THE UNSURPASSABLE CLIMAX OF ALL REVELATION
Giuse Phạm Thanh Liêm, S.J.
The plurality of religions is a fact nobody can refute. Believers of every religion suppose their respective religion and the founder of their religion are the best: Christians claim Jesus is the Absolute and surpasses all founders of any other religions. Being a Christian and a theologian, Karl Rahner talked about “the unsurpassable climax of all revelation,” and stated that “the history of revelation has its unsurpassable high point through the hypostatic union and in the incarnation of God in the created, spiritual reality of Jesus for his own sake, and hence for the sake of all of us.” In my opinion, however, it is impossible to justify that Jesus is the unsurpassable climax of all revelation for a non-Christian point of view.
I will examine the problem first via revelation as knowledge of God, then via the possibility of the unsurpassable climax of all revelation.
Human beings possess not only knowledge of natural science but also knowledge of the Reality, which surpasses all creatures. Knowledge of God can be given in transcendental experience or revelation. Thus, I will treat knowledge of God through natural mediation, then knowledge of God through historical mediation, finally the relativity of knowledge of God.
Plato created the theory of knowledge as reminiscence of soul toward the ideal world. According to this theory, ideas in the ideal world are the very real and eternal realities. Although Aristotle was Plato’s student, he disagreed with his teacher, and created the theory that maintains human beings gain knowledge in contacting material objects via the senses. Aristotle distinguished various levels of knowledge, such as opinion, physical science, metaphysical knowledge, etc. Knowledge of God here supposes knowledge of the world.
Today philosophers and theologians have developed the transcendental experience. If God exists, if God loves human beings, and if God wants to reveal Himself to human beings, then God creates human beings in a way so they will be able to receive His revelations. God creates human beings as beings of intelligence and love to respond to the revelation of God. In their experiences, human beings recognize themselves as limited beings, as intelligent beings, as beings of love. Consequently, through transcendental knowledge, human beings recognize God as a God of intelligence, of love, of omnipotence. Transcending is an act of human beings to experience, to recognize and to meet God as transcendental reality.
According to Karl Rahner, transcendental experience implies transcendental knowledge. Rahner said about transcendental experience:
“We shall call transcendental experience the subjective, unthematic, necessary and unfailing consciousness of the knowing subject that is co-present in every spiritual act of knowledge, and the subject’s openness to the unlimited expanse of all possible reality. It is an experience because this knowledge, unthematic but ever-present, is a moment within and a condition of possibility for every concrete experience of any and every object. This experience is called transcendental experience because it belongs to the necessary and inalienable structures of the knowing subject itself, and because it consists precisely in the transcendence beyond any particular group of possible objects or of categories. Transcendental experience is the experience of transcendence, in which experience the structure of the subject and therefore also the ultimate structure of every conceivable object of knowledge are present together and in identity. This transcendental experience, of course, is not merely an experience of pure knowledge, but also of the will and of freedom.”
For Karl Rahner, knowledge of God is implied in transcendental experience. Categorical knowledge of God expresses and supposes transcendental experience in a certain measure. Transcendental knowledge is a posteriori knowledge that comes after knowledge of the world.
“There is present in this transcendental experience an unthematic and anonymous, as it were, knowledge of God. Hence the original knowledge of God is not the kind of knowledge in which one grasps an object which happens to present itself directly or indirectly from outside. It has rather the character of a transcendental experience.”
“Man’s only knowledge of God is an a posteriori knowledge from the world. This is still true even with verbal revelation because this too has to work with human concepts. Hence our transcendental knowledge or experience has to be called a posteriori insofar as every transcendental experience is mediated by a categorical encounter with concrete reality in our world, both the world of things and the world of persons. This is also true of the knowledge of God. To that extent we can and we must say that all knowledge of God is an a posteriori knowledge which comes from and through encountering the world, to which, of course, we ourselves also belong.”
Through the senses and natural or historical mediations human being can have transcendental experience of the Absolute. From these transcendental experiences and knowledge of the world, human beings have categorical knowledge of the Absolute, expressed by various cultures, various images, words and symbols. Thematic knowledge supposes unthematic knowledge. Knowledge of God expressed by word supposes transcendental knowledge, but transcendental experience is an ineffable experience.
By means of creatures as a symbol, for example, a natural flower, an act of love, etc., human beings can transcend to meet the Absolute. Through creature, human beings recognize God as creator; by means of their intelligence, human beings recognize God as intelligent One; by human love, human beings recognize God as person and lover. However, God or the Absolute is not limited as a human intelligence, God is not person as human being is person, God’s love is not limited as human love. Through creature, human beings recognize God, but human beings recognize the unlimited distance between human beings and the Absolute. Human beings recognize themselves as limited beings, and by that they recognize unlimited being who is God or the Absolute.
Recognizing the Absolute is a free knowledge. Therefore, someone can refute this knowledge. For example, atheists refuse to accept the existence of God; agnostics refuse to accept the knowledge about God. That was reason why Emmanuel Kant proposed a distinction between practical reason and pure reason. History of philosophies gives us the proof of that. Kant proposed three transcendental realities: the immortality of soul, the existence of God, and freedom. These realities cannot be demonstrated, so people have to accept them. Those are realities by a convention, not by proof. Here we have to acknowledge that by transcendental experience people don’t demonstrate the existence of God, but recognize it. Here we can explain the phenomena of the atheist as a lack of transcendental experience, so they don’t recognize God. It is similar to a person born color blind that cannot recognize the color that others can recognize.
Whereas for atheists transcendental experience and knowledge of God is not valid, it is valid for theists. Accepting transcendental knowledge is a necessary condition to discuss the theological problem. Not accepting it, nobody can discuss theology. Transcendental knowledge is a supposition of theological knowledge. Once people accept the transcendental realities, theology exists. These suppositions are beliefs of faithful. Of course, to believe something human beings have to experience it even in the case where they cannot demonstrate it; as is said in Tao Te Ching “the way which is demonstrable is not the eternal way”. Human beings can only demonstrate what is in the same level with them. Something that human beings can demonstrate belongs to the same level with argument or human beings. However, the Absolute surpasses all realities.
All knowledge of God implies, in a certain meaning, a revelation that stimulates transcendental experience. Through revelation with transcendental experience, the Absolute reveals himself to human beings. In the history of ideas, human beings always recognize the existence of God. We can see it through the history of eastern philosophy and western philosophy. Through creature and intellects, human beings recognize God who is in the universe. The Absolute is transcendent and immanent in every creature.
Through Eastern thought the ultimate reality is expressed as NONE that is not “nothing” but “no things” and includes everything. Western thought insists on the first being that is the Absolute or God. The Reality’s two contrary names reflect the ineffability of the Reality.
John Hick is a famous pluralist. His position is influenced by Western thought. For him, the Real is not a thing, is not thing, but not nothing. The Real is not a thing because it transcends all thing and all our thing-concepts; but the Real is not nothing because it is immanent in all thing, “englobes” all thing. The Real is neither personal nor impersonal, but it has its analogues of the attributes of its other authentic “personae” as love, goodness, compassion, justice, mercy, and “impersonae” as transcendence, immanence. That happened because people talk about the Real in relation with human beings. The Real in itself cannot correspond to the anthropomorphic image, so the distinction between the Real in itself and its various experienceable “personae” has to be forgotten, but people can speak of the Real in mythical language in personal and in non-personal terms. The Real can be worshipped as one or other of its “personae”- Allah, the Holy Trinity, Adonai, Vishnu and so on, and can be meditated as one of its “impersonae”- the Tao, Brahman, the Dharma, Sunyata and so on.
All religions and philosophies in human history possess knowledge of God. In the Eastern religions, Reality is ineffable, so no language can totally express God.
Many religions claim to have revelation in their religions, for example, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam.
The bible of Judaism told about the relation between God, Abraham and his ancestors. In the history of Judaism and for the people of the Far East, prophetism was an event that influenced the social, political and religious situation in that time.
Prophets speak in the name of God, and explain the historical events in the view of God. Through the words of prophets human beings recognize more about God or the Absolute reality. One might say that through prophets’ words as mediation, human beings recognize God more and more.
That which happened in Judaism could have happened in Hinduism and other religions. God could use different symbols according to different people with different cultures to reveal so that human beings understand God more and more. God is ineffable; each revelation reflects one aspect of God. Accepting revelation in other religions helps human beings to understand more and more God. In Hinduism there are many symbols, the same is true in Islam, and in Christianity. However, some religions do not claim to have revelation. These religions have possessed the deep treasury of wisdom on the universe and the first principle as the None.
The history of Judaism shows prophets related closely to Israel’s history. The prophets interpret the history of Israel in the light of God’s view. The prophet is man of God: that is, through him God speaks to His people. He is a symbol for God’s presence. But what happened in the Judaism’s history, also happened in other religions as Hinduism, Islam, Christianity. It is not fair to believe in revelation in one religion and refuse revelation in other religion. Believing in human beings and their witness is one very important thing for humankind. By normal belief, one who believes in Israel’s revelation must also open their heart to revelation in other world religions. The founders of religions received the experiences of God through revelation. Once receiving the experiences of God, they have transmitted what they have received to others around them. With social rites to worship the Absolute, religions begin.
Christianity accepts and makes his own Judaism’s revelation, but Judaism doesn’t accept Jesus as Messiah. Islam believes in the Yahweh of Judaism but doesn’t recognize Jesus as God incarnate. For Islamic Mahomet is the best prophet, while for Christians Jesus Christ is God incarnate and thus the best revelation of God.
Revelation is considered as knowledge of God. Therefore, the idea of truth is included. For Christianity, in order to expand the revelation and protect the integrity of revelation, both the idea of transmission and interpretation are proposed. However, the problems of revelation, transmission and interpretation are not important for Western religions.
According to Christian theologians, God revealed himself and his plan of salvation to human beings. Similarly some religions have accepted the idea of true expression of revelations. Judaism, Christianity and Islam have claimed themselves as religions possessing revelation. Therefore, they have inspired books that contain truths as true expressions of their religions.
Human beings can transmit what they were revealed to others by expressing them in language formulations. By these expressions others can understand and receive the same with people who receive revelations directly. By interpretation and hermeneutics human beings of the late generations can understand what was revealed to human beings.
According to Thomas Aquinas, truth is the identification of intellect to object. True or false are the attributes of judgment. If there is no judgment, there is no true or false. The truth is an expression that reflects completely a reality. An expression is formed by definite culture and time, so it is limited in time and in certain culture. Through an expression, human beings of this time can understand differently from those of the other time, so there is not the eternal expression for all time. With interpretation and tradition, human beings of different cultures and times can understand correctly the expressions of revelation of different times.
There is another concept about revelation, expression of revelation and truth. Nobody can completely understand an object. Human beings are limited. For Kant human beings can understand phenomena but not noumena. Even though the object is limited, human beings cannot understand it completely; Given this, what can human intellects do when the object of the intellect is infinite and ineffable being!
Both human beings and their reason are limited, so their comprehension is limited. There is not a truth as complete identification between reason and reality. Religions that don’t claim its possession of revelation accept the idea of “relative expression”, for example, Taoism or Buddhism. Taoists say, “The way that can be demonstrated is not the eternal way, the name that can be named is not the eternal name.”
For non-Christian views, concretely Buddhism and Taoism, revelation is strange and very relative. Reality is ineffable. Human beings can understand Reality more and more, but it is impossible to say something that reflects completely the Absolute. Between believers of Christianity and Oriental believers, there is not ultimate agreement on revelation. If revelation is not important, neither is the climax of revelation, nor the expressions of revelation.
The unsurpassable climax of all revelation can be questioned in religions that claim revelation as Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Nature and human beings can be the means of revelation, symbols of God’s presence. Nonetheless, what is the best means or symbol of all revelation, what is the most important content of revelation? The unsurpassable climax of all revelation can be understood as means and as content.
Revelation is realized through creature, history, and word. In general revelation is realized through word. In Greek, word means event, word of human beings and even reason. Word can be an event, a symbol and a human being. Knowledge is acquired by reason because human reason receives all that is caused on human beings via creature, symbol, history or any mediation.
For Karl Rahner, the natural revelation of God already implies a certain disclosure of God as the infinite mystery.
“The historical and personal revelation in word encounters the inner, spiritual uniqueness of man… and gives man in his transcendence the possibility to accept this personal self-communication and self-disclosure, to listen and to accept it in faith, hope and love,”
That is, the human being is the best field for revelation.
Because human beings are historical, relations between God and human beings happen in history.
“The transcendental revelation is itself always mediated categorically in the world, because all of man’s transcendentality has history.”
History- events realized by human beings- are fields of revelation.
“It takes place in the historical material of a person’s life, but does not for this reason become simply identical with it. If, then, this supernatural determination is to take place in the concrete, and especially, if God’s self-revelation in grace is to become the principle of concrete action in its objective and reflexive consciousness, and hence also in the dimension of society, then God’s non-objective and unreflexive self-revelation in grace must always be present as mediated in objective and reflexive knowledge, regardless in the first instance of whether this is an explicitly and thematically religious mediation or not.”
“This ‘mediation’ has its history…this mediation is itself God’s revelation.” One distinct mediation of revelation is the prophet. The prophet, according to Rahner, is bearer of revelation in the full sense.
The first level of revelation is revelation through nature. The second is done through history and prophetic mediation. Through the prophet understood as God’s man, human beings understand God more and more.
“If history is also the history of what is always unique and unrepeatable, then universal history always contains particular history, and this latter still always remains a moment within the whole universal history. Insofar as this revelation has a history because of the historicity of reflection upon God’s self-gift to man in grace-and indeed this history is differentiated within universal history- the history of revelation has its absolute climax when God’s self-communication reaches its unsurpassable high point through the hypostatic union and in the incarnation of God in the created, spiritual reality of Jesus for his own sake, and hence for the sake of all of us.”
By this line of reasoning, if there is a man who is possessed by God until it can be said that there is the hypostatic union or the incarnation of God in that created, spiritual reality of someone, then that person is the unsurpassable climax of all revelation.
In every religion, there are people who encountered God and had a wonderful life with God. Who is the climax, the best symbol of the Absolute for believers of these respective religions, and who is the climax of all revelation in all religions?
Ernst Troeltsch in the early time of his life supposed Jesus to be the absolute, but in his later life he changed his mind and asserted the position that Jesus was not the absolute in comparison with other religions’ founders. This position is found in his book “The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions”. After Troeltsch, many pluralist theologians defended the position that Jesus is one among the absolutes.
Christianity appeared lately in comparison with other religions such as Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Every religion has its own founder. How could the Christ, founder of Christianity, be superior to other founders? Through history Christianity has had many evil things as crusades, ambition of popes, etc. Every religion has its founder who is a very good human being. These founders have led good lives, and had deep experiences with God. They are Christs analogously of their people, of believers in the religions they founded. In certain measure they acted as Christ for other religions in God's salvation plan. The founders of other religions taught human beings to live correctly and happily; and by their teachings many people did the charitable works for human beings. The spiritualities of other religions are very deep and full of wisdom. In this time many Christians are learning to meet God by Yoga and Zen ways. By these categories of evaluation, Christianity is inferior to Hinduism and Buddhism. Therefore, it is irrational to replace their founders with the founder of Christianity.
Therefore, from non-Christian view, Jesus is not the climax of all revelation.
“We are calling saviour here that historical subjectivity in which, first, this process of God’s absolute self-communication to the spiritual world as a whole exists irrevocably; secondly, that process in which this divine self-communication can be recognized unambiguously as irrevocable; and thirdly, that process in which God’s self-communication reaches its climax insofar as this climax must be understood as a moment within the total history of the human race, and as such must not simply be identified with the totality of the spiritual world under God’s self-communication.”
The human being is the best creature among material creatures, so human beings are the best symbol of God, the image of God, the transparent symbol of God.
“Historical person who appears in time and space and signifies the beginning of the absolute self-communication of God which is moving towards its goal, that beginning which indicates that this self-communication for everyone has taken place irrevocably and has been victoriously inaugurated.”
The great prophet of each religion is the founder of each respective religion. For Muslims, Mahomet is the best prophet and symbol; for Confucianism, Confucius is the best teacher of all generations; for Christianity, Christ is the best reflection of God, so much so that Christians say Jesus Christ is God incarnate. What are standards to recognize who is the absolute savior? The standard is the consciousness of founders about themselves.
All believers of any denomination supposed their religion would be the best one, which is expressed by missionary work in the history of each respective religion. To be more objective, it is better to examine the self-recognition of the founder of religions, or of human beings as symbols of God. For Buddhism, everyone is equal; everyone is Buddha in being. For Islam, Mahomet is the greatest prophet.
Now we examine Jesus’ consciousness about himself. The bible is understood as books of the Church that describe the beliefs of the Church. By that Christians acknowledged Jesus, through the witness of the apostles, was conscious of his mission more and more with time. Until now in the viewpoint of biblical scholars there is not the proof that justifies the consciousness of Jesus about himself as God although he was conscious of himself as coming from God, as prophet, as messiah.
Some would like to say that Jesus as God incarnate or Jesus’ consciousness about himself as God incarnate is the work of the apostles. However, why did the apostles make this confession, especially since this belief went against the traditional beliefs of Judaism? Some people would like to say that Jesus died by elders’ and scribes’ hate, but why did all the people want Jesus’ death unless people saw Jesus as having committed a horrible sin “blasphemy.” Otherwise, it is not possible to understand about the change of people’s position for Jesus. Why had people acclaimed him as prophet claimed the death of cross to Jesus in the trial of Pilate? I think that in the tribunal of Pilate Jesus’ consciousness about himself, as “at the right hand of God” became clearer and clearer. And this story was reported by the synoptic writers. If the divinisation of Jesus had been realized by the apostles, why would they have dared to do the horrible thing that is against their faith in God who is unique? People today could say that many believers of world religions deified the founders of respective religions. However, Mahomet was not deified as God, nobody in Hinduism was deified as God. Only in Christianity did Christians worship Jesus as God incarnate.
In Rahner’s terminology, incarnation expresses the union of man to God so much so that the human person is God himself, so that it can be said that God’s second person is that man. The absolute savior is conceived as a human being conscious of himself as instrument used by God to save human beings. Once Jesus is the climax of revelation as absolute savior, he is the absolute means for universal salvation.
In Rahner’s writings, the absolute savior is possible, but he did not prove who is the absolute savior. However, in the topic “Jesus Christ in Non-Christian Religions” Karl Rahner talked in the name of dogmatic theology.
“But this takes place in the
incarnation of the Logos because here what is expressed and communicated, namely,
God himself, and, secondly, the mode of expression, that is, the human reality
of Christ in his life and in his final state, and, thirdly, the recipient Jesus
in grace and in the vision of God, all three have become absolutely one.
In Jesus, God’s communication to man in grace and at the same time its categorical self-interpretation in the corporeal, tangible and social dimension have reached their climax, have become revelation in an absolute sense. But this means that the event of Christ becomes for us the only really tangible caesura in the universal history of salvation and revelation, and it enables us to distinguish a particular and official history of revelation within the universal history of revelation before Christ.”
Until now biblical scholars did not have proof to affirm that Jesus’ death had the cause by his claim of divinity. If this is proven, Jesus will be the absolute savior granted by biblical exegesis. Otherwise, Jesus is the absolute savior only in the Christian belief.
Jesus Christ is absolute according to Christian faith. Until now, it is impossible to demonstrate the absoluteness of Jesus Christ to non-Christians. If someone believes Jesus Christ is God incarnated, the absoluteness of Jesus Christ is already included. The remaining problem is to help others to believe that Jesus Christ is absolute, is the Son of God, and is God incarnated. That is done through works of kerygma, of announcements, of preaching, of catechisms. However a very important truth has to be noticed: “no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit” (1Cor.12, 3). Nobody can assert the objectivity of the faith as proof that makes others accept Christian faith as a mathematic truth.
If it is proven that Jesus is God incarnate, thus Jesus is the unsurpassable climax of all revelation. But until now in the non-Christian view, we cannot provide proofs that Jesus is the hypostatic union of God or the God incarnate.
We have just looked over revelation. Through natural mediation and transcendental experience human beings recognize the existence of the Absolute who is infinite. Through revelation of historical and prophetical mediation human beings acknowledge the ultimate and ineffable Reality who is love. The founders of religions are people who experience God profoundly. They are symbols of God’s presence and actions in humankind.
Human beings follow what they see the best. Therefore, they follow whichever religion they recognize the best. Whenever they recognize any religion better than the one they are following, they will follow the new one. From a non-Christian view, Jesus is not better than their founder of their religions.
Jesus is the unsurpassable climax of all revelation by Christian view. Only if someone believes that Jesus is God incarnate, Word become flesh, Jesus is the unsurpassable climax of all revelation.
Hick John. A Christian Theology of Religions, The rainbow of Faiths. Kentucky: John Knox Press-Louisville, 1995.
Rahner, Karl. Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity. New York: Crossroad, 1995.
Troeltsch, Ernst. The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions. Richmond: John Knox Press, 1971.
Chúc bạn an vui hạnh phúc.
Giuse Phạm Thanh Liêm, S.J.
 Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, (New York: Crossroad, 1995) 174
 Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, (New York: Crossroad, 1995) 20
 Ibid, 21
 Ibid, 52
 Cfr. John Hick, A Christian Theology of Religions, The Rainbow of Faiths, WESTMINSTER JOHN KNOX PRESS-LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY 1995, p. 60
 John Hick, Op. cit., p. 61
 John Hick, Op. cit., p. 62
 John Hick, Op. cit., p. 64-65
 Karl Rahner, Op. cit., p. 170
 Karl Rahner, Op. cit., p. 171
 Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, (New York: Crossroad, 1995) 172-173
 Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, (New York: Crossroad, 1995) 173
 Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, (New York: Crossroad, 1995) 173
 Karl Rahner, Op. cit., p. 173
 Karl Rahner, Op. cit., p. 174
 Ernst Troeltsch, The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1971)
 Karl Rahner, Op. cit., p. 194
 Karl Rahner, Op. cit., p. 193
 Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, (New York: Crossroad, 1995) 312
 Karl Rahner, Op. cit., p. 174-175