Where Is God Revealed?

Where Is God Revealed? May 4, 2011

Two questions during my dissertation defense last week I think I fumbled a bit.  The first one was put to me by Kenda Dean who asked, in essence, “How is God revealed to human beings?”

She asked this because in my dissertation, I am critical of the way that “practices” have been emphasized in practical theology over the past couple decades.  This is primarily, I think, because of the preeminence of Stanley Hauerwas as Theologian Of The Americas, and because of the direction that Craig Dykstra has taken the Lilly Endowment (and its tens of millions of dollars).

I don’t have anything against practices, per se, being core to our understanding of the church.  I do, however, think that Dykstra, Hauerwas, Dorothy Bass and others have overdetermined the power of practices at telling us who we are and, more significantly, who God is.  In fact, I don’t think that ecclesial practices tell us much, if anything, about God.

What practices do, I submit, is show us how human beings organize our experiences of what we understand as the divine.  We pray, we sing, we take communion, we dance, we recite poetry, we listen to sermonators.  These practices all tell us what we think about God.  The whirling dervishes think something very different about the divine than do the frozen chosen.

While Kenda may or may not agree with me on that point (she’s a pretty strong proponent of practices), her question was, “Well, then where does God show up?”  This was the first question of the defense, and I mumbled something about this and that, but I think that my answer was insufficient.

In the defense, I come out as a panentheist (no great shocker there).  In her question, Kenda pointed to this and wondered, if God is everywhere, where is God specially revealed.  That’s a great question.

After the defense, Peter Rollins helped me clarify my thoughts. “God is an event,” said Pete, “And liturgical practices are the ways that human beings organize their experience of the event they call ‘God.'”  That was close to my answer, but I was lacking the articulation of God as Event.  I don’t know how Princeton faculty, who tend to be Barthian, would have responded to that, but it is closer to my own view.

That still leaves open the question about God as Event having special encounters with creation — those things that theologians traditionally call “special revelation.”  Be it the parting of the Red Sea, the conversion of Paul, or that moment that you received the glossolalia, those moments are either myth, psychological delusions, or the inbreaking of the divine.  I’m currently working on a better answer to that.

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  • Seth

    I am looking forward to your development of these thoughts. I must say, the main fear I used to have towards christian/biblical scholarship is the denial of the “special revelation” of God here in the human sphere. As one who has moved from fundamentalism through charismatisism to post-thoseisms, I still have a strong believe in the active movement of God through the Spirit here in creation. I’m not afraid to ask the questions anymore. I’m just not sure how one can hold a belief that God is not revealed through the practical or the supernatural.

    Was the author of Exodus using hyperbole to heighten the moment leading to Israel’s freedom from their Egyptian oppressors? Probably. Was S(P)aul delusional? His cleaver use of the OT shows he certainly needs supervision. Are “the tongues” a distraction from anything related to the Kingdom of god? An easy interpretation. Are our hands and feet the only possible manifestation of Christ to this world? Pragmatism would tell me that, be it yes or no, we need to get off the pew and do some work to find out. So, while I work in the trenches of rich vs poor, I will juggle these concepts in my head. Making a difference while confused is better than having all the answers and rotting away.

  • Good questions…

    It has to be more than practices or events.

    If one isn’t “practicing” something liturgical can or will God still show up? Sure.

    If God is seen as an event, that seems to me a pretty broad category.

    I see God revealed to the world especially through the church. While Christians may indeed see Him in liturgy, more often he is seen in community.

    Look at all the oddball placed Jesus “showed up” with profound results. No liturgy there, for the most part. Just really messed up, often non-religious, people seeking connection with God – one way or another.

  • Jason

    Let me fumble around this in my thoughts. I like the idea of an event as it illustrates some of my reality of God as interaction. Isn’t one of the simple answers to this question the Holy Spirit? We have gotten quite caught up in the proof of Jesus or the existence of God, and many times take the one aspect of the Trinity that will help us with faith and have treated it like some boring piece of the puzzle. Our overly rationalistic way of making sense of the world needs to focus on belief. But what about experience? Well you can’t prove experience to another person so it is not as important. I seriously doubt that an honestly believing Christian is a Christian because they decided to belief with strict rational thought that God exists. Mustn’t there be some life change? Mustn’t there be an experiential component where God “shows up” to us? If not, then God is only a rational belief. God therefore must show up in consciousness, in the way I experience the world. If I only “believe” that God created this tree here I am missing a whole other reality and truth and that is, what does that feel like internally? Am I able to have an experience of that belief or truth? If not, what’s the point? If God does not show up in “my life” then he doesn’t exist. A much more intelligent way of describing this, and I”m not a phenomenologist, would be to utilize phenomenology to describe where God shows up – at least in terms of the human experience.

  • God is an Event that is always occuring. Everyday. Always. In all things. Every moment is a moment rich in divine activity and sacred revelation. God is continually calling to us and beckoning us. If there is something we would call “special revelation,” it would be when we’re actually open to God’s abiding presence in our lives. There’s a “special revelation” when we’re actually paying attention. In those moments, there’s an inbreaking of awareness of God into our daily life. But it’s not like God is only an Event once in a while. That would be some kind of God-of-the-Gaps kind of thing. According to panentheism, God is in the gaps, too! Because of God, everything is holy (drenched in God’s presence). Because of us, some things are secular (unaware of the holiness around us). We’re the ones who push daily holiness out the window. God is the one who continues to shine in.

    Here is a story that explains this perspective well:

    There was once a son of a rabbi who would only pray in the woods. One day, the rabbi asked her son, “Why do you go outside to look for God, when God is the same everywhere?” Her son thought for a moment and then said, “I know God is the same everywhere, but I am not. So, I go where I can feel God and listen to God best. I go into the woods to give God a chance with me!”

    Spiritual practices, at their best, help us give God a chance with us. They open us up to God’s abiding presence. They help us listen to God’s voice. They help us be a more mindful part of the Event. And they help make revelation “special” in every moment – because it is “special” in every moment.

  • Seth

    I like that, Brian.

  • Dallas

    I don’t follow the “event” terminology. Does this beg the question of “mover”?

  • I may be way off here, Tony, but doesn’t God reveal Godself also in Jesus and through the scriptures (well, most of the scriptures, at least)? And, forgive the nit, God reveals Godself, and is not revealed to us by a third party un-God. I’d also argue that naming God as an event does connote a beginning and end.

    We agree on practices as places of revelation–God may be present with us, or, panentheistically stated, we may be present in God, in some sense when we’re in prayer and worship, or, as with Luther, when we are taking a crap, which is as much a testament to the Creator’s work in us as created beings, as when we bow down before an altar in worship. I don’t see those practices necessarily as God revealing Godself to us. Perhaps in communion, God reveals Godself through the real or transubstantiated presence of Jesus, if one’s theology goes there.

    Speaking of special revelation, it was on a visit to Princeton Theological Seminary in January 2000 that I had the dream in which I actually was a Jonah character (which paralleled my life), and I woke up feeling washed as if in water (without being wet). This experience more than anything else sent me to seminary. I did and still consider that dream to be not only a significant element of my call story, but also an instance of special revelation.

    Many congratulations on attaining the Doctorate. It is such a commitment of one’s life resources, and I am grateful to your love of inquiry and posting these questions in your blog.

  • Dan Hauge

    So, my main question is,what does it mean to speak of God as an Event? I assume this is meant to contrast with any sense of God as a being, or ‘person’, though I’m not sure if that’s what you mean.

    Coming from Rollins, I’m inclined to think it has to do with some kind of mystical/emotional experience. I personally experience, for whatever unknown reason, some deep sense of the possibility of love and world transformation. This is then not an experience of me coming into contact with God, the experience itself is ‘God.’ (does Rollins come right out and say that God is a metaphor? I’m not sure.)
    Am I on the right track here? When you say ‘God is an Event’ what does that even mean? Anyone?

    experiencesomense of

  • Ryan S


    Have you ever checked out James Wm. McClendon on practices? I think he provides a very helpful corrective to Hauerwas, but at the same time stands firmly within narrative theology (which makes a lot of use of practices – at least in his version). He also has a great discussion on practices such as the Eucharist and baptism as being “signs” of the Gospel. And when they function as true-to-type to the Gospel narratives, than God is present in them. It would be worth checking out.

  • Jason

    Given Barth’s belief that Gods Being and Act cannot be separated, it seems your and Peter’s idea of God as event might bring being and act together nicely. So maybe the Princeton folk would have approved of that terminology – depending on how you define your term “event” that is. Of course I could be way off here as well.

  • Chris

    If God is an event then we can participate in that event, much like we would a carnival, birthday party or funeral. All these events have “practices” that help us understand what we are doing, ie; over priced cotton candy, cake and candles and black clothes.

    I would suggest “practices” of the church are ways in which we participate in the EVENT called God – we enter His story by way of certain activities. When we bake a cake and put candles on it we are not just participating in a party but the life of one who was born a certain number a years ago on that particular day.

    So to practices serve the same purpose – I believe.

  • Charles

    John said: “I see God revealed to the world especially through the church.” Man, I wish I could say that. I certainly haven’t experienced that very much.

    I would fumble/mumble an answer too, Tony. My first response is to express experiences centered around love. God is love, therefore, any core experience where we are overwhelmed with that inner, gut feeling that is hard to explain must be from God.

    I recently visited Zion National Park. It is jaw dropping beautiful. In conversation with a park ranger about the grandeur we were in the midst of I choked up and couldn’t speak. She simply smiled and said, “I understand.”

    Experiencing natural grandeur, feeling love for a stranger, and acts of unselfish, outward focused, contributions to the greater good is God in our midst, I’m convinced.

  • jill

    God as event is actually shockingly(!) Barthian, and there may be good resources here for you to use, should you care to. For Barth, God has God’s being in God’s act, and this is precisely what grounds any notion of revelation. See CD II/I ch.6; e.g., “To its very deepest depths, God’s Godhead consists in the fact that it is an event – not any event, not events in general, but the event of His action, in which we have a share in God’s revelation.”

    As to practices – I worked with the Lilly project in a small way (read: not in the way that netted me millions of dollars). The better outgrowths of that endeavor focused not merely on what we usually think of as “liturgical practices,” but more broadly defined everyday activities that reflect and shape who we are. The sense in which practices are formational and not just derivative of our prior understandings and interpretations was what I felt was most helpful about this work (you do not pick up on this in your response here; though you may deal with it elsewhere). However, the rosy view of practices becomes a bit more troubling if you begin (as I did) to read Pierre Bourdieu rather than just MacIntyre – the power of practices to ingrain habits that reproduce (social) structures is dangerous precisely because of its character- and community-shaping potential. And such an approach also neglects the possibilities inherent in subversive acts which “make do” without – or in spite of – structures that support & give them power (here following Michel de Certeau’s distinction between “strategies” and “tactics”; see his The Practice of Everyday Life).

    But I am not familiar with any approach to practices (even the rosy-glasses kind) that equates them with revelation, as if our practices in some way instantiate or make God present. There is, though, a sense in which they can – at their best – embody our posture towards the divine and form in us an accompanying openness to God, should God choose to meet us there.

  • God is revealed, as Jesus told his disciples:

    All around in the dark, I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look — wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build — I’ll be there too.

    Or maybe that was Tom Joad. Either way: revelation.

  • Liz

    Brian stated very articulately most of what I was going to say. I’ll only add an insight that my process theology professor shared with me: we have a habit in ecclesial settings of overemphasizing “special” revelation (as understood most often as the Christ Event or some other specific time-place disruption) and under-valuing “general” revelation, or the notion that God can be found everywhere and in everything if only we would pay attention. This is something that a panentheist can relate to better than others. As panentheists I think we have an opportunity, and perhaps even a responsibility, to help others see God as present and revealed in and through all of creation and experience. We can help elevate the value of general revelation, and perhaps, in the process, help others feel closer to God.

  • Since the PTS folks are big Barth-ites, wouldn’t they agree that God reveals God’s self wherever God darn well pleases? So perhaps the answer (if you wouldn’t get slapped for snark) is, “where isn’t God revealed?” Practices are useful only insofar as they heighten our awareness of God’s presence and activity in all things, and don’t create a closed system whereby we try to control access to God. The latter is, I believe, why you don’t like denominations, correct?

  • As a former devotee of JH Yoder, let me offer a defense of practice, in the frame JHY meant it. I don’t know if Hauerwas is on the same wavelength, but he does claim Yoder as inspiration.

    Per Yoder, Christians do not see/experience all things in obedience to God, but “we do see Jesus” (Hebrews 2:8b-9) and through that Christomorphic (Christ-shaped) revelation, the church forms its messianic community. For Yoder, a core element of following Jesus is the renunciation of the sword as the concrete meaning of bearing the cross.

    Liturgy is subordinate to cross-bearing in JHY’s thought. Experiencing God in any way that undermines this cross-bearing ethos is unfaithfulness. A church can have weekly eucharist, triple-immersion baptism, and orthodox preaching, but if the church isn’t bearing the cross, laying down its life for the world, it isn’t following its Lord.

    So, the question “where is God revealed?” begins with the cross, as the pivotal “Event.” The cross cannot be divorced from each disciple taking it up as a way of life. This condemns classic soteriology where Jesus is not an example, only a substitute. JHY would insist that Jesus is both substitute and example, with the latter as non-negotiable as the former. To embrace Jesus as sacrifical lamb without following his example as a sacrificial community, is to fall into ethical docetism, denying the full humanity of Jesus as the incarnate God.

    This means, surprisingly, that Gandhi is closer to Jesus than Augustine and his successors, who initiated the Christian justification of war. For JHY, experience and liturgical practice is subordinate to cross-bearing ethical practice.

  • A friend on Facebook reminded me that it might be more helpful to use the terms “specific” and “general” rather than “special” and “general.” That makes a huge difference. Hope it helps.

  • Dan Hauge

    Also, Tony, in light of your recent posts/discussions about the resurrection of Jesus, I wonder how that fits in with the question of ‘specific’ revelation vs. general panentheism. It seems to me that the resurrection is an event that shows God at work in the world in a rather particular and ‘special’ way, more so than, say, my annoyed response to a person asking for help or tons of oil leaking from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico (which are also events).

    And I see in many of the responses a sense that God is always present in all of creation, and that we can open ourselves up to that presence, but I still don’t really understand what it means to say that God is an Event. To celebrate God’s presence in events is not the same thing as saying God actually is an event.

    I guess the crux of this whole “event” question is, for me, can we talk about God being personal? When I pray, is there some “One” listening, even if that one cannot be limited by what we think of as human personality? Or is God just abstract concepts and metaphor? Is the language of God as Event a move to de-personalize God, or am I missing the focus here?

  • Hebrews 1:1-2: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things…”

    Doctorate earned.

  • Tony, I’m finding your stance here and that on the resurrection a little hard to reconcile. It may be that I’m not understanding you properly, but your conception of God as an Event (which I like, by the way, even if I’m not certain whether I ascribe to it) and general versus special revelation seem at odds with your insistence on a physical, literal resurrection (which I believe in… but do not share your belief in the necessity of it). As you say, you’re working on a better answer, so maybe you see/feel the same dissonance I do here, but I just wanted to state that to this reader, at least, your stance feels inconsistent.

  • Tony, I assume Peter is getting his concept of God as Event from Caputo who modifies it from Derrida. I’d like to read your take on God as Event in light of each philosopher, even if only a summary made up of questions and musings.

  • Fascinating post, it’s given me lots to think about. I wonder how this discussion of practices intersects with James K. A. Smith’s “Desiring the Kingdom” thesis. Tony, have you interacted with his work in this book or any of his others?

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  • You didn’t fumble. 🙂