There is a Wideness in God’s Presence: a book review

Christians are found of saying that God reveals himself in two books: the Bible,God’s special revelation, and creation, God’s general revelation. While there is some baseline recognition that ‘the heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the work of his hands’ (Psalm 19:1), Protestants are generally suspicious that we can apprehend or trust much truth ‘out there.’ Robert K. Johnston, professor of theology and culture at Fuller Seminary, and author of Reel Spirituality: Theology of Film in Dialogue, here tackles the issue of general revelation with God’s Wider Presence: Reconsidering General Revelation.  Johnston sees ample evidence of God’s Presence in the world in nature, culture and even world religions; however this is not a capitulation to some sort of universalist pluralism, but an acknowledgement that God’s Spirit works in mysterious ways and places.

Johnston’s eight chapters are a romp through modern theology, Bible passages and the world of film and fiction. In chapter one, he argues that our problems with general revelation and lack of theological reflection on it, stems from several causes. First we have too narrow of a ‘definitional’ focus. Johnston observes:

Rather than understand general revelation as any encounter with the Transcendent that occurs outside the believing community and that is not directly concerned with redemption, many have wrongly reduced it to a perceived ‘lowest common denominator’ by limiting ‘general revelation’ to those general truths that are communicated by God to all persons at all times and in all places” (8).

This understanding plays out in our biblical theology as well, “Theology’s bias toward the redemptive over the creational, and toward the propostional over the narrative is perhaps the second explanation for the relative paucity of theological thinking on general revelation” (10-11). Thirdly, Johnston sees a dim view of human receptivity to divine revelation in much of conservative evangelical theology. Against these objections, Johnston suggests a way forward that invites a theological dialogue about “God’s revelatory Presence outside the church and without direct reference to Jesus Christ” (15). Johnston calls us to have a robust two-way conversation between Scripture and the theological tradition and the realm of culture and  personal experience (15).

Chapter two describes the growth of spirituality in contemporary times and some of the challenges that face this discussion. Johnston points to God’s revelation in creation, conscience and culture (which he will return to later). He gives testimonials from a number of people of where they sensed God. He also refers to the work of Rudolph Otto and Peter Berger for their significant generalizations about the observation of Presence in the world. Otto observed the human experience of the holy in a variety of religious contexts (34). Berger’s observations led him to the conclusion that ‘there were experiences of the human spirit that pointed beyond that reality, that had “an immediacy to God”‘(35). Johnston acknowledges the cautionary words of other theological explorers of culture, that we can be self-deceived in our fallen human reasoning, but he sees an equal danger in failing to look for God (any)where he may be found:

The danger of self-deception, if not outright blasphemy, is ever present and must be taken seriously. . . As I will argue this is why it is crucial for one to have a full-orbed theological hermeneutic, a robust methodology that includes scripture, tradition, and community as well as experience. One does not whisper “God” by shouting “man.” The witness of God’s revelation in Scripture is authoritative and the testimony and reflection of Christians through the ages foundational. But the danger for Christians is also on the other side. We can exclude by an overemphasis on sin and salvation the real, revelatory Presence of God through his Spirit that is the clear testimony of the vast majority of Westerners today (37).

These two chapters set the trajectory for the rest of the book. Chapter three looks at the experience of transcendence in film by Johnston’s film students (in a variety of styles of films). Chapters four and five illustrate how scripture itself testifies to the Presence of God outside of the covenant community. This includes the borrowing of sayings in Proverbs from Egyptian origins, Yahweh speaking through Pharoh Neco to ward Josiah off of battle. King Huram of Tyre sends Hurumbai as a skilled artisan for the construction of Solomon’s temple,  Cyrus of Persia in Chronicles and Ezra is seen as God’s instrument, Additionally, Johnston highlights two creation psalms (19 and 29) that speak of the revealing nature of creation (and not just reflecting on the creation as described in Genesis). Other examples include Melchizedek, Elijah’s hearing God on Mt. Horeb, Balaam, various non-covenant peoples in the prophetic literature, Paul’s use of natural theology in Acts 14 and his use of Roman poetry and religion in Acts 17. He makes a strong case that the Bible leaves open the possibility of God speaking through unlikely vessels.

In chapter six, Johnston engages the theological tradition.  Johnston examines three different thinkers who were influential on twentieth century Christian thought and takes his cues from them on revelation. With Barth he affirms that natural theology cannot happen from below (recalling his famous answer to Brunner) but “that revelation always needs the Spirit as Revealer–it is event” (127); with Schleiermacher he affirms that general revelation is not accessible through rationality “but through an intuition of Something or Someone beyond us and our feelings that result from that encounter” (127-8); from CS Lewis he gets the idea that general revelation is more than just an insignificant trace in comparison to the glory of Christ but “an experience of the wider Presence of God through his Spirit mediated through creation, conscience and human culture” (128).

In chapter seven Johnston tracks this wider Presence of God through the writings of John Taylor, Elizabeth Johnson, and Jurgen Moltmann. Taylor tackled the reality of real Spiritual encounter in the realm of experience in mission and world religion. Feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson explored how the Spirit was “God’s livingness subtly and powerfully abroad in the world” (174). The social-trinitarianism of Moltmann, releases the Spirit from  his subjectivity to the Son, acknowledging the Trinity as a co-equal community. This allows for more freedom for the ‘wind to blow where it may,’ and the Spirit to show-up outside of the tale of our redemption. The final chapter continues to examine the Spirit is at work in the realm of creation, conscience and culture.

Without a robust understanding of general revelation, we have to remain skeptical of any spiritual experience, or moment of transcendence anywhere outside of the Word of God.  That means a moving book or a film, a orchestral piece that brings you to tears, or any cultural achievement is at best merely a human endeavor, at worst demonic. If Johnston is right about the operation of God’s wider Presence, this gives space to critically engage other traditions and perspectives, allowing us to not be dismissive and suspicious of everything, while still acknowledging that aspects may be destructive, delusional and in conflict with the gospel. This gives us a different starting point in our conversations with non-Christians, one where our hunt for common ground reveals God’s Spirit already at work in the life of the world. Throughout this book, I appreciated how seriously Johnston takes the experience of Transcendence as a revelatory event. Even Barth, who was suspicious of  human ability to apprehend God unaided, affirmed that Mozart, a non-practicing Catholic had heard the harmony of creation and captured it in his music (137).  God’s wider Presence sings if only we hear the music. five stars: ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Baker Academic in exchange for my honest review.

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