Retrieving General Revelation with Robert K. Johnston

Balaam and the Angel, by Gustav Jaeger
(PD-1923, via Wikimedia Commons)
What constitutes an authentic revelation of the divine in everyday life? This is the question I had when I began Robert K. Johnston's creative and spirited attempt to retrieve and reconstruct the theology of general revelation. It was also the question I still had when I reached the end of the book. In fairness, though, Johnston's main purpose in this book is not to provide some sort of phenomenological framework for evaluating revelatory experiences; rather, as I read him, he is trying to carve out a broadened theological space for affirming transformative experiences of the divine in everyday life. In terms of this goal, he largely succeeds, even though I admit to some skepticism about the project.

God's Wider Presence: Reconsidering General Revelation by Robert K. Johnston (Baker, 2014).

Johston offers a rich array of materials: Case studies of transformative experiences of the beyond (reportedly) breaking into the here-and-now in moments of rapture, beauty, and moral clarity; original research in which the author has catalogued first-hand accounts from seminarians who experienced epiphanies at the cinema (an area of Johnston's particular expertise as a theolgian of culture); and thoughtful engagement with theologians ranging from Karl Barth and C.S. Lewis to Elizabeth Johnson and Jürgen Moltmann.

If this richness is a strength of this volume, on the one hand, it perhaps causes potential problems for the project, on the other hand. Or so it seems to me, a Barthian somewhat beleagured by the hermeneutics of suspicion. I still am left wondering: How does one sort through such a vast array of human limit experiences -- being gripped by the beauty of a sunset or the majesty of ocean waves, the experience of being stirred to fight injustice, or perhaps experiencing a miracle -- and effectively theologize about these phenomena? Are all experiences of aesthetic rapture, let's say, classifiable as revelations of the divine? Most of us, I suspect, can recount such liminal moments, and those of us believers might, with the eyes of faith, interpret them as moments of special providence. But are they revelations -- episodes of divine self-disclosure? And how do we know? I'm not saying answers to such questions are unavailable to Johnston, only that he doesn't provide them in this book.

Naturally, Johnston draws upon phenomenological theories of religion to defend his account of general revelation. For example, he draws upon Rudolph Otto's famous account of the numinous as "mysterium tremendum et fascinans." Yet Johnston's examples of disclosive moments -- for example, his personal life-changing experience of receiving a call into youth ministry while viewing the film Becket -- are, by and large, positive experiences. I wonder: What about folks who experience the transcendent as terror, as some of the biblical prophets surely did? And is it possible that some "supernatural mail on foreign soil" (a phrase from a character in an Updike novel) some of us claim to experience might come from the realm of the demonic (however we might understand that)? Johnston doesn't really answer these questions.

The first three chapters consist mainly in narratives of spiritual experiences. Some of them make for fascinating and compelling reading. Johnston is right to counter a certain doctrinaire, narrow-minded biblicism that refuses to wrestle with the broader reaches of human experience. Religious experiences are fertile ground for empirical study and theological exploration. Chapters four and five lift up key moments in Bible in which God is depicted as having spoken through mouthpieces from outside the community of the faithful. There is much interesting material here, to be sure, and I would think it is fairly uncontroversial to claim that, within the narratives of salvation history, God is often speaking through outsiders such as Melchizidek and Balaam. What I find curious in Johnston's account is his focus on such figures as recipients of divine messages; in other words, they serve as examples of how indivdiuals outside Israel or the church might encounter the divine through their own religious experiences. But it seems to me -- non-expert in the Hebrew Bible though I am -- that if God's dealings with Abimalech of Gerar become a constituent element of the patriarchal narratives, they belong more in the sphere of special rather than general revelation.

The final three chapters deal more explicitly with historical and cotemporary constructive theology: In my view, they comprise the strongest and most interesting part of the book. What are the conditions of the possibility for a more robust and broader theology of God's wider presence in human experience? Johnston argues, quite reasonably, that such an emphasis is concomitant with contemporary attempts to reorient theology from a narrower christocentrism to a more broadly pneumatocentric perspective. To that end, he ably engages theologians commited to putting the doctrine of the Spirit at the center of theology -- for example, Jürgen Moltmann, Elizabeth Johnson and Amos Yong. I have reservations about this constructive stance, but Johnston defends it ably.

I want to end on a positive note and to highlight a significant contribution of the book. Johnston distinguishes his own position -- very effectively -- from a common preoccution in other accounts of general revelation: that is, the common claim that knowledge of God is a universally available feature of human experience as such. Johnston has picked up this emphasis on the particularity of revelation, in part, from the (in)famous Barth-Brunner debate on natural theology, which he recounts with evenhanded charity. General revelation has often beein framed, say, in terms of a generalized belief in God, a "seed of religion," (Calvin) or a "mystical a priori" (Tillich). To be sure, Johnston joins Brunner and many other theologians throughout history in affirming some sort of prethematic awareness of God in creation and human experience. Nontheless, Johnston draws upon Barth's actualism to lift the discussion of general revelation to a new level. What he finds more salient is the gratuity and particulariy of revelation: God makes Godself known to specific individuals in specific times and places, according to the divine good pleasure. Johnston writes:

Barth was also right in his strident protection of the Godness of God, particularly as it relates to divine revelation. It is God's initiative, not ours, that is central to all theology. It is God and God alone who is the actor in revelation; it is God who speaks, not us. We should not accept any "natural theology" that subtly turns itself into a syncretistic, if not an autnomous, exercise (pp. 133-134).

It would be interesting to read Johnston's case studies in light of Barth's discussion of "secular parables" in Church Dogmatics, vol. IV/3. Maybe we could find a more fruitful ways to relate God's self-disclosure in Jesus Christ to a broader range of life-transforming, uncanny moments of grace that have peppered human experience throughout the ages.

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Disclosure: Baker Acadmic sent me a review copy of Johnston's book gratis, without any expectation of a positive review.

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Comments

In the first part of your discussion I wondered if the author tried to find too much if he wants to discover a "theology" of general revelation. I am not so sure one can find much more than suggestive human experiences of the divine, which could be either a pull toward meaning and fulfillment or the hint of terror. I think Barth is so good at reminding us that the only way we can know God is by revelation, and thus, the only way we can see "secular parables" or human experience suggesting the divine relation, is through the lens of revelation. I have not figured out how one can develop a theology of general revelation, for the material is too slim. Maybe vague or ambiguous would be a better term.
Yeah. I think I basically agree with you here. I think Johnston's project is somewhat misadvertized as a theology of general revelation. He's not so much exploring general structures or conditions for the possibility of revelation as he is reflecting theologically on specific kinds of religious experience. As I wrote, I think the material is fascinating, but I'm reluctant to draw strong theological claims from these experiences. I read Barth to be arguing that, sure, we can't rule out that a free God might deing to communicate through one of these media. The theological question is how do we name, describe, and evaluate such experiences if not from God's self revelation in Christ?

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