This post sketches out ways of approaching the numinous. It seeks a way to engage with that reality of God for which we long, but of which we are afraid.
Our face shines
Our face shines when we have been in the presence of God. This is an old wisdom which we still see when people fall in love and dance close to the realm of spirit. We also see it when people experience the numinous in more obviously "religious" ways.
In Exodus 34, Moses has been in the presence of God on Mount Sinai, and his face shines.
To look upon the face of God was to die. (Exodus 33:20, and 19:21 "Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down and warn the people not to break through to the Lord to look; otherwise many of them will perish.") So a Moses with a shining face is a possible danger, and people are afraid to come near him. Howard Wallace says, "Some have suggested that Moses’ face may have been burned or scarred from the experience. So it is that Moses is revered in Judaism to this day as one who knew God face to face."
Paul Nuechterlein says
A standard Hebrew-English lexicon (Brown, Driver & Briggs) gives many variants of meaning for words built on KRN, almost all which have to do with horns–horns of animals; of the altar; as musical instruments and drinking vessels; horns symbolizing arrogance, power, fullness, lordliness, maturity, etc. These three verses in Exodus 34 (29, 30, 35) are apparently the only place where KRN means “sending out rays of light.”
Hebrew has other words meaning “shine, shed light.” It’s striking that the writer chose this word. Maybe the light coming from Moses’ face seems solid, connected to and growing from his skin. Maybe we should hear the symbolic and figurative meanings of horns in Hebrew– maturity, power, lordliness, arrogance, plenty, the corners of the altar– as well as the singular meaning, “sending out rays.”
All this imagery suggests that to meet God is to enter into a particular rawness of reality, from which we typically desire to shield ourselves. Ragan Sutterfield says of the Moses story
His face is shining with the trace of God and this trace causes fear among both the leaders and people. It is a kind of divine contamination and the people are afraid because of its power. In order to not constantly strike terror into everyone, Moses dons a veil. It is a veil that he removes only when he is directly relating what God has commanded to the people.
We are naïve if we are not disturbed by the prospect of meeting God. The fact that we do not shudder at this thought shows us not how superior and non-superstitious we are, but how much of a veil— even a wall— is between our western construct of reality and the wider human experience of the numinous.
In the gospel story of the Transfiguration Jesus is seen speaking with Moses and Elijah, "the sainted patrons of Judaism." (Rockwell) Reading the story politically, Jesus is as great as these two, and greater; validated by their presence and then shown to be superior. (This greatness is explicitly linked to his death; they "were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem…") But there is much more to the story than establishing his credentials.
Transfiguration is mystery. "Something transcends time and personal space," Rockwell says. Moses, Elijah and Jesus are all in Peter's space/place, and he in theirs. And Jesus' presence allows the disciples to enter the cloud, as Moses did, and survive, albeit in terror. In some sense, the God of the mountain, of Sinai and Horeb becomes "safe" for ordinary people.
Nuechterlein points our typical response to such an experience as he reflects on Peter's offer.
Peter can represent the anthropological impulse to immediately veil everything under the aura of the sacred. He voices the sacral impulse to build shrines on top of a mountain, which is primarily the remnant of sacrificing someone on a mountain.
We want to veil, yet preserve, the presence of God. We want to manage God. We want to make God safe, controllable, and yet still filling our longings for meaning and significance at our convenience. Jesus makes a way for us to approach God, but we want our own way, our own structures. God says, "Listen to him! Don't build power structures that seek to use me for your purposes."
In the wider context of Luke, the transfiguration is part of Luke's message that Jesus brings heaven and earth together. In the baptism we heard the words: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (3:22) and now we hear, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"
Both… the baptism scene [and the transfiguration] present a meeting point of heaven and earth (and assume that heaven is above). In Jesus the two come together. This is central to Christian faith about Jesus, whether we think of God as above or below. (Bill Loader)
It is interesting that at the crucifixion, the earth is darkened, rather than filled with the light of this occasion, but there is a connection which Paul has made decades before: in Jesus' death the veil in the temple is torn in two. The veil between God and us is removed.
The Unveiled God
Our culture has tried to wall experience like the Transfiguration out of existence:
Luke's story is obviously a highly crafted and purposeful interpretation of a numinous experience. We should not let this veil the fact that it reflects numinous experience. The numinous… is. The problem is our cultural preconception that only we… are; there is no numinous. The notion that we are only protons, neutrons and electrons, and that only we make the meaning of the world, is a veil over our minds, as Paul puts it. ( 2 Cor 3:15)
2 Corinthians 3
It is through the metaphor of the veil that Paul's ancient words from 2 Corinthians are still able to speak to us.
We need first of all to detoxify his words. They are not anti-semitic. Paul was a Jew. 2 Corinthians 3 is still an argument within Judaism, albeit a bitter argument, about the nature of our experience of God, about what God desires for us and ultimately, what will constitute Judaism. From a Girardian perspective, Nuechterlein says
These days a passage like this one from Paul, in which he is so critical of his former faith, makes us uncomfortable under our own modern sensitivity to anti-Semitism. One is tempted to run away from it. Passages such as this have undoubtedly been used in the cause of anti-Semitism, i.e., to self-righteously show how wrong Jews are and how right we are, as a justification for our persecution of them.
To read this passage anti-Semitically is to fall under the very same veil. The overall anthropological problem is that we take Torah and cover it over with a veil of sacred violence. Even Moses fell into that trap, and so do Christians when they read this text anti-Semitically. The veil which Moses places over the reading of Torah is a wider anthropological problem, not just a Jewish one. For Paul, his own personal experience of this veil was his Jewish persecution of Christians, and so he needed to locate the roots of that persecution in the Mosaic reading of the Torah. Tragically, the most glaring example of such a veil of sacred violence in our experience 2000 years later is centuries of the Christian persecution of Jews.
Any reading of religion which divides and excludes, rather than seeking to reconcile and build community, is a veiled reading with violence at its heart.
This is not to minimise the seriousness of Paul's accusations: "to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds…" This argument between Jews is akin to the long and bitter— always on the edge of violent— arguments within my denomination about the place of people whose gender experience does not conform to traditional expectations. This was, and still too often is, an argument about controlling access to God, and about pronouncement of who is holy— or not, and what constitutes holiness.
Paul is making a universal argument because, at base, he is talking about being open to new experiences of God, about being open to spirit, and about being changed by the experience of the numinous. And he is charging that some reject the freedom of spirit so thoroughly that it is as though their minds have been hardened.
In fact the reading of Moses is synonymous with the reading of scripture.
But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. 15Indeed, to this very day whenever scripture is read, a veil lies over their minds; 16but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
There is an invitation here to be free of old rules and interpretations. An invitation to continue to be transformed "from one degree of glory to another," to be made more like Christ. Loader says the "language of "glory" was visual imagery for divine presence." It is no wonder that we are prone to donning veils, building walls, and bringing the spirit under our control! The Spirit brings us safely into the presence of God, but our less-than-best human impulse is to flee from that; we find the divine presence is too dangerous unless we can control it.
In this understanding, my Jewish neighbour can read Torah in the freedom of the Spirit of God while I read the Gospel with a veil over my mind.
How do we live in all this?
We could say firstly, that "Jesus brings heaven and earth together. It is in his presence that the disciples enter the cloud and survive."
But before that, Paul's language in 2 Corinthians 3 is a promise to give such meaning to phrases like "Jesus brings heaven and earth together…" Essentially, Paul promises us an antidote to disenchantment, that loss of the world to flat existence.
I have often criticised Pentecostal theology, but Pentecostal Christians are up front and honest about stuff others of us are sometimes embarrassed to admit. They openly long for enchantment. They long for the sense of God active in the world. They take the notion that the spirit brings freedom and brings us from one degree of glory to another seriously. In the Pentecostal world God really acts. Pentecostalism is a corrective to the "life is just one damn thing after another" malaise (Beck) of our time; where Willie Nelson frightens us when he sings
The smell of Becky's coffee rolled me out of bed this morning
I showered and I shaved and dressed and pulled my work boots on
Walked in the kitchen, and she was starin' out of the window
and the way she said good morning
made me ask, "Is something wrong?"
She said, "I'm tired, I woke up tired"
Life is wearin' me smooth down to the bone
No rest for the weary, ya just move on
And I guess we'll just keep goin' till we're gone
And I'm tired, Lord, I'm tired
Said, "I'm tired", Lord, I'm tired… (Toby Chief, Chuck Cannon)
Sometimes, there is nothing left. Life is flat, drained…
We go to church on Sunday 'cause we want to go to heaven
Me and my family, ain't that how you're supposed to do?
The life is gone.
This desire for enchantment goes astray if people naively, or manipulatively, make God into an interventionist agent and a superstition who can be magicked by the correct prayers. But
According to James, a part of the trouble with "miracles," from a variety of perspectives, scientific and theological, is that they are often described as the actions of God "breaking into" or "interrupting" the natural world. In this view God is outside and separate from the system. This view, interventionist supernaturalism, James rejects as God is not outside or separate from the natural order. God is, rather, immanently present in all things. God is already on the inside. There should be no distinction between natural and supernatural. Thus, what might be called "a miracle" isn't God interrupting or disrupting the flow of events than a process of what James describes as intensification, God being more or less present at any given time or place.
I would suggest God is more or less recognised at any given time or place—God is never less present. Indeed, in the same article, Beck goes on to say,
The issue in enchantment--that God is intensely present--is less about "the spectacular event" (the "miracle") than the "hermeneutical boldness" (the re-interpretation of experience) in declaring that "This is from God!" …
In modernity we experience a "flatness" in life. Lacking depth or height life is just one damn thing after another. Under the naturalizing eye of modern science no atom is any more sacred than any other atom. They are all the same, interchangeable.
Enchantment, as I've often described it here, is the process of experiencing existential texture, depth and elevation. Enchantment is the experience of the holy, sacred, and divine.
This is the promise of 2 Corinthians 3. It is the promise of the removal of the veil of our modern rejection and flight from the experience of the divine. It is the promise that we will be able again to experience the "existential texture, depth and elevation" which has always been there, but veiled from us.
In another article Beck goes further. Re-enchantment, the removal of the veil is about connection.
Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed. (He is quoting Charles Taylor.)
Taylor's argument is that the modern experience of disenchantment has been less a matter of changing beliefs than an intrapsychic change, a change in how we experience the self in relation to the outside world.
Specifically, in an enchanted world the boundary between the self and the world was "porous." The outside would could impinge upon, affect and invade the psyche. The porous self, we might say, was an involved, engaged and relational encounter with the world.
By contrast, in the modern era the self has become introverted, isolated, and closed off from the world. "Buffered" against the world. The ego is now alone with itself, disengaged, withdrawn, and no longer in relationship with the world.
Dare I say, in the modern era the ego has become veiled?
And according to Taylor, it is this shift from the porous to the buffered self that drives the experience of disenchantment:
Here is the contrast between the modern, bounded, buffered self and the porous self of the earlier enchanted world. As a bounded self I can see the boundary as a buffer, such that the things beyond don’t need to “get to me,” to use the contemporary expression. That’s the sense to my use of the term “buffered” here...
Where Beck ends up with this is to say
The practical point in all this is that enchantment is less about believing in unbelievable things than it is in cultivating a relational self. Enchantment is overcoming the introverted ruminations of modernity--being locked up alone in your head--in cultivating a relational life that is eccentrically oriented and open to interruption and surprise… (My italics.)
When we reduce the relational self we make it easier to abuse. The non-relational self has no neighbour to whom he or she is bound. There is no responsibility to love. I become my own island. As such, compassion is not cultivated because I have no one I love, no one who punctures my selfishness. I am "buffered" and disengaged. The relational self loves. It has compassion.
Facing the veil
Red, white, and blue is just marketing rhetoric, therefore, the sloganeering to which we aspire in order not to terrify foreign nationals; the real American color is black, primordial, eternal, heartless, infinite, full of sorrow, For though consciences are as unlike as foreheads, every intelligence has one, upon every forehead the burdensome ornament of the black conscience, and a recognition that the civilization we founded, the civilization of the strip mall and the subdivision and the online cosmetic surgeon, all built upon the color black…To be an American, to be a citizen of the West, is to be a murderer. Don’t kid yourself. Cover your face.
This is an appalling quotation. Humbled and inspired by Pitjantjatjara friends, and friends and mentors from Sudan and Ethiopia and India, I find the "primordial, eternal, heartless… color black" is utterly violent language yet, at the same time, horribly and painfully true when we consider that so much of the USA and Australia has been "built upon the color black."
The author is Rick Moody quoted by Ragan Sutterfield. Despite my reservations about his use of colour, I think Moody sees something about us. We live behind a veil, half shamed (the quick outrage at compassion shown to refugees or acknowledgment of our invasion of Australia), and half defiantly blinding ourselves to our ills with bogan pride.
Moody is right: “To be an American, to be a citizen of the West, is to be a murderer.” We are guilty and we should be cut off with the … veil. But with Christ we are offered another choice than this … guilt. We are offered a divine face we can look into and follow into a new economy, a new Kingdom in the midst of and yet against the powers … Uncover your face. (Sutterfield, who is less sensitive about the language of colour. I have removed some words.)
Facing the veil, and opening our boundaries, starting to love, making reparation: all this is risking faith in Christ. It ceases to use the Christ as a magic charm, and is a step toward opening ourselves to the numinous and being changed inside the frightening cloud of divine presence. It takes transfiguration seriously. It hopes in God rather than fleeing God or using God for our own violent purposes.
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. 31But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. 32Afterwards all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. 33When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; 34but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
2 Corinthians 3:12-18
Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, 13not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. 14But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. 15Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; 16but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38Just then a man from the crowd shouted, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 39Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It throws him into convulsions until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. 40I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.’41Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.’42While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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