A Progressive Understanding of Revelation and Experience

A Progressive Understanding of Revelation and Experience November 8, 2014

Eric Reitan wrote the following in a recent post:

Here, in a nutshell, is the idea behind a progressive understanding of divine revelation and human religion: God is imperfectly encountered in experience, filtered through the assumptions and prejudices and conceptual categories that we bring to our experience–our worldview, if you will. But experience also transforms our worldview. When a square peg is forced to go through a round hole, the hole may not be the same afterwards. And the more malleable the hole, the more this is true. A hole made of clay may actually take on the shape of the peg being pushed through it. Likewise, our worldview is transformed by our experience, including our experience of God.

Revelation stretches the limits of our worldview so that more authentic revelation can make it through, in turn leading to further stretching in an ongoing cycle. While the transformed worldview remains imperfect at each stage in the cycle, it is hopefully closer to the divine reality than its predecessors. This does not only mean that future revelations are less distorted, but that some revelations make it through the filters which would have been entirely blocked out before.

On this view of revelation, we can’t be biblical literalists, and we can’t be so tied to traditional theologies that we refuse to let new experiences transform our understanding. All inherited accounts of the divine, all traditional theologies, are the product of limited human worldviews both filtering and being transformed by the self-disclosure of God. They represent centuries of human progress–and so must be treated with reverence. But we do not revere that progress if we strive to shut down its trajectory of unfolding revelation. That trajectory is an arrow–but what it points to isn’t our worldview and our understanding of God. It points beyond us, to the truth that lies at the end of an ongoing human process–one that we are called to participate in, not try to freeze in place.

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  • Dan

    Very well written! Eric Reitan’s conception of the progressive christian god is clearly explained, way better than Tillich! Unfortunately, I find his god cold and distant, as is true with every other progressive theology I’ve encountered.

    You see, I grew up an evangelical but lost my faith in college. I finally returned to the fold afterwards but my faith has been shattered. Secular thought has robbed me of spirituality. I can no longer “feel the numinous”. I tried to replace it with progressive christianity. I’ve read Tillich, Bultmann, and John AT Robinson. None helped. I tried Marcus Borg, Karen Armstrong, and even Bishop Spong, and while they have their good points, I can’t feel comfort in their theology. I became radical and tried Altizer and Cuppitt. I might as well go back to godlessness.

    My faith may well be dead and beyond resuscitation. I still go to church, I still read the bible, I even say a prayer now and then. But it feels like I’m just going through the motions.

    Sorry for going way off-topic. I like your blog and enjoy it at an intellectual level. It is just my soul seeks spiritual nourishment, and comes away empty. Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief!

    • Tom

      “Chapter 1, Verse 1” free at Amazon.com

    • Christopher Wright

      have you involved yourself in actual work? Like ministry: feeding the homeless, praying for the sick, or sitting at the bedside of elderly people who are dying and need a friend?

      God’s miracles exist in those situations.

      You want the transformative power of the holy spirit? Look no further than the brokenness in the world.

      But, you are the one who has to open the heart to let it in. And if its feelings your looking for—you may find it hard to search for.

      The holy spirit and the word God are not about finding a feeling, it is about the relationship with God, Jesus, and the Spirit.

      I say, seek relationship first then all u seek will be added unto you.

      Theology is more like icing on the cake.

      • Dan

        Yes I have done all the things you castigate me to do. I have done volunteer work in church/missions. I got a warm, fuzzy feeling. I also get the same warm, fuzzy feeling when I was a volunteer for secular causes. It’s not the same as the “feeling of the numinous”. I know, since I experienced this strong feeling when I was an evangelical. I was slain in the spirit (in a Holiness church). It is that strange feeling of the power of the spirit that I cannot find in secularism and in progressive christianity.

        Mother Teresa was haunted by her feeling of deadness in the spirit. She immersed herself in charity work and active promotion of her faith. Yet inside she was as hollow as I was. I do not claim that I have done as much charity work as she did, but I can relate with her feeling.

        It’s hard to have a personal relationship with Jesus/God (BTW, that’s a modern innovation) when it is a one-way street. I’m sure you feel content in your walk with god, but your yarstick isn’t the same as mine.

        • I came to a personal faith in a Pentecostal context. And so my faith was very focused on experience, and as I moved into other kinds of church settings during my student years, as a practical necessity, I tried to keep the spiritual fervor going, but also discovered that some of what I had identified as being spiritual was really being emotional, and on something of a roller coaster at that.

          I eventually came to embrace that it is OK not to feel as though God is present, and to recognize that this experience, like the experience of divine presence, is largely a matter of my perception. As someone who finds panentheist models of the God-world relationship helpful, and who finds Tillich’s theology helpful, everything I experience is connected with and part of the Ultimate.

          Christopher’s question isn’t necessarily an antagonistic one. I certainly do feel like I am more in touch with the ultimate meaning of things when I am engaged in service, when I see the impact that we have on one another. But your point Dan, that one can be the quintessence of such service and still feel as though God is absent, is also an important one.

          For me personally, music is extremely important. The opening and closing sections of Atterberg’s Symphony No. 2, or Korngold’s Violin Concerto, or Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.2, are for me powerful pointers to transcendence. But again, those are things that help me perceive and embrace and reflect on transcendence. I’m persuaded that the reality pervades all existence, even when I don’t perceive it, and that thought can at times be comforting.

        • Christopher Wright

          Are you saying you set expectations that God must meet on your terms in order to enjoy the fullness of His peace and serenity, the measure of all things quietly loving and good about His will?

          Are you saying the term relationship is just a catch phrase used to (insert some supposed agenda here?)

          Did not the fore-fathers of scropture speak directly to the Father? Is He a respecter if persons such that He is unattainable?

          I must admit, if you think God is no where, I understand your need to believe in the loss if the fullness of joy that us Yeshua. I just don’t u derstand why stumbling blocks are oresent in your faith. Are they self-imposed or restricted to negative experience.

  • MattB

    I find that as a Christian theist, theism and more specific, Christianity, seem to explain the world we live in much better and objectively than atheism, agnosticism, or any other religious.philosophical worldview.