What if you could see things as they really are? I mean, everything. What if you could see everything as it truly is? What would change? What wouldn’t change? Here’s a couple things I’m pretty sure would change:
- You’d for sure close the lid on the toilet before you flushed. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, google “toilet plume.” But not right now! It’s a fascinating rabbit hole, and I’d never get you back.
- Probably none of us would ever get a dog. My last dog used to love to find a dead squirrel, lie down on it, and do a kind of shimmy. She never quite grasped that if she did that, she was going home to a bath. Because I couldn’t quite see her as she really was, post-dead squirrel encounter, but I could imagine it. And that was enough.
What if we could see the world of human beings as it really is, how would it look? Western cultures (and I think American culture is on the extreme end of this) have a tendency to represent society as being like a pointillist painting: lots of discrete little dots making up the big picture. There is a big picture, but each dot is separate from all the other dots. It’s an individual. Every artistic technique shows us a different way of seeing the world, and there are some beautiful pointillist paintings. But I don’t see a pointillist social world as fully accurate, or as something to aspire to.
As a sociologist, I see the world in a way that’s much closer to what Doyt has been talking about lately. That is, I see society as a vast network, where the individuals are nodes and the connections, the ties, between them are relationships. Doyt’s used the language of souls and the spaces in between, which are where God is, where love is–but the idea is the same.
The thing is, you need both nodes and connections to have a network. And social networks are no different: you need individuals to have weight, and dignity, and rights: pointillism. But that’s not enough; you also need relationships between them, or you end up with Hobbes’s war of all against all. They have to be seen together, held in tension, because they’re both important.
And our faith teaches us as much, right? Both the nodes and the ties matter. The Good Shepherd leaves the ninety nine sheep to seek out the one who went astray, because that one sheep matters. God’s eye is on the sparrow, and no one falls without God knowing, and caring.
Most of us, being products of Western culture, get this. And we certainly hope that if we wander off, Jesus will care enough to come get us. This is the easy part to see and understand. It’s the connections that can be hard to see as they really are. The Pandemic showed us how connected we are to the mostly invisible people who make our everyday life possible: delivering groceries, collecting our trash, making remote medical visits possible. We saw, but do we remember now? Or have those connections receded into the background again, and those nodes returned to invisibility?
Think about the concept of freedom. Doyt’s mentioned this lately too, but I want to drill down on it a little. What is freedom? Is it the absence of constraints? Meaning that the more free I am, the more I can do whatever I want, and no one can stop me? I think in our time that’s a typical way to think of it. So basically, freedom is for rich people.
But that wasn’t always the way we’ve seen freedom. In the ancient world, and probably for much of our history, freedom was about being part of a social network of reciprocal rights and obligations. You’d have obligations to other people, but other people also had obligations to you, and you had a right to count on their support. It was never all rights and no obligations; there was no such thing.
That’s one reason slavery was so horrible–apart from the day-to-day cruelty of it. But a slave was torn out of their social network, and placed in a position where they had obligations to others, but no one had any obligations to them. They had no rights that anyone else was obliged to respect. They were, in the words of the historian and sociologist Orlando Patterson, “socially dead.” Because to be alive is to be in the network.
Networks matter a lot. There’s research showing that if a person is religiously available–that is, not already committed to some religion, and not an avowed atheist–whether they join a church or a cult–even a really deviant cult (and I could tell you stories)–is heavily affected by where they have the strongest network ties. Our connections are powerful.
Okay. As Peter, James, and John followed Jesus up the mountain, their view of Jesus was about to get really real. But it’s interesting that they didn’t just see Jesus alone, enthroned in glory. Why not? Presumably, he could’ve talked to Moses and Elijah any time he wanted. So those two showed up for the disciples; why? Seeing Jesus as he really is meant seeing him in relationship–not to the whole world; that would’ve been a lot to put into one vision. But in loving relationship with two people who meant a lot to him. Jesus and two others. There’s an intriguing “threeness” about that.
I long to see Jesus as he really is, and I think the spiritual journey is largely about that: our connection to the Central Node. To be strengthened enough to stand before him without being reduced to ashes, to experience what they call the “beatific vision,” the grace to see him face-to-face. Part of a sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning captures this for me:
When our two souls stand up, erect and strong,
Face to face, silent, drawing nigh, and nigher,
Until the lengthening wings break into fire…
Isn’t that what we’re here for? To be transformed enough to stand in the presence of God, strong, silent, beloved?
Well, that’s part of what we’re here for, anyway: seeing God as God really is. But if we could see our neighbors as they really are, what would change?
The first thing that would change is that we’d clearly see the imago dei, the image of God, in everyone we meet. And the next thing that would change is everything else.
CS Lewis famously said, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
If we saw the network truthfully, we’d see that all the nodes–every one of them–are holy, radiant, beautiful and beloved. And we’d see that every meeting is a mountaintop experience: even the panhandlers, even the ultra-annoying people we work with, who work our last nerve down to a nub. Even–God help us–our own families. If we saw the imago dei in everyone, we’d see poor people without despising them, and rich people without judging them. Because others are sacred, we’d see our connections to others as sacred. That space-in-between is holy; God is in it. So we wouldn’t cultivate relationships because we might derive some benefit from them. Our approach would be loving, agape-driven, always–not transactional.
We like to say that “Epiphany is a learning church.” What have we learned here that might change–not who we are; we are God’s beloved–but how we are in the world?
In that moment when we’re tempted to turn away from an unpleasant person in anger or frustration or disgust, what if we remembered what Lewis said about our neighbor, and tried to imagine them that way–as the second holiest object we ever encounter? Wild, right? That might change things a bit.
And because we see our neighbor’s holiness, their beauty and the sheer wonder of their being, obviously they have a place among us here at Epiphany. And we won’t just tolerate them; we’ll value them, and we’ll learn from them. Even if they don’t believe everything we do. Do we believe everything we do? Who knows? But because they’re God’s beloved, they belong here, and that belonging comes first.
And because our neighbor is God’s beloved, when we lose them to death or dementia or some other fearsome thing, we know they are not lost to God. And we know that, however dark the last chapter reads, we know that’s not the end. To return to CS Lewis, we know there’s an epilogue, and the epilogue is really just Chapter One of the great story, a new and beautiful story that will go on forever.
Did the three who witnessed the Transfiguration get all these implications of what they saw? I seriously doubt it. Not right away, at least. But later, Peter would write in his second letter of being an eyewitness of Jesus’ majesty, of hearing the Voice from heaven, whose message is like “a lamp shining in a dark place.” (2 Peter 1:19)
That lamp is still shining. And so are we. And so are “they,” whoever “they” are. And every time we make the effort to see others as they really are–especially others we’re tempted to pity, dismiss, or throttle–let’s remember the sacred connection between us. Perhaps when we do that, our own light flares just a little more brightly. Imagine a whole church of people like that. Our lengthening wings would break into a fire that would ignite this city. And all kinds of people could come to us and be warmed.