  What is the use of a revelation that God is free if the implication is that this freedom is exercised selectively, for the benefit of only some human beings?

The trouble proved to be that what had seemed a relatively simple appeal to a divinity universally discernible through what everyone was able to experience in the natural order turned out to be no less morally difficult.  Natural order was dramatically offset by natural disaster; and the trauma of the Lisbon earthquake in the middle of the eighteenth century was an early but heavy blow to facile accounts of natural religion.  By the time Darwin had elaborated his picture of a world of stubborn but blind competitive processes producing - immensely slowly and expensively - what had previously been thought of as a stable and given order of things, the gap in credibility between natural and revealed religion seemed less obvious.  If the God of revealed religion looked unhappily arbitrary, the God of natural religion in the old style looked incompetent or indifferent – or, of course, simply redundant.  Whatever the question marks against ideas of revelation, it was hard, by the beginning of the last century, to make so strong a case for its inferiority to natural piety.

But this does not resolve the questions around revelatory claims.  The sense of the arbitrary and the exclusive still hangs over them; and in our own age the problem of giving legitimacy to non-accountable authority is greater than ever.  On top of this, there is the cultural prejudice against collective understandings of truth and in favour of the spiritual pilgrimage that will bring us to a spiritual vision appropriate to our own various and unique personal histories and needs.  It is almost the opposite of the Enlightenment's passion for universally accessible truth: now we are cautious about anything that seems to undermine the irreducible difference of persons and cultures.  What might a defence of the significance and authority of revelation look like today in the light of this?

First a thought about the accusation of arbitrariness and exclusivism.  If the claim to be the recipient of revelation can be read first in the Rilkean mode proposed earlier – as the apprehension of being the focus of a gaze, an act, a purpose located in a source quite outside any possible finite conceptual field – this means that part of its primary force is to tell me that I am known as I cannot know myself.  And this in turn means that the human other – indeed the entire otherness of the natural order – is known in a mode or from a perspective that is not accessible to any particular finite mind.  Revelation instructs me about the mysteriousness not only of the source of this gaze, purpose and so on, but about the consequent mysteriousness of the environment in which I live.  My exploration of that environment, human and otherwise, will never have a satisfactory final point in such a light.  Nothing I can know will bring me to share the perspective in which I and everything and everyone else might appear to a transcendent intelligent liberty.  And thus, if we are able to receive it, the catch in taking revelation seriously, as you might say, is the insight that God's dealings with me oblige me to approach the other with what Simone Weil famously called 'hesitation' in the face of the other.  I am convinced by what I claim as revealed that God's nature is thus and not otherwise; what I cannot deduce from this is how that nature, in its freedom and intelligence and purposive sharing with human beings, is active in the life of any specific person who has not encountered or grasped or accepted what I call the revelatory event.

But second, the claim made for a revelatory event is generated by the conviction that I have come to see or know myself at a new level.  To sense that you are 'seen' prompts questions about what there is to see, questions that lead to a different intensity of self-awareness, the change in your life that Rilke spoke of.  And to sense something like that is possible only in the world of difference, development and relationship.  The Rilkean awareness of being under someone or something else's scrutiny is part of a life story in which I encounter familiar and unfamiliar others, in which it is possible for me to be surprised into awareness.  I cannot generate such a sense for myself; it could not even be thought except in a historical world, a world of plural perspectives and images and the possibility of change.  In other words, if the transcendent freedom we have begun to imagine is to share who and what he is with the kind of minds we know, it must be within the frame of a history where human persons meet and change each other, where the way in which we grow is by language and exchange over time.  David Hume's celebrated fantasy in his Dialogues of a divine message proclaimed from the sky in a universally intelligible language at a single moment is fantasy because it has nothing to do with the way in which human subjects actually come to know themselves and each other.  If there is a freedom beyond the universe of ideas and percepts that we can master, it can only communicate with selves such as we are through the exchanges of history.  You may say, with Hume, that this is risky, compared with the simple expedient of some universal message; yet the universal message would make sense only if we forgot what kind of beings we are, learning in time and stirring one another to knowledge in our human encounters.

And then, third, as we have already observed, the force of the revelatory encounter is to prohibit the claim to a comprehensive knowledge.  The typical mark of an appropriate receiving of revelation is to say not, 'this is all the truth' but 'this at least is true'.  A theology grounded in revelation is indeed one that is under authority: something has emerged to light that does not depend on or originate from our own concepts and expectations, and our language has to strain and constantly readjust to arrive at fuller, yet always incomplete, expressions of what is pressing upon us.  It does not, therefore, repeatedly try to start from scratch; it works with a lively sense of accountability to how others have charted the impact of transcendent liberty.  And if we were to say that we were free now to say what we liked, we should – paradoxically – be in danger of implying that there was no true freedom in the transcendent that has borne down upon us.  The transcendent has shown itself, its pressure has been felt, in its own integrity and 'density' – to pick up that image so potent in the Jewish Scriptures for which the word for glory is also the word for weight.  It has shaped words and images simply by being itself.  If it is true that we can say what we like, irrespective of what has been said by others across the ages who have felt that weight upon them, we make the transcendent passive and we deny the reality of its pressure.  We are stuck with the difficult task of negotiating how to say 'This is true', sensing the accumulated weight and tracing its imprint on other believing lives, without saying, 'This is a truth that needs no more questioning'.  Because if we are serious about this claim to a freedom in the transcendent, there will always be more questions put to us by what we encounter.

So it is that for the Christian, what is recognised as revelation is necessarily, inseparably, a moment of drastic change in perception of oneself; the story I usually tell myself about who and what I am is shattered and I have to discover different ways of thinking, speaking and imagining.  For the Christian mystical tradition, this is only the beginning of a continuing process of loss and recreation, night and dawn.  But it is at the heart of all Christian thinking simply because this is the way in which the New Testament itself presents revelation.  The woman at the well of Sychar describes her strange interlocutor as a man who told her everything she ever did, and it is on this basis that she concludes that he may be the Anointed.  And the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, which this day in the Church's calendar commemorates, is emphatically not just about acquiring the awareness of new information but about the discovery of a new and shocking identity.  Who is Saul? Not the model servant of the Lord but the persecutor of the Lord.  So who is Jesus?  The one who lives and suffers in his friends.  And so in turn comes the discovery which Saul spent the rest of his life struggling to express: the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth is not simply that of an individual in the past but lives and suffers and transmits grace now in the lives of those who have committed themselves to him.

The revelation of Christ's divinity enters the world of human language and interaction through this renewal and reversal of identity.  I am not who I thought I was; I have been told who I am, 'everything I have ever done', in the sense that I must revisit and see afresh all my memories, knowing that my self-awareness cannot overtake the knowledge of who I am that belongs to the revealer.  What begins to come into focus as we acclimatise ourselves to the presence of Jesus in human history is the sense that we may be comprehensively wrong about who we are – and yet that there is a just and loving knowledge of who we are that is 'held' by the transcendent seer.  And it is when we grasp just how comprehensive this is that we understand why it is the presence of nothing less than the transcendent that we identify in Jesus.  If I can never 'catch up' with this seeing, this knowing, which claims to search out where I cannot go even within myself, there is no end in Jesus' presence to the recognition of a mystery in me that is beyond my reach – and so too of a mystery in every human subject, which is one of the ways in which Christian ethics begins.

Augustine famously said of God that he was 'more intimate to me than I myself'; and this is not an extravagant statement of devotion but a sober definition of the nature of revelation.  I speak of revelation when I sense myself exposed to a scrutiny outside my control, when I reflect on an encounter in which what I have not seen and sense I can never see in or about myself is brought to light – and brought to light in such a way that I know there is no end to my own pursuit of it, assimilation of it and bafflement by it.  An endless knowledge, an unsparing knowledge and – for me, therefore – a transforming knowledge: and of course a knowledge I can refuse.  Sebastian Moore, in his extraordinary meditations on The Contagion of Jesus, has this to say about Saul's conversion: 'No-one hates truth until it contradicts a bias you are living in, then you hate it because it hurts' (p.34).  No-one can compel you to inhabit the new identity, the new humanity, that revelation presses you towards; that is one of the difference between revealed religion  - faith is a better word - and the revealing of a new fact or two.  In the latter case, the world is now slightly larger than you thought; in the former, you yourself are larger than you thought, and it is a prospect that can terrify as well as entice.

It is the same point that is made in a very different idiom by a very different theologian, the late T.F. Torrance, when he says simply that 'Jesus Christ... is the revelation he brings' (Incarnation, p.188).  Revelation is the discovery that you are already, before you knew it, in relation to a vision that is both utterly compassionate and utterly truthful: to discover this in the face, in the presence of another human being within history, not even in the presence of an archaic statue, starts the long, draining and exhilarating trail of recasting what has been taken for granted about God and the world, the created and the uncreated, and sketches what might have to be said about a God who is free not only to engage with the human world but to do so from within.  I am shown to myself as a person already in relation: God is shown to me as the agency that is eternally prepared for relation.  And the creeds begin to cast their shadow before them; because of that single human presence about which we can only say, 'he told me everything I ever did'.

Revealed religion can so easily be presented as the enemy of many things that our culture holds precious: intellectual humility and intellectual adventure; the sense of ultimate otherness or strangeness within our relations with one another; the fascination with our own inner elusiveness, our otherness to ourselves.  Yet all these themes seem themselves to arise out of the gradual apprehension of what revelation actually entails.  If theology – the theology of revealed religion - has a place in the academy, it is because of the way in which it underscores the strength of the goading to know that drives all serious mental enterprise and at the same time the unfinished character of that enterprise.  It does so not by appealing to a vague belief that all verbal forms are provisional or that the spiritual nature of human beings is worth taking seriously, but as a discipline that wrestles with intractable history and particular narrative, with the ways in which human beings think within time and relationship and create language together.

In a cultural context where – so we are repeatedly told – 'spirituality' is more popular than 'religion', it doesn't hurt to remind ourselves of what the claim to revelation and the focus on historical particulars involves for the life of faith and the exploration of that life in art or theology.  Here at least we are in a world in which the characteristic pressure of intellectual activity makes sense – the conviction of an obligation to persistence and honesty, the cautions against imagining that issues have been resolved when they have only been named; here the life of the mind and of a properly demanding imagination are recognisably involved.  Grace and struggle both belong inseparably in the process of receiving and responding to a revealing God.  What the preference for a generic spirituality may lose hold of is just this partnership of the awareness of gift and the pressure to speak as truthfully as can be in the light of the steady weight of that gift as received by generations.

To enter the world of revealed religion, to make one's own the vocabulary of a free self-disclosure on the part of the transcendent, is not to abandon discovery or darkness: because it is grounded in the simultaneous new awareness of who God is and who I and my neighbour are, it cannot be simply the delivery of the last pieces in a puzzle.  To become conscious that you are seen is potentially frightening; to become conscious that you are seen by a presence that has no selfish interest, no advantage to be exploited, no will to manipulate, but one that gratuitously shares the secret of itself, its reality and 'density', is perhaps not less frightening (you hate it because it hurts') but is also to find yourself just beginning in the way of fearlessness.  My story is told to me afresh; and I find that it is embraced, graced, opened.  'You must change your life'; but in fact my life is changed, not by me, if I can bear the gaze.      

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