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Where Is God?

Robert K. Johnston's God’s Wider Presence: Reconsidering General Revelation
Where Is God?

By Drew Trotter

 

Everyone has asked the question forming the title to this review, but they usually do so out of an existential need or in the midst of a crisis of faith. Robert Johnston, though, asks it from within a Protestant, reformed framework, and he asks it objectively: Where indeed is God to be found? Is He only found in the Church? In Scripture? In the experience of individuals or communities? Where is God? Perhaps better put, the question could be framed: Where does God reveal Himself?

This revisiting of the questions of a branch of theology as old as the oldest Biblical narratives could have been a standard rehashing. Not that much has been written on the subject in recent years, and the retelling of old stories in slightly different language, updating arguments for a new generation is not necessarily a bad thing.

But Johnston has given us something more, much more. Responding to story after story in the modern age of “god sightings” quite apart from a reading of Scripture or hearing a particularly powerful sermon, God’s Wider Presence develops an understanding of God’s revelation of Himself that breaks new ground and asks questions in a way that commits readers to ask and answer questions they are not likely to have asked before. Like all groundbreaking books, it is uneven in its discussion, but the book requires a careful examination nonetheless.

The form of the book is not particularly innovative. After an introductory chapter, briefly surveying why and how he will proceed, Johnston has chapters on the state of “spirituality” today, “the movie event” as a case study of spiritual experience outside the confines of traditional Christian experience of God, the teaching of Scripture on the subject (two chapters on that), the theological history of the question, an investigation of the role of the Holy Spirit in what is called “general revelation” (a term Johnston does not like: “…the term is a misnomer, as these experiences are far from general occurring not everywhere and to all people but sporadically to individuals in their everyday lives.” Loc 328), and finally a summary chapter, clarifying his conclusions. His language, while clear and readable, is not remarkable for its power or stylistic flair.

But this standard approach in terms of form may be just what is needed, when one considers how controversial Johnston’s conclusions are. It would be simply wrong and, therefore, downright unfair, to accuse him of heresy; Johnston is much too careful for that. But he does challenge the prevailing notion that, as he puts it, “God’s wider revelatory Presence [is] little more than the ‘footprint’ of God’s past activity,” or that we should “subsume general revelation under special revelation, creation theology under salvation theology, the work of the Spirit in Creation under the Spirit of Christ” (Loc 510).

Instead he argues that in three areas at least, God regularly reveals Himself and must be recognized. The first is creation. But this is not creation as evidence of God’s past activity, available to all at anytime. It is, rather, the Spirit of God “speaking” to the individual in that individual’s particular historical and cultural context to move him or her to act in obedience or in wonder or in gratitude in response to a particular starry night, or oceanic storm or whatever creational element is being experienced. Certainly Johnston affirms with C.S. Lewis that “All ground is holy and every bush (could we but perceive it) a Burning Bush” (Loc 3425), but the ability to perceive it is granted by the Holy Spirit when He (Johnston insists on using the pronoun “She” for the Spirit without, I believe, ever explaining why) wills and where He wills. The creational theology that Johnston brings to his theology of general revelation is particular and existential, not “general” at all.

The same is true of his second region of general revelation: conscience. It is not conscience itself as an abstraction that reveals God, but God Himself, working in and through conscience, Who reveals His Presence to the human agent. The distinction is crucial. As Lewis argued in The Abolition of Man, Natural Law is nothing more than a pointer to, and instrument of, the Lawgiver. The “Tao” is not one among many possible systems of ethics or morality; it is “the sole source of all value judgments.” But this source is meaningless apart from the work of the Lawgiver upon the human heart, revealing the inadequacy of human effort to keep the Law, at which point “Christianity begins to talk” (Loc 4094). Johnston goes beyond Lewis, insisting that the work of the Spirit in the conscience is not just to convince of sin, but rather also positively to give an experience of God. He clearly stops short of insisting that such experiences are salvific, but he does go beyond the minimalism of most Christian approaches to the work of God upon the conscience.

Lastly, culture is used regularly by God to reveal Himself to individuals. Johnston may be on a little shakier ground here; one feels that he uses the word “culture” so that he can have three “c’s” to articulate his framework. What he really means is art, and art generally defined as George Steiner defines it in Real Presences, “I can only put it this way (and every true poem, piece of music or painting says it better): there is aesthetic creation because there is creation” (Loc 4142). This art is not merely a pointer in itself to the presence of something greater, but is the place where that Something Greater speaks, or heals, or comforts. Again, Johnston is quick to say that this art does not contain sufficient clarity to save. He sums up: “…though such revelation [that which comes through art] cannot be contained, or its experience adequately communicated, what is revealed is more than a trace; it resounds, not sounds as a mere echo” (Loc 4176).

There is much more to Johnston’s book than we are able to discuss here. A particularly important area is his dialogue with Karl Barth, John Paul II, Amos Yong and Clark Pinnock concerning the Presence of God revealed in other religions. Johnston’s positions are both controversial in their elevation of pneumatology (the doctrine of the Spirit) to a place alongside Christology (the doctrine of Christ) in discussions of soteriology and challenging in their consistent portrayal of the Holy Spirit as the forgotten member of the Trinity in current discussion of spiritual life. His arguments are careful and thorough, and while not all will agree with them, they do constitute the basis for a potentially lively and important discussion.

 

The references above are to the Kindle edition of God’s Wider Presence.

 

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