Living Imaginatively.

Posted: February 14, 2023 in Uncategorized

Living Imaginatively.

I think the words of the 1960s poet and song writer Sydney Carter got it right when he wrote….

You can blame it on Adam,
you can blame it on Eve,
you can blame it on the apple,
but that I can’t believe.

Transfiguration Sunday. Is a bit like – that I can’t believe! and today’s gospel story by Matthew is about one of those ‘but that I can’t believe’ incidents. A mythical incident in the life of Jesus called the ‘transfiguration’. And a direct pinch from the other storyteller, Mark.

But this claim is nothing new. Many times, it has been spoken of as a very imaginative story that has Jesus and some of his friends climbing to the top of a mountain. They enjoy the magnificent views. They breathe deeply the fresh air. They are engulfed by a cloud. They allow the experience to recharge their flagging spirits and re-sensitize their imaginations. Sounds familiar doesn’t it. Remember those moments when we meet nature anew. And like us they wanted the experience to last forever. ‘Let’s build our own chapel and you, Jesus, can be our private chaplain’. Never too much of a good thing.

But, says the storyteller, a booming voice out of a cloud put paid to the idea. And as another storyteller has said: The mountaintop is a refuge, but it is not home. The mountaintop is safe, but it is removed. We are forever changed up on the mountain, but we are useless to the world if we do not return and share what we have experienced. We go up the mountain so that we can come back down.

Now we can approach this story with historical questions… such as

  1. ‘How did this happen?’ ‘Where did it happen?’
  2. Or we can approach this story with theological questions… such as ‘What connections can we make to this story?’ ‘What is this story saying about Jesus, or even g-o-d?’
  3. Or we can approach this story with imagination as the poets and hymn writers have done through the ages, using what Tom Troeger calls ‘spiritual exegesis’.

We really do have several options but as a person interested in the theological overview I would choose option 2 and as a person who prefers to use intuition option three feels better when engaging with the serendipitous world.

During my life I have moved home many times so moving has been somewhat a regular event! Packing one’s stuff for a move is also a good time to throw out some of one’s stuff. And I and my wife have done that over the years. Neither my late wife nor I were hoarders! 

During our last move, on my retirement before I threw out many of my books papers and sermons, (More than six boxes) I admit to a degree of nostalgia.

I have to say that when I reflected on the past in preparation of this address it was the theological underpinnings which seemed to dominate my thinking. That, along with what is being suggested in this story/myth, is something quite important about God. It is that God is to be understood as a creative transforming ‘energy’ in the lives of people. And that we are called to come down off the mountain top and serve in the towns and cities and the valleys below. To reach out our hand, so to speak and touch the One who is incognito in our neighbour.

Undergirding this approach has been the archaeological concern for material to undergird or challenge the assumptions. I like many of my colleagues have appreciated the archeological work of both Dom Crossan and (the late) Marcus Borg.

As a follower of the Jesus Way and a Minister of Word and Sacrament I have been trained to be a critical biblical and theological thinker. And to be such is to seek understanding of what one believes and values, and to grow in that understanding. But there has always been that thing called experience and life and its part in the shaping of who I am and how I think. For many years my preaching on the Transfiguration reflected my training. It was during the years of parish ministry that I began to ask ‘what about the passion , the prophet’s ecstasy, the dreamer’s vision, the preacher’s imagination’. In reading Iain McGilchrist in his work of the two hemispheres of the human brain I have come to value the instinct, the experiential, and the non-conscious. Both as an wholistic critique of everything and as the outworking of love as a transfiguring event of life.

It has over latter years been of import to understand the comment: “Our faith is about entertaining angels, every bit as much as it is about seeking to comfort the afflicted and to heal the sick.  It is about seeking visions of a new heaven and a new earth, every bit as much as it is about seeking justice and resisting evil.”

And Marcus Borg’s comments that ‘Jesus was an ‘ecstatic’.’ Has renewed my interest in a more wholistic approach to discernment of truth.  Borg says “Jesus… was a Jewish mystic.  …I think he was a ‘critical thinker of the wholistic order’. This seems like the best explanation of his understanding of the wilderness and the impact of ‘empire’ on his society and civilization.  I think he had visions, though I don’t know whether we have an account of any of them.  I have a hunch that he had experiences of nature mysticism… this would be consistent with his sense of the immediate presence of God… I suspect like many he had an experiential sense of the reality of God in his prayer life, which I assume included some form of meditation”. (Borg 2002:132).

Option No. 3 is probably looking better now? Or maybe an amalgamation of all three?

Returning to our text for today we have to acknowledge that there is good news in this story. The good news is, that God, (however we use that word/symbol/metaphor), is not aloof and detached and supernatural, but rather that God as ‘Dynamic Event’, works like an expert weaver, and is as Panentheism suggest intimately in nature naturally. Using some personalistic (and imaginative) language, God is in the fibre of our lives, weaving them into beautiful, powerful garments of love… empowering us for mission as a collaborative people critiquing our continuing theological journeys (as individuals and as communities)

The good news is also, the present-ness of God is: in the beauty of the universe around us, and in our ability to apprehend it, in the close encounters with new life and death. There is also an awareness of the way in which the hemispheres work to give meaning to human suffering, in the creation of the new, a tool of the imagination that gives value and meaning to daily in praying and meditation, and dare I say it, in many church liturgies.

So, with all the above the suggestion is that we don’t ignore or throw away these imaginative and mysterious experiences. Don’t let go of those things that you don’t understand or cannot explain slip past but rather, meditate on them, delight in them, use them in all their exciting particularity… As imaginative ‘energy’ or Creativity that vitalizes faith. See them as ‘Transfiguration’ or as a source of strength for living (and ministry) in the valleys below. As we revere how things are, and find ways to express gratitude for our human existence.

And to conclude a story that Rex Hunt wrote of; a story from Karl Peters, retired professor of philosophy and religion, as a clue to a new awareness and imagination.

Peters was sharing in a conference on ‘Prayer and Spirituality’ with a Zen Buddhist nun, called Geshin.  He said: “We were having a vigorous intellectual go at prayer and spirituality, with all their implications.  In the midst of our intense discussion, Geshin raised her hand and said, ‘Do you hear the bird outside, singing?’  I realized at that point that she had included not only what we were talking about, but also the whole environment around us.  She was connected ‘with the way things are in all their exciting particularity’”. (Peters 2008:104).

So like Rex I too offer the comment that imaginative and mysterious experiences can allow us to balance our personal selves with the sense we are in a context that is larger and more important than our selves. We humans need stories. Compelling stories. Stories from the sages and artists of past and present times “which help to orient us in our lives and in the cosmos”. (Goodenough 1998:174).

On that note Amen.

Borg, M. ‘Jesus: A Sketch’ in R. W. Hoover (ed) Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.
Carter, S. ‘Friday Morning’ in J. A. T. Robinson. But That I Can’t Believe. London. Collins/Fontana, 1967.
Goodenough, U. The Sacred Depths of Nature. New York. Oxford University Press, 1998.
Peters, K. E. Spiritual Transformations. Science, Religion, and Human Becoming. Minniapolis. Fortress/FACETS Books, 2008. 


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