Tag Archives: Martin Buber

Transfigured Presence

Mark’s Gospel chapter 9 verses 2-13

Continuing our excavation of Mark’s Gospel in search of that “intensely personal, hopeful and human voice” of Jesus (see my last blog entry), we come to chapter 9 verses 1 – 8: the story known as the Transfiguration of Jesus. Powerful spiritual experiences are often scary which is why we prefer to tame them, domesticate them, if we can. According to Mark’s account, Peter wants to deal with his disorientation and fear by trying to fit what’s happening into a familiar Jewish religious celebration of his day: the Festival of Booths.

“Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah,” he says. Mark has the insight to record, “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” The voice from the cloud says, in effect, stop prattling on and listen. We might say, suspend judgement about this experience; just stay with it and with the scary feelings it evokes in you; don’t rush to interpret it; certainly do not rationalize it to try and make it safe.

Unfortunately this is exactly what the early church started to do as we can see from the next section of the gospel. Here, in verses 9 – 13 we have Mark, writing for and from within one of those earliest Christian communities, trying to fit the Jesus experience into the religious thinking of that time. The result is a passage that is incomprehensible to modern readers unless they are biblical scholars. Do these verses about Elijah add anything to our understanding or are they another, different, form of prattling on? Well ‘prattling’ is a bit harsh but I suggest these verses are a good example of the way in which the conversations going on in the first Christian communities could drown out that elusive voice of Jesus. The miracle is that, if we listen carefully, if we tune out verses like these, we can still hear that voice, or at least echoes of it.

Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher/poet, in his 1923 classic ‘I And Thou’, reminds us that our temptation, especially during profound religious experience, is:

“to possess God; [we] desire a continuity in space and time of possession of God. [We] are not content with the inexpressible confirmation of meaning, but want to see this confirmation stretched out as something that can be continually taken up and handled….”

“To possess God”. We do like to make sense of things and that nearly always involves some form of possession. Reflecting on our experience, religious or otherwise, making sense of things, is a valuable human gift without which we could hardly survive. The New Testament writers’ reflection on their experience of Jesus preserved for us something of his message. But in doing so they were in danger of obscuring its innermost truth: Now is the only moment we have for encounter with transfiguring Presence. We cannot package it up and take it with us into the future. It can only be renewed in each succeeding Now as if we had never experienced it before.

The still small voice

St Mark’s gospel chapter 9

“Then came Jesus, whose distinctive, original voice I have argued can still be heard through the conversations of his followers which have shaped the Gospel text.” (Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch, ‘Silence: a Christian History’ page 219) 

But sometimes those conversations become so loud that the voice of Jesus is drowned out. Biblical scholars can interpret the conversations for us but when they have done their work we are left with the challenge: how much of it is relevant for me here in the 21st century? What resonates with my experience now? How can I respond from the heart?’ In 1963 a couple of Jews turned Christians published a book with the startling title, ‘God Is No More’. (A phrase, by the way, from a William Blake poem). Introducing it they wrote:

“At such a time, when the centre of life has been evacuated for its suburbs and the father’s furniture moved into the spare room, we become free – for better, for worse – for a new beginning…..we could once again listen attentively and without prejudice to the words of and about the man Jesus of Nazareth. We are no longer tempted to fit those words into a system – there are no systems left, except in the spare room. We need not try to fit them into the religious thought forms of our age – there is little religion left except in the suburbs. Today we could be met by the simple, ‘naked’, ‘untheologised’ words of Jesus, and if we are lucky they will disturb, frighten, shock and puzzle us – as life itself…..Now the words concerning Jesus consist of words about him and of words alleged to have been spoken by him. It is not easy to draw the line between these two kinds of words. ….But I believe that in most instances the imaginative ear can still pick out the sound of an intensely personal, hopeful and human voice.” (Werner & Lotte Pelz, ‘God Is No More’ page 12/13)

“…an intensely personal, hopeful and human voice” the Pelz’s wrote. It’s the consistent message of this blog that to discover and hear echoes of that voice is to receive a message which resonates with the spiritual longing of increasingly large numbers of people. It’s a message with echoes in Buddhism, and some aspects of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and elsewhere.  Tomorrow I’ll listen for echoes of that voice in chapter 9 of Mark’s Gospel.

Mark’s Gospel chapter 4. Let’s do a bit of gardening.

He began to teach them many things in parables

Jesus taught in parables; no serious scholar doubts that. When we read a parable in the Gospels we are close to the authentic voice of Jesus of Nazareth. As Mark says later in this chapter (verse 34):

He did not speak to them except in parables

 But parables caused problems for his audience. Perhaps he deliberately chose to confuse people. Perhaps they are a bit like Zen Buddhist koans – ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’.  Perhaps both parables and koans are designed to stop people in their tracks and say, ‘Hang on! Wait a minute! I don’t get that!’ That must be what the early Jesus movement churches thought because next in this chapter we have the first of several ‘explanations’ of a parable:

10When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God; but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12in order that “they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.”

Oh dear! Like I said in my previous blog post, the history of the church (and therefore of the New Testament writings) is the history of ‘broken people’. Here is a writer who, with the community of which he is part, is wrestling with the puzzle, ‘why don’t people get it?’ and ‘why do they persecute us Christians?’ He finds his answer in the words from Isaiah that he quotes in verse 12. It’s a tempting explanation, especially if one has stumbled on the truth that, there is a beautiful, vibrant, joyful reality underlying my brokenness that Jesus called ‘the kingdom of God’ and yet lots of people just don’t get it.

With the greatest of respect to Mark, I want to insist that there is a further lesson to be learned about what Jesus called the kingdom of God. The reality to which Jesus points in other parables is that this beautiful, vibrant, joyfulness is present in every human being, no matter how blind to it they are; no matter how much their blindness leads them into shocking behaviour.

Some of the reasons for our blindness appear in the explanation of the parable, verses 13 – 20:

  • Satan. ‘Satan’ was a neat way of explaining the inhuman depths to which we can sink. Most of us today cannot go along with the idea of an independent being out there somewhere of utterly evil intent. The Jewish philosopher/poet Martin Buber, reflecting on the Nazi holocaust, suggested there are two stages of evil. The first he called decisionlessness; what you might call the, I’ll-get-around-to-it-later syndrome. This attitude can leave us vulnerable to his second stage. Here it is possible for otherwise ‘nice’ people to take positive decisions to engage in destructive activity especially if lots of those around us are helping to make it attractive or even respectable. We are queamish about calling something or someone ‘evil’. Maybe it’s because we don’t like to think that anyone is beyond reform and redemption. Eckhart Tolle writes in his bestselling The Power of Now, “Humans are a dangerously insane and very sick species. That’s not a judgement. It’s a fact. It is also a fact that the sanity is there underneath the madness. Healing and redemption are available right now.”
  • Staying power (verses 16 & 17): people who ‘have no roots’ as the parable puts it. Mark probably had in mind the persecution that Christians were suffering for their faith when he was writing his gospel. But trouble of any kind can knock us off course – for example, illness, other peoples’ cruelty. Or we can behave like children in a supermarket of toys. We get excited about a new technique for meditating but as soon as it proves a bit difficult to keep it up we rush off down the aisles looking for a new toy.
  • Worldly blandishments. They hadn’t heard of capitalism in Mark’s day – consumer, global or otherwise. They weren’t exposed to our daily deluge of television advertising, and celebrity culture. Still the nail is accurately hit on its head here with ‘the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth; and the desire for other things’ (verse 19)
  • Finally the good soil (verse 20). It can take some of us (me for example!) almost a lifetime to realise that there’s ‘good soil’ somewhere deep inside us. The seed has been lying there just waiting for me to do some gardening. The good news is that there are now many people on the planet who realise this and are able to offer help. Eckhart Tolle is one of them. There is an exciting rediscovery of the Christian tradition of contemplative prayer. Here are just a few web sites to visit
  •  http://ecocontemplative.com/index.html
  • http://www.biospiritual.org
  • http://contemplativefire.org
  • http://www.contemplative.org/cynthia.html
  • http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org
  • http://centeringprayer.org.uk
  • There’s a good summary of what is known as ’emergent Christianity’ in the final chapter of Don MacGregor’s book ‘Blue Sky God’.