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We have a Sick & Sinful Society
Is there a MetaPhysician in the House
Feast of the Transfiguration - 2011
F. Earle Fox
11/08/07 Trinity 7
Ex. 34:29-35; Ps. 27; 2 Pet. 1:13-18; Lk. 9:28-36
It used to be that if someone fell sick or had an accident at a theater, the show would stop and there would be a call from the stage, “Is there a physician in the house?” I suspect that that does not happen any longer, partly because we now have a 911 number to call for emergencies, and perhaps because with 911 responding there is far less danger of a lawsuit in case the volunteering person did the wrong thing.
We all know what a physician is, but what is a “metaphysician”? The word ‘meta’ in Greek means ‘behind’ or ‘beyond’. “Metaphysics” is the study of that which is beyond and behind the physical, phenomenal world. We have a world all about us, a world of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell, a world of feelings, emotions, relationships.
But what are we to make of this booming, buzzing cacophony of impressions and experiences? Is the world like a kaleidoscope, with constantly moving bits of phenomena, but no connection between one bit and any other? Does it make any kind of sense? Is it going anywhere? Is anything predicable?
Sir Isaac Newton told us that the universe is a cosmic machine made up of atoms and molecules bumping around, combining to make up the world as we know it. The machine is created by God, he said, and is what keeps the cosmos orderly.
A bishop of his time, George Berkeley, of Cloyne, Ireland, warned that Newton’s cosmic material machine would become a barrier between us and God. That is precisely what happened. Westerners have come to believe more in that cosmic machine than in our cosmic God. We have been deeply influenced by the falsehood that science is limited to the five sense, and that there is nothing at all beyond what we can see, touch, hear, taste, or smell. That is all there is.
That means that there is nothing at all behind the phenomena of life, there is only the physical and phenomenal. That, of course, means no God, no spiritual life, no mind, no soul. We are only a concatenation of sensory impressions caused by interactions in our physical nature. Nothing else. The mind is in the physical brain, and nowhere else. There is no spirit, no soul.
That is an impossible theory to live by, and an impossible theory in fact to defend. But Westerners are still deeply hooked into it just the same. We have been persuaded that that is what science teaches us. That is indeed what secularism, atheism, and materialism teach us. It is not what science teaches us. It is not what the Bible teaches us, nor what common sense realism teaches us. Atheism, materialism, and secularism are intellectual dead-ends.
The tragic result has been a deep and destructive depersonalization in Western Culture of the human psyche and self-image. We become like that we worship. If we do not worship the Creator, we will worship the creature. And if we imagine what was once the creation of God to be only a mechanical machine, we will worship that. We will ourselves be made in the image of that machine, because that machine is what produces us – by a totally accidental and impersonal process of “random evolution”. We begin to interpret our own nature to be compatible with, explainable by, a purely physical or spiritual but depersonalized process. Despite the fact that it does not work, we have no other choice if we do not understand the world to be caused by a personal Creator.
The Gospel for this morning, the Transfiguration of Christ, gives us The Answer to That Problem. The Transfiguration comes in Luke just after the death of John the Baptist, the feeding of the 5000, Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, and then Jesus’ strong warning about finding one’s life by following Him on the way of the cross, or losing it by worship of the world.
We read how Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain to pray by themselves. They arrive a the top of the mountain, and then something very strange happens.
...as He was praying, the appearance of His countenance was altered, and His raiment became dazzling white. And behold, two men talked with Him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of His departure, which He was to accomplish at Jerusalem.
Jesus knows already how He will be leaving the world which He had entered as an infant some 30 years prior, that He will be crucified, rise from the dead, and then ascend back to heaven.
Well, all of this Bible story is utter nonsense if the secular or pagan worlds are the truth about life. If we are not the creatures of a personal Creator, then there is no way to reasonably account for a transfiguration event other than to say that they were lying or deluded. If the Biblical worldview is not the truth, then the whole Biblical story is false.
So, how are we to understand the altering of Jesus’ countenance, and the glistening white of his robes? And how are we to understand Moses and Elijah appearing “in glory”? We can understand it metaphysically, or, almost the same thing, sacramentally.
Moses and Elijah “spoke of His departure, which He was to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Jesus already knew that He would be killed in Jerusalem. Was this the Father’s way of telling the Son the details of what was to happen? We do not know.
I said that the Transfiguration was “the answer” to the problem of depersonalization created by paganism and secularism.
Depersonalization blinds us to the metaphysical reality of a personal Creator behind the phenomena. It tells us that there is no such reality, that we are stuck with the physical phenomena. There is only Newton’s physical cosmic machine of atoms and molecules.
The reality behind the physical phenomena, as Bishop Berkeley so well understood, was the presence of God. It is God, and God alone, who can guarantee the meaning of the cosmos and its orderliness. Nothing else can do that. Newton’s machine cannot do it, as Berkeley (and other philosophers – Hume and Kant) so clearly pointed out, but Westerners kept on believing it anyhow because it seemed necessary to the scientific worldview. The cosmic machine was not at all necessary to science, it was necessary only to secularized science.
In the Fallen world, we are all depersonalized to some degree. It was true of Adam and Eve, of their offspring, it was true of the Hebrews, all of them, it was true of the disciples. The depersonalization was manifested in the Jewish treatment of the law. The primary critique of Jesus against the Pharisees and Sadducees was that they applied the law in a legalistic manner, treating the law as more important that the people the law was to govern.
Jesus corrected that when He said that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. The Sabbath stands here for the whole of the law. God is interested in persons, not laws. Laws are important only for their usefulness in guiding personal relationships. They have no value in and of themselves.
The ministry of Jesus to the disciples was to draw them to Himself, to cut through the walls of depersonalization and so to restore to them the capacity to relate to life as essentially and substantially personal, living in the Light. Life is about personal relationship, as indicated by Jesus making the laws of love the two highest laws in the universe. Nothing is more important than how we relate to God and one another.
Jesus was drawing the disciples to Himself. But that would make no sense unless Jesus was a person with whom one could be in a personal relationship of trust and obedience. If we are all really mechanical robots without personal self-consciousness, meaning, and purpose, then “relationship” has quite a different and again depersonalized meaning.
The disciples walked up the mountain with Jesus with severe barriers still within them which kept them from seeing the personal-relationship-reality of life. They could not yet look at the world, other persons, or even Jesus, and see the Person of God clearly shining through. But enough had happened in their relationship with Jesus so that when they went up the mountain, and Jesus opened Himself up to reveal who He was, stunned though they were, they could tolerate being in His presence.
Our Old Testament lesson from Exodus tells of a similar situation which happened with Moses as he came down from Mount Sinai with the Decalogue chiseled on tablets of stone. He had spent a long, long time with God on the mountain, and could not help but be transformed in some way. When we come into the presence of God, something happens. It will not be a neutral experience. We will either accept and digest the experience, allow ourselves to be changed by it, or we will reject the experience as hostile and foreign to what we want to get out of life. We are put to that test every time God shows up, directly or indirectly. We choose, one way or the other.
John 3:19 says, “And this is the judgement, that the Light has come into the world and men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” We react to the light, one way or the other. Adam and Eve could have repented when God showed up in the Garden of Eden, but they chose to defend themselves and blame someone else.
Moses was unaware that his face shone with a radiance as he came down the mountain with the Decalogue. We can sometimes see a radiance, a glow, in one or another when something profoundly good has happened in a person’s life. There is a spiritual aura around the person that defies explanation from natural causes.
That shining, that glow, is a metaphysical reality. It cannot be explained by physical causes. It comes from something beyond or behind the physical body. It can happen only in a sacramental world, in which the physical body is an outward and visible sign of something inward and spiritual. In the Kingdom after Jesus’ return, we will all be shining quite naturally with this spiritual glow. C. S. Lewis describes it in The Great Divorce.
If our spirits are open to it, nature, sunsets, mountains, plains, forests, gardens can themselves shine with the glory of God – because God, the cause of their very existence, is behind them.
This Self-revelation of God gives us a sense of what the Incarnation must have meant, to which Paul refers in Philippians 2, “the Son of God emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant.” The Son diminished Himself so that His presence could be tolerated by a sinful and broken human race. Like Moses, Jesus wore a veil, but over His whole self. The Incarnation is the best example of how God speaks down to us in terms that we can understand and assimilate.
But with Moses, and then Jesus and the three disciples, God removes some of the veil. The metaphysical shines through the physical in, quite literally, an unearthly manner, that is to say, a heavenly manner. As the song goes, “Heaven came down and glory filled my soul...”
The world cannot produce that. It is unexplainable on secular or pagan terms. Pentecost is that glory coming to live within us, so that we too can shine with the glory of God. Pray for the baptism of the Holy Spirit in all its fullness.
The study of metaphysics has traditionally been done in the manner of the Hellenic philosophers. It was the study of “pure being”, being all by itself, devoid of any particular manifestation. Existence all by itself without anything else – such as “pure horseness”, without color, shape, size, just existence. That is about as abstract and hard to imagine as anything can get. That is why metaphysics and philosophy have had a bad reputation among the folks in the street.
But the Biblical notion of metaphysics is quite different. That which is behind all things is not the totally abstract “pure being” or “existence in and of itself”, it is the concrete and particular presence of the Living God. It is a Person, not an abstraction, it is the most concrete and personal of all beings. I AM. He who Is.
Real metaphysics is not the domain of PhD’s, it is first of all the domain of (believe it or not) new born infants. Perhaps you know that when an infant is first born, God has designed it so that its visual focal point is automatically at about 18 inches in front of its eyes. It automatically focuses on things about 18 inches away. Why would that be? What is 18 inches from an infants eyes that might be important for it to see right off the bat. When the mother is holding the infant in her arms, her face is at just about that distance. God designs us so that when we are born, we will be most likely to see “mom”.
You might say, “That’s nice, but so what? Why is that important?”
It is important because the infant is a metaphysician. The infant does not look at mom and think, “I just got born, she is a woman, and must be my mother...” The child does not reason its way from seeing a physical body to discovering mom. The child sees mom. The child sees a somebody, a person, not a thing. Mom is more than her body, mom is a someone, someone who can love me, someone who will take care of me, someone I can be with, a companion. If an infant does not connect with a person, a someone who cares, the infant will likely give up on life. It might just turn over and die, even though it is physically well taken care of, fed, cleaned up, warm, etc. To become fully human, God’s kind of human, the infant must connect with someone who loves it.
That cannot happen in a secular world of merely physical reality, nor in a purely spiritual world as in eastern religions. People who believe in those worlds do connect, but their worlds cannot explain why they are able to do so. It takes a personal cosmos, inhabited by persons, created by a Person. No other world will do.
We lose our metaphysical capabilities, we lose our abilities to see the person in the other body, when we are vulnerable and get badly hurt, such as in our infancy or youth -- or when, even as adults, dealing with situations where we are very vulnerable and feel overwhelmed. We lose our metaphysical capacity because we set up walls and barriers both within ourselves and between ourselves and others. So we blindside ourselves. We set up the walls to keep from getting hurt again, but the walls become our worst enemies. Our fortress becomes our tomb because we wall ourselves off from relationship, from love and compassion, the very things we need for our growth and healing.
So, you see, we are all metaphysicians, we are all looking for that personal being, the soul out there, behind or within the body, as it were, with whom we can have a love relationship. You cannot have that with a robot, a machine, or a soulless body. Only with another metaphysical person like yourself.
We might think of the transfiguration as a wonderful and mighty and spectacular event. But in the Kingdom, it will be one of the most ordinary things about us. It will be the way that we all live with one another. We will be fully and openly ourselves. Living in the Light, no walls, with our spirits and the Spirit of God shining through. It is only in our fallen state that we consider this strange or miraculous.
Seeing the depth of the metaphysical disaster in the Fall hopefully will help us have more respect for what God is doing for us. The loss of the metaphysical relationship means the compromise, and maybe loss, of our two primary stabilities – stability of our personhood, and moral stability. God, both through Moses and then Jesus, was introducing us to normal reality, to life as it is meant to be, and will be in the Kingdom.
So, yes, we have a MetaPhysician in the house, in the Church, in the sacraments, in the Word of God. Jesus, the healer and forgiver of our souls, the one who can restore us to our own unity of soul and body, shows us how to remove the inner fractures and barriers which keep us from one another. The transfiguration of Jesus results in our own transfiguration, our own spirit and the Spirit of God shining through our bodies – so that, as one Church father said, “The glory of God is man fully alive” -- because the glory of God is shining through.
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Date Posted - 08/07/2011 - Date Last Edited - 07/07/2012