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Translating the Transparent Transcendence of Transformation That Transpires in Transfiguration, Pt 1

In her best-selling book The Awakened Brain, author and professor of clinical psychology Dr. Lisa Miller details the science of spirituality. Dr. Miller, along with a team of collaborators and researchers, spent years employing genetic research, epidemiology, and functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain in an effort to better understand our human spiritual capacity. In one study, Dr. Miller and her team used functional MRI scans to map the brain activity of people telling stories of three separate experiences—a stressful experience, a relaxing experience, and a spiritual experience. In recounting each story, participants were asked to provide as much detail as possible—

“to explain where they were, who was there, what they were doing, how things looked, and what sensations they experienced.”

Once the stories had been recorded and the data compiled, Dr. Miller and her team were shocked by the amount of overlap. The spiritual experiences, in particular, were strikingly similar—sharing numerous details. As Dr. Miller writes, these stories “often included references to light and sky, a sense of unity between self and environment,” and an emphasis “on the sensation of being absorbed by something larger.” About half of the personal spiritual narratives shared the detail of being in nature—“on a beach or snowy mountaintop.” “All of the spiritual narratives shared important themes and physical sensations. Participants detailed feeling “warm…energized…more alive. Emotionally, they experienced awe, openness, and unity” and described “a feeling of oneness with the environment or the divine; a sense of…dissolving into something larger around or beyond them.” Perhaps these are sensations and experiences with which we can all identify—light and sky, boundaries dissolving, being absorbed into something greater, oneness, openness, mountaintops, and awe. Let’s keep that possibility in mind as we read a story from Luke 9:

About eight days later, Jesus climbed the mountain to pray—taking Peter, John, and James along. While he was in prayer, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white.

Suddenly, they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. They appeared in glory and were speaking of departure—the one Jesus was about to complete in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Peter and those with him were slumped over in sleep.

When they came to, rubbing their eyes, they saw Jesus in his glory and the two men standing with him. Just as Moses and Elijah were leaving, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, this is a great moment! Let’s build three dwellings: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter blurted this out without thinking.

While he was speaking, a cloud came and enveloped them; and they became deeply aware of God. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son—the Chosen; Listen to him!”

When the sound of the voice died away, they saw Jesus there alone. They were speechless and during those days, they told no one of what they had seen.

Luke 9:28-36

Let’s begin with the obvious. On one level, this story in the Gospel of Luke is undeniably making a statement about Jesus. Known as “The Transfiguration,” this story appears in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and in each instance, there’s an obvious statement about the divine identity of Jesus. He is transfigured, after all—literally transformed into something more beautiful or elevated. His clothes glow, his face changes, two long-dead members of the biblical Hall of Fame appear out of thin air—and if that’s not enough to drive the point home, a speaking cloud envelops everyone and declares, “This is my Son—the Chosen; Listen to him!” Friends, these details are not subtle. The writers of these transfiguration accounts want people to know about the divinity of Jesus. That much is obvious.

And yet—that doesn’t seem to be the only thing going on in this story.

If the only goal was to declare the divinity of Jesus, then this story contains way too many details. One could even say there’s a thick cloud of strange and specific details hovering over this story.

  • Specific details, like who goes up on the mountain with Jesus.

  • Strange details, like what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah talk about… or Peter’s response to seeing those three in conversation.

  • Details, like the disciples deciding to keep this story to themselves for a while.

If the only reason to tell this story of the transfiguration is to convince people that Jesus is the Christ—then these details don’t seem necessary. Why not just tell a story about Jesus glowing while receiving a holy endorsement from the voice of God? Why is this story absorbed with details? In recording the spiritual experiences submitted in her study, Dr. Lisa Miller and her team asked participants to provide as many specific details as possible. According to Dr. Miller, those strange details—like being on a mountaintop or experiencing a great light or being absorbed into something larger—were important because they pointed toward our shared spiritual capacity. If she’s correct, then perhaps the specific and strange details of this story exist not only to provide a witness to the divinity of Jesus but also to awaken our shared spiritual capacity. Maybe the details are here to help us not just observe or read about the transfiguration but to relate to it—

to see our story in this story.


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