Godsends: The Surprise of Revelation

I want to reflect on the nature of revelation, but I would like to do so by a step sideways. I want to look at something in everyday language that itself is revealing, perhaps revealing also about the nature of revelation, if understood in certain ways. If I take a sideways step, I grant the need also to detail some of the features of some more familiar ways of talking philosophically about revelation and reason, and this I will do too. But at the outset I want to say that surprising ideas are manifest in everyday language that, while seeming ordinary, put us in mind of something not quite ordinary, perhaps something out of the ordinary.

Earlier in the twentieth century there was a movement in philosophy most often called “ordinary language philosophy” and associated with some strands of influence of Wittgenstein. I want to ask if there might well be something we might call “ordinary language theology” (for want of a better word). In any event, the issue turns on the ordinary becoming the occasion of extraordinary communications.

The word godsend has about it something of this character, I suggest. It is a fascinating word, and there is something about it like a fishhook that can get stuck in one’s throat, and one might not be able to dislodge it easily. In a different image, a godsend might be something like a kind of chink or crack through which the light appears—a kind of gap, or permeability, a porosity to a light that comes from a source beyond. In that gifted porosity is there an opening to revelation? Does the godsend say something about the surprise of revelation?

What then is a godsend? In ordinary language philosophy the stress was often on meaning as use and bound up with forms of life, and with a resistance to theory in a more systematic sense, certainly to philosophy with ontological and metaphysical claims or implications. This ban on metaphysical implications is not at all what I mean. To the contrary, one might have to speak of an ordinary language metaphysics, even an ordinary language “ontotheology.” I want to wrest the former from a Wittgensteinian grip, the latter from a Heideggerian monopoly.

Among other things, attention is required to ways of speaking, ways of the logoi we use that give signs of something that in the normal run of things is not attended to at all. This something is revealing—and perhaps revealing about revelation. We need not take over certain prior attitudes of ordinary language philosophy, in a philosophical or a religious or indeed an everyday sense. All these three, the everyday, the philosophical, the religious, seep into each other. To do justice to what is being shown, philosophical attention to ordinary language would have to pay more faithful attention to the rich communications of religions and the saturated words of the poetic.

One can understand, of course, a certain philosophical diffidence concerning talk about revelation. Such diffidence is connected not only with questions such as “What is it?” but with worries such as whether one can issue general statements in connection with revelation. If one universalizes with concepts, is this the right thing to do? Is there not something singular about revelation as a surprising (and yet fulfilling) communication? How deal with this singular character? What are the most fitting words to think about it? And this too if the most fitting words are themselves the revelation? Does not talking about revelation in certain ways move us away from it thus? And do not more general concepts have the tendency to homogenize happening, so that the surprise of a singular event is softened, so that the form of our anticipation of communication is reduced to “more of the same”? How true could this be to true revelation? For in one sense a singular revelation seems to resist anticipation, yet just when it comes (if it comes) it fulfills anticipation and it is just right. We are surprisingly delivered from projection.

If the revelation cannot be anticipated, how do we grant it as such if and when it comes? Must we not already be in anticipation, and so open to its coming, before it comes? But does this do away with the problem of recognizing and granting what comes when it comes? For it might come, and we might not recognize it. We might hear and not hear, understand and yet not understand at all. A person offers a sign of love and we do not recognize the sign, or are not able to recognize the communication, and so in passing to us the sign passes by us.

We are between not being able to anticipate and yet in some secret way already being in anticipation. Unanticipated revelation can break into us, but even if it breaks into us, we must be a space of some porosity or hospitality to it and be prepared in some unprepared manner. One thinks of the wise virgins, who as virgins do not quite know what will come to them, and yet they are ready—ready for what cannot be predetermined by any readiness.

What then of the word godsend? Here is a first pass at the matter. The word is found in usage that can be traced to the sixteenth century, as we can glean by consulting the Oxford English Dictionary. It is an altered form of “God’s send,” “send in God,” with meanings like these:

    1. Some desirable thing received unexpectedly and as it were from the hand of God, especially something of which the recipient is greatly in want.

The examples given: “Even a bore is a godsend”; “Mr. Telford has left me £500. This is truly a godsend.”

There are some more examples, including the example of a shipwreck: “The inhospitable shore where shipwreck is . . . considered a godsend.”

It is worth keeping this last example and its meaning in mind. It indicates that the sense of the godsend is not always a simple matter of “sweetness and light.” There is obvious reference here to suffering and disaster also. One is put in mind of Karl Jaspers, who spoke of shipwreck, Schiffbruch, and foundering, Scheitern. Relevantly, Jaspers was also very engaged with ciphers of transcendence.

    1. Godsend as meaning, a welcome event; a happy chance.

Example: “The peace was reckoned a God-send, both by the fleet and the army.”

Once again, welcome events are not welcome for everyone, so something of the painful equivocity of the godsend is to be borne in mind.

Thus this example: “Potato famine was a godsend which enabled him to open a long conceived design.”

For those suffering the famine no such consoling design was to be discerned, but for others, say, the landlord, clearing the land of the living rabble of peasants might well enable a more lucrative exploitation of the “agricultural resources.” And we know that the revelation of divine providence has been claimed by some as the true significance of famine, such as the Irish famine in the nineteenth century, which some held to be God’s way of punishing the feckless peasants. For the multitudes who died famished, such godsends look like the counterfeits of providence.

There are some more examples in the Oxford English Dictionary, but the following seems to be the main gist of what is said: a godsend is an event or happening that befalls us and that may open out the opportunity of a benefit or boon, or surprising gift; an event that might well be shadowed by something suffered, and suffered not just in the receipts of gifts but also in the visiting on some of pain and disaster or death.

Of course, the usage of godsend often accentuates the positive. Consult, for instance, Roget’s Thesaurus: “811.7 godsend, boon, blessing; manna, manna from heaven, loaves and fishes; Goodness, 674.5: a thing to be desired . . . godsend, windfall.”

In my excursions into ordinary language ontotheology, I checked also on words like goodbye, and we see the compressed memory of blessing in the word, compacting into itself an entire world of being and good: “Goodbye—contraction of ‘God be with you.’ See ‘farewell’—goodbye first recorded in late 16th century— Shakespeare, ‘God be wy you’ and God buy’ ye.” This took on the more modern spelling of “good-bye” in the eighteenth century. One thinks also of the Irish way of greeting, of saying hallo: Dia dhuit (“God to/with you”). To which the reply: Dia agus Muire dhuit (“God and Mary to/with you”). Hallo-ing might be graced with hallowing.

One divines relevance to the surprise of revelation: In the word godsend there is the implication of a sending, by the divine to us, perhaps, and hence the insinuation of a kind of revelation. A godsend might be noted, but often we do not know what the meaning communicated is. The prodigal son found himself in the land of famine. Augustine saw that he had become a famine. The godsend of hunger: elemental destitution and divine erotics.

There is no absolute univocity that sets apart blessing and curse. Not now, not yet: though true light may yet come. Ambiguity and mystery may attend that more painful sense of equivocity that comes with the disaster that is a curse to one and a blessing to another. In the word send also there is the implication of being sent on a journey, being called on a mission. The godsend may be a sending that causes us to set off on a way in the name of a mysterious cause.

Of course, it is worth noting, given that the word is recorded in a dictionary, that godsend has already passed into (written) language, hence there is something communal in it, something of the community. It is not a lone lightning flash that splits the sky and electrifies the singular soul alone. As a word, it is not just mine—it is ours. I find it of interest that the Oxford English Dictionary dates it to the sixteenth century. This suggests that it was not known in written form before that time, but this does not mean it was not in use.

The Oxford English Dictionary records some uses from that time, but that it is in use means that it already compacts into itself attitudes and orientations and responses that surely must have circulated in communal communications before it found a communication in a recorded literary text. The word, when so fixed, already hides a history of communal circulation. An entire world of a community must be embodied in this late fixation, so to say. The recorded use is an end result, and to get some appreciation of its fullness of meaning would entail having some sense of the world out of which it came to articulation and within which it communally circulated.

That world and its forms of life, of course, would have been that of the later Middle Ages. Again a significant ambiguity is striking, namely: the world in which godsends find the form of the word is of that time when also the world supposedly was first undergoing the process of being disenchanted. The time of the disenchanted world is the time when godsends, it might be claimed, were no longer sent, and what Charles Taylor called the “buffered self” was coming on the scene, coming to be constructed. Mirabile dictu, nothing more mirabilandum is now to be found in this time. But does not the meaning of the godsend tell against the buffering of being in finitude? Is a godsend a mere coincidence or a graced happening? Or both?

When one thinks of the meaning of coincidence, one sees in the word how things (unexpectedly) fall (in) together. Is this falling (in) together just meaningless happening? One thinks of the godsend as carrying with it Moses’s question: Who shall I say sent me? Could one say that a coincidence opens to a godsend when this question is voiced? Godsends do seem to make the “buffered self” into someone who is again exposed and porous. One must reflect on the resonances of revelation: what is closed is opened, but what is opened does not open through itself alone. A godsend comes, and we are no longer within the buffered closure where we previously were. A veil is drawn back—the literal meaning of apocalypse (apo-kalypsis, ἀπο-κάλυψις). A chink or crack happens in the closure of the “immanent frame,” again to use Charles Taylor’s phrase. We have to ponder the light that comes through the chink and wonder how far we might travel in its illumination.

Given this first pass at the word godsend, let me turn to more familiar ways in which the communicating of revelation has been approached. Here I want to recount briefly some of the more standard philosophical and theological options with respect to the relation of reason and revelation and how the godsend might fit with them. I want to take godsend as a “placeholder” (for want of a better word) for revelation and its surprise, and see how these options look in its light. I want to come to Hegel as a philosopher who seems to give us the absolute idea of the godsend but who dialectically seeds a harvest of evacuated or counterfeit godsends. My question: Do godsends then become “human-sends,” and do “human-sends” become voided into, so to say, “nothing-sends”? Will these “nothing-sends,” in turn, send us back to the (sacred) story, or on to it?

One notes first a common acceptance of the emergence of philosophy privileging logos from the religious world communicating of muthos. While the contrast of logos and muthos need not strongly foreground the notion of revelation, nevertheless in muthos there is something not fully to be credited to rational self-determination alone. The stories, the muthoi, are received from the ancestors; they come down to us from time immemorial.

Socrates talks about the ancients in terms of the hearing of these stories. Hearing: a receiving from a source other than ourselves—a communication to be sure, and perhaps not understood as a revelation in a stronger and perhaps later sense. Nevertheless, there is a family resemblance: something comes to us because something seems sent. We hear and perhaps have to be obedient to a call (obedience is sourced in hearing: oboedire—to listen to, to hearken). A godsend?

If I am not mistaken, there is here no impermeable boundary separating our thinking from what we receive. Hearing crosses a threshold. More generally, the enveloping horizon of a sacred universe means that there is no way thought can absolutely stand outside what is religiously communicated. If we were to use the categories of reason and revelation, we would have to say the former is permeable, in sometimes secret ways, to the latter. It is impossible to erect a dualism. Reason, thought, is porous to what comes to it from beyond itself. Perhaps thought even comes to itself, might even experience itself, as a kind of godsend; it is not produced through itself alone. Our best thoughts, our truest thoughts, after all, come to us.

Of course, the notion that all of being is a godsend is absolutely foregrounded in biblical religion. Everything that is is given to be by God—and this includes our powers of reason. Strong claims of revelation are here to be found. A source, heterogeneous to all finite creation, itself communicates finite creation. Everything that is is a godsend; and yet nothing that finitely is is the source that communicates and reveals itself in the godsend.

Furthermore, within the godsend that communicates finite creation, there is the further sending to answer a world and humanity fallen from the integral goodness of its first sending. In that respect, were one to speak of godsends one might draw on the traditional notions of general revelation and special revelation. Creation is to be seen as general revelation, with the whole given world as a godsend. One thinks of the whole world as a theophany in Scotus Eriugena, for instance. Or to stay with “we Irish,” as Berkeley refers to himself, one thinks of his intriguing theory of perceptions: these are to be interpreted as a sign language of God. It is noteworthy that it is an event, a happening as such, namely, creation, that is to be viewed in the light of a godsend—the revelation is not just a proposition.

What of special revelations with regard to godsends? One thinks of the prophets in the biblical tradition. What of the prophet Mohammed in Islam? An interesting consideration here is whether this prophet is quite a godsend, supposing there is no real gap of difference between the sender, the message, and the receiver. If the message is the immediate communication of the source, without any “contamination” by the reception of human intermediation, the putative godsend proves then a kind of medium of “nothing” that leaves entirely unaffected the communication that pours through it. What of the special revelation claimed for Jesus Christ?

Christ would be the absolute godsend—the singular absolute, absolutely intimate with the absolute sender, and yet absolute as sent; not a nothing intermediate, though a kenotic intermediary absolutely porous to the sending source; and yet there is an absolute community of God and godsend (Father and Son), and still the revealed godsend does not diminish the transcendent mystery of the source, even while revealed in absolute immanence. The prophets: singular godsends of the absolute? Christ: the absolved and absolving godsend?

Be that as it may, the couplets of reason and revelation, as well as nature and grace, take form within the Christian era, and again, if I am not mistaken, in some thinkers like Augustine there is a feel for their permeability, without compromise to the absoluteness of God. So much so that boundaries are relatively porous between thinking and what comes to us, between reason and revelation (the togetherness of faith and reason has been likened to a marriage of Eve and Adam); and again this without compromise of the absoluteness of the source and the difference of the receiving. The porosity of boundaries allows permeability to godsends in an ecumenical sense, one might say, as well as in a singular sense.

Is Aquinas perhaps at times amphibolous in his complex negotiation between pagan philosophy and Christian revelation? I have elsewhere reflected on this in relation to the Beatitudes, and the Aristotelian template does exercise a strongly structuring influence in the manner of his treatment. The point was never to accuse Aquinas, but in making a distinction and taking one’s departure from it, there can be for some only a few steps toward what perhaps might be called the “parallel lines” view: nature and supernature running on different parallel tracks, reason and revelation also set so apart, and perhaps meeting only at the point of infinity.

Instead of a marriage of faith and reason, or their companioning, does this lead to a form of “living together—apart”? The first track deals with everything immanently evident, the second with what, as other to this, as discontinuous with it, proceeds on the other track and perhaps now and then crosses over to put a kind of warp in the immanent, evident track. A truly revealing godsend then would be such a warp that jumps the tracks and crosses over.

We see some outfall of this parallel-tracks view in the way modernity redefines reason in terms of what can be immanently determined, according to what are claimed to be reason’s own inherent norms. The paradigm of reason is to be a thinking entirely autonomous and self-determining, and in that regard free from external determination. If there is revelation, it intrudes into that immanent self-determination, and indeed nothing can be even granted as revealed if it does not pass the bar of that immanent rational self-determination. In effect, this is to remake revelation as a kind of extraneous godsend, heterogeneous to a space of immanence that of itself has nothing of the godsend.

There are different expressions of this, but I want to mention the modern trend toward the univocal homogenization of all being. This univocalization itself takes many forms, but one of the significant ones bears on the possibility or impossibility of the miracle. A miracle would depart from the univocal homogeneity of natural order and hence cannot be countenanced on the basis of natural reason, or even anticipated in terms of such reason. Reason and revelation are so separate as to risk becoming opposites, becoming opposed.

An important form of this is perhaps at the other end of the spectrum, where it is not the universe of determinate univocity that reigns but the project of universal self-determination that will reign. I mean the moral project of subjecting ethical and indeed religious worth to what conforms to the ideal of our rational self-determination. There is a project of homogeneity here also vis-à-vis revelation. The latter is not part of the universalizing project of self-determination, for the surprise of the godsend would always disrupt its anticipated sameness and hence is warded off, in and from the project as such, from the outset.

One might offer this rejoinder: Neither in the things of the external world nor in the human things can one project surprise. The nature of surprise is such that it is always extra to or outside of the regulated anticipation of a project. Surprise cannot be projected. If it could be projected, it would not be surprise. Hence if the project as such rules the whole, even if only in anticipation, there will never be anything revealed that is not already in some way inscribed in the terms and conditions of the project. No godsend in nature, no godsend in ethical and religious life is to be thinkable. We are ready for nothing that does not conform to the anticipation of the project. We are not ready for surprise—and least of all for surprises for which it is barely possible to be ready—true revelations.

An aside, albeit revealing: One can find this impatience with surprise even among those feverish with religious anticipation. They too can become contagious to the project of the hegemony of univocity over all equivocity, even to the point of religious impatience with the mysterious nature of revelation. The calculations of univocity arise even where the obsession is with interpreting Holy Scripture. I am thinking of the calculation of the end time: apocalypse to be univocally calculated, and the invention of logarithms for purposes of that theological computation by John Napier (1550–1617). Instead of letting be the time of the end as a godsend, we want to take the edge off the eschaton.

To return to the main line of this understanding: being evident to reason does not mean to be revealed but to be communicated as a confirmation of reason’s own power to determine what shows itself, and its intelligibility. What disconfirms, what departs from the rational norm in its overt or secret univocal self-reference, is excluded in principle from showing itself. In effect, there is no godsend. Or if there is a god, it is reason itself, and godsends are what reason sends to itself by circuitous routes of mediation by which reason always returns to itself.

The modern sense of reason, then, confirms this. On this score I might mention some figures. I think of Hobbes: for someone to say that God “hath spoken to him in a dream is no more then to say he dreamed that God spake to him.” One thinks of Spinoza: self-evidence is to be viewed in terms of what reason grants about itself and to itself—truth is the measure of itself and its opposite. One thinks too of his critique of creation as a kind of two-world theory—there are no godsends as such, understood as communications from beyond immanence, for there is no such beyond. And what claims to be such a godsend is answered in terms that have the echo of Hobbes, namely, the political sovereign is the properly authorized hermeneutical authority to determine “authentic” cases of “revelation.”

One might connect the godsend with imagination, itself connected with the role and power of the prophet. For Spinoza, the equivocity of imagination has to be treated with rational diffidence. In any case, religion is less concerned with truth than with piety. One could remark, however, that imagination is a threshold power between understanding and something that either precedes or exceeds determinate ideas. Imagination opens up out of, opens back into, a more original porosity of being. One could propose a connection with the godsend if one thinks, for instance, of the ancient belief in the revelatory power of dreams. This belief does not have to be “psychologized”: the soul is porous to monsters and divinities, and in dreams the porosity is reopened—the selving becomes fluid, the deeper soul awakens. Something dawns in the communications of dreams, though we find it very difficult to read these dreams. On such a threshold, is “dawning” the same as the self-evidences of reason?

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is a slightly modified and shortened excerpt of Chapter 8 from William Desmond's recently released Godsends. It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our excerpts from this collaboration here. All rights reserved.


Featured Image: Elsheimer, Jacob's Dream, 1578; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


William Desmond

William Desmond is the David R. Cook Chair in Philosophy at Villanova University, the Thomas A. F. Kelly Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Maynooth University, Ireland, and professor emeritus of philosophy at KU Leuven, Belgium. He is the author, editor, and co-editor of more than twenty-five books including the recently released Godsends.

Read more by William Desmond

A Brief Theology of the As If

Philipp W. Rosemann, Chair of Philosophy at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, presents a novel Ratzingerian approach to the faith.

Vatican Stpaul Statue