Revolution and Revelation

A spirited conversation has been going on in the combox about the existence of God. I said here that God does not exist–and went on to say, at least he does not exist as we exist. He is, instead, the very ground of all existence. He does not exist so much as he IS existence.

Commenters went back and forth with a range of readers–some antagonistic atheists who, one senses, don’t really want an intelligible answer, and others who struggled with the philosophical concepts involved, asked good questions and were offered some good answers.

Another good question arose, “How does one move from God who is ipsum esse subsistans (the very substance of existence) to the God of scapulars and rosaries?” In other words, how does one move from the philosophical concept to all the details of a particular religious practice without something called ‘revelation’?

The Catholic teaching is that there are two forms of revelation. The first is called “general” revelation. This is simply the stuff anybody who is observing the world might conclude about the existence and nature of God. General revelation is open to anybody. It’s included not only in the way the world is created, but the way humans are wired. We’re wired to look at the awesome and delicate forces of nature and be filled with wonder and fear and confusion and a sense of worship. It’s part of being human. It is also one of the traits of human beings that atheists need to account for.

Do we feel awe and wonder when we look up at the sun, moon and starts simply because they’re big and we’re small? That seems a sensible answer, but then why are we filled with curiosity and wonder when we study a colony of ants who toil in military order and communicate in ways we cannot comprehend and build a gigantic ant colony? It is just because we are faced with something we cannot explain? If so, then why are we still filled with wonder when we hold a newborn–whose origins we can explain? These feelings of wonder, awe and fear and joy are not necessarily an argument for the existence of God, but they are a realization that within human experience something greater than mere scientific experimentation and verification is going on. There is a quest for some other form of understanding.

This transaction between our curiosity and what is there to be discovered we might call “general revelation”. It is in this conversation between the natural world and ourselves that we draw the conclusion that there is something beyond –something greater than our five sense. From this many different religious expressions and experiences have arisen.

Specific revelation is the next step. Religious people of all kinds claim some sort of communication with beings that from this world beyond. The revelations may come through supernatural experiences of some sort. They may come through individuals in a trance state, they may come through visions or auditory experiences or inner locutions. They may result in a whole range of religious myths, stories, rituals and beliefs. In this instance I am still speaking about general human religious experience–and not specifically about the Judeo-Christian experience.

Within this wider human experience the Jews said God spoke to their ancestors in particular ways. He called Abram out of Ur. He revealed his name to Moses at the burning bush and gave him a job to do. He appeared to Jacob and Joseph in dreams and to the prophets through visions and messages from angels. Within this Jewish tradition God also spoke to Joseph and Mary, and as the book of Hebrews said, “In various ways in various times God spoke to our ancestors, but now he has spoken to us through his Son.”

Jesus Christ is therefore the ultimate self revelation of God to humanity. We believe that in a miraculous way God took human form and showed us what he is like through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Do we realize that this is difficult to believe? Yes. Theologians call it “the scandal of particularity”–that the one who is ipsum esse subsistans becomes a squawking infant in a cattle stall, grows up to be an itinerant preacher, dies unjustly as a supposed rebel leader and then rises from the dead. Do we realize that this is a stretch? Of course.

We realize that this revelation is a revolution. If it is true, then it turns everything upside down. If it is true, then every other religion really is inferior to Christianity. No others have a historical person who claims to be God Incarnate and rises from the dead. If it is true, then history is turned upside down. Our concept of God is revolutionized. Our own self concept and our destiny are in a spin.

People may, of course, choose to disbelieve. Even worse, they may water down the gospel and turn Jesus Christ into a gentle moral teacher who died a tragic martyr’s death.

However, the reasoning behind the idea of specific revelation is sound–given one’s first principles. If the ipsum esse subsistans is really the ground of all being, then the existent beings which are dependent on that ground of existence cannot be superior to the ground of existence from which they come and upon which they depend. A communicating, thinking, reasoning and feeling sentient person could not arise from what is a mere force. How can that which is superior come from that which is inferior?

If that superior force–that essence of existence–is indeed sentient and reasonable and able to communicate then it follows that he must do what he is capable of doing: i.e. communicate himself to others.

This self communication we call revelation, and from this revelation comes the revolution we propose.

Idol Speculation
Apologetics 101
The Puri-Fire
Is This a Miraculous Image of the Divine Mercy?
  • Paul Rodden

    Sometimes I feel I’ve lost the plot, and then you say something that makes me feel I’m not so crazy. This is one of those moments. :)

    It’s the power of the ‘If…’ you bring out so well. It constantly challenges me to not treat my faith in the pedestrian and mundane fashion which I frequently do, as if it were merely another pastime like the other activities in my life.

    To claim and argue God or love exists puts no conditions on me. It’s something neutral. But, to say God or love is real obliges me to the limit.

  • michael

    An analogy – imperfect but here is it is.

    There is life on other planets. How do I know? I just know. It’s reasonable that because life here exists that life elsewhere exists. Almost all scientists and philosophiers agree with that and they are learning more and more about how that life originated and if it happened it can happen elsewhere.

    Their civilization has existed there for eons longer than we have. Our planetary system is only about 1/3 the age of the universe and they have existed much longer than us. And compare our technology of today, computers, space travel, iPads with what existed 200 years ago. To a person in the past our technology would be magic and supernatural. (Imagine Bach being handed an iPhone with all his music on it). The aliens’ technology and learning is immensely more advanced than ours. Again most scientists would agree that this is certainly possible.

    And since they are so advanced and have survived so long they know how to live and work co-operatively and if we don’t learn that lesson we might not survive much longer. Alas that is unfortunately the case.

    So I have a document from the aliens communicate to me with their advanced technology in ways mysterious to our limited minds that tells me how we are to live, how we are to behave, what we are to eat, who is to lead us and what we should do to acknowledge the aliens beneficence. They are not Gods but they have the experience of eons of extra civilization and what do we have to lose by following their enlightened and providential wisdom.

    And if you ask how do I know, I will answer that I have given evidence to the scientists but it seems no amount of evidence will make them accept. They accept they’re may be aliens but have hardened their hearts against their message. And worse they’re are many other people claiming communication with these aliens and other civilizations on other solar systems with different and wrong messages.

    My aliens have the one true message that will lead us and our civilization to the greatest peace and unity imaginable. We only have to open our hearts and accept their message.
    Why if I believed this would people call me crazy?

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    If the vast majority of the human race believed in some form of your story, and a billion people alive today not only believed in your particular story, but lived their lives by it, and billions more for the last two thousand years believed your story and lived their lives by it, and if your story had provided the foundation for a great civilization, inspired the finest art, architecture, music, literature and human achievement the world had ever seen, and if your story had formed the foundation and inspiration for the greatest advancements in human compassion, education, medicine, justice, and peace the world had ever seen–if that story had done all that then I suppose no one would call you crazy.

    However, if it is just your story they probably would.

  • David Naas

    Very good presentation. God-Who-Is could easily communicate what He(?) wants us to know rather directly, if we could stand it (Bible says we can’t). Better to suggest the way we are supposed to be in dreams, angelic visitations, and such. Still, and all, other than bludgeoning us over the head (as if He hasn’t a time or two), it would be difficult to get humans to agree on more than a few obvious basics — be good, treat others nice, and such. Far better to just SHOW us wnat He is talking about. (Obvious pun here on the Word made Flesh.)
    And, it helps to know (vis “general revelation”? ) that God has a sense of humor among His other attributes. — any deity who could create the ostrich, the duckbill platypus, and humans MUST have a rip-roaring funnybone (metaphorically speaking, that is.)
    Thanks again, Father L. Good stuff.
    (@michael — there is more or less such a faith, it’s called Mormonism). :)

  • michael

    David- That’s very true about Mormonisn and a candidate who espoused those beliefs in the recent US presidential election was taken seriously and garnered, ironically, 47% of the popular vote.

  • FW Ken

    That’s because Americans vote for a president, not a theologian.

  • Frank

    As a new person to this blog, I am really trying to comprehend the theology of the term “ipsum esse subsistans”.
    God would seem so much more than “the essence of existence”! However, forgive me for accepting God and the trinity as a matter of faith, and not the result of “general revelation”. I would say it is a gift from the Holy Spirit commonly known as “grace”. Perhaps that is what you refer to as a specific revelation? But, even that did not come from “the void”. It came from reading God’s Word (and I’m sure Baptism and Confirmation were great helpers!). Also, regarding the “good” person non-believer who meets Jesus for the first time on judgement day: I would not dare to predict what Jesus would do, given His infinite love and grace. However, He made it abundantly clear that there was only one path to the Father, and that was through accepting Him as Lord and Savior. I thought it was a general tenet of Christian theology that the gift of grace is granted to us throughout life, but not after our death. (E.g., the salvation granted to the thief on the cross next to Jesus). The one exception, as noted in at least one encyclical is possibly the case of death of an unbaptized infant/child. Not sure where the Biblical reference is for your contention…just saying.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    You seem to be making the common mistake of assuming that if a post doesn’t state something it is being rejected. Yes, God is more than ipsum esse subsistans, but that is the essential starting point. Scriptural reference is the story of the burning bush where God reveals himself as “I AM”

  • michael

    But would you vote for someone who believed about aliens and a message to us? Is there any theological belief that would preclude you voting for a politician?

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Yes. I would not vote for a politician who was an atheist because history has shown that they are more likely to bring in a totalitarian regime and genocide.

  • michael

    Let’s hope with reflection, thought and meeting some atheists you will come to realize that they are no different from religious people interms of doing good and bad. What scares me, and I realize that the Catholic Church is not this way, are the apocalyptic politicians who seek to hasten Jesus’ second coming generally with messing around in the Middle East. Those types of religious politicians I would never vote for.

  • shieldsheafson

    It is incredible that Jesus Christ should have risen in the flesh and ascended with flesh into heaven; it is incredible that the world should have believed so incredible a thing; it is incredible that a very few men, of mean birth and the lowest rank, and no education, should have been able so effectually to persuade the world, and even its learned men, of so incredible a thing. Of these three incredibles, the parties with whom we are debating refuse to believe the first; they cannot refuse to see the second, which they are unable to account for if they do not believe the third.
    St. Augustine, City of God, XXII 5

  • David

    Is mankind any wiser today than say 2, 4, 6 thousand years ago? Does eons of existance make mankind wiser or is simply the technology improved to make life easier? Regardless of the length of the existance of man, man seems only to be able to see a “general revelation” of God. It seems to me that it takes God himself to establish an understanding in man that only infintesmally approaches a “specific revelation”; the back of God so to speak. Frank Sheed called it an infintesmally small point of light in an infintesmally large universe of darkness. I don’t think Bach would confuse extraordinary technology and its inventors for God any more than the Incas confused the Spaniards for Gods. Their amazment was only temporary and the more they had contact with the Spaniards the more they realized that they were just men with fancy weapons and horses. The more we learn about Jesus the more we realized his divinity and his love for us. This specific revelation only grows and grows.


    “Our concept of God is revolutionized. Our own self concept and our destiny are in a spin.” Well said, “spin” conveys the original meaning of “revolution,” as in the “Copernican Revolution.” According to philosopher Hannah Arendt, our concept of God has been restored as well: Love has restored us to be one with Him. The revelation of the revolution mentioned by Fr. Longenecker took place at the Annunciation: thanks, Virgin Mary. Gonzalo T. Palacios

  • Linus

    The second sentence in your second to last paragraph is wrong. Dependent beings ( including ourselves ) cannot be equal to the ” ipssum esse subsistens. ” It is true that Jesus Christ was the ” ipssum esse subsistens ” but only in his DPENDENT , human manifestation, not as he is in the Godhead. The essence of God as St. Thomas and all reliable Catholic philosophers and theologians and mystics and the Church say is That Whom the beings of this world, including their acts of existence, are absolutely limited and contingent and are the remotest reflection of the Bing of God. He is so far above us in fact that when we once know he exists he is still unknown in his essence. His Existence is absolutely beyond and other than our mode of existence , as ST. Thomas and the philosophers say.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Thank you. The word ‘inferior’ should have been ‘superior’. I have corrected it.

  • Pattie, RN

    I am certain that Father HAS met more than a few atheists, as have I. The underlying issue is quite simple….atheists have no center, no core, for discerning what is good and right from what is evil and bad. Lacking moral justification, any world view and opinion is uncontestable, leading to an “every man for himself” view of morality. Barring civil law and its penalties, atheist humans are free to do as they please…..and many in history have done just that, behaving in absolute self interest, with the morality of wolf or lion.

    ONLY in the context of a real Authority over all mankind can right and wrong exist.

  • Ben


    It is true that without civil law and penalties, atheists are free to do as they please. So are Christians by the way (God isn’t going to stop them—he’s not even going to punish them unless they apostasize). But you may notice that society doesn’t break down even in absence of human authority. And even when human authority is weak or absent, people don’t suddenly lose their moral proclivities. Nobody is forcing atheists to generally treat others with kindness, but many of them do it anyway because that’s just the kind of people they are. If that’s not moral goodness at work, I don’t know what is.

    It might also be true that Christians tend to behave better than atheists out of fear of the wrath of God, or wanting to please God, or whatever else. Maybe. But regardless, not everyone needs that kind of carrot-and-stick motivation. Some of us just genuinely care for the well-being of others.

  • Daniel

    Didn’t you read father’s comment about the historical facts regarding atheist politicians? Nice atheists are living in the Christian framework of Western civilization and taking it for granted. Atheist frameworks are not nice places to be, as evidenced by the historical facts.

  • Sir Louis

    Frank has brought in the matter of grace. The conversation is radically incomplete without some mention of that in respect of belief. Faith is a grace, a pure gift that is not given to everyone. We can do as much as possible to bring people to recognize that grace and accept it, but we have to admit that for some it just isn’t there and we can’t reason them into it, however good our reasoning. Perhaps another evidence of the existence of our God is that we don’t stop trying. As grace is pure gift, we cannot critique how it is distributed. Just so, we dare not assume that someone’s recalcitrance in the face of strong reasoning means that the grace is not available to them for their recognition and acceptance. Our continued striving to evangelize is evidence that there is love grounded not in human bilateral relationship but in God. Atheists ought to consider this, that the only reasonable explanation of our attempt to evangelize them is that we have found a Love that transcends merely human motives. (And kudos to you, Fr L, for not exploding at having to repeat in the original thread, time and again, the distinction between denying that God is a conscious being and denying that he is *merely* a conscious being.)