Last week I noted that in the wide sweep of history between Moses and Jesus – we see a clear evolution in the picture of God – a development always moving in the direction of greater complexity.
The Hebrew God of Moses is experienced as a god inhabiting the natural world of mountain tops and sacred places. This god who through control of the elements – reigns down fire, deluge, and drought; famine and earthquake – on hapless humanity. The Hebrew god is a god of transcendent encounter in the external world. But by the 1st-century the Jewish experience was of a god increasingly encountered within human consciousness – a god of internal space. No-longer a god encountered on mountain tops but a god encountered in the mind and heart. It is within this religious evolution that Jesus of Nazareth emerges onto the world stage.
The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in his massive opus A Secular Age explores the historical, religious, and political developments in the evolution from an age of belief to our current secular one. He contrasts the year 1500 when it was impossible not to believe in God with the impossibility of such belief for many today.
The Bible communicates the broad sweep of evolution in human perceptions from the Hebrew mountaintop god of Moses to the 1st-century Jewish god of heart, and mind – the god of Jesus. Likewise, Taylor charts the broad sweep of development – tracing in some detail the route of travel as the culture of the West moved from the impossibility of unbelief to the impossibility of belief.
Another way of speaking about the evolution in religious consciousness of God – both in the biblical record as well as the subsequent evolution of Western culture – is to note a movement from transcendence to immanence. In the long 400-year emergence of our current secular Western mindset, Taylor notes the gradual transition from the age of enchantment to the age of disenchantment. By disenchantment Taylor is commenting on our loss of a connection to the transcendent.
Taylor notes that when our connection to the transcendent is lost, all we have left is ourselves alone occupying center stage. The opposite of transcendence is immanence. With the loss of belief in spiritual transcendence the Western mind eagerly embraced the experience of immanence – weighing the costs of disenchantment off against a hubris of omnipotence. Afterall, we may find ourselves alone on center stage, but in our hubris we consoled ourselves that it’s now we – and no longer God – who from center stage commands the world.
To find ourselves center stage is a lonely and at times alienating experience. Thus, the Western spirit continued to frantically seek to recapture through entertainment and fiction the experience of enchantment in a world of lost transcendence. In fact we’ve coined a new term for this recapture of enchantment – we call it magical realism. And today we find magical realism everywhere.
We have two stories of mountaintop experience in the readings for the last Sunday before Lent – that of Moses and that of Jesus. Both are stories of transcendence – or to use Maslow’s term, peak experience. But as the disciples with Jesus were to discover, peak experience is always problematic. The spatial image of the mountain summit works in some ways for us, yet, it feeds an assumption that it’s only there that self-transcendent experiences such as joy, awe, and wonder can be found, captured, and forever held onto. With minds clouded by this illusion we will miss the more ordinary and everyday places where true joy is – by chance – encountered.
The image of the mountain top is an image of an encounter with God that ordinarily feels so out of our reach – driving us crazy with a promise of bliss. However, it’s not altitude that separates us from a life-enhancing encounter with the living God, but a dogged refusal to let go of our preoccupation with seeking transcendence somewhere other than where we happen to be. Transcendent experiences are not found by climbing mountains but in experiences like joy and sadness – ordinary everyday experience. Experiences of transcendence await us – not elsewhere – but in the here and now.
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said he’d been to the mountaintop, no one assumed he had actually climbed a mountain. The mountaintop now becomes the metaphor for the possibility of a different order of experience, one that challenges our acceptance of our disenchantment – our blind acceptance of lives that have no space for the possibility of belief.
Our struggle is not how to attain transcendent experience – how to seek and capture (Lord it is good to be here, -I will make three dwelling places) experiences of peak bliss. Our struggle today is the struggle to rise above our own individualized preoccupation. In our secular age, spiritual transcendence is found within the immanence of our everyday emotional lives – when we are able to move beyond our immediate self concerns and embrace an encounter with God through everyday relationships with others. For this is where the god who inhabits the heart and the mind is to be found.
So here is the clue. For us today, transcendence is found in the web of interconnectedness with one another. God inhabits the relational spaces between us as well as the internal spaces of the heart -mind within us. We escape our arid experience of immanence – lonely life centerstage – not into the emptiness of bliss – but into the fullness joy.
The great 19th-century Bengali poet and spiritual teacher, Rabindranath Tagore noted:
I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.
Joy is an experience of connection, communion, and presence – of divine grace reconnecting us to experiences of transcendence within the immanence of our daily lives. Yet, paradoxically, joy is also found in moments of great suffering. Meg Wheatley, a spiritual writer and change consultant with an acute eye to the paradoxical nature of our contemporary experience notes that it is in pursuit of happiness that we estrange ourselves from joy.
She speaks of joy being the same as sadness for both states embrace us with an energy that is beyond the physical. Laughing or crying – it doesn’t matter. This strikes us as paradoxical. We might doubt the truth of the statement until we realize that joy and sadness are both states of self-transcendence. Both open us to a level of experience that takes us beyond the tyranny of the preoccupied self – the isolated self, confined within the hubris of disenchanted omnipotence.
Faced with a birth, a wedding, an anniversary – we are captivated by joy. In the face of sickness, a death, a disaster, a tragedy of personal or epic proportions, sorrow and sadness capture us as we suffer with, console, and love one another.
The Transfiguration story is a halfway point in Matthew’s account of the life and times of Jesus. It marks the transition point from his preaching and teaching in the Galilean countryside to his final and eventful journey to Jerusalem.
The Visit of the Magi and the Transfiguration bookend the Epiphany season. From here on, we move into a different section of the spiritual journey. The landscape becomes rocky and desert-like as we journey down the mountain into the Lent of our lives.