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Acts of God
Where West meets East in interfaith dialogue
When we think about revelation in the context of interfaith dialogue, an immediate problem seems to present itself. Surely, claims to revelation are claims that here, and here exclusively, is the act of God, and elsewhere a series of human attempts to reach God. Here is God being active, the God of scripture, the God of the creeds, the God who makes decisions and commits God’s self to courses of action in the world. And there is the world of religious striving, before which, if we wanted to be unkind, God sits with his arms crossed, waiting for something to happen.
There is another issue: If revelation is bound into ideas of divine action, then it seems we’re assuming that other religious traditions than our own are bound into human advance and human achievement. And that can lead us to very unhelpful polarities, not just between Christian claims to revelation and those of other faiths, but between the Abrahamic faiths and what are often called the Dharmic faiths, as if Christianity, Judaism, and Islam were preoccupied with divine action, and other faiths—an extraordinarily diverse category that includes the religions of the Orient—do not have a concept of divine action that is comparable. They have at best a notion of enlightenment or liberation, which has less to do with divine action than anything the Abrahamic faiths talk about. It’s a tempting typology. I’m going to suggest that it’s a profoundly misleading one.
there are three points about divine action in the Abrahamic traditions that give us a great deal to think about in connection with how we speak of revelation. The first principle, shared by Christians, Jews, and Muslims, is that divine action is the eternal enactment of divine being. That is to say, divine action is not episodic or arbitrary. Divine action expresses what it is to be God, enacts what it is to be God. In Thomist terms, God’s essence, the definition of what it is to be God, is to act in a godly fashion.
The second point, which is implied in the first, is that divine action is never reactive. It is never simply triggered into being or operation by some other action. That doesn’t mean it is arbitrary, because—and here is the third point—the eternal enactment of the divine being is always self-consistent. To use a rather crude image, if the divine action were a great tree growing up through the universe, the rings would be the same wherever you cut it. To use more theological language, the God of scriptural revelation in the Abrahamic traditions is a God who makes and keeps promises, a covenantal God who can be relied upon not to change. And that unchangingness is not a privation of freedom or an arrest of movement but, on the contrary, a way of speaking about the intensity of movement, liberty, and continuity that is the acting-out of divine being.
Let me concentrate for the moment on the Christian tradition and the Christian claims about revelation in the reality of Jesus of Nazareth. If what Christians claim is that the life of Jesus is the action of God as unmediatedly as it is possible for God to act within the finite world, then the divine action in Jesus must manifest what is true of God, not just in first-century Palestine or 21st-century Boston, but for all ages and all times. It must be true for all. And that, of course, is where the difficulties sometimes come in thinking of the relation between claims made about Jesus and dialogue with other religious families.
But the difficulties may not be quite as knotty as we are inclined to suspect. We should ask, What exactly is revealed about God in the life of Jesus? Here are two thoughts about that. First, the God revealed in action in Jesus is a God who does not hold back the divine love in its radical fullness and a God who does not wait on human achievement before bestowing grace. That seems very clear in the Gospel. If we speak of the God of Jesus Christ, that is a God whose action is not conditioned by or conditional upon our good behavior or even, dare I say, our orthodoxy. The act of this God does not wait upon our successful performance of this or that intellectual, moral, or spiritual duty. The act of this God is unreservedly bestowed prior to, and independently of, whatever we may achieve, conceive, or muster.
Second, the God revealed in the life of Jesus is divine action encountered in and through relations of self-dispossession. This is a God who is met when the ego is set aside. This is a God who, if we have to speak mythologically, sets aside the divine ego or the divine selfhood in isolation in order to be God with us; the God who appears to us in the selflessness, more specifically the helplessness, even the apparent hopelessness of the event of Calvary; the God whose act is made specific and concrete in the world by a self-giving and a letting go—a God with whom we therefore align ourselves by our own struggles to get rid of self-protection, of fear, and of self-serving.
Now, to speak in these terms is to say something like this: that the new meaning in and around the person of Jesus, his life and death and resurrection, is a clearer sense of how the divine enacting of the divine being comes through to us. What is revealed is not a set of pieces of information about God. It is something rather more like the habits, or even the skills, needed in human life for the act of God to be transparent to us.
The new meaning has less to do with propositions sent from Heaven—that’s fairly commonly accepted—and more to do with that elusive, hard to pin down sense that this is how we live if this is what we want to see or know more fully. To put it in plain terms, what’s revealed is how to be a disciple.
So, to speak of Jesus as the revelation of God, to speak of Jesus as the presence of the act of God in our midst, is to speak at the same time in terms of how we know God in the habits of our lives. We associate with the life and death and resurrection of Jesus a moment in which we discovered how to live our life, under the judgment and in the light of that picture of a God holding nothing back and a God therefore encountered in self-dispossessing. That’s what we know, and that’s how we know. And from that, I turn to the question of how it affects interreligious encounter and conversation.
If this model of divine action and divine revelation is anything like correct, then when the Christian approaches those who are faithful to another religious tradition she or he does not come with claims of exclusively vouchsafed information about the divine, but with a narrative and a set of habits, disciplines, or practices in which the Christian says the act of God has become specific. And the Christian will look at members of other religious families with an eye to where radical grace or radical selflessness or covenantal dependability comes to light. The Christian, believing this is where divine action comes alive, will be listening in the voice and looking in the life of the other for those elements that are in some sense significantly recognizable, not in terms of converging formulae or doctrines, but in terms of habits expressing an openness to causeless grace, habits expressing a dependence on and an orientation to a faithful or a promise-keeping God, and perhaps above all, those habits that educate and sustain the emptying of the ego, the absence of the selfish self, and the presence or coming to birth of radical compassion.
Dialogue begins in the moment when the Christian invites the partner in conversation to spell out how such habits arise from their own basic commitments, their own worlds of thought and imagery. The Christian does not in dialogue seek to say these are the important things about God revealed to us in Jesus. Much more, the Christian approaching the non-Christian says: This is what we have learned about the human setting, the human embedding of divine action, and this—mysteriously but wonderfully—we see in you. We see habits we can recognize. We see melodies as harmony we can understand and imagine. And we need to know from you how you have learned, where you have grown from, in developing and sustaining habits such as these.
That doesn’t compromise or prejudice our proper readiness to say that there is something given in the life of Jesus that affords a definitive and truthful model of how we talk about the act of God. It does, though, express an equally proper reluctance to say that the act of God is exhaustively present in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in such a way that everything else must be simply the struggles of doomed human beings to get to some sort of divine vantage point so that revelation and enlightenment may turn out to be not quite so radically opposed after all.
In most parts of the Buddhist world, enlightenment is not something you achieve. Enlightenment happens. You receive enlightenment. You are enlightened. The passive voice is crucial for the Buddhist.
Reading recently a modern Buddhist text, I encountered phraseology that would shock anyone who thinks of the purpose-driven life as the ideal life. The Buddhist teacher said, simply, planning makes enlightenment impossible. Whether that teacher is right or not, the point I am making is that it won’t do, in conversation, to oppose revelation and enlightenment as divine action versus human action. The Buddhist will have no concept of divine action as we understand it. But that doesn’t mean the Buddhist believes that what happens in enlightenment is a human action, an achievement, a skill brought to perfection. On the contrary, it is only when all such thoughts have been silenced that you are enlightened; something occurs, an event in which your perceptions of yourself, your world, and whatever it is that structures the meaning of that world are turned inside out.
To go out into the bewildering and sometimes disorienting world of interfaith encounter with the stubborn and probably rather unformed conviction that wherever you go something of Jesus Christ waits for you, is an act of witness. It is not perhaps the act of witness some people would like to see, brandishing the memory of Jesus as a weapon to intimidate others, but an expectant and humble desire to meet in others the God we have met in Jesus, and to meet in others the otherness in which they have learned that vision.
Rowan Williams is the former Archbishop of Canterbury and the Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. His essay is drawn from a talk he gave in the Heights Room on April 7, sponsored by the Church in the 21st Century Center and the theology department.