God's Wider Presence: Reconsidering General Revelation
Robert K. Johnston
Baker Academic, 2014
256 pp., $26.00
God's Wider Presence
Johnston's new book is an attempt to zoom out and ask the larger questions raised by God's "wider presence." Ultimately, he hopes to "change the discourse about revelation," showing that these experiences, so often dismissed as second-order "traces" or "echoes," are more important than we ever imagined.
With this purpose in mind, Johnston takes his reader on a long but lucid journey through the biblical text. He repeatedly demonstrates that God's wider presence is itself an essential feature of the "inside," or official, community or text. Think of Melchizedek, for example, or the Athenians that the Apostle Paul commends for their altar dedicated "To an unknown god." For Johnston, the Bible itself bears unmistakable witness to God's revelation to outsiders.
The poet Friedrich Schiller once said, "live with your age, but do not be its creature." Although Johnston takes his initial cue from our neo-Romantic age, attempting to "live with" it with generously, he avoids simply altering theology to suit cultural trends. Johnston quickly dismisses the common assumption that profound experiences with the arts are due to the godlike genius of the artist. Likewise, he rejects the idea that viewers need to develop a special sensitivity to encounter the divine in art.
But Johnston's own claims are even grander and more challenging than these. He asserts that for centuries, theologians have misunderstood general revelation. Romans 1:20, for example, has often served as the locus classicus for theologies of general revelation. (This is the verse where the Apostle Paul declares that "God's invisible qualities" are visible in creation, such that all can recognize them, and those who don't are "without excuse.") But Johnston rejects Romans 1 as a basis for general revelation. The problem with views based on Romans 1 is that they tend to make general revelation a matter of human reason or intellect. They suggest that we can apply our minds to the world around us and work out the truth about God much like we would work out a math problem. But for Johnston, it is always and only God that does the revealing.
Theologians will recognize this as a defense of Karl Barth. Many will take interest—and perhaps umbrage—at Johnston's defense of Karl Barth's famous response ("Nein!") to Emil Brunner on questions of natural theology. For Johnston as for Barth, "it is God's initiative, not ours, that is central to all theology. It is God and God alone who is the actor in revelation; it is God who speaks, not us." But by this statement Johnston doesn't mean to lower the value of the transcendent experiences we have when we encounter works of art. In fact, just the opposite: Johnston aims to raise their value by insisting that they aren't mere "echoes" or "traces"; rather, they are nothing less than authentic experiences of God.
Johnston's focus on direct experience means he takes autobiographical details seriously. This allows him to perform some wonderfully original readings of Barth and C. S. Lewis. Johnston is a cogent explainer, but his readings go well beyond simple explanation. He even at times reads against the grain, showing how primary experiences of the divine shaped a thinker's project in spite of himself. For example, Johnston shows how Barth's experiences with Mozart became central to his religious and intellectual life. In fact, they made him downright uncomfortable because he was unable, at times, to completely reconcile them with his theology. Similarly, Johnston reads Lewis's autobiography, Surprised by Joy, as a story of God's wider presence at work. Although when he begins to speak about them theologically Lewis falls prey to the error of downplaying their importance, these experiences proved to be more important than rational arguments for Lewis's eventual conversion.
Clearly, Johnston's new book presents a remarkable and original way to think about the relationship between faith and the arts. But I don't mean to suggest that his is the first or only way. A book on the topic by a Roman Catholic or an Eastern Orthodox theologian might well ignore figures like Barth and Lewis. It might instead focus on equally astute thinkers like Hans Urs von Balthasar or David Bentley Hart. (Indeed, the role of beauty as a "transcendental," so important to these two theologians, receives only a brief mention in Johnston's book.)