Spiritual and Cognitive, Primal and Verbal
The Gift of Revelation
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson
Also by Rabbi Artson:
Jewish Holy Days and Festivals GO
She is a Benefit to Herself: The Value of Being Alive GO
Four Reasons I'm Bound to Israel GO
Turtles and Whales (and Us): What the World Reveals? GO
What are We Doing When We Pray ? GO
Judaism: Way of Life, Philosophy, Culture, & Faith GO
Coming to Know the God We Already Love GO
Becoming - East and West GO
The Constellation of Process Theology: An Invitation GO
The divine Presence is a gift God offers to all seekers, to any questing person, to all creation. This manifestation of the Divine itself, known to theologians as Universal Revelation, and in Judaism as gilui ha-Shekhinah, is not contained in any distinct set of words, is available to all. Beyond words, non-verbal in its receipt, this aspect of revelation opens through relationship itself, Presence to presence. “There is no utterance, there are no words, their sound is not heard. Yet their shout rings throughout the earth, their words to the end of the world (Psalm 19:4-5).”
This mode of revelation is universal because it is not borne by particular cultural symbols, distinct human languages, memories or festivals. Instead, Biblical tradition itself affirms a more expansive, pervasive revelation of God through creation itself. All humanity can claim access to the Divine in this mode, all creation is linked in living fellowship to its One Creator and to the rest of creation itself. Like all stirring relationships, this one is sustained through empathy, imagination, play, memory, experience, and fantasy. Summoning the human arts of feeling, touching, reaching out, this mode of revelation speaks to the integrated whole of who we are as living beings, as mammals, as humans. We need not read this revelation, and it does not speak words. Instead, we open ourselves to the starry skies and awesome wonders of nature, we recognize the divine image in our fellow human beings and connect emotionally to that image in each other, and we nestle within our own interiority, there pulsating with the holiness we find. This is a revelation accessible through struggles and celebration, through tears and laughter, through art and meditation. This revelation, nested in a fundament deeper than speech, cradles our loving embrace: God, world, self.
Consider the Biblical tale in which Universal Revelation meets Special (that is to say, verbal) Revelation. Responding to the plight of the Israelite slaves, Moses has assisted in leading the Children of Israel from bondage under Pharaoh. Now in the wilderness, he seeks intimate awareness of God. He pleads with God, “Let me behold Your Presence! (Exodus 33:18).” Notice that Moses doesn’t ask for a definition, for a verbal response, for a law code. He asks to see God’s presence. And God responds favorably, although with a caveat: “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Lord, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show. But,” God said, “you cannot see My face, for humans may not see Me and live (Exodus 33:19-20).”
Moses pleads for gilui ha-Shekhinah, a revelation of relationship deeper than any words. To that request, God accedes. What God promises to show Moses is both dynamic (God agrees to pass by) and protective (God promises to shield Moses during the most intense encounter). What Moses is capable of grasping (Whitehead would call it “prehending” to emphasize its intuitive and non-verbal character) is all about relationship, interaction, empathy and justice: God’s “goodness,” “grace,” and “compassion.” What Moses cannot prehend is God’s ontology (the nature of God’s being as it is on its own). That limitation poses an insoluble puzzle to the dominant theology, but Process resolves the challenge quite clearly: none of us have access to a kind of being that is not also becoming. Being on its own is a (mere) logical abstraction. It is only being-in-relationship-to-others, that is to say, becoming, that can be apprehended, that can enter into relationship. God is no exception here; none of us are knowable abstractly, through some distilled definition. All true knowing is relational and dynamic, for us and for God.
Thus far, the Revelation Moses requested and God promised is Universal revelation: non-verbal, the gift of connection and relationship, available to all through imagination, emotion, vulnerability. But that moment swiftly transitions into Special Revelation, the distinctive distillation of relationship into speech, the universal into the syntax and symbols of a specific language and culture. God does indeed pass by Moses, and what emerges along with the dynamic motion are words: “The Lord passed before Moses and proclaimed, ‘The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness … (Exodus 34:6).” In that instant, the exchange takes the contours of particular words, in the context of a specific language, Hebrew. No longer universal, this encounter is distilled into a form directed specifically to the Children of Israel.
The wonder of this story lies in no small degree in its refusal to separate the two modes of revelation. They are not so neatly distinct, are they? Asked to reveal intimacy and connection, God does that and more. God also speaks words that form the core of the Rosh Ha-Shanah and Festival liturgy in Jewish worship across the ages. Presence and relationship, speech and behavioral norms are all fused in this wondrous telling. Maimonides shares his wonder at this potent brew:
Moses’s request regarding the knowledge of God’s attributes is conveyed in his saying: “Show me now Your ways, that I may know You.” Consider the wondrous notions contained in this dictum. For his saying, “Show me now Your ways, that I may know You,” indicates that God, who is exalted, is known through God’s attributive qualifications; for when Moses would know the ways, he would know God (Guide for the Perplexed, 1:54).
God’s presence is manifest in God’s ways. The universal cloaks itself in the particular. Indeed, only when garbed in the particular does the universal make room for distinctiveness and diversity. Otherwise universalism is merely the polite face of smothering conformity, the gracious imposition of power. Not so the revelation offered here: universal and particular come together. Verbal and non-verbal mingle in every moment. God’s presence is prehended by observing (and imitating) God’s ways. Yet those ways also erupt into words. As the medieval philosopher, Hasdai Crescas, makes this fusion explicit, revelation is both “a spiritual and cognitive overflow from God to humans (Or Adonai, Vienna ed., book 2, part 4, 41a).”
Sensitizing us to look for dipolarity, Process Thought prepares us for that fusion of spiritual and cognitive. But it also invites a deeper insight. In recognizing that God and world are not separate dichotomies, we recall that the world is permeated with God, that God at each moment offers every part of creation the optimal choice for their particular situation and concern, while also providing each aspect of creation with the capacity to make the choice that is optimal for each. In our capacity for self-determination, we are not only co-creators with God, we are co-revealers too. There are aspects of God that are separate from creation (and from us), but there are also aspects of God that permeate creation and constitute our best. Beyond merely translating Presence into Word, a Process understanding of revelation insists that these are not distinct modes but complementary perspectives of an embracing whole, not shifting realities but interacting aspects of a dynamic series of events. In the dance of Universal and Special Revelation the godliness within expresses the Godliness we discover, and in that meeting, new intuitions, new possibilities, sometimes new words emerge. Just as blossoming can never remain abstract but must always result in an actual bloom, Special Revelation is a blossoming of Universal Revelation in particular flowers.