I have just posted the text of a talked that I gave at a Theology & Peace conference in Chicago a few years ago called Living by the Breath of God: a Spirituality of God’s Desire. It collects many of the ideas of I have working with on my recent blog posts & it might help some of you get a more coherent view of the vision I continue to develop. You can read this essay here.
The Transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor is celebrated twice in the Church Year. The celebration on the last Sunday before Lent stresses the event’s preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus. The celebration in August, being a standalone feast, can be seen as a celebration of Creation in all its materiality. Since there is no feast of the Creation, any celebration that points to our origins in God’s creative Desire is for the good.
That Jesus’ body and his clothing should be transfigured by a dazzling light is about as powerful a sign of the goodness of the material world as anything could be. The only fly in this primordial ointment is the suspicion that if the material world needed to be transfigured, then it wasn’t all that perfect to begin with. That is, the material world is impure, at least to some extent, and needs to be purified. Eastern Orthodox writers, however, suggest that it wasn’t that Jesus was transfigured on Mount Tabor, but that the disciples’ eyes were opened so that they could see the transfiguration that, for Jesus, was an ongoing reality.
The powerful and startling story of the transfiguration of Seraphim of Sarov emphatically illustrates this truth. Seraphim was discussing spiritual matters one night with his disciple Nicholas Motovilov when suddenly Nicholas saw his staretz engulfed in transfiguring light. When Nicholas remarked on this, Seraphim said he had not changed but Nicholas’ ability to see had changed. Not only that, but Nicholas, unknown to himself, was also shining in the same transfiguring light.
If we can see all of the material world from the simplest atoms to the grains of dirt to squirrels and cats to humans in the transfigured light in which they, we, are all created, we will not reach out to grasp anything out of a lust for ownership or push anything or anyone away with expulsion. (See Connecting our Desires.) The catch is that we must be transfigured ourselves in this same light in order to see the transfigured glory all about us.
This need brings us back to the second and more fundamental meaning of the Transfiguration: the redemption of the groaning created world (Rom.8) by the cross and resurrection of Jesus. If our vision of reality is occluded by society’s tendency to hold itself together through the victimization of others through ownership and/or expulsion as Egypt was under Pharaoh, then we will not see the transfigured truth of the world under the Risen forgiving Victim breathes the Paraclete through our eyes and mirror neurons to show us the truth. (See Mirroring Desires.)
Yes, God’s act(s) of Creation is the beginning of the universe but Creation is also each present time of the universe up to and including the present moment and Creation is the End of the universe in the sense of being its goal. It is God’s creative work in redemption all along that has alerted us to the truth of Creation, starting with the deliverance of a ragtag group of slaves expelled from Egypt, continuing with the return of the Jews from their Babylonian exile to the Resurrection of Jesus where Mary Magdalene enters a garden to recalls the Garden of Eden and mistakes the risen Jesus for the gardener.
May we open our eyes to see this renewed glory within ourselves and around us, a glory filled with God’s Desire for all Creation.
Peter was surprised when he had a vision of a sheet carrying all the animals listed in the Law as unclean accompanied by a voice telling him that God had made them clean. Peter was even more surprised when he was told to go to the house of an unclean Gentile named Cornelius and preach the Gospel to him. That is, God had made all humans clean.
We all have a hard time living without the comfort of knowing that some people, some things, are unclean. This fear that sustains us is the fear of what is Other. All we have to do is get to know “unclean” strangers and we will be happy and no longer afraid.
René Girard, however, would give us pause. Girard is often invoked when there is need to scold people for creating “out” groups to make them feel good about their “in” groups. Actually, Girard alerts us to our problems within our “in” groups. Prior to our fear of the Other is our fear of what is the same. Rivalry and the violence rivalry lead to does not originate in battles with strangers but with those closest to us. In Genesis, almost all of the strife is between brothers.
Girard suggests that this fratricidal strife tends either to the death of a brother or a reconciliation through killing somebody else. At the dawn of humanity, a tribe first struggled with rivalry within its own ranks and either imploded through its violence or came together through killing one of its members, who then was designated at Other, the monster who caused the commotion. Then the tribe held itself together on an ongoing basis by warring on other tribes who were designated as Other. In this regard we are not one wit wiser than the most “primitive” of people. A fundamental practice of statecraft today is to deal with rivalry and tensions within a nation by designating an enemy that the whole nation must fight.
Anthropologists such as Mary Douglas have demonstrated the human tendency to divide foods between those deemed clean and those considered unclean. Eating is the central activity of a community. We eat with those who are closest to us. However, as noted above, we also fight most with these same people who are closest to us. By dividing the food we eat between clean and unclean, we create a barrier between us and other people, between us as the “in” group and those in the “out” group. That is, we relieve our communal tensions by banding against those who eat “unclean” foods.
Here we come to the importance of Jesus’ admonition to his disciples, while at table, that they (we) love one another. Some scripture scholars have poured cold water on idealistic readers by saying that John was concerned only with love within the community. But Jesus’ saying that others will know we are Jesus’ disciples by our love makes it clear that this loves does extend beyond the immediate community. These reflections on “clean” and “unclean” further suggest that fostering non-rivalrous love within the community allows the community to reach out to others. This love will make everything and everybody clean and bring us all to one great table in the Heavenly Banquet.
The New Testament and two thousand years of Christian preaching has consistently proclaimed that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has opened the way of salvation for all humanity. Precisely how this mysterious, earthshaking event has done that has raised more questions than answers. It is understandable that the focus would tend to be on the death of Jesus since the event is so dramatic and creates intense emotional effects in Jesus’ followers. However, understandings of the atonement of Jesus through this route have raised long-standing problems that cry out for a fresh approach. The growing realization that the killing of Jesus was just plain wrong on the part of many Christians, and not just those influenced by the thought of René Girard, opens a way for a re-thinking of atonement theology that can support a deep spirituality grounded in God’s unconditional love for all people. As article I wrote for the Abbey Letter Saved By the Life of Jesus contributes to this re-thinking that actually reclaims the Gospel for us. It is included in the collection of articles in Come Let Us Adore. You can read it here.
The near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham, the Father of Faith, is the most troubling of stories. It should be. Chaim Potok’s young protagonist Asher Lev remembers the shiver he felt when he first heard the story. What is most troubling is the suspicion that Abraham was right to be willing to sacrifice his son. But was he? Jeremiah says Yahweh denounced the sacrifice of children, saying “that such a thing had never entered my mind.” (Jer. 19:5) Perhaps we are right to be troubled by any notion that Abraham was right to even let the idea enter his mind and even more troubled by any thought it ever entered into God’s mind.
Bob Dylan makes a bitter burlesque of the story in his song “Highway 61 Revisited.” The “god” who requires the sacrifice is a bully, warning Abraham that if he doesn’t comply: “Next time you see me, you’d better run.” To the question: “Where do you want to see this killing done? God said out on Highway 61”, the place for “a thousand telephones that don’t ring” and where to “put some bleachers out in the sun” to stage the start of the next world war. As with so many Dylan songs, the imagery reveals a society filled with mimetic rivalry and victimization where sacrifice and war become a spectator sport.
Soren Kierkegaard’s searing Fear and Trembling is at least as troubling as the biblical story. SK’s category of the “teleological suspension of the ethical” raises fears that the author celebrates Abraham’s willingness to do the deed. (What the fancy phrase means is: anything at all God says to do is right—end of story.) However, this troublesome category is coupled with what SK called “infinite resignation.” This is what Abraham had when he was willing to kill his son by God’s command. However, infinite resignation falls far short of faith and faith is what the biblical story and SK’s book is all about. Faith is receiving back what is given with infinite resignation “by virtue of the absurd.” Still troubled?
The most clear and piercing critique of this “infinite resignation” I know of comes in the powerful poem retelling this story by the World War I poet Wilfred Owen. Abraham builds parapets and trenches around the wood, suggesting the sacrifice of sons sent off to the war. But when the angel of the Lord admonishes Abraham to “slay the ram of pride instead of him . . . the old man would not so, but slew his son,/ and half the seed of Europe one by one.” This poet, one of many young victims of the war, and the creator of the bitter irony that poets like Bob Dylan use so well, has revealed once and for all the sacrificial horror of “infinite resignation.” That is, anyone infinitely resigned to sacrifice oneself without faith and will also sacrifice others, especially one’s own children, also without faith.
The typological interpretation of the story where it stands for God the Father’s being willing to sacrifice His only begotten son is also troubling. But Jesus did not go to the cross with infinite resignation. Rather, by “virtue of the absurd,” he believed that God, being the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was God, not of the dead, but of the living.” (Mt. 22:32) St. Paul says we are saved by the faith of Christ, the faith that, on the cross, embraced not death, but the life of his heavenly father. The virtuous absurd, then, is the ecstatic embrace of God’s love so filled with life that there is no room for death for anybody.
White boys like me mostly didn’t know what Bob Dylan was singing about when “Desolation Row” first came out on “Highway 61 Revisited.” James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree tells us it was about lynching. Lynching was a public spectacle where people took pictures and made postcards out of them.
Cone goes on to argue that the lynching tree was a series of grisly re-enactments of the crucifixion of Jesus. He also demonstrates on how very difficult it has been and still is for Americans to see this truth. Reinhold Niebuhr, arguably the greatest American theologian was, in spite of his social concerns, blind to this reality. Even black people have had trouble seeing this connection, though Cone shows how some black women, especially Ida B. Wells articulated it powerfully. He contrasts Niebuhr and all white liberals with Martin Luther King, Jr. who put his life on the line.
The dynamics of lynching as analyzed by Cone provide powerful confirmation of the theory of collective violence of René Girard. (See my article Violence and the Kingdom of God.) Girard argues that perpetrators instinctively fail to see what they are going. Cone shows us this truth in a powerful manner.
Dylan goes on to sing that “the circus is in town” and then catalogs Western Civilization turned topsy-turvy, suggesting that lynching does this, thanks to the “blind commissioner.”
Cone is right about whites’ blindness to this truth, but Dylan did write “The Ballad of Emmett Tell” in 1963, telling the story in stark terms, though without any Christian reference except to complains that the human race has fallen “down so god-awful low.” Then there is Mark Twain who wrote “The United States of Lyncherdom,” calling lynching for what it was and clearly discussing the human mimesis just as Girard was to do half a century later.
Cone’s book is written calmly, even gently. There is no mincing of words, yet the words are somehow full of forgiveness. The forgiveness in Cone’s words, the forgiveness proclaimed by Jesus, should be enough to undermine our trust in ourselves and our ability to see what we are doing. We must repent not only of lynching, but of our collective hatred of enemies today.
Here is my favorite thought experiment: Imagine that everybody around you ganged up on you, leveled incredible accusations against you, and rained savage blows on your body. Your friends either joined in the persecution or slunk away, too afraid to defend you. Your attackers pressed on until they had put you to a most painful death. Imagine further that, miraculously, you found yourself alive three days later. Having already died, you could hardly die again. You have become invincible. What would you do to the people who had mistreated you? How would you approach your cowardly friends?
Perhaps this thought experiment can give us an inkling of how amazing it is that, when this very miracle happened to Jesus, he did not retaliate, but instead, invited everybody to a big whooping party that will never end. After rising from the dead, Jesus continued to do what he was doing before he was killed: gather God’s people in peace by peaceful means only. That is, after his Resurrection, Jesus practiced what he preached in the Sermon on the Mount: return evil with good, hatred with love. The fullness of Jesus ‘forgiving love can be as earth-shattering as an earthquake or as gentle as stepping through a wall.
If Jesus were dead and there was a body in the tomb for the women to anoint, chances are that Jesus’ disciples would either have remained in hiding or they would have reacted to the violent act of the crucifixion with violence. But in Luke the young men in white asked the women: “Why seek the living among the dead?” That is, God did not will the death of Jesus, God willed life for Jesus because that is what God wills for each one of us. As long as we stop at Jesus’ death, we also stop at the grief and anger and that leads to violence. If we move on to the life of Jesus, than there isn’t the same room for grief and anger because Jesus is alive and wants us to be alive in Him.
In short order, Peter passes on the same absence of revenge of Jesus’ persecutors and fullness of forgiving love for them when he tells the people in Jerusalem precisely what they had done, sticking to the bare facts and not adding irrelevant insults the way we usually do in such situations. When Peter’s listeners were “cut to the heart” and asked: “What should we do?” Peter extended the invitation that he and the disciples had received from the Risen Lord: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This is a far cry from the response we get from most followers of a slain leader. Peter had heard the cock crow, repented and accepted Christ’s forgiveness and love. Peter was a weak human being like the rest of us. If Peter is like us, we can be like him.