Vestiges of the Divine

November 2016 CREDO

‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God’, declares the Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. ‘It will flame out, like shining shook foil’. In these words we find an echo of a similar but more ancient attestation found in the Psalter, Israel’s Hymnbook: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaim his handiwork’ (Psalm 19:1).

Paul, in his letter to the Christians in Rome, makes the same point when he argues that God’s ‘eternal power and divine nature’ can be clearly perceived ‘in the things that have been made’ (Romans 1: 20).

Together, they bear witness to the fact that the invisible Creator has left his mark on the universe he has fashioned, and that in the created order there can be found what may be described as traces or vestiges of the divine. The theologians of the Church have described this variously as God’s ‘universal’, ‘general’ or ‘natural’ revelation.

In the modern period, where science is perceived to have almost full monopoly of the truth, the concept of revelation has fallen out of favour. This is because in the hands of modern scientism, the concept of truth itself has undergone a certain metamorphosis. Truth is no longer understood as impressing itself on the knower. Instead, truth is something that is discovered, and consequently controlled by the rational agent.

On such an account of truth, revelation not only appears to be at odds with autonomous reason. It also seem quite unnecessary, since revelation – as philosophers like Fichte argue – only brings to the fore what autonomous reason already knows to be the case.

Christians must reject this view for two reasons. Firstly, it creates too sharp a divide between discovery and revelation, authority and autonomy. And secondly, it in fact makes the concept of revelation in general and God’s revelation in particular redundant.

Concerning the dichotomy between revelation and discovery, can we not say that there is a sense in which modern science itself is dependent on a kind of revelation? Even the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant is of the view that reason must learn from nature. In his famous Critique of Pure Reason, Kant asserts that ‘Reason … must approach nature in order to be taught by it’.

One would do well to take seriously Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s maxim that ‘all Truth is a species of Revelation’.

And with regard to the marginalising of revelation itself, the history of modern theology has shown just how fruitless it was for theologians to follow this trajectory. Think for instance of John Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious (1696) or Matthew Tindal’s Christianity as Old as Creation (1730). Such theologies have led Christians to the murky waters of either deism or liberalism.

Contrary to these modern proposals, the theologians of the Church have always insisted that God has revealed himself universally in the world he has brought into being. So important is this truth that a document of Vatican I anathemises those who deny it.

Thus, its canon on revelation unequivocally states that ‘If anyone says that the one, true God, our creator and Lord, cannot be known certainly from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason: let him be anathema’.

In addition, the Church has always taught that the created order or the cosmos possesses a certain rationality because it was created by God.

The great Romanian Orthodox theologian of the last century, Dumitru Stăniloae, puts it this way: ‘… the rationality of the cosmos attests to the fact that the cosmos is the product of a rational being, since rationality, as an aspect of a reality which is destined to be known, has no explanation apart from a conscious Reason which knows it from the time it creates it or even before that time, and knows it continually so long as that same Reason preserves its being’.

Furthermore, the cosmos was organised in a way that corresponds to our capacity for knowing. To quote Stăniloae once again: ‘The cosmos – and human nature as intimately connected to the cosmos – are stamped with rationality, while man (God’s creature) is further endowed with a reason capable of knowing consciously the rationality of the cosmos and of his own nature’.

God has created the cosmos and man in this way so that he can reveal himself through both. This means that the cosmos possesses rationality not only because God had created it, but also because God had created it so, in order that it can be a vehicle or medium of his revelation.

Thus, theologians as diverse as Irenaeus in the second century and Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth could argue that the world points to the existence of God. For example, in his famous cosmological argument for the existence of God Aquinas maintains that the existence of the world presupposes an uncreated Creator.

This brings us back to the false dichotomy between revelation and discovery we noted earlier. To say that the facticity of the created order points to its Creator is not to suggest that the rational observer merely discovers the divine in it. The Spirit of God is constantly at work, making explicit that which is implicit in the creation.

Put differently, the Spirit is at work in revealing the imprints of the Creator found in his handwork. This means that the revelation of God – even his revelation in the creation – can never be reduced to some impersonal reality.

As Bonaventure, the contemporary of Aquinas, has repeatedly reminded us: God is not the disinterested unmoved mover that stands aloof from the world. He is the foundation of self-communicating love, and is therefore always personally and intimately at work in the world he has created. This is true in his revelation as well, both his special revelation in Christ and his general revelation in creation.

Roland Chia (suit)_Large

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.