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On Revelation

The word “revelation” means that something that is not known is made manifest or clear. If I maintain that nothing can be “revealed” to me, I imply either: a) that I am myself omniscient; or, b) that nothing intelligible, not already known, can come to me except what is accessible to human knowledge by its own finite powers.

Moreover, if something is unknown, someone or something must intervene to make it known. Otherwise, we would not know of its existence. When something becomes known, it is no longer “unknown.” Once something that was not known becomes known, the new knowledge becomes the basis of further knowing, even of what was already known.

If something is unknown to me, it must be made known in such a way that I can understand it. Otherwise, it is still unknown. If what I do not know is made known in Greek, then I will have to know Greek to understand what it says or have it translated into a language that I can understand.

The famous or infamous phrase – “It’s all Greek to me” – meant that, since I do not understand Greek, everything said in that most rational language is gibberish to me. The problem, though, is not that what is said in Greek is unintelligible, but that I do not know the language in which its intelligibility is clear.

The existence of revelation, its possibility, presupposes that many things can be known by the human mind, but not everything, or at least not without help. Revelation might mean that “contradictory” things can be known – how to square a circle sort of things. But a revelation based on this hypothesis of solving intrinsic contradictions is incoherent. That is, it could not be “revealed.” It could not be a “revelation.”

A revelation has to be related to mind in such a way that it does not, in making itself known, destroy the mind receiving it. Making good to be evil, or impossibilities to be possible, voluntarism, in other words, destroys what-it-is-to-be-mind. If everything here and now can be other than it is, then, logically, we can know nothing. Everything that exists could be otherwise.

St. John on Patmos by Tobias Verhaecht, c. 1598

Catholicism is a revelation, not a religion. The word “religion” refers to a virtue by which we know what we can about God by our own human rational powers, “unaided,” as they say. Revelation means that, in addition to all we know by our own powers, another source of knowledge and life exists that can address itself to us, can make itself known to us.

Some of the things that it makes known to us, however, we already know by our own powers. This fact is what alerts us to the persuasiveness of the other things that we do not know by our own powers. Christian revelation comes to us through the accounts of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Its content consists of two basic elements: a) The nature of God’s inner Trinitarian life; and b) One of the persons of this inner life became man. Since Christ was incarnate, He spoke to us in a human language. What he did and said could be recorded, understood, and passed down.

If these things were revealed to us, why did we need them? Why could we not figure them out by ourselves? Basically, to understand the inner life of the Godhead would require us to be ourselves God. But if only God can understand God, it does not follow that God wants us to know nothing about His being and life.

For reasons that make sense to us, God may have wanted us to know more of what He is like than what we could figure out by ourselves. Why would God want us to know more about His own being? Because to know Him is the reason we exist in the first place.

What reasons might be given? Aquinas briefly lists four: 1) we need a clearer notion of our end, that is, of God; 2) while we can figure out many things, we need more precise notions of what is good and what is evil; 3) most evil begins in our thoughts – we need to think clearly to act correctly; 4) we need to know if our deeds have consequences. Are they punished or rewarded? Do they mean anything? They are and they do.

Why did not God make these things so absolutely riveting that we could not help but worshipping Him? Basically, this move would eliminate any freedom we had. God insists that He be loved and chosen freely. His revelation bears the aura of both truth and liberty. Revelation is addressed to our minds and souls. The real drama of our existence consists in our respective responses to the divine initiative that teaches us what we are by revealing who God is.


James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019)

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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