Touching the Transcendent

TransfigurationToday we celebrate the second Sunday in Lent, and we read a familiar text, Luke’s version of the Transfiguration.

Jesus brings James and John to Mt. Tabor and there is transfigured before their eyes, his face being changed and his clothing as well. In addition, Moses and Elijah join him.

It is a difficult story for me, difficult because transcendent experiences are well within the realm of all of us human beings. Thus I am astounded at how obtuse the apostles remain through the balance of the gospels after this point.

In other words, was the event not earth shattering? After all, they see Jesus physically changed, they see dead men appearing with Jesus and he speaks to them, and then to top it all off, they hear what can only be the voice of God speaking to them!

What else do they need to know that they should from this moment forward do everything as the Master suggests and be sure that he is in fact the Lord?

Of course one may say the same of many other instances that they witnessed. Jesus brings the dead back to life, he walks on water, calms the seas, orders the nets to be lowered one more time. These are all transcendent moments in time, yet the apostles remain clueless again and again, or at least soon forget.

It is interesting to me that major events occur on mountains or near the sea. The Hebrew Scriptures tell a similar story. God gets people’s attention ofttimes on mountains as with Abraham or water as with Noah and Moses. Jesus, as I mentioned goes up on Mt. Tabor, and teaches from boats, walks on water, calms storms, and orders a grand catch of fish. Add in the events that occur in deserts, Jesus’ fasting, the wandering of the people for 40 years, and we can see that landscape plays a huge part in helping us to recognize the mysterious and other worldliness of faith.

It got me to thinking about how we are today, we humans.

Do we not still seek out these places?

And even the non-believer finds something magnificent happening to her spirit when confronted with vistas of mountains, or the expanse of desert or sea. We go to these places to “find ourselves”, to “unwind”, to “reconnect”, to get back to basics.” We have a hundred phrases for why we seek out such venues.

We know what happens when we visit or move to areas like this. We find peace and we find an ability to concentrate on the truly meaningful in life and not the superficial. There is nothing superficial about a mountain, ocean, or desert. They are raw and powerful. They sport unspeakable beauty but also much danger. We are awed. We are transformed.

We are  aware on some level that we are in the presence of something bigger than ourselves. We bow in our minds before such power. We acknowledge our limits as mere humans. We change within. We become something better than we were.

Now the non-believer may not put labels on these feelings of course, but I find it hard to see them as anything other than some innate, inborn recognition of our connectedness with the realms of the unseen. We can sense the majesty and holiness of such places because at least at the subconscious level we recognize them as the places where God and human meet.

No doubt Peter, James and John felt these same things and in a more powerful way, for most of us touch it in the beauty and power before us alone, and hear no voice from heaven placing an imprimatur upon one among us.

That is what I have never understood on a gut level. I’ve come to realize that it may have been more for literary device than actuality that these things occurred. Either the events themselves were not so amazing as depicted, or the apostles were not quite so lacking in true understanding. Probably it’s a little of both.

We may not all live near to mountains, deserts or oceans, yet the transcendent is always available to us. Think for a moment of the beauty of a newborn, the iridescence of the peacock, the perfection of the rose. Are not these moments in time when we stop in awe? When we catch our breaths, sigh in quiet joy, choke on words to describe, feel the moisture of sudden tears, we can be sure that we are in that moment where God and creature are meeting.

During this journey of Lent, we should look for these moments, for God is seeking us, and is all around us, offering us love and that connection we so crave. Stop, look and listen, and you will surely find it everywhere, much as did Peter, John and James did.

Let it transform you. Let it fill you. Let it become you.

Amen.

 

 

(Repost) Divine Transcendence and the Culture of Change

Let me first thank Eerdmans Publishing Company for sending along a copy of David H. Hopper’s Divine Transcendence and the Culture of Change, for review.

David Hopper has set out an interesting premise in his latest book: Namely have we gone too far in tolerance? He essentially argues that statements such as “It doesn’t matter what a person believes just so long as he/she is sincere,” are the product of ill-educated minds who know very little of theological matters. In other words, it’s one thing to be tolerant in a prudent sort of way, but it is wrong to have no standards at all.

He argues that the divine transcendence of God has been lost in this thoughtless attempt to not step on toes.

Many have perhaps come to the same conclusion, but they have done so by laying the blame on the “scientific revolution,” and its concommitant inference that nothing is beyond the mind of mankind.

Hopper argues that the Reformation, in the guise of Luther, Calvin and others of the same persuasion also played a part, perhaps unknowingly, in fostering this climate.

He starts with the model set out by H. Richard Niebuhr in his Christ and Culture. In it Niebuhr posited five expressions of Jesus and culture:

  1. Christ against culture
  2. Christ of culture
  3. Christ above culture
  4. Christ of culture
  5. Christ the transformer of culture.

He places various movements, the monastic, Calvin, Mainstream Protestant, Catholic, Feminist, and so forth within this model at their most agreeing points.

Hopper sees in the Reformation movement and the following Enlightenment, a movement away from a “religious church-dominated culture” to one predominately secular, and one that has largely discarded its timeless orientation to the changeless and divine.

Luther addressed a church largely caught in the medieval concepts of Christ both above and against culture. The Church controlled the life of people by its claim to control their entrance into heaven. Luther of course had no intent to found a new sect, but rather intended to reform from within. And he of course failed, as the Church, seemingly receptive at first, recoiled at his more “heretical” thinking.

Heretical only in the sense that Rome rejected it, and so labeled it. Martin Luther’s “justification by faith” eliminated the idea that salvation was controlled by the Church. Indeed, Luther shockingly argued that it was faith in and adherence to the Scriptures, available to all of God’s people that was above the Church, and where mankind’s salvation was found. Free gift of grace.

Along with Calvin, others joined in and began to see Christ and the scriptures as calling for a salvation that was deeply imbedded within culture. In fact Calvin claimed that each person’s vocation was his opportunity to live out the Gospel message in service to neighbor.

While Luther did not extend his “Christ in Culture” to include much in the way of serious revamping of political institutions, Calvin did.

What is really new in Hopper’s analysis is that he brings Francis Bacon and the English reformation also into the mix. Bacon, in his “idols of the mind” laid the groundwork for a new way of looking at nature. In fact Bacon saw this as God’s will, that man was untruthful to God in leaving all things as mystery in God.

Bacon freed the mind of all the preconceived notions and “worldviews” and brought forth inductive thinking, pursuing a method of critical thinking. He claimed there were “attainable” truths “hidden by God” in nature, and these were open to being discovered.

Whereas Luther’s holy grail was 1Corinthians 1:18-23. The folly of the cross was God’s foolishness, wiser than that of men, Bacon believes that God has created man to discover the secrets of nature and to use them for the betterment of mankind.

Once married to American pragmatism and work ethic, scientific exploration exploded, and as our grip on a transcendent God seems to have slipped away.

In the end, Hopper argues for a return to a solid foundation in that transcendence. We are mired in our “consumerism” spirituality. We are driven by change for its own sake, and no longer see the limits of our own abilities. Only with a return to this foundation in the transcendent he argues, can we realistically address the common problems in our global world.

This is an interesting book, one for the more serious reader of theology and culture. But one that will seriously re-orient your thinking about progress and the price we are paying for it.

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