Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University
LECTURE TRANSCRIPT: Transcript 28
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REVELATION: REMOVING THE VEIL
This text is a transcript of the full lecture of Prof. Frye on Sept. 15, 1981. Only the bold part is used in this version.
I've been dealing with various phases of what is traditionally called revelation in the Bible, and it seems to me that what we said at the beginning of the course about the way the Bible is arranged, with its Old Testament providing the types, in the Christian reading, of the antitypes of the New Testament, is a principle that applies here as well.
First of all, the conception of creation in the Bible provides the sense of an intelligible and controlled order: and the reality to which that points is the redemption of the people of God from a state of tyranny and exploitation. So in that sense, the Exodus is the antitype of the Creation; and in references to bringing Israel up from Egypt, it is spoken of as really the completion of the work of creation itself, as for example in Isaiah 51, where God is addressed as having destroyed the dragon of chaos at the Creation and then destroyed the force of tyranny with the deliverance of Israel out of the sea.
The Exodus gives to the Biblical religions that curiously revolutionary quality which Judaism and Christianity and Islam all have to some degree: and we saw that a nation which has gone through that kind of revolutionary experience becomes a nation with a very strong sense of its own corporate unity because of the experience which its people have shared. Thus, law becomes really the antitype of the birth of Israel at the deliverance from Egypt, or the reality to which it points.
Law, of course, is a social thing, and consequently is approximate and incomplete until it is incorporated in the attitude of the individual: and we saw that wisdom in the Bible was thought of as essentially the individualization of the law.
Then we saw that wisdom is a way of life which looks for continuity and stability, persistence in the same line of conduct, and faces the future with a mental attitude described in the Vulgate as prudentia, prudence, the stabilizing of future contingency by past experience. And that, we saw, was something that leads to a much more radical conception, a conception of prophecy, which individualizes the revolutionary feeling just as wisdom does the law, and sees man as at the bottom of a U-curve, between his original state and his final deliverance.
Then again, it is prophecy in particular that is regarded in the Christian Bible as fulfilled by the gospel because, whereas for Judaism the book that Christianity calls the Old Testament is essentially a book of the law, in Christianity the Old Testament is primarily a book of prophecy; and the prophecy is regarded as fulfilled by the gospel, which is the account of God himself in human form going through this U-curve that we described earlier: that is, as descending through the Incarnation into the level of human experience and rising from that again in the Resurrection.
I had to complicate my account of the gospel by talking about the different attitude to time which it seems to me to require. Part of my reason for stressing that is that our notions of time still are apt to persist unchanged; and there's a great deal of advantage in an attitude which keeps its antitypes still in the future. As long as they are as yet unfulfilled, it is in a sense easier to trust to them. That is, Christianity was confronted very early with the dilemma that the redemption of mankind was supposed to have taken place, and yet history seemed to go on very largely unchanged. There is no difficulty about that as long as you remember that two conceptions of time are involved: but if you've only got one conception of time, it is a problem. So concurrently with the conception of the gospel, we have the notion of the gospel itself as being fulfilled in a Second Coming, which puts an end to history as we have known it. Now actually, that is at least metaphorically true of the gospel itself, because one central fact about the conception of Jesus in the New Testament is that he is both master and servant, and symbolically, the dialectic of history ends at the point at which the master and the servant become the same person.
The relation of the first coming to the Second Coming is again portrayed in that image that we found at the end of the Book of Job: 'I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye seeth thee'. That is, the gospel is essentially an oral teaching, and a great deal of emphasis is thrown on the hearing of the Word. The physical appearance of Christ is in curious contrast to the things that he says: his utterances are gathered up and recorded with great care, but the fact that he was bound to resemble some people more closely than others could never have been anything but an embarrassment to the Church, and so we adopted that vaguely Italinate compromise as our visible conception of Christ. But the apocalypse is essentially an opening of vision, and the phrase that appears very near the beginning of the Book of Revelation is that every eye shall see him.
Now what they see, of course, is the Word made an object of vision rather than something listened to. I previously remarked, I think, on the fact that the Book of Revelation is a dense mosaic of allusions to the Old Testament: Ezekiel and Daniel and Zechariah and Isaiah are made the stuff and texture of the vision that is portrayed in the Book of Revelation itself. The author of Revelation seems to have been closer to the Hebrew text of the Old Testament than most of the New Testament writers, and so when he says that he saw this in a vision on Patmos, the statement is not a contradiction of the fact that his book is a dense mosaic of allusions to Old Testament imagery. In the terms that he was trying to present, there is no difference between what he sees in vision on Patmos and what he sees in the text of Ezekiel or Zechariah, because what he is seeing is primarily for him the meaning of the Word of God. That is why there is such an emphasis on vision in the book, although Revelation is not at all a clearly visualized book. There have been many illustrators that have struggled with its seven-headed and ten-horned dragon, and their testimony is unanimous that the Book of Revelation is not technically visualized. What is thrown into a pattern and more or less projected on a screen is the structure of imagery in the Bible presented as a single unity.
And just as the conception of the relation of the gospel to prophecy relates the present event in the Gospels to the past, so the conception of the apocalypse relates it to a future, so, that there have always been in what one might call populist Christianity a strong hankering for a dramatic end to history to come at a very short time in the future, which will end time as we have known it.
The popular conception of time in Christianity is perhaps one of its least attractive features. The seventeenth century with Galileo saw mythological space replaced by scientific space, and the Church managed to survive that: we discovered that we could live without the metaphor of God as up there in the sky. The remark of Khruschev when the early Russian astronauts started exploring outer space, that they didn't find any trace of God up there, didn't really come with very much of a disastrous impact on any of the western religions: we're past that particular structure of metaphor and don't need to project it anymore.
But at the very time when that revolution in space was occurring, we had Archbishop Ussher in seventeenth-century England explaining that the world was created in 4000 B.C. and would last for six thousand years plus one thousand years millennium. Consequently, because there had been an error of four years, the millennium will start in 1996. I think that most of us are resigned to the high probability that the millennium will not start in 1996: in other words, we've gone past the metaphor of time just as we got over the metaphor of space in connection with the existence or activity of God. During the nineteenth century, various millennial sects used to gather on top of a mountain to wait for the end of the world. But the irony of their situation was revealed by the existence of the mountain itself, which had been there for millions of years and had every prospect of staying there for several million years more. So that is why I put the emphasis I do on the necessity of transcending our regular notions of time and space in order to understand what the Bible is talking about. When it talks of time, and says that the kairos, the crucial moment of time, is at hand, it is not talking about the ticking of a watch.
The word 'apocalypse', the name of the last book of the Bible, is the Greek word for revelation. That is why the book is called Revelation in English translation, and what John at Patmos sees in the book is a panorama of certain things in human experience taking on different forms. There is an analogy which seems to be a fairly useful one in the Oriental scripture known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. When a man is dying, a priest comes to his house, and when the man dies, the priest starts reading the Book of the Dead into his ear, because the corpse is assumed to be able to hear the reading and to be guided by what is said. The priest explains to the corpse that he is going to have a progression of visions, first of peaceful deities and then of wrathful deities, and that he is to realize that these are simply his own repressed thoughts and images coming to the surface because they have been released by death; and that if he could only understand that they are coming out of his mind, he could be delivered from their power, because it is really his own power. It is also assumed that practically every corpse to whom this book is read will be too stupid to understand what's going on, and will go on from one blunder to another until finally he wakes up in the world again: because the assumption behind it is one of reincarnation.
In the Book of Revelation, something of that kind is going on too. The sun is turned into darkness and the moon into blood, there are horses riding across the world, there are huge dragons emerging out of the sea, and the most fantastic events are taking place; but again, these are the repressed images of a persecuted people coming to the surface, and they are its consciousness of what is occurring. So one wonders if it is possible to go a step further and suggest that man creates what he calls history in order to conceal what is really happening from himself. What applies to the apocalyptic vision in Revelation may also apply to the story of Jesus in the Gospels. The Gospels are a fulfillment of prophecy: therefore they can hardly be history as we understand history. We think of history as trying to put the reader where the events were. History tells the reader what he would have seen if he'd been present, say, at the assassination of Caesar. But what the Gospels tell us is rather something like this: if you had been present on the hills of Bethlehem in the year nothing, you might not have heard a chorus of angels. But what you would have seen and heard would have missed the whole point of what was actually going on. Thus, the antitypes of history and of prophecy as we have them in the gospel and the apocalypse give you not what you would have seen and heard, or what I would have seen and heard, but what was actually going on which we don't have the spiritual vision to reach to.
The Bible ends in Revelation 22: 'I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star. And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whoever will, let him take the water of life freely'. Then we go on to a caution of the type that one often gets in sacred books, saying, you are not to add to or take away from a single word of what is written in this book. Now, the superficial meaning of 'this book' is apparently just the Book of Revelation, but the more I study it, the more convinced I am that the author of the Book of Revelation is quite deliberately making his book a coda or conclusion to the entire canon. I don't know how much he knew about the canon in his day, nor do I think it matters, but I think that 'this book' has perhaps a much wider reference than the Book of Revelation. He says of 'this book' that nothing is to be added or taken away: in other words, this is it. There is no more. This is where the Bible ends. You notice that it is a remarkably open ending.
'The Spirit and the bride say, Come. Let him that heareth say, Come. Let him that is athirst come. And whoever will, let him take the water of life freely'. The suggestion seems to be that the Bible reaches in its closing words, not an end, but a beginning. And that beginning is in the mind of the reader. So that the apocalypse, in its turn, becomes a type. In that case, what is its antitype? If you look over that list, you'll see there's only one thing it can possibly be, and that is where we started, with a new creation: which is how Paul describes the gospel in Romans and elsewhere.
In Milton, for example, you have a great many prose writings and of course all his poetry devoted to the general principle that the Bible must be given an authority independent of the Church, so that the Church does not interpret the Bible, or at least its interpretation is not definitive. Instead, Christianity takes the form of a dialogue between the Word of God and the Church. And yet, while Milton places the authority of the Bible higher than the authority of the Church, he also places the authority of what he calls the 'Word of God in the heart', that is, the reader's comprehension of the Bible, higher than the Bible itself. That sounds as though he were setting up a standard of what is called private judgment over against the whole of history and tradition. But that's not the way Milton was thinking at all. For him, it is in the long run not the ego, not the individual eye, that reads the Bible at all, but the Holy Spirit within the reader. And that of course, being a Person of God, has a unity that transcends that of the individual reader.
The important thing is the reversal of perspective which takes place in the reader's mind-or should take place in the reader's mind-when he reaches the end of the Bible, which is also the beginning of his life. Bernard Shaw remarks about the mousetrap play in Hamlet that Claudius is enthralled by the play, not because it's a great play, but because it's about him. That is true also of the Bible: that its meaning is de te fabula, the story is about you. And the recreation of the book the reader's mind is the end at which it is directed. Therefore, the Creation spoken of in Genesis is not for us primarily the beginning of nature as such, but rather the beginning of conscious understanding, where the primary defining limits are the beginning and the end, and it winds up with this divine Creation which God made and saw to be good being recreated in the reader's mind.
The new Creation will actually incorporate the whole sequence: it would start certainly as a revolution in the reader's mind and would also encapsulate the whole sequence down to the apocalypse itself. It's obvious that if these are all types of antitypes in a single process, they all have to be an essential part of the conclusion. For there can certainly be no sense of a new Creation without a revolutionary expansion of consciousness.
This new Creation is not in the egocentric mind, is not in the individual mind. It's in the mind of the individual reader as a member of a community, and it's in the community as a community within the Holy Spirit, the Person of God. I keep coming back to Milton because he seems to put these things very lucidly: that is how Milton explains in his day why Christianity becomes a revolutionary force in history. It becomes a revolutionary force by trying not to. Society is usually a pyramid of authority with one man at the top. The community, united in the understanding of the word of God, is a foursquare community, where everybody is free and equal by their faith. Therefore, every structure of society has to come to terms with this indigestible cube in the middle of it, and eventually has to adapt to it. The gospel begins by dividing spiritual and temporal authority: Jesus says, render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's. The trouble is that there comes a point at which Caesar demands what is due only to God, that is, divine worship. As soon as that happens, the foursquare community becomes a revolutionary force.
It might not be theoretically true that a counter-revolution is impossible in a new Creation. But when Adam was made a part of the Creation, he was hitched on to an infinite power. He had the free will to break away from that, and consequently, it is the redemption out of bondage that has to be the antitype of creation. It is that because the Creation included a falling away from creation, and in the new Creation, one is again hitched back on to the eternal, infinite power that began it. It would depend of course on the role that you ascribe to time: if ordinary historical time continues to be the central fact of our experience, there is still the possibility of the falling away again. In fact, we see it happening constantly. But the whole Christian scheme as expounded by Milton and everybody else has a considerable dislike of the closing of the circle which one finds in Oriental religions with the conception of reincarnation. In the Christian Odyssey, the one idea is to get back home like Ulysses; but like a baseball player, you have to go around the circle to get there, and when you get home, it isn't quite the same place it was when you left it. And so there is a kind of gap, a kind of spark between the Creation at the beginning and the new Creation at the end. If you close the gap, and make it a completed circle, then you have the Hindu conception of reincarnation as repeating itself at different times through history.
I think that probably every cycle is just a failed spiral, and that history and nature collapse into cycles because they are too lazy to start again at another level. Yet there is the level by which one starts at Genesis and ends in Revelation, and that is followed by what happens in the reader's mind after he does that, which is an experience at a different level, and so on up. But that's something the Bible feels it's not its business to expound.