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Week 2: Knowing the Mystery: Revelation

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The first step in knowing God is, ironically, to recognize with the Christian tradition and with the traditions of all great religions that God cannot be ever fully known. No thought, no image, no concept can adequately grasp God as God really is, and the deepest knowledge of God, really, is to know that we cannot ever know. As fourth century bishop and theologian Gregory of Nyssa says: “For one who runs toward the Lord, there is no lack of space. The one who ascends never stops, going from beginning to beginning, by beginnings that never cease.”

But while God can never be fully known, this does not mean that God cannot be known at all. At least in Christianity, what the tradition of “negative theology” means is, rather, that knowledge of God is always the knowledge of Mystery, THE Mystery, ABSOLUTE Mystery, or—to repeat the words of Karl Rahner—HOLY Mystery. So the question is, How do we know Mystery?

I think the best way to explain this is to reflect on how we know Mystery in our everyday, ordinary experience—how, in other words, we come to know the Mystery of another human being.

Human beings, the Bible tells us, are made in the image and likeness of God (see Gen 1:26-27), and, like God, they cannot ever be reduced to objects, things to be manipulated and taken for granted. We can try to reduce them like this, of course. We see this every day in the news: think of the atrocities like the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda or Sudan, or children who have been sexually abused. Nevertheless, when we treat a human being as an object we are really not treating her or him as a person. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber put it famously—the only way to really treat a human being as a person is to treat her or him as a Thou and not an It.

An indication of the Mystery that is a human person is when I try to describe a person to another. I can describe the person until I’m blue in the face—what color eyes she has, the way she wears her hair, the way he walks, how funny he is, etc. But in the end I give up and say “You’ll just have to meet her!”

But even then we can’t get to know the fully Mystery of a person. That happens only if the person allows me to know him or her, only if she or he opens her- or himself to me, only if she or he reveals him- or herself to me. Naturally, we can get to know some aspects of a person by being given information, or by observing her or him closely—the set of the chin, a sense of a person’s physical strength, the kindness of her or his smile. But to know a person as a person—the way she or he really is—the person has to reveal him- or herself to the other.

And to fully know a person, we have to go beyond just knowledge. To really know a person she or he has to give his or her self. As the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray says, “I can know another person as a person only by entering into personal relation with him.”

It is in the same way that we come to know THE Mystery, the Mystery of God. The First Vatican Council back in 1870 insisted that we can know some things about God by “natural reason.” But to know God in Godself, in the depth of who God is, in God’s MYSTERY, can only be known through self-gift and self-revelation, and this is a free gift on God’s part. Knowing God as GOD is really the result of God’s grace. God always takes the first step toward human beings.

But how does this work? How does God reveal Godself to us? Once again, let’s look at how human persons really come to know one another. Then it will be clear how it happens between human persons and God. Let me begin with two incidents from my own life.

The first incident took place more than forty years ago. I was a student in Rome, and I was missing my friends at home terribly. I had written to one of my friends a long letter, telling him in it a lot of really personal things about myself—things that I had never told anyone before. A few days after I mailed the letter I got a knock on my door at about 6 AM, with the news that I had gotten a phone call from the United States. Was something wrong at home? Were my parents all right? When I got to the phone the friend I had written to so personally was on the other end—he and a few of my friends had been staying up late (it would have been midnight in Chicago) and they thought that they would phone me and just say that they had all read the letter and that they wanted to tell me that, no matter what I had said in the letter, I was still their friend!

A second incident took place much later in my life, but it was about twenty years ago now. A friend of mine who had been a mentor of mine in my early career as a theologian had decided to move to Australia, and our community in Chicago was celebrating a last Christmas with him. At the party, my friend handed me an envelope, and in it was a year’s membership to the Art Institute of Chicago—something that I had been meaning to obtain, but just hadn’t gotten around to doing it. I was really touched—this simple gesture of giving me a gift expressed in ways that words could never do how much my friend and mentor cared for me.

In these moments I experienced a kind of magic, and really came face to face with the Mystery of these friends in a way that I can still recall all these years later. In moments like these, through very small and very ordinary things—a phone call, a gift, something objective—somehow the subjective, the Mystery of a person was communicated. I knew these friends then—as I still know them now—in a totally different way than I had known them before: as they really were. And I was able to do it because they had allowed me to know them. They had revealed themselves to me.

The same dynamic takes place when God reveals Godself to women and men. At certain times in our lives, God’s gracious presence becomes manifest in our lives as God communicates God’s subjectivity through objectivity. Through concrete events in our lives, or concrete persons, or particular words—very ordinary things—God becomes present and palpable to us in all God’s incomprehensible, inexpressible, mysterious reality. This is the pattern of divine revelation: the finite reveals the infinite, the objective reveals the subjective, what is ordinary reveals what is Mystery.

This is happening all the time in our lives. What we need to do is learn to see and listen. Next week we are going to reflect more about where God’s revelation is found in our lives, but this week let’s reflect on the “magic” of it all. Let’s be overwhelmed and thankful that God chooses to make Godself known fully in the ordinary events of our lives. When we do this we really come to know the Mystery.

By: Steve Bevans, SVD, Faculty Moderator


Questions for reflection:

  1. Read Gen 1:26-27. What does it mean to you that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God? What does this tell us about humans? And what does it tell us about God?
  2. Can you think of other examples where human beings are being treated like “objects”? Maybe even in your environment? On college campuses? Work places? Certain bars and restaurants? On the street? What is your reaction?
  3. Friendship is one of the greatest gifts. Think about one or two of your best friends. What are their strongest qualities? Why is their friendship important to you? Do you allow them to know who you really are?
  4. Bishop Moreau wrote: “In prayer I must bring this me to the living and true God.” Do you allow God to know who you really are?
  5. Teresa of Avila wrote: “In my opinion [prayer] is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.”
    Do you think of your relationship with God in terms of friendship? What qualities of friendship do you find in your prayer life? Where do you experience obstacles?

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For further reading:

  • Stephen B. Bevans, An Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009), 14-17.
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church, #26-141.
  • Gerald O’Collins, Fundamental Theology (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), 32-113.
  • Vatican Council II, Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum).
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