What is the nature of revelation? Can it be interpreted? By interpreting, do we strip it of its divine nature? How do other religious traditions deal with these questions? These are the ever-present tensions which press the authors of The Enigma of Divine Revelation: Between Phenomenology and Comparative Theology. By attempting to answer, reformulate, and live in these tensions, they offer a compelling vision into the relevance of phenomenology and comparative theology to these issues.
The Enigma of Divine Revelation—part 7 of the ‘Contributions to Hermeneutics’ series published by Springer—is edited by two prominent scholars: phenomenologist Jean-Luc Marion and comparative theologian Christiaan Jacobs-Vandegeer. Although written from a Catholic Christian perspective, the volume touches on a myriad of other intellectual and religious traditions. After dedicating Chapter 1 to an introduction, the editors divide the essays into 4 parts—Givenness and Interpretation (Chapters 2-3), The Phenomenality of Revelation (Chapters 4-6), Transforming Ways of Being in the World (Chapters 7-10), The Future of Revelation, Propositions (Revisited), and Close Reading (Chapters 11-13). In order to lay a foundation for the theme of the volume, Chapter 1 gives a brief history of the evolution orthodox Catholic conceptions of divine revelation and the role of interpretation therein.
The collection launches Part I with an essay by one of its editors: Jean-Luc Marion. “The Hermeneutics of Givenness,” translated by Sarah Horton, builds on his concept of ‘saturated phenomena’ by drawing out a provocative vision of the hermeneutic demand created therein. Marion writes to address fears of ‘pure’ givenness, which is sullied by any form of signification, which have driven many hermeneutics scholars to denounce the usefulness of phenomenology. What use is the given if introducing a hermeneutic makes it disappear? Marion responds by first reversing the common understanding of givenness—“we must not conceive of givenness as a de facto authority but as a de jure authority, or rather conceive that the fact of the given suffices to assure to this given the full status of a phenomenon: everything that shows itself shows itself because it gives itself” (Marion 21). Furthermore, he distinguishes between the given, which “imposes itself as a fact, and givenness, which “establishes the norm of this fact” (22). He argues that what he calls the ‘myth of the given’ goes back to Locke’s empiricism, which suggests the given is unmediated sense datum. In this formulation, the given has the inexorable character of immediacy, a character which is inevitably destroyed in moving from the immediate sense datum of the given to the subsequent realization of an object.
Marion enjoins his readers to throw off this empiricist formulation of phenomenology which demands so much of the given’s immediacy. In fact, he goes so far as to argue that “it belongs precisely to the given not to give itself immediately, and above all not in the immediacy of sense data—even though it gives itself in perfect facticity, or rather because it gives itself as an unconditioned and originary factum” (28-29, emphasis original). Thus, signification, he claims, is anterior to givenness. It is only through the process of reduction that we can arrive at the offshoots of the given: sense data, objects, knowledge. We always experience the world as signified first.
Finally, Marion distinguishes between what gives itself and what shows itself. In his words, “the given does not yet show itself through the simple fact that it gives itself” (39). We can reason, as he did, that something things give itself without showing itself. This distinction allows Marion to further argue for his concept of saturated phenomena: that in many cases what gives itself “exceeds what the concept presumed regarding signification, such that the phenomenon escapes any foresight, to the point of becoming impossible to aim at [invisable], if not invisible [invisible]” (41). Allowing for saturated phenomena gives Marion theoretical space for revelation. He addresses the persistent question of how something divine could maintain its status while becoming immanent by suggesting what we encounter in revelation totally exceeds our comprehension, such that what gives itself as divine shows itself only partially in immanence, and even then only appears to us as signified.
The volume’s 3rd chapter offers an opposing view in Shane Mackinlay, who argues Marion’s saturated phenomenon maintains the absolute character of the transcendent, but in doing so severely limits the scope of interpretation. By positing the transcendent in givenness, Mackinlay argues, Marion implies discernment is not necessary. But how do we know if our experience was a veridical experience of the transcendent or a glimmering fraud? In other words, how do we distinguish between the transcendent and the mundane? In an effort to address these questions, Mackinlay proposes adapting three principles of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics to discernment of revelation.
Mackinlay’s essay launches with a critique of ‘The Theological Turn in French Phenomenology,’ arguing figures like Emmanuel Levinas, Paul Ricoeur, Jean-Luc Marion fail to fully realize the importance of hermeneutics in transcendence. He recalls admonitions for discernment from figures like Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, and Martin Luther in support of his argument. Moving further, he endorses Richard Kearney’s analogy between discernment and meeting a stranger: should we treat strangers with awe or suspicion? Likewise, should we treat an ecstatic encounter with awe or suspicion?
As tools for encountering ‘a stranger,’ Mackinlay proposes adopting “a critical and modest hermeneutics of the phenomenon in its actual appearing, undertaken in dialogue with others who propose interpretations of it” (59-60). As the author notes, Kearney likewise calls for a hermeneutic which operates in the appearing of the phenomenon, but fails to give any indication of how this might be done. This is where Gadamer is useful. Mackinlay echoes Gadamer’s belief that perfectly ‘true’ interpretation cannot exist, only provisional truths can be exposed. As such, all judgments require ongoing critical examination. If truths are provisional, then ongoing examination must continuously question the validity of the original judgment. Finally, this examination should not be done in isolation; a communal examination will further solidify the ongoing examination.
By inducting Gadamer’s hermeneutics into the practice of discerning the transcendent, Mackinlay offers a concrete lead into sifting out the divine from the immanent. One may object that the judgments and examinations Mackinlay introduces will sully the character of the transcendent, but he maintains that “While the introduction of these immanent judgements qualifies any absolute claim to immediate and unambiguous encounter with the transcendent, they remain modest and provisional judgements, and they therefore refrain from simply reducing that transcendence to the immanence of experience” (61-62). Ultimately, he reminds us, we must forward the provisional nature of language, always vigilant in our awareness of the precarious divide between the natural and the supernatural.
Part II of the collection focuses on “The Phenomenality of Revelation.” In Chapter 4, “Revelation as a Problem for Our Age,” Robyn Horner addresses revelation in a post-secular age. Philosopher Charles Taylor famously identified a ‘secular age’ in which traditional religion was waning and expected, by many, to disappear completely through the process of modernization. Yet Horner, following Jürgen Habermas and Daniele Hervieu-Leger, argues society has entered a post-secular age, in which “religion maintains a public influence and relevance, while the secularistic certainty religion will disappear worldwide in the course of modernization is losing ground” (72-73, quoting Habermas). Horner goes further, though. to endorse Hervieu-Leger’s view that secularization primarily reconstructs belief, resulting in new secular religions and reimagined traditional religions.
Secular and post-secular ages have also shifted emphasis from the communal to the individual, placing revelation, among other things, in the experience of the individual. In academic circles, however, revelation has largely been rejected as irrational or even superstitious. As a result, secular philosophers like Nick Trakakis have tried to completely evict theology from philosophy, arguing theology, in assuming metaphysical truths before inquiry has even begun, is less critical towards its own beliefs than philosophy. Richard Colledge recants: “so much of what we passionately maintain on the basis of the weighty tools of rational argumentation are things that we already cared about previously. As such, while the tools of argumentative reason are used to defend them, these come too late to explain why we hold such views in the first place” (77). Colledge’s response, Horner notes, reflects Derrida’s argument that much of rational thought is actually theological in nature, no matter how vehemently secular academics deny it.
Having established revelation’s significance for the post-secular age, Horner moves on to trace its history with theology from what is perhaps its first appearance in Thomas Aquinas to the change made by Vatican II. In sum, she argues, “revelation is understood within Catholic thought chiefly in two ways, as content and as relationship” (91). Within the latter way, Horner finds an additional shift from questions of belief and unbelief to questions of experience, which is where phenomenology enters the scene. She lays out several ways in which French phenomenologists Jean-Yves Lacoste, Jean-Luc Marion, and Emmanuel Falque have offered experiential frameworks for revelation. Lacoste, for example, introduces a liturgical reduction meant not to bring God into view, but to expand our horizon beyond the world. Additionally, his concept of ‘paradoxical phenomena’ accounts for phenomena which we know primarily through affective rather than intellectual means. Horner posits views like this, which includes Marion’s saturated phenomena, expand our horizon of possible transcendence. In fact, she concludes with a notable endorsement of this tradition: “In short, if it is the case that revelation no longer makes sense in contemporary life, perhaps it is because it has been locked for too long in the language of beliefs and made unavailable to experience; perhaps it is because of a diminished sensitivity to its impression in the affect, and perhaps it is because its effects are no longer visible in the persons who proclaim it as knowledge” (100).
In Chapter 5, ‘Revelation and Kingdom,’ Kevin Hart makes the case that the phenomenological revelation introduced by Vatican II uncovers the Kingdom of Heaven as multi-stable phenomena. Like Horner, Hart traces the use of revelation back to Thomas Aquinas, but he adds that the Thomistic concept revelatione divina was a significant turn away from illuminatio as used by Augustine. It was in Aquinas’s legacy that Vatican II first introduced the term ‘divine revelation’ to Catholic constitution in Vatican I, where it formulated divine revelation as “de facto propositional” (111). Vatican II, however, reworks this understanding to one of self-revelation. Although its authors do not explicitly acknowledge it, this self-revelation, as Hart points out, “quietly [slips] from theological epistemology to phenomenology” (111).
This shift enjoins believers to encounter Jesus not simply as a fixed “object among others but as an intentional object: desired, loved, worshipped, and so on, in the context of prayer, reception of sacraments, or anticipation of the life of the world to come” (113-114). Even so, it is imperative that we recognize no matter what we do, the Jesus that appears to us always appears within the limits of our gaze. Our past experiences, current circumstances and values, prejudices, personality delimit the ways in which Jesus appears to us. The difficulty, then, is in recognizing the provisionality of that encounter and expanding our gaze in hope of more multi-stable encounters in the future.
Attempting to address this difficulty, Paul Tillich argues that instead of bring Jesus, God the Son, into our gaze, and in the process irrecoverably altering God’s character, we must “find ourselves in his gaze, which comes in hearing his parables and in meditating on his acts” (114). Hart’s rejoinder says this goes too far; hoping to preserve the character of Jesus by arguing he does not come into our gaze takes him too far out of the world. Instead, Hart argues, the difficulty of recognizing the depth of the Kingdom through revelation comes from its appearance as a multi-stable phenomenon: “It is here yet to come, within yet without, coming in strength while also the smallest of things, visible yet invisible, ordinary yet extraordinary” (117). Revelation, understood as self-revelation, goes beyond the possibilities of proposition in uncovering the multi-stable character of the Kingdom.
Chapter 6, William C. Hackett’s “‘A Whole Habit of Mind’: Revelation and Understanding in the Christology of St. Cyril of Alexandria”, moves beyond the specific nature of revelation to address the conundrum of taking a personal first-person experience of God and interpreting it through the distant third-person plane of hermeneutics. Our experience of revelation is already limited to the scope of our gaze, so how can hermeneutics be laid over divine encounter without completely covering the transcendent therein? By applying St. Cyril of Alexandria’s “sacrifice Christology” to this issue, Hackett offers a sturdy foundation for the inherently unstable interpretation of revelation.
To lay this foundation, Hackett begins by explaining three essential steps of Cyrilline Christology he relies on: 1) for St. Cyril, theology’s first appearance and task is in liturgy, or in the possibility of deifying flesh by henosis; 2) the Eucharistic “reduction” enacts seeing through enfleshment and self-emptying, resulting in the advancement into theosis; and 3) Christ’s appearance, the first Eucharist, represents the kenotic incarnation of reason. These three steps provide the background for Hackett’s own fourth, which states that “The intellectual practice that corresponds to the sensible manifestation of divine glory in Christ is less one of classical philosophical allegoresis than of using Scriptural images to give flesh to thought” (120). This final step is redolent of St. Cyril’s understanding of the metaphysical expressive possibilities in images, which surpasses the ability of human reason to expose the mind to revelation. For example, St. Cyril’s image of a burning coal, inspired by Isaiah’s hekhalot theophany, imagines the coal to be an image anticipating the character of Christ. Like the burning coal, “[Christ] is conceived as being from two things which are unlike each other and yet by a real combination are all but bound together in unity” (Hackett quoting St. Cyril 127). Both realities, a burning coal and an incarnate God, express the realities of two entirely disparate realities coming wholly into one while retaining the essential characteristics of the disparate realities. In the Eucharist, Hackett concludes, we enjoy this reality; eating the bread and drinking the wine, we participate in a ritual at once real on a material level and on a spiritual level—what we partake is both bread and Christ’s body, both wine and his blood.
Part III of the book, on “Transforming Ways of Being in the World,” begins with Chapter 7 by Werner G. Jeanrond. Reflecting the call of this section of the book, Jeanrond’s chapter dives deeper into developing phenomenological hermeneutics shaped by praxis rather than abstracted theological logic puzzles. Titled “Revelation and the Hermeneutics of Love,” it proposes a theology radically shaped by relational love. This love, as he sees it, is not the flippant whim of attraction, but rather is steeped in the often painfully difficult task of loving the other in their otherness.
Contrasting the erstwhile Yale and Chicago traditions of hermeneutics, traditions he coins the ‘hermeneutics of revelation’ and the ‘hermeneutics of signification’ respectively, Jeanrond puts stock in the latter school, proposing that thinkers like David Tracy and Paul Ricoeur’s universal horizon in addressing fundamental questions of otherness ignored by the professors at Yale. Their universal horizon keeps with Jeanrond’s project, putting otherness at the center of its inquiry, a move which, we are told, is essential for a rich understanding of love in practice. The task of loving the other as other (e.i. without attempt to twist the other into the self) is inextricably linked to hermeneutics because, following Gadamer’s claim that all human communication is ensconced within the limits of the language, Jeanrond argues “the center of love is the recognition of relational subjectivity and its potential for enabling experiences of transcendence and revelation” (145).
Chapter 8 features Mara Brecht questioning what bodies comparative religion centers on and how those habits of bodying can be decentered. She begins “Embodied Transactions” with an admonition for comparative theology to self-critical regarding its hermeneutics—specifically its understanding of subjectivity. Following Gadamer and Ricoeur’s discussions of the embodied dimension of human experience, Brecht traces out the implications of their findings for comparative theology. Going even further, she draws on the work of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Michelle Voss Roberts to propose that “it is only in the particularity of embodied experience that revelation is rendered meaningful” (152). Rather than retracing Barth’s attempt to circle around the problem of subjectivity by placing revelation specifically within a single discrete tradition, Brecht joins other scholars practicing the so-called “new” comparative theology, a school dedicated to embracing the tensions of interreligious dialogue rather than attempting to diffuse them.
Still, Brecht argues, comparative theology should go further to uncover the status of its own subjectivity. Like Andreas Nehring, she rejoins her fellow theologians to deconstruct the contexts in which interpretation takes place. This context is composed, she claims, by what Shannon Sullivan calls “embodied habits,” which not only reflect our identities but determine them. Hence, “We cannot understand the lived realities of religion in the abstract, and thus apart from embodied environments, which—importantly—are always and inevitably shot through with power” (168). As a result, the work of uncovering and improving the embodied habits in comparative theology, a practice known as somaesthetics, requires critical self-examination of the way theologians are bodying, living as racialized, gendered, religiously committed bodies. This is not, however, a rejection of comparative theology; Brecht instead proposes the possibilities of comparative theology as an environment which “[disrupts] the automaticity of our habits” and can, therefore, “be the work of becoming an “outsider within”—a subjective position from which the fullness of revelation be taken in and known” (173).
Chapter 9—Into the Blue: Swimming as a Metaphor for Revelation—explores living as a liminal experience, one “in the middle of things” already started and not yet over. The author, Michele Saracino, cites George Steiner’s discussion of living as a “Saturday” experience, caught between the unutterable pains of “Friday” and the Utopia of “Sunday.” To live a flourishing life, Saracino argues, one must “swim” in the transient “waters” of life not by trying to control the water, but by resigning your control, accepting its otherness, and adapting to its hydrodynamic drag. The admonition to resign oneself, she notes, comes in the wake of Jean Vanier’s call to vulnerability and Hans Urs von Balthasar’s idea of revelation as an act of giving oneself over to God. The water metaphor, however, further actualizes the intimacy of our relationship with alterity by bringing alive the uncertainty and mystery inherent therein.
Yet Saracino’s in extended metaphor, we are not treading water—we are swimming. As many swimmers already know, this necessarily involves working against, and with, hydrodynamic drag. Liking this drag to the challenges we all face in relating to and loving others, Saracino advocates working in harmony with life’s protean waves through improvisation. This improvisation allows us to experience the other without trying to control it, ultimately revealing new ways of being in the world. As she concludes, “empathy emerges when we relinquish power over another, mourn that power, and let the other have an impact on us” (193). By harnessing the insights offered by the swimming metaphor, Saracino further elucidates the transformative power of communion with the other.
The final chapter of Part III, chapter 10, features Frederick G. Lawrence unpacking “Revelation as Sharing in God’s Self-Understanding as Absolute Love.” Like several others in this collection, Lawrence begins with a short history of patristic understanding of revelation; unlike the ones we saw before, this recapitulation highlights the shift in how Catholic theologians have understood St. Thomas Aquinas’s writings on the subject. Earmarking the differences between Vatican I’s Dei Filius and Vatican II’s Dei Verbum, he alerts his readers to the impact theologian Yves Congar had on the latter document. In this new paradigm, revelation is conceptualized as God’s self-communication gifted to us. While many scholars have taken issue with the nature/supernature distinction assumed in Dei Verbum, Lawrence still finds it necessary and even productive to identify as different nature and grace.
Given this distinction, Lawrence activates Bernard Lonergan’s conception of revelation as God’s self-understanding given through grace, that is through Jesus Christ. While grace abounds in the world, the Paschal mystery is the consummate act of revelation. This leads Lawrence to consider the role of the Holy Spirit in revelation, a role he defines by paraphrasing St Paul: “the Spirit sent into human hearts by the Father through the Son transforms us by the graces of conversion, justification, and sanctification” (215-216 emphasis original). The experience of this transformation, which leads us faith, he argues, is not a process of rational recalculation or the adopting of a set of orthodox axioms; Rather, the existential step into faith is better defined as “the knowledge born of religious love” (quoting Lonergan 223). Hence, the religious knowledge too often paraded as the end of a logical syllogism illuminated by the light of reason is instead, to use Herbert McCabe’s words, arrived at through “the darkness of faith” (233).
Chapter 11, the first in Part IV “The Future of Revelation, Propositions (Revisited), and Close Reading”, invites the reader for the first time beyond the horizons of the Christian tradition to that of another Abrahamic religion—Islam. Professor of Qur’anic Studies Maria Massi Dakake interrogates the use of ta’wīl in the Qur’an as well as in Islamic intellectual history, ultimately arguing that integral to the Qur’an’s teachings for Muslims is the understanding that its meaning is multivalent and continues to unravel over time. Rather than a text with clear and discrete religious meaning which has already been uncovered by early witnesses and scholars, Massi Dakake invites us to see meaning in the Qur’an as inexhaustible.
Qur’anic scholars and teachers, as well as the Qur’an and Hadīth, have warned against tafsīr, or explanation of texts by opinion. Many have taken this as a rejection of interpretation full-stop, suggesting the early interpreters arrived at the “correct” understanding of the texts. But Massi Dakake believes this is a grave misunderstanding: “If read in this way, the error [Qur’an 3:7] points to is not the effort to contemplate and find new or hidden meaning in the verses, but on the contrary, the desire to claim that no such new or hidden meanings exist of can be found, and thus to question the legitimacy of continuing to ponder and reflect upon Qur’anic verses—an endeavor the Qur’an itself repeatedly encourages” (259). By alerting us to Qur’anic uses of ta’wīl, which tenth-century theologian and commentator al-Māturīdī, among others, propose avoid the condemnation of Qur’an 3:7, Massi Dakake opens us up to a present, living encounter with the text.
In Chapter 12, Jewish Studies scholar Peter Ochs dismisses the “two-valued propositional logics” so prevalent in the modern West to propose a “Logic of Revelation” (LR) which incorporates a “multivalued” logic. For LR, first premises are “words revealed to some language community” (i.e. revelation) (262). Thus, Ochs admits, one can only access the LR in the Tanakh by way of the “Rabbinic Logic of Revelation,” whose second premises uncover the original conditions for the reception of the first premises.
Using Charles Peirce’s distinction between iconic and indexical signs, Ochs argues the “force of revelation is displayed through its indexicality” (266). While revelation is directly caused by its object, “its meaning is disclosed only by way of predications”—meaning is predicated on revelation in a particular time and place (266). Additionally, this implies that revelation is received in human language communities. In sum, revelation—the relation of God to God’s word—comes to us through language in our worldly setting and bears the weight of indexicality. Interpretive reading (derash), therefore, “is predicative, relational, historically conditioned, and it is authoritative only when and where it is articulated” (272).
In the 13th and final chapter, comparative theologian Francis X. Clooney demonstrates the power of the discipline through the application of the Vedic hermeneutic tradition Mīmāmsā to a reading of the Gospel According to John. Defining Mīmāmsā as “intense investigation,” the chapter begins with a gloss of how Hindu practitioners use the method and its connection to Vedic revelation. Of the extant literature on the subject, perhaps the key text is Mīmāmsā Sūtras, a collection of twelve books attributed to Jaimini (c. 300-200 BCE). Using these works alongside the thought of Śabara Swāmin and Kumārila Bhātta, Clooney argues that, for Mīmāmsā, “Revelation lies in the detail, and revelation is accessible not as received content, but in the work of skilled interpretation” (286-287). Yet this interpretation does not primarily seek to uncover the original context and intentions of a text’s author; a close reading of the actual text will open the way for revelation without imposing on it.
Of course, the religious context and aims of Mīmāmsā are significantly distinct from Clooney’s Catholicism, a key difference being that Mīmāmsā finds revelation in the text itself rather than seeing the text as a sign of something beyond it. Still, Clooney claims, their similarities are weighty enough to make comparison productive. In the final section of the essay, he does just that—applying the principles of Mīmāmsā to sections of the Gospel According to John, particularly the scenes leading up to Jesus’s crucifixion. One such scene, the account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead and the surrounding community’s reaction, brings Clooney’s method to light: “From a Mīmāmsā perspective, good reading always implicates the reader: does the miracle draw us into the circle of believers, or rather locate us among those intent upon killing Jesus?” (299-300). By encouraging us to lean in to the text, Mīmāmsā helps us prioritize the ethical demands made on us by the text, leading us on a path toward a greater understanding of our place in the world.
Engaging diverse hermeneutical traditions at the crossroads of phenomenology and comparative theology, The Enigma of Divine Revelation alerts readers to the contingent and situated nature of each person’s understanding of revelation. The resulting bricolage invites reflection on what is given in revelation, the significance of revelation for our age, the ways revelation may invite praxis, and the importance of close reading for opening revelation. This concoction perhaps appears eclectic, yet it is a capacious model of the benefits of interdisciplinary thought—and the existential potence of rich theological soil.