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Drawn into the Future

The Transfiguration: 10th February, 2013
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

On 12th February 1851 Edward Hargraves and John Lister found five specs of gold in Lewis Ponds Creek, Bathurst. Just three months later, 300 prospectors had arrived; the Australian gold rush was on (Australian Dictionary of Biography 1972). On the other side of the world in Cardiff, Wales, an ancestor of mine Edward Skyrme and his fiancé Francis George heard the news. They were soon to be married, so you can probably guess where they decided to go for their honeymoon. The day after the wedding they set sail for Australia and had modest success panning on the gold-fields. On their way back to the ship, however, the newly weds were set upon by robbers (as one Great Aunt of mine tells the tale, it was Ned Kelly and his gang, but I'm not so sure about that detail). Our family historian describes beautifully what happened next: "Francis, being short in height but broad in the beam, had concealed much of the gold in her underclothes and was not searched." So they returned to Cardiff, and put their findings to good use, helping to improve the literacy of the impoverished miners in the Rhondda Valley and setting up a low-cost housing scheme.

The prospectors are very much part of our history as Victorians, we see the fruits of their success in the beautiful old buildings of the city all around us. Prospection is also a psychological process that some positive psychologists are particularly interested in at the present time. Prof. Marty Seligman, the well known positive psychologist, and three of his colleagues wrote a paper last year entitled: "Drawn into the Future or Driven by the Past?" (unpublished). In it they challenge what they see as the dominant paradigm in contemporary psychology, a preoccupation with the past, which they argue is the result of a systematic undermining by post-enlightenment science of teleology or future oriented behaviour. Seligman writes (pp. 6-7):

Darwin replaced the apparently natural design of organisms with chance variation and selective retention. Marx replaced Hegelian teleology with an account of historical change as driven by technological innovation and social contest. Freud replaced Aristotle's rational soul aiming at the good with a complex psychodynamic of competing and largely unconscious drives; seemingly inexplicable dysfunctional or accidental behavior was caused by unresolved past conflicts, often originating in childhood, playing themselves out below the level of awareness.

Seligman doesn't mention religion in his paper, but this undermining of future-oriented behaviour is one of the central features of the post-Enlightenment battle between faith and science. Friedrich Nietzsche probably best sums up what has become the credo of today's secular society (The Antichrist 1895, section 34): "The 'kingdom of heaven' is a condition of the heart — not something that comes 'above the earth' or 'after death.'"

So how do we approach today's readings? Is the account of Daniel's vision a vaguely interesting relic of a primative pre-scientific past? And what do we make of Luke's story of the Transfiguration, the centre-piece of our celebrations today: another ancient myth with no real relevance for our busy modern lives?

Firstly, although not addressing theology specifically, I am heartened by psychology's current interest in the concept of prospection. It lays the scientific ground work for a new layer theological apologetic. Seligman et al. conclude their essay (p.62):

Being driven by the past is as unsuitable as a framework for living as it is for theorizing. It is clear from daily life how much people's evaluations, imaginations, and choices make a difference. Hoping, planning, saving for a rainy day, worrying, striving, voting, risking or minimizing risk, even undertaking therapy, all have in common the presupposition that which future will come about is contingent upon our deliberation and action. We have argued that this is no illusion. Prospection is not mysterious and it is at the very core of human action.

And so I might ask you: what drives your life? What motivates you to get up in the morning? Money, a job, even our closest relationships are all important, but the material and physical are not the whole of life. That is part of our faith. As Christians we have a traditional belief that there is more; there is a spiritual world that is as real as the material, in fact perhaps more real. It is integral to the world that we see but is usually unseen. There are times, however, when we catch a glimpse of this spiritual reality. We call such times visions, or dreams, or revelations.

We are reminded of this today on the feast of the Transfiguration. Today's gospel reading tells a story that I imagine resonates with the lived experience of many of us. Jesus climbs a mountain with our patron saint, Peter, and also James and John. They were probably needing some time out, some time to pray. Then something quite out of the ordinary happens. The disciples see a vision. Jesus is transfigured before them. The ordinary is tranformed into the extraordinary. Jesus' face shines like the sun, his clothes become dazzling white and Moses and Elijah miraculously appear. I love Peter's reaction: "Lord, it is good for us to be here: if you wish I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He wants to preserve the moment, to create a shrine, but he has really missed the point, and Jesus doesn't respond. But rather a voice then eminates from the bright cloud that has overshadowed them: "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!"

Our moments of vision, dreaming and revelation may well be less dramatic than this, but my guess is that we all have them in one way or another. I can't count the number of stories people have told me over the years of their religious experiences. And these religious experiences drive our behaviour, draw us into the future. In my own life, a profound religious experience I had at university led me three years later to respond to a call to ordination, and ultimately to accept the Archbishop's invitation to serve here at St Peter's. But that's a story for another day.

Today is the last Sunday before Lent. On Wednesday we will begin our Lenten observance. Today's vision is symbolically here in our lectionary to sustain us through the dry times of self-discipline and self-denial. It is a foretaste of that glorious day of resurrection that we are journeying towards. Our mountain top religious experiences are rare and precious; spiritual food for the journey.

And so I do encourage you, come to one of our three services on Ash Wednesday if you possibly can. Let us join together this Lent in the hard work of prospecting for the gold of God's love and goodness in our lives, and in the world around us. Amen.


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