Revelation As a Form of Divine Action
When I voluntarily raise my arm, this is a perfectly normal thing to do. No one would think it was an amazing miracle, of tremendous spiritual significance. But a mental feature, my intention and decision, was the main cause of my arm's going up. Lots of physical causes were also necessary; but, in the complex physical state constituted by my brain, body, and environment, intentional causes are also allowed to operate. At least in such complex highly organized states, the physical allows and invites mental influence. Such influence is part of the normal way of things.
There are many arguments about whether mental states are reducible to physical states, and, in chapter six, I have argued they are not. But, even if they were, there is no question that God, who by definition precedes all physical states, is not a physical being or state. So, in God's case, a purely mental (or spiritual) state is believed to cause physical states— most dramatically, God creates the universe.
It seems possible that God could create specific physical states not wholly accounted for by preceding physical states and general mathematical descriptions of such states (the laws of nature). Such causal influence would not "interfere in" or "break" laws of nature because such laws specifically allow, and in some circumstances, invite, the influence of nonphysical factors.
What is needed to make this picture seem plausible is a view of the physical cosmos as intrinsically oriented to a spiritual cause and goal. The cosmos not only springs from a Supreme Consciousness: it is destined to produce beings that will relate in knowledge and cooperative action to that Consciousness. After the example of the anthropic principle and following the lead of some early Christian writers, we might see believers in God as committed to a principle of theosis (theopoiesis, or theosis in shortened form, means "deification" and was used by the fourth-century Christian theologian Athanasius). This principle states that the cosmos must be such that it will produce beings of awareness, intention, a sense of transcendence, and the possibility of conscious union with God.
We can, then, say that the cosmos will be open to the particular actions of God wherever that is necessary to establish a unity of awareness and will with God. We can only say very generally when that will be. But it will entail occasions when God "speaks" or communicates with finite persons and actively unites them to the Divine Nature. If that did not happen, there would be little sense in speaking of conscious union with God as a goal of the religious life.
Revelation primarily consists in the communicative action of God, disclosing the reality and nature of God and, at least in general terms, the purpose and goal of the cosmos. If there is a God with a purpose for human lives, it is almost inconceivable that God should not communicate that purpose and the means to achieve it. And it is highly probable that God will do so through exceptional individuals of great wisdom, moral excellence, and mental stability, who have an especially clear and vivid awareness of God. So, for anyone who accepts the existence of a Supreme Transcendent Value, there is a high prior probability that there will exist divinely inspired prophets, who will become vehicles of divine communication.
It does not follow that religious doctrines are to be accepted without question on the authority of some ancient prophet. On the contrary, because of the developing and incremental nature of human knowledge and the frailty of human minds, it seems likely that what is felt to be divinely revealed at a particular time will be subject to much subsequent development and modification. It will be largely conditioned, and therefore limited, by the concepts and beliefs available in the cultural context of prophets. For anyone who accepts the importance of informed critical inquiry, revelation is likely to be seen as a divine communication that is received and interpreted by the very imperfect comprehension of human minds and cultures.
Particular persons have specific abilities and preferences and exist in specific historical and social contexts. Their perception of the supreme beauty and goodness that is God and of the moral goal of the cosmos will be partly dependent upon their current conceptions of beauty and goodness and upon their current ideas about the nature of the cosmos.
Reflecting upon the biblical record of divine revelation to the patriarchs and prophets over many centuries, we may hypothesize that God's revelatory actions consisted in raising up a succession of leaders and prophets to whom could be progressively communicated an objective vision of Supreme Goodness, a categorical moral demand for justice and mercy, and a promise of moral fulfillment in the future. The history of ancient Israel gave rise to a cumulative and historically unique tradition of conscious relationship between one group of nomadic tribes and a God who laid on them the vocation to become "the priests of the Lord" for all the earth (Isa. 61:6).
But, as is clear from the biblical account, this is complicated by the fact that human responses to divine initiatives are ambiguous and infected with the will to pleasure and power. The objective moral vision is almost always compromised. In the case of virtually all the patriarchs and prophets of Israel, the divine vocation was compromised, and there was no smooth progression toward a society of justice and peace or toward a finally perfect understanding of what God is and requires. For that reason, the understanding and reception of revelation require continual critical judgment and sensitive discrimination. That process will need to continue for as long as humans continue to exist.