Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

Dialogue on Revelation with Edmund Leach

April 1967
Theme: Dialogues with atheists   Place: Universities, colleges   Period: 1966-1970   Genre: Interview

Dialogue between Edmund and Anthony: Revelation

Edmund Leach, Provost of King’s College, Cambridge; Anthony Bloom, Archbishop of Sourozh.

Edmund: I would like to know how you, Anthony, use this concept of revelation in the context in which you find it necessary.

Anthony: I think that revelation is a concept which is corollary to the existence of either a personal God or even human persons as persons – that is of a realm into which one cannot force one’s way. A person can make himself or herself known but you cannot force yourself into the knowledge of a person. That is where I would begin. For me, the two things, revelation and persons, are parallel. If there is a God who is different from us, that is, who doesn’t overlap with us, who has existence apart from us, and if we are to know anything about him, beginning with his existence and continuing with what he is, then there must be a moment of revelation when he unveils something about himself – he discloses something about himself.

Edmund: And you find it necessary that your concept of Deity should be other than us! Another different way of thinking about Deity is the sociological way. Namely that the collectivity of society has something within itself which is other than the individuals which make up society and that this is what you are talking about.

Anthony: Well, as far as concepts are concerned, I think one can conceive a variety of ways of defining Deity. If I may put it most arrogantly, as far as my knowledge of God is concerned, I have only one way of knowing Him. God as I know Him, is someone, and therefore I am in a situation of relatedness with him: of mutual discovery in a certain sense, but certainly of discovery on my part.

Edmund: It is this idea of God as a person which I find difficult to understand. Are you saying that your awareness is that you receive messages and therefore that there must be a sender of the message?

Anthony: I wouldn’t define it quite that way, because, when you say I receive messages, it really almost implies that the only thing I am aware of is the message and I make a sort of extrapolation – I deduce from it the fact that there is someone sending the message. I would say I know the person primarily.

Edmund: How do you know a person if you don’t receive a message from him?

Anthony: Well, both go together, but, you see, when you say that you receive messages and therefore you know there is a person, you assume that the person is out of reach – out of touch. If I receive letters and deduce that there is a sender, I am aware of letters and what they say. I am not aware of the person beyond the letters, whereas if we know each other, whatever you can convey in terms of vocal message or gesture, or what have you, will only be part of my total knowledge of the person who is sitting in front of me. And I would say that a believer, who is aware, or at least thinks he is aware that he knows his God, has a global knowledge which is far greater than the particular messages he can receive. You know, the way in which two persons know one another. They know one another to a much greater extent than they communicate in speech, in gesture, or in relationship.

Edmund: So that you use this feeling about other persons as the most important analogy which you can use for your notion of God?

Anthony: Yes.

Edmund: How could one verify this? How could you demonstrate that your feeling that your awareness of God is like your awareness of other persons shows that God is a person? Is it a purely intuitional feeling that this is the most satisfactory way of talking about the notion of Deity, or is it something that could be put to the test in any way?

Anthony: I think it cannot be put to the test any more than a human person can be forced to reveal himself to another. If I dislike someone, I will just recoil and be a physical presence, or, if you prefer it, a complete absence. I will just be bulk in an armchair. You cannot force a person to reveal anything of the inner self, so that in that respect there is with God the same freedom on both sides. I can turn away from him and he can choose distancing himself from me, so that I cannot simply deal with my search of God as I would deal with experimental science. I cannot assume that he is bound to be dealt with the moment I choose to do so.

Edmund: Clearly our notion of person starts with our awareness of other human beings. This is where the nucleus of our idea of person arises. But in that case could one attach any meaning to this notion of person except as a corporeal person? Isn’t your notion of person directly linked up with the fact that the origin of your person concept is a flesh and blood human being?

Anthony: Why? That’s something I don’t see the logic of. I don’t see why someone is bound to be the corporeal presence.

Edmund: Well, earlier you yourself used this point. You remarked that if you receive a letter from someone, but all you receive in the letter is a message and the person is not there, then what would be lacking would be physical contact with the flesh and blood writer of the letter.

Anthony: Well, as far as the letter is concerned, yes, but as far as a person is concerned, I don’t think it is inconceivable that, as we possess a mind, one could be aware of a mind. If you admit that you have got a soul, you can be aware of something which is not corporeal. Besides, I don’t see either that – admitting that God is not corporeal – he cannot make himself known through our corporeal reality. And further, I don’t see why we should not think of our knowledge of God being pin-pointed in the incarnate God. Say in Christ. If you need so much a corporeal presence – well, there is one to me. I don’t think it a necessity, but I think if you want to have it you have it.

Edmund: This is just an assertion – not argument. You have still avoided saying what this direct knowledge of a person is. How can you be aware of a person if there is no corporeal or material mediator between yourself and that person?

Anthony: I think it is something like our perception of beauty or love or music.

Edmund: May I perhaps rephrase your argument? You ask me to start with a human being who is a thinking rational creature – I would myself pull away from your idea that you can have a mind without a human being attached to it; I’m not sure this means anything; anyway, we start with our human being who thinks and behaves and reasons in the world, and this same human being also has aesthetic judgements which somehow escape from rational analysis. You say that it is precisely these aesthetic judgements (and feelings analogous to them) which make this individual a person as opposed to a kind of thinking machine. This is the difference between the computerized aspect of the human being and the aesthetic aspect of the human being. Is this what you mean when you say Deity is a person? But if so, is it helpful? You see, what you’ve now been saying is that man’s awareness that he is a human being, as distinct from the animal creature, shows him to be a very complicated creature. He isn’t just a behaviouristic animal. He is a creature who has values and sentiments and so on, but this surely is all part of our analysis of what we mean by human being? Does it in fact help at all to say that this kind of distinction puts the animal on the one side, and the divine on the other?

Anthony: I am not going to follow this argument, but insist on the right to start at the other end. I start with something which I believe to be a personal experience of God whom I know as “someone”. I know that the word “person” is a complex and difficult one, but if we reduce the concept to saying “someone” and not “something” it would possibly be more precise and at the same time less open to a complex discussion of the term. You see, my first meeting with God, when “I met him” – if I may put it this way – was a meeting with “someone” and my subsequent reasoning is a result of this primordial experience. It is someone I met and not a sociological situation or any intuitive notion. It did not grow out of me, it was positive, opposite me, as it were. I became aware of an otherness, a presence and a “someone” in the sense that there can be a dialogue and a relationship. That’s where I begin, and this is why I put it that way, and in that sense “someone” and “revelation” are correlative simply because someone can be discovered only to the extent to which he reveals himself, unfolds, discloses, opens himself to knowledge, or to discovery.

Edmund: Yes, but how far do you claim that such an awareness of relationship with God is independent of your cultural training? What I have in mind here is this: you have a private experience, but in order to communicate something of this experience to me or even to yourself you have to give the experience a name and to frame it in a concept. You then say that you see this relationship as being one between yourself and another person. Now human beings first experience relationships in the context of their family. Are you saying that you are interpreting this other experience by reference to a recollection of your pre-speech experience of what relationship is? Can you see what I mean? Why do you describe mystical feeling as a relationship between persons? You are able only to do this because you have a rather elaborate apparatus of language with which to make this analogy. But suppose you had no such language. Are you claiming that what you describe as your experience of God is like the experience which a speechless child has of its mother or of its Father, and that it is this notion of relationship which you are using, picking it out of your past experience? As it were projecting the childhood feeling on to this other? Mind you I agree that this way of looking at things is very common. In many parts of the world the notion of God the Father is very far from being just a metaphor. The idea of deity and of parent is often scarcely distinguished – “ancestor worship” is simply obedience to parents raised to the level of cult.

Anthony: I think perhaps I should be more personal than that. The primordial experience to which I refer is the sense of a real concrete presence of someone. That’s where it begins. It doesn’t begin with a relationship which afterwards – you know – gropes in the dark to find what to attach itself to. But with the discovery of someone confronting me, the relationship came afterwards in exactly the same way as we met a quarter of an hour ago, when you walked into the room, and there was no relationship whatever at the moment. The relationship is being built up at present gradually. We are related because you walked into the room. In exactly the same way at a certain moment (you may of course, interpret this as mental deficiency or a sort of mental trouble) I became aware that the Lord Jesus Christ was standing there, although I had no kind of perception in the sense of, well, hearing, seeing, and so on, and that’s where it began. It began with someone being there and it continued in a way of being related to that someone. This is why I feel on the other hand that it is not something in which one can experiment, because one can experiment only when one can establish certain conditions artificially. One can’t artificially establish the presence of someone else. When the someone is there, one can experiment in the relatedness and in the relationship but one cannot create a presence and in that sense there is an experimental part in religion which is the way in which I perceive and discover the contents of it. But there is a moment which is beyond the experiment because it needs an event which cannot be provoked. Exactly the same way in which you can study an eclipse if there is an eclipse, but that’s all you can do. You must wait for the next one to be able to study it. You cannot artificially provoke an eclipse of the sun or the moon.

Edmund: I find this very difficult on several grounds. In the first place your certainty that you have come face to face with the Lord Jesus Christ depends on your Christian upbringing. If you had been brought up in South India you might have interpreted the same experience as a confrontation with Vishnu or Shiva. Perhaps you will say that this doesn’t really matter because the divine is always the divine whatever be the name by which we know “Him”, but if so I must ask again how you can square this generalized idea of deity with the more particular idea of a personal God. Suppose that where you meet Jesus Christ I meet the Virgin Mary or the Goddess of Destruction Kali, does it make no difference? And how can we distinguish? Furthermore how can we evaluate this highly personal private experience of a confrontation with God? I am an anthropologist. My concern with religion is comparative; I encounter religion in different forms. Clearly, in terms of what we’ve been talking about, societies differ very greatly in the degree to which they attach respect to these states of mind in which individuals claim that they have personal contact with metaphysical being. At the present time, in Western Europe and particularly in England, a great deal of what we have been talking about is looked upon as “phoney” simply because of the strongly empirical bias of orthodox philosophy. All mysticism is somehow suspect, even the churches are very suspicious of saints who claim mystical experiences. At the other extreme you meet with societies in which mystical experience is highly valued. Here we may find that it is taken for granted that the normal way to obtain guidance as to what is metaphysically ordained is by direct personal contact with the Deity. In such societies techniques for the attainment of mystical experience are specially cultivated. States of cataleptic trance and irrational ecstasy are considered to be within the reach of all. It would appear that this is not something which just varies randomly between individuals. If you have a society which approves of people gaining mystical experience, then most adults will claim that they have had such experiences and it will be a “normal” expectation that at any religious rite the priest or members of the congregation will achieve some kind of direct “communion” with God while in a state of trance. On the other hand, if you are in a society which disapproves of this kind of thing, the proportion of people who claim to have mystical experience becomes very small because by making such claims they are courting social disapproval. Now how do you evaluate this difference: in some societies a large number of people claim to have mystical experiences, in other societies only a small number of people claim to have them? Are they all on a par or can we discriminate one from the other?

Anthony: But in all societies some people are more perceptive just as some are more perceptive to music. Indeed, if instead of mystical experience we spoke of music….

Edmund: I cannot really accept this. At the start we both assumed that by revelation we meant mystical experience; now you suggest that it simply means aesthetic experience. Do you want to use the notion of revelation in such a way that it applies equally to all knowledge of persons and all experience of beauty, as in music?

Anthony: I think that it’s practically always used with relation to the divine but I don’t think that it should be only part of a terminology which is specifically religious. Whenever something is being disclosed which cannot be conquered from the outside it is an act of revelation.

Edmund: Revelation then is communication? This brings us back to this business of messages. Let’s admit for the sake of argument that when I am listening to a Bach fugue, I’m in communication with Bach. But in that case I can analyse the medium of communication – that’s to say the music – I can show the structure of the music. I can discover the mechanism by which the musical communication is being established, in the same way that I can, by studying the phonetics, the grammar, and the syntax, analyse the process by which language conveys any meaning to me. In the case of language the analysis of the phonetics, etc., will not tell me anything about the message that is being conveyed. It merely shows how the sounds are conveying a meaning. In the same way the analysis of the structure of music or the structure of colour tones in pictures will tell me quite a lot about how this medium of communication can possibly communicate anything, but it doesn’t tell me what is being communicated. Now my difficulty is that when we move to the religious sphere I am told that something is being communicated, yet I’m not being shown any medium through which the communication is being established. Do you see what I mean? In the case of music or language I have sound patterns and so on which I can put on a tape recorder and tear to pieces. In the case of the religious experience, you are saying “Ah! but in the same way something is being communicated”, but you’re not providing me with evidence that there is any medium of communication. This is what I find difficult.

Anthony: Then how do you, as an anthropologist, interpret our knowledge of persons?

Edmund: The answer is that I don’t think this form of words has great meaning to me. As an anthropologist I am ordinarily in the role of outsider. The things I discern about the relationships between the individuals are quite different from the things which they experience about each other. But the anthropologist always insists that no single relationship is simply a dyadic pair which you can cut off from the rest of society. An individual has a social personality because of the total position which he occupies in society. I as an outside observer can never make a direct confrontation with such a “person”. There is no point at which I can treat any one individual action as isolated because it is only in the context of the wider society that he is acting at all. This is why as an anthropologist I often find that the concept of Deity appears to be superfluous. The “personal” relationship between the individual and his God which we have talked about seems to me indistinguishable from the social network of relationship which links the individual actor to his society and which thereby gives the individual a social personality. In the language of anthropologists persons and individuals are contrasted. Individuals are isolated animals; persons are human beings enmeshed in a cultural and social context, never standing alone.

Anthony: But at this point I wonder, does the fact that there is a collective experience, a sort of sum total, invalidate the objective reality of the experience of personal confrontation? And if that experience occurs within a society, even a small one such as a ghetto type, does it mean that it is an induced and a falsified experience – a sort of a fake – a thing which is man-made and to which people work themselves up in order to conform?

Edmund: I don’t think it is a fake. I think there is a sense in which it’s clearly man-made but this is what always fascinates me. Could it be that at this point you and I are really talking about the same thing even if we use different languages, namely that there are experiences or values which are common to a whole society and which are not the invention of any particular individual? We must both agree for example that, if you take our whole Western society at the present time, we have certain values about art and music which are peculiar to us and not shared by people who have not been brought up in our culture. You have to have a certain cultural education before you can hope to be in any way sensitive to Bach or Beethoven and so on, so that, if there is real aesthetic merit in this kind of music, it is partly locked up with the fact that we have to be educated in this particular way before we can be sensitive to it. Now in the same way, it seems to me, one has to be educated in a particular way religiously before one can be sensitive to a particular kind of religious experience, and this is where I begin to classify.

Anthony: What would you make of individuals who are brought up in complete atheism? I’m not thinking of active aggressive atheism which creates its counterpart but of a sort of practical atheism that makes God completely absent and irrelevant. Such atheists one day bump on an experience which to them is a discovery of God. There may be a very simple explanation which I don’t know. I’m simply impressed by the fact that it does happen. People who are not anti-God, and therefore for whom God is not present, and who have no reason to be either for or against since God is totally irrelevant, yet discover him within a social group where he does not exist – where he is completely absent.

Edmund: Well of course, the difficulty here is that we all of us exist within a social group of some kind, in fact a whole series of Chinese boxes of social groups within groups so that our values are never free. We have already got a whole set of values which have been taught to us by the very language we use so that the way we interpret experience is necessarily tied up with our education and our language and the categories of our thought and so on. But I don’t think this means that our experiences are fake. I mean to say…..

Anthony: Well, they may correspond to objective reality or they may not. They may not be fake. I mean no experience is unreal, because it’s real as experience, but it may not correspond to an object of experience.

Edmund: You seem to have changed sides. Is there any way at all then of judging between more or less valid experiences?

Anthony: I think – I’m not sure I’m using the right terminology from a philosophical point of view – intuition is something which comes from the inside which may be true, and revelation is a discovery of something which is outside, comes from the outside. But I don’t know of a way of distinguishing the one from the other. Whether or not a person was revealing himself, I know I had an experience that changed my life. I think that in a religious society one of the ways in which people will approach revelations is that something has come to a number of individuals as coming from outside and there is coincidence between what they say it says.

Edmund: People agree – yes.

Anthony: People who did not receive the knowledge of the thing from each other, who received it independently, discover that they say the same thing, they know the same thing about the same thing.

Edmund: If one is being sociological and atheistical about this, one says that one way of thinking about man in society is to make this kind of dichotomy between the individual and the society, and the society is treated as a kind of collectivity which can be described. A society has certain rules, a certain structure, it has certain values; this is a sort of Durkheimian sociology. And then you reify the society and talk of the Society as if it thought, acted, worked, as a collectivity – as if it had a collective conscience – and you think of Society as imposing its will on the individual. When you’ve got this far it is just one possible language of description; there are other alternative ways of describing the same ideas; if you choose to turn it right over into a religious frame, you will not have moved very far. You will have changed the words. My difficulty is to know whether, when you talk about a Deity who is external to the individual, and who is as it were, giving messages to individuals which they pick up, you are really talking about anything different from the notion of Society as a sort of collectivity, which has a collective conscience, which imposes its will on the individual. Have I made my point?

Anthony: I think you have indeed established the equivalence of the two theoretical descriptions so far as they cover the same set of facts. To make it justifiable for me to prefer my description (and I have to admit – as the one who wants the more speculative description – that the onus is on me to justify myself) I shall have to argue that when we speak as I wish to do of direct experience of a person, I am alluding to some facts which are not brought into prominence by your sociological description. We cannot know God beyond the categories in which we can perceive and reason.

Edmund: Well, all you’re saying now, surely, is that since your language limits you to talking about and evisaging entities of which you have experience in a visual, perceptive, aural sense, then if there are any kinds of direct experiences of God, and if God is extrinsic to the situation, you cannot in fact talk about this experience, because you have no language with which to do so. In that case, I, as a sceptic, have to say, well why is it necessary to talk about it? Why must you struggle to express in words experiences for which you can offer no evidence?

Anthony: I would say more than that. I think that there is, beyond the knowable and the revealable in God, something unknowable which he knows and no-one will know apart from him. I would draw a parallel also with a human person in that respect. I think that there is in every human person an unknowable element. I am not now pre-judging what will happen when science has gone far beyond where it is now, but, as far as we are concerned, there is a central core which is beyond our knowing. Simply because logically, if we could know this core as this core knows itself, or even beyond that, there would be such identification that you would be me – I would be you – and we wouldn’t be discussing anything. So in that sense, I think there is in God a central core which is beyond revelation because it is him. I know these images seem and are ridiculous, but there is a point at which one can begin to know God and at that moment we discover him as the other one. As not me. And not me in a more radical way than a collective experience or a collective reality. You see I can perceive society as being not me while I am it to a certain extent.

Edmund: You have come back again to this assertion of a highly personal belief in the awareness of the Divine “other”. But can we as third parties who are not sharing in your experience have any criteria at all for “validating”? If Hitler said : “I know that I am inspired by something or other to lead the German Volk” – perhaps to disaster, what criteria have we for saying that he was wrong but you are right? Isn’t it essentially important that we should have some means of distinguishing between the true prophet and the false? How do you apply your concept of a central core to personality in a case like this? All societies produce their inspired leaders who commune with God – they cannot surely all be equally “correct”.

Anthony: I am afraid I haven’t thought that one out. I could give you criteria that I in fact work on, but if you place yourself as a total outsider you can have no criteria. I will say that the criterion of holiness is love.

Edmund: But who is to judge? You claim to be able to distinguish love and holiness but why should I accept your claim? Surely the criterion of revelation is truth. But who is to judge what is true? As an anthropologist with a knowledge of comparative religion, I know that in very widely different societies we can meet with people who have this conviction that they have personally been in touch, face to face, with the Deity. Yet the behaviour of such people is not standardized. If you have this experience as a Pakistani mystic or a Malayan aboriginal mystic or a Christian mystic, your physical condition will not always be of the same kind. Some people will be very passive, others will be extremely active. Indeed even within a single society some may claim that divine inspiration is to be achieved by asceticism while others seek the same goal through ecstasy. Some hold that divine love is sexual, as witness the temple sculptures of mediaeval India, others that it is sexless, as witness St. Paul. Why should I prefer one road to enlightenment rather than the other? I have no objective grounds for thinking that any one type of experience has greater “validity” than any other. Yet I do not want to maintain that no such grounds could possibly exist.

Published: THEORIA TO THEORY, Vol. 1, April 1967

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