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10/09/2012

Is God Still Speaking?

I've been reflecting a great deal about the Quaker belief in 'continuous revelation'. Different to the Islamic and Bahá'í belief in 'progressive revelation', which waits for chosen ones to be periodically sent by God (most Muslims believe this ended with Mohammed), continuous revelation posits that God, also known as Spirit or the Inner Light, is in constant conversation with the whole of humanity. We just have to tap into the stream. At least that's my understanding of these terms anyway.

I have long thought Jesus underwent his own growth in understanding, that he wasn't the finished article when he 'arrived' on the scene in Roman-occupied Judaea. And given he was a man of his time, I also think he was never the finished article in terms of finer details - not by our standards now - just as the finer details of the philsophies and practices of our time are unlikely to be for future generations.

So what, then, makes Jesus unique? Is he just yet another part mystic, part political revolutionary in a long line of mystics and political revolutionaries? Should he be consigned to history?

Personally I think one of the reasons for Jesus being regarded as unique is, through my own reading and reflections, because he was first to challenge the idea of progressive revelation within the Abrahamic context - that only despatched prophets and anointed priests could reveal the good, and bad, news of God. In John 15:15, he called for a 'priesthood of all believers', a 'prophethood of all believers' even. I guess you could put forward a counter argument that he claimed, or at least did not deny the claim, to be despatched and anointed (so what makes him different?), but my answer is he was also then dispatched in a brutally humiliating way, as if to deliberately undermine this traditional Messianic Superman reading.

Of course much of Christianity doesn't necessarily reflect this now. And it seems, as with Islam, those Christian movements that do claim new revelation - such as the Mormons - quickly re-seal the seal that they often went through great pains to unseal! And that's one of the many reasons why 2000 year old Jesus of Nazareth continues to have relevance. It's also something I think the great (though quite wordy) Unitarian thinker James Martineau was trying to avert with his 'Free Christian' project.

This belief in (and practice of) a continuously unsealed communication with God isn't unique to the Quakers who sit in silence to await mystical revelation. My own understanding of the classical Unitarians and their project to reform Christianity was that they embarked on it with firm belief in the power of reason as a means of revealing God's presence and will. I have experienced both, and I think both approaches have value. A further point of comparison to note between these two 'Christian fringe' groups is the tendency for Quakers to view revelation as a collective enterprise, whereas Unitarians tend to be more individually driven.

Moving into more mainstream circles, the United Church of Christ - a US based, fairly liberal denomination - launched their 'God is still speaking' campaign in 2004 using a large comma as a symbol, in reference to a famous Gracie Allen quote, "Never place a period where God has placed a comma." This could also be taken as a belief in continuing revelation.


I'm currently making my way through 'The Great Partnership' by Jonathan Sacks, who carries the title of Chief Rabbi in Britain, and my thoughts matched with his make me believe that the competition between faith (specifically, the Abrahamic variety) and science is an over-exaggerated one. Over-exaggerated by fundamentalists on both sides who either cannot, or simply don't want to, see the other's perspective. They are bound to come into conflict, when one seemingly contradicts the other, but they also compliment one another. They are both means of continuous revelation, right brain and left brain as Jonathan Sacks calls it. There is a programme on BBC television this week about this very topic, involving Jonathan Sacks, and previewed by Andrew Maher on BBC Radio 4's Start the Week - there is also a write-up (with short video) on the BBC website.

I also have a strong interest in Process Theology too, the belief - put very briefly - that we are caught up in a process of continuous change, in mutual relationship with God, as co-creators (perhaps this is what Jesus meant in John 10:30?). Again, this is not necessarily new to the Unitarians with Charles Hartshorne, regarded as one of the founders of Process Theology, regularly attending Unitarian-Universalist churches in America during his lifetime. The 19th centry work, 'The Spark in the Clod' by Unitarian minister Jabez T. Sunderland carries similar themes. I also seem to remember Rufus M. Jones, the great 20th century Quaker thinker, having written something along similar lines (although that prompts me to want to go re-read the book I have of his to double check, a joy to read first time and no doubt on second and third). So we are not just called to sit down and chat with God, but to get up and act with God.

In more evangelical circles, there is a book called 'LifeShapes' by Mike Breen and Walt Kallestad that's been doing the rounds for some years now. I got my hands on a copy but left it on a coach in Bosnia. I didn't get most of it, it was perhaps too heavy for summer reading, but the shape that stood out was the triangle:


I kind of get this now, in my own way:
  • Jesus got up with God; he prayed, in a manner that might now be called 'transcendental meditation', and he encouraged - and coached - others in this practice.
  • Jesus got inside the heads of his disciples; through a reasoned dialogue with his disciples, he sought to uncover truth about human life, and in doing so, reveal God's immanence.
  • Jesus got out there; he acted to make things better, to live revelation by building the realm of God on Earth in the here and now.

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