In the story of the Transfiguration, as related in Mark, with similar accounts in Matthew and Luke, Jesus is revealed to his disciples Peter, James, and John as in a heavenly state with Moses and Elijah. Many people in antiquity believed that the natural universe is comprised of a stack of levels of physical planes, with different properties and natural laws obtaining on each level. The Earth is somewhere near the middle with a series of heavens above and hells below. Aristotle, for instance, believed that in the Earth’s plane below the orbit of the moon things naturally travel in straight lines unless deflected whereas the moon and higher “heavenly bodies” travel in circles; the moon itself keeps the same face toward the Earth whereas Aristotle thought that the higher stars spin as well as move circularly. In the popular imagination, beings whose natural properties fit some heavenly or hellish level sometimes cross boundaries and come to Earth as angels or evil spirits, and behave in ways appropriate to their native level that look weird or miraculous according to the causal patterns of the Earthly level. Paul imagined that God dwells in the highest level, or even beyond that insofar as God is creator of all the Heavens and the Earth. Paul thought that Jesus’ natural place was at the highest heaven with God, but that he had descended to the Earthly level, taking on human form, even that of a lowly slave. Jesus did not keep his heavenly form, as angels did when they miraculously appeared on Earth, but really took on the natural properties of a human being. Paul also imagined that Jesus would draw saved human beings up to some high heavenly level with God, and the human beings in this journey would take on the natural properties of that heavenly level, which include immortality. That is, we shall be transformed from a human mode of existence to a heavenly mode, with physical properties appropriate for that higher level. Because several levels of heaven exist, each with its own properties, we can reconcile seemingly contradictory stories. For instance, when talking with the Sadducees about whose wife in heaven the woman would be who had married all of seven brothers, Jesus said she would be sexless, like angels. But in speaking of the conversation between Abraham with Lazarus in some heaven and the greedy rich man in some hell, they characters retained very much of their Earthly identity. In the story of the Transfiguration, our gospel for today, Moses, Elijah, and Jesus are all recognizable, as if they have taken on the properties of a Heaven very close to Earth with only an unearthly iridescence and an immortality to human life so that Moses and Elijah could converse with Jesus.
The spiritual point of the Transfiguration scene, of course, is not about Heavenly and Earthly geography at all. It is rather about how we can see God in Jesus. And the precise moral is that Peter, James, and John missed the point. They misunderstood what they say, and Jesus told them not to talk about it until after the crucifixion and resurrection when they might understand. This is to say, the disciples would have to be transformed before they could see God.
In our day we have a vastly different cosmic geography from that of the ancient world. The heart of the difference is that we think the same physical laws apply throughout the whole cosmos, not different laws on different levels. The laws of motion, say, for the propagation of light, are the same here as on the moon, on Mars, on Alpha Centauri, in the farthest galaxy, and all in between. Therefore “nature” embraces everything with which we are causally connected with the same causal laws. The unearthly properties and causal patterns the ancients attributed to the levels of angels and devils, and to which human beings might aspire in attaining closer proximity to God in salvation, we moderns call “supernatural.” In the ancient world, all the levels were natural, and all equally part of creation; nothing was supernatural. In the modern world we imagine a huge distinction between the natural and supernatural, and many people do not believe in the supernatural. In the ancient world, Jacob’s Ladder, on which angels and human beings ascended and descended, was a powerful and innocent metaphor for moving through the levels of cosmic existence. So was the image of the chariot that carried Elijah off to heaven, in today’s Hebrew Bible text. For us, those metaphors are at best broken symbols because we know that when you go very high the air thins and disappears and you get to outer space, not heaven.
So how do we see God? To put the point a slightly different way, with what images or concepts can we engage God experientially? Without some images or identifying concepts we cannot discriminate God at all within our experience. Yet we long for God. Like Jesus and his friends, our hearts are not at rest until they rest in God. Let me suggest two classical answers to the question: like the ancients, we see God as the creator of our cosmos, God in nature. Like the ancient Christians, we see God in Christ.
The ancients, not only the Jews and Christians, understood God as creator of the cosmos, which they imagined as a stack of planes of different natural worlds. For us, the cosmos is a natural causal unity, most likely beginning some billions of years ago with the Big Bang and perhaps ending some billions of years hence with a final dissipation of energy in which nothing is close enough to anything else to exert or receive influence. Whatever turns out to be the best hypothesis, its image of the cosmos is vastly different from that of the first century, astonishingly larger and older, even different in the conception of space and time. Where is God in that?
God is the creator of the world we are coming to know better and better. God is the creator of time and space, since time and space are functions of matter or energy in motion. Although some of the great ancient philosophers had ideas that are remarkably modern in this respect, most ancients imagined God to be contained within time and space, at the top of the spatio-temporal plenum. We, by contrast, have to imagine God as creating both time and space. God’s creative act is not in time. It does not have a date. All dates are its products. God’s creative act is not within space. It does not have a place. God does not exist somewhere, alongside the cosmos or anywhere else. God’s creative act is eternal, not temporal with regard to time, and it is immense, immeasurable, not spatially locatable. Can you imagine that? Can you get your mind around the eternity and immensity of God who is nowhere and at no time, not even now? Our contemporary spirituality needs to see through the imagination of contemporary physics, just as the ancient spirituality saw God through the terms of their physical imagination of the multilayered universe.
One implication of our imagination of God as the creator of the whole space-time cosmos is that God cannot be separate from the cosmos, not in another distant place or in some pre-creation or post-apocalyptic time. Rather, God is the immediate source of everything within this world, not separate, but interior, our inmost essence. We are the products of God’s singular creative act, the end-products, the light from the divine fire, the water from the divine fountain, the dance of the dancer. As Augustine said, God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. We can see God in a snowflake, in a biological ecosystem that displays the intricacies of the interrelations of things in God’s creation, in the grinding of tectonic plates floating on the Earth’s molten core, in the blasts of supernovas, the births and deaths of stars. God is the intimate creator in all those things, and when they pay no heed to the needs of the human scale, overwhelming civilizations with blind destructive forces, God is intimate to that too.
Perhaps the most awesome result of finding God the creator in the cosmos is sensing God’s intimate presence within our own hearts and relations. How are we free in our greatest achievements and deepest sins, if God is our inmost self and the ground of our every relation with others? The advantage of the ancient image of God as a being separate from us in a very high place was that people could imagine the problem of freedom on the analogy of freedom relative to other people. Many people today insist on keeping that ancient image of God as just another being, however exalted, in our space-time world, precisely because it facilitates thinking of God as another being with whom we negotiate our freedom and destiny. If we wish to see God through the cosmos as we know it, then we must come to terms with an intimacy with God that far surpasses the ancient images of God as king whom we petition for benefits. If we would see God ourselves, and not just repeat what the ancients said they saw, we must engage God as far more transcendent, beyond space and time, and yet far more intimate, not separate at all from us God’s creatures. Furthermore, that engagement of God is to love God. Can we love the God of cosmic blasts, minute attractions, the intimate springs of our souls, who is nowhere and no-when? The love of God is no easy matter, yet I tell you it is bliss.
I invite you to such a spiritual life with the imagination of our time. It is what the ancients pursued with the imagination of their time, which is why I say this spiritual quest for God is classical.
The other classical answer to the question of how to see God is that we should look for God in Christ. But it is hard to see Christ today. Jesus said that we are to be peacemakers, and yet for nearly two thousand years we have reconciled Christianity with wars of conquest and domination. I’m pleased to say that the great majority of Christian denominations condemned the war in Iraq from the beginning; but I fear that the majority of American Christians voted for the war, or at least for the administration that sought the war. How have we filtered our image of Jesus so as to reconcile him with Christian-sponsored belligerence?
Jesus said that we are to pursue justice, and yet for nearly two thousand years we have acquiesced in devastating injustice. To be sure, we have come to understand that injustice is not only in the will of the powerful and greedy but also in the institutions of society. In Jesus’ time people thought slavery was natural, that women should be dominated by men, and that the poor will always be with us. Jesus preached values that criticize these injustices, but only now do we understand how the injustices are built in to social systems that ought to be changed. Christians in our time can no longer acquiesce in injustices such as these. We need to be able to see Christ as preaching freedom of the oppressed, equality for all people, care for the poor who suffer from economic relations, and dignity for the entirety of God’s creation. Until we can imagine Jesus in these late-modern terms, we cannot see Jesus, or God in Christ.
Jesus said we should love, extending that love to people our culture forbids us to touch, to people of different social classes, even to our enemies. His table fellowship embodied this teaching, and he said love is the way we connect to God. We can see God in Christ when we see Jesus teaching us to be lovers. Nevertheless, we have blocked this vision of God in Christ by filtering it through cultural definitions of who is lovable. Of course, we cannot live without cultures that define who is with us and who is outside the cultural group. Yet a Christian culture should be explicit that everyone is inside the divine culture, however bizarre they might be in their taste in food, clothing, and friends. In a profound sense, Jesus was anti-cultural in his critiques of the boundaries of cultures. The problem with cultures is that they make us think that their conventions are intuitions into reality. In the culture of my high school in St. Louis, my friends just saw that African American were of lesser human standing, no-one to share a toilet or water fountain with; my father taught me that culture was wrong. Think of the bigotries we still entertain, even in liberal Boston, against those whom our culture defines as different from some human norm. How can we see Jesus’ gospel as relativizing even our own cultures?
We find it hard to see God in Christ because we have accommodated our visions of Jesus to our war-making, our injustice, and our cultural denials of love’s scope. Surely other reasons exist as well for why it is so hard for us to see Jesus in our current lives. To surmount this difficulty we do not need to learn more about Jesus as much as we need to transform ourselves to as to accept the Christ who is so plain before our faces. To learn enough about our natural world to understand how God can be creator of it is hard enough. We need to remake ourselves so that we can see Jesus who reveals God to us.
So we return to the Transfiguration. Do not get hung up on the image of Jesus taking on the visage of some heavenly, unearthly, apparition. Think of him rather as displaying with a dazzling brightness no bleach can reproduce the truth about peace, justice and love, and how we distort all that, and how our true home is to live in a clearly confessed and redeemed faith that grasps that. But we do not understand this any better than his disciples who thought they should build little houses. We need to be transformed in order to get the point, just as Jesus’ disciples did. We need to understand our cosmos to see God as its creator. The disciples’ transformation came when they learned to love Jesus, lost him to the cross, and found him again. I fear that we Christians who think we love Jesus and still are bellicose, unjust, and bigoted about who is lovely need to lose Jesus. Such Christian culture needs to collapse and the raw hunger for God needs to be felt again. Perhaps then we can be changed so as to see God revealed in Jesus who says to love both God and neighbor.