Recently, I sat down with two church members who are better read in philosophy and theology than I am to discuss H. Richard Niebuhr’s small but significant book The Meaning of Revelation. I’m sure I was supposed to have been familiar with this work at some point in my education, but like many significant theological works, I somehow missed them along the way. H. Richard Niebuhr, a theology professor at Yale and brother to the more widely known Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, wrote this book in the early 1940’s and yet, I was struck by how relevant the issues he discusses are almost seventy years later.
In The Meaning of Revelation, Niebuhr is not discussing The Apocalypse According to John in the New Testament (commonly called Revelation), but God’s revealing of God’s self to limited and mortal human beings. How is it that people who are products of particular worldviews, cultures and histories can begin to apprehend the timeless and transcendent God? Won’t our understandings of God be irrevocably distorted by our own biases and prejudices? Given how relative each person’s understanding of God is, how can any of us speak of God with any integrity? Is anyone’s view of God any better or worse than anyone else's? These are some of the questions Niebuhr tries to answer.
In a pluralistic society, Christians must face competing claims of truth and criticisms of their religion. Niebuhr wrote that Christians must guard against the tendency of defensiveness lest they replace a desire to be in relationship with God with a compulsion to be victorious over others. “We not only desire to live in Christian faith but we endeavor to recommend ourselves by means of it and to justify it as superior to all other faiths. Such defense may be innocuous when it is strictly subordinated to the main task of living toward our ends, but put into the first place it becomes more destructive of religion, Christianity and the soul than any foe’s attack can possibly be.” I wish many Christians in our culture today would take a similar attitude.
As Nazi Germany began its march across Europe with the complicity of a German church that subordinated Christianity to fascism, Niebuhr wrote this book where he warned against a self-centered religion. He described an “evil imagination” which interprets every bit of pain and every fleeting joy as an indication of divine pleasure or displeasure, so that God revolves around the believer rather than the believer bending his or her own will to that of the divine. In the grip of an “evil imagination,” all scripture and religious experience puts the believer at the center rather than God. The same thing goes for groups of people. “The group also thinks of itself as the center. So all nations tend to regard themselves as chosen peoples.” It seems like a fair warning to American Christians who regard our country as a “Christian nation” blessed by God in order to remake the world in its image. As Niebuhr writes, “The impoverishment and alienation of the self, as well as the destruction of others, issues from a reasoning of the heart that uses evil imagination.”
The revelation of God, according to Niebuhr, is that event or events in our lives that makes all the other events intelligible. Although many people claim special revelations from God, true experience revealed by God is most often verified only in hindsight. Only when looking backward can we see the work of God in our lives—how small moments of grace nudged us toward a different path and opportunities for love and service to others revealed themselves. In the present without benefit of hindsight, we had best operate with humility.
Although Niebuhr does a better job of warning believers about the misuses of religion than he does explaining exactly what revelation is and how we recognize it, I found his thoughts refreshing and relevant in a world that mainly sees Christianity as a self-centered and arrogant religion.
Grace and Peace,