Thursday, July 09, 2009


This is pretty much the basic Christian doctrine, because how one understands revelation really affects how one speaks of any of the other doctrines. Basic questions are asked here: how do we know what we say we know about God or anything beyond our "normal" senses? What is the content and mode of revelation? What is its purpose? Contemporary theologians ask questions regarding who is believed to be able to receive revelation, and whose interpretation "counts."

Migliore's definition of what we mean by the term "revelation" is helpful: "Revelation is the disclosure of the character and purpose of God, and when it is received, it radically changes the lives of its recipients" (Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 2004, 22).

Quakers and feminists agree about many things regarding revelation, and in many ways it seems that Quakers were incredibly ahead of their time on this one. Barclay spends his entire Proposition 2 on "Inward and Unmediated Revelation," explaining that it is foundational to being a follower of God, and that other denominations really base everything on this direct revelation at some point, although they do not all agree that we can still receive this kind of revelation. Barclay states that this inward revelation will not contradict scripture, but scripture and reason should not be seen as more important than inward revelation: they cannot be used as something to contradict our inward experience. It is true that we can test things against scripture and reason to see if what we are hearing is likely to be actual revelation from God, or whether it is something else (self-deception, another spirit, etc.). But it is ultimately our own inward experience of God we must trust and live by.

If you're interested in such things, Barclay gives a whole list of "church fathers" who speak of this kind of direct, unmediated revelation, and its importance as the basic way we come to know God. Barclay even gives examples from Luther, Calvin and a prominent Anglican contemporary, "Dr. Smith of Cambridge." This latter wrote, "seek God within your own soul....The best and truest knowledge of God is not that which is wrought by the labor and sweat of the brain, but that which is kindled within us, by a heavenly warmth in our hearts."

Quakers were obviously not the only ones to believe that God speaks to us directly. There is a strong stream throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition of mystics, prophets and activists who claim direct connection with God. (Some of these, Barclay points out, were obviously not in connection with God, but we are not to judge actual connection with the Spirit by the fact that some people claim to have it and don't, any more than we should judge the efficacy of reason just because some claim to be using it and aren't. But how would we know the difference between something that is from God and something that isn't if we didn't each have the capacity to discern that, through Christ's Spirit?) I think Quakers have had a huge impact on Christianity through this particular doctrine. The Wesleyan emphasis on a personal choice of faith was influenced by Wesley's knowledge of Barclay (according to Dean Freiday, as I talked about in a previous post), and this in turn has influenced the entire evangelical and holiness movements, and arguably the Pentecostal movement.

As I read the chapter from Freeing Theology on this doctrine, I was struck by how much similarity there is in that Catholic, feminist perspective and Quakerism. I don't know that this is from the direct influence of Quakerism, but I think it is at least obliquely due to the challenge Friends (and others) brought to the Roman Catholic church over the last 400 years. The chapter is called "Experience and Tradition--Can the Center Hold? Revelation," by Mary Catherine Hilkert. She emphasizes that feminists' main point is that womens' experience, as well as all human experience, can be revelatory, can be an experience of the divine. She discusses something similar to Migliore's definition above, stating that it is through relationships that we come to points of "conversion," points at which we change in radical ways that we would not have done apart from those relationships. She says that feminists primarily use the human relationship as a metaphor for revelation, which is seen as learning to know God more fully. This can only happen in relationship. Therefore, human friendships are seen as very important in understanding how we can become "friends" with God. Does this sound familiar to us "Friends"?

Barclay states very clearly that revelation is available to all people, and that it is the point of faith. Here is a fun quote: "Take away the Spirit and Christianity is no more Christianity than a corpse is a man...." I think this is so important as we try to understand how we can live a faith that is not just going through the motions. This means that we can't get caught up either in the traditions of the church, or the supposedly not-traditions of Quakerism. Instead we must be constantly led by the Spirit, listening for how the revelation Christ embodied is to be continually lived out in a way that meets us in real relationship here, now, in this moment. We don't ignore the past, but we don't rely on it, either.

One of the main questions feminists ask is, "Whose experience counts?" Barclay deals with this obliquely by saying that everyone can experience God. But the problem is, what do we do with tradition? What do we do with a tradition that has been handed down to us primarily expressing a male perspective from a dominant class? Is there a way to include other voices (women, those who are not in a power-position, etc.) while still calling ourselves "Christian"? Early Friends and feminists mainly agree that while the Bible is a witness to people's interaction with God, it is not itself God's Word--Jesus is that. We read the Bible for its overarching meanings, not getting hung up on any particular verse or passage that either proves or disproves what we think is right. This gets into next week's topic, however, so I will leave it at that.

But how do we utilize scripture and other traditions in ways that support the humanity of all people, and that allows all people's experiences of revelation to "count"?

It is interesting that Migliore's text doesn't really address this question. Although he talks about revelation as something that changes one profoundly, and although he gives some examples of people who realized something internally that shook them to the very core, he doesn't really address the question of inward revelation. He focuses a good deal on whether revelation occurs only in the Christ-event and an individual's encounter with that event through the Bible, or whether God can be seen in a general way through all creation. He doesn't really ask or answer the question of whether and how human beings today know revelation when they see it (in theological terms, this is called "general revelation," while revelation only in Christ is called "special revelation.") Migliore does say that we would know nothing of revelation without the Bible and the Spirit, but really what he means is that the point of revelation is knowing about Jesus, and the only thing that is actual revelation is knowledge of Jesus' life and death (he doesn't mention the resurrection).

I think this is where Quakers and feminists differ. Yes, there is something unqualifiably important about Jesus, but for some reason, God cares about each of us and our lives, too. God has chosen to make us part of Christ's body, a part that is really important in living out God's love in the world. This happens as we experience God ourselves and our lives are transformed. This is utterly more important than knowing anything about Jesus' historical life, although knowing about that helps us understand God better to some degree.

I guess it just seems to me like there is so much more to revelation than just the Bible. Anytime we try to limit it to the Bible we become idolatrous, and this is what Friends responded against. Anytime we limit it to the Bible, we reject the experience of those who were not part of creating that text, and we try to limit God to working only in ways God worked in the past--which is to say, we limit God to only being able to work through people who lived in the past. I think this is the basic point that Quakers and many contemporary theologians try to make: if God was only active in the past, we practice a religion that is dead. If this is the case, why not practice any other religion that claims to be inspired by divine revelation?

It is only through our inward understanding of truth and love that we can come to true belief in a God, faith, religion or community. Otherwise we miss the entire point of faith.


Hystery said...

An interesting post. I guess my question would be "Which feminists and which Quakers?" They are both pretty broad categories.

forrest said...

Hello again Cherice!

If you limit revelation to the past, you miss the point of that revelation: that revelation-in-the-present actually occurs, because it actually happened to people much like us; it must be a possibility for us as well!

But if you try to bypass accounts of those past revelations, you miss what they illustrate about how people commonly have received (& misinterpreted) revelation.

If you could entirely understand the present without the past, it might as well have never happened! What happened in the past is the same kind of thing that happens today--but there you can see it at a distance, see it more clearly because their blind spots were superficially different from ours.

(Any chance I can pester thee into occasional visits to

WonderousWomanRetreat said...

Dear Cherice,

Consider to join us for A Wonderous Woman Retreat
on August 13,14,and 15

The Wonderous Woman retreat program leads and encourages every woman to connect to all facets of her purpose and value. Our approach is to create experiential retreats in beautiful venues where you can connect to your mind, body and spirit.

It's easy to take care of everyone else in our lives, but we tend to forget about ourselves.