Creatio Ex Transformato
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now 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. Just 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. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" When 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.
On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, "Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not." Jesus answered, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here." While 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. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
It’s a difficult task to craft a sermon that has a hopeful tone or that assuages our collective anxiety in light of the crisis of climate change that holds the very real possibility of impending doom for the earth and all its inhabitants. When some OCBC folks got together to discuss constructing a couple of services focused on the concern of climate change, we decided that this week would be devoted to cultivating a more pastoral tone, helping to strengthen us for the hard work of confronting the climate crisis and to addressing the inevitable anxiety that arises for those active in working on a concern of such enormity. We would save the more intense call for action for the spring.
But while climate change is easy to preach about prophetically, it is a reality quite difficult to preach on the subject pastorally. Climate change is politically charged and incomprehensibly divisive. It is a crisis now resting at the nexus point of so many structural evils including racism and classism and nationalism. The rampant skepticism and contention over the scientific facts of our ecological crisis is inextricably bound up with the power of the dominant political and economic systems of neoliberal capitalism and neocolonial globalization.
Do you feel pastorally soothed yet?
The crisis nature of climate change is palpable. And yet, almost nothing has the potential for the unification humanity across the globe than the environmental crisis. It touches our shared humanity in a way that transcends race and class and gender and sexuality and language and nationality in its long-term impact upon all of humanity, even while it affects various groups disproportionately based on race and class and nation in the short term. It demands something of us collectively in ways that no other crisis ever has and possibly ever will.
It is a crisis not simply of the “climate” but one that touches the constitutive nature of our humanity – a reality portrayed even as far back as the first chapter of Genesis when God created not simply a man “named” Adam, but when the Divine brought forth from the earth in Hebrew, ha’adam, from the Hebrew word, adamah, meaning “ground” or “earth.” The 2nd Century theologian, Irenaeus, interpreted this Hebrew term that we simply read as “Adam” to mean “Mud Creature” – ha’adam crafted from adamah, the “dust of the earth” – made, according to Genesis in the imago Dei – the very image of God.
Mud creatures, brought forth from the dust of the earth, made in the image of God.
But in order to confront the very real changes to our climate and ecology we must believe that we – mud creatures made in the imago Dei, the earthy image of God – that we are capable of making a meaningful impact upon our planet’s future.
We’ve largely felt matters of such planetary significance were out of our control, and our theological metaphors have sometimes hindered us from seeing otherwise.
Since the teaching of the “early church fathers,” Christians have read into the text of Genesis 1 the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, or “creation out of nothing.”
Gordon Kaufman says, “As the ancient phrase creatio ex nihilo suggests, the coming into being of the truly new—the totally unexpected, the utterly inexplicable—is not something of which we humans are in a position to make sense. In our Western religious traditions the coming into being of the new has generally been thought of as brought about by God.”
The worldview of the ancients was understandably limited in its comprehension of how humans can affect the entirety of the earth with human activity. Again, Gordon Kaufman notes, “For many centuries, nature and God were not in any sort of significant tension with each other, since what we today speak of as ‘nature’ was thought of as God’s creation—the world—in every respect a product of God’s sovereign disposal. The concept of an autonomous nature, as we think of it today, had no real place in the biblical story at all.”
But are our theological imaginations limited because the Bible and Christian theology have few resources for making theological sense of the climate crisis? Even if we don’t subscribe in scientific fact to “creation out of nothing,” the metaphor is still potent in shaping our imaginations for what is possible for us to do in relation to the climate crisis.
In order to confront the very real changes to our climate and ecology we must believe that we – mud creatures made in the imago Dei, the earthy image of God – that we are capable of making a meaningful impact upon our planet’s future.
If creatio ex nihilo, or “creation out of nothing,” has limited our imaginations for the possibility of our effecting positive change on a planetary scale – even while the evidence is overwhelming that we already have effected nearly catastrophic change – then a new theological construct is called for. Today, Transfiguration Sunday in the Christian liturgical calendar, I wonder what might come from a theology of creatio ex transformato or, “creation from transfiguration,” rooted in today’s Gospel narrative.
“Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.”
The mountain: an out-of-the-ordinary, transformative place, hearkening back to the ascent of Moses up Mount Sinai to receive the commandments from God. The disciples followed, unknowing of what was coming.
“While he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” – a metamorphosis, a transformation, a transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain surrounded on one side by Moses and on the other by Elijah.
“Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep.”
Alan Culpepper says, “Here sleep functions as the faithless counterpart to watching and praying.” It’s a common occurrence in the Gospels – the disciples sleep when they should be awake, at watch, at prayer. And here, at the very moment of transfiguration, the disciples are “weighed down with sleep,” but in this instance, they didn't succumb. And “since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory.”
And “a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud” – deeper into the experience of the divine, enveloped in the embrace of God, transforming an ordinary moment into a palpable sense of holy presence.
“Then from the cloud came a voice…”
“And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen” – transformed by the palpable presence of the divine in shining face and cover of cloud and voice ringing out and still so astounded about the experience that they were rendered speechless.
And if that’s where our theology of creatio ex transformato, our “creation from transfiguration,” ended, we might garner a sense of sufficiency for the journey ahead, but it would fall short of the genuine human sense of transfiguration’s effect. We might very well believe that we – mud creatures made in the imago Dei, the earthy image of God – are capable of making a meaningful impact upon our planet’s future if we stopped reading here, but transfiguration culminates with a descent down the mountain. And the story continues…
A boy in need of healing meets them on the very next day. His father beside himself to see his son relieved of his suffering but to no avail. “I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not,” the boy’s father said. The disciples, still reeling from their experience on the mountain, the out-of-the-ordinary, transformative place where they were enveloped in the presence of the Divine, but stupefied as to what to do with this little boy.
As Richard Vinson says, “To judge from the next few episodes, if the experience [of Transfiguration] changed them, it was a slow-acting, time-release sort of change, because they come down off the mountain to failures at exorcism and at understanding Jesus’ predictions of the cross, to arguments about which one of them is the greatest, and to hostile intent towards disciples not in their group.”
The boy’s father begged, but the disciples simply could not. “But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.” This is a pattern of blessing typical of Jesus: “He takes what is brought or given to him, blesses it, and gives it back.”
It’s a pattern of blessing revisited again today in our journey to the Table of Transformation, where ordinary elements of bread and wine are transfigured into more than they appear when he takes the bread and the cup and blesses it and gives is back to his disciples – you and me – knowing all the while that if the experience changes us, it will be a slow-acting, time-release sort of change. It is the sort of change, the type of transformation that is indicative of creatio ex transformato, a creation from transfiguration, fueled by the transformative presence of the Divine, yet tinged with uncertainty about what we could possibly do, leaving us to wonder just how mud creatures made in the imago Dei, the earthy image of God, are capable of making a meaningful impact upon the future our entire planet. Creatio ex transformato.
 Resisting Structural Evil, 199.
 Gordon Kaufman, In the Beginning…Creativity, 71-2.
 R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections.” in The New Interpreters Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. IX, ed. Leander E. Keck, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 206.
 Vinson, S&H, 291.
 Culpepper, 209.