Transfiguration in cultural engagement
The idea of transforming or redeeming culture is often thought to be overly triumphalistic (or at least overly optimistic) about not only the ability to change culture but also about the actual lasting positive impact that a Christian’s work can make on a larger culture. The realities of unintended consequences or misguided (albeit whole-hearted) change efforts go unaccounted for, resulting in a naive equating of our understanding of and vision for an industry with God’s renewing or restoring of that industry.
But admirable attempts to back away from the concept of transforming culture often lead to categories that seem overly passive. Charles Mathews seems to think the Augustinian category of “enduring” helps correct this problem. Christians are called to endure within the world as they approach the tasks of the world to be preparatory and formative for life in the New Creation. Hunter advocates for “faithful presence” which seems to get closer (for presence can be understood actively).
I am interested in exploring the possibility of the theological category of “transfiguration” as an angle into how we are called to engage with culture. What would it be like if we started to talk about seeing a transfiguration of culture, rather than a transformation of it?
Transfiguration allows for the decisiveness of God’s final work. It does not have the
finality of the language of “transformation.” There is something tentative, even fragile about this metaphor that more accurately captures the work of the hands of creatures. And yet, there is something eternally and enduringly glorious about it as well.
Transfiguration allows for the “already” of God’s work. Transfiguration is more a pulling back of the curtain of reality to reveal what is already the case, whereas transformation would imply that something new must be established or created. The work of Christians rightly done merely reveals or uncovers the “already work” of the Holy Spirit in both creation and redemption.
Transfiguration begins with “redeemed seeing.” As such, transfiguration effects a change in the believer first before it seeks to effect a change in an industry. Transfiguration requires the ability to see with new eyes, to see reality as it truly is from the vantage point of the work of God the Father in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. This new seeing, this new vision of reality requires constant cultivation and attentiveness in the spiritual life of the believer. It requires a renewed imagination about what is already true and therefore about what is now possible in the Spirit.
Transfiguration allows for mystery. While a transfigura-tion is a revelation, it is also at the same time a mystery because what is revealed goes beyond the comprehension of the creaturely mind. Peter’s response was to build a memorial, not because he misunderstood Jesus’ transfiguration, but because he failed to understand it in its fullness. Transformation suggests that Christians know what the good is. Transfiguration creates room for a not knowing, a mystery, an incomprehensibility that transcends the understanding of the person who seeks it. And therefore, it creates an appropriate hu-mility in the believer because the vision of transfiguration always eludes us at a deep and fundamental level.
A definition of the Greek word (metamorphao) can be translated as “transfiguration”: “Of the transformation of raw material into a statue.” This, I think, captures the essence of what we mean by transfiguration. It reminds me of the famous quote often attributed to Michaelangelo “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” The artist sees that block transfigured. The curtain of reality is pulled back in the vision and imagination of the sculptor, and he sees the fuller reality that is already present in the ordinary — we only need eyes to see it.
It is remarkable that it is this word that Paul uses in 2 Corinthians 3:18 to refer to those who believe: “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed (transfigured!) into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” In its context the connection is even more remarkable because Paul is talking about the giving of the law and the glowing face of Moses, which is clearly the background in the passage of Jesus’ transfiguration. We are being transfigured! And the statue (image!!) that is inside the block of our ordinary, frustrating, simple, sinful, glorious lives is Christ himself. As Christ was transfigured, so are we.
When we apply this astonishing insight into how we are to see God’s creation, we begin to see that transfiguration is an important way to think about cultural engagement. In transfiguration, the veil is removed on reality, the curtain is pulled back and we see the blazing glory of God’s creation — the statue inside the block. And we can see that for every industry in which we are engaged. We can see our work transfigured before our eyes and we can begin to work choosing not to see the ordinary reality, but ordinary reality transfigured by the presence of God in that work.
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