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Transfigured Love in the Nuclear Age

The contrast could not be starker: on the one hand, a moment of transfigured splendor on a mountaintop, and on the other, a moment of unimaginable destruction and annihilation. I’m referring first to the story of the transfiguration of Jesus, witnessed by Peter, James, and John; and then second, to the detonation of the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima.  I’m pairing these because of our calendars: today is a “Feast of our Lord” when we celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus; it is also the anniversary of the first atomic weapon used in wartime.

Yes, the contrast is stark, but the similarities are also striking: both of these commemorations include a brilliant, blinding flash of light. In Matthew’s account, Jesus was “transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (17:2). Horrifically, we could say the same thing about the skies above Hiroshima seventy-six years ago today. Not long after becoming an Episcopalian, when I was learning about the liturgical calendar and the rhythm of common prayer, I was dismayed when I realized this confluence on the calendar—how could we possibly celebrate that wonderful Gospel story on a day with such a terrible wartime history?

“Transfiguration,” Lewis Bowman

Over the years since then I have come to understand that question differently as I realized that religion is not supposed to be kept “pure and untainted” by the world. To the contrary, as people of faith we’re supposed to “get our hands dirty” as we show up in the public square and at city hall and wherever power is marshalled for hate and violence rather than love and peace. Religion that’s kept separate from the world is not a religion rooted in the incarnation of the divine word, whose transfigured splendor is meant to inspire and illuminate our participation in God’s own mission of transformation in the world around us.

So the question is how we live our faith in the world, not whether we do, and that will always mean engaging faithfully with politics. I do not mean partisanship—the politics of one party over another. I mean politics in the broadest sense, which is what all of us do every day as we interact and relate with each other and the communities around us for the sake of shared interests and the common good, and ultimately for the thriving and flourishing of God’s whole creation.

The gospel writers invited this kind of analysis in their accounts of the Transfiguration, which functions as a pivot point in their storytelling. As soon as Jesus is transfigured and comes down from the mountain, he “sets his face to go toward Jerusalem,” as Luke put it (9:51), to that city where imperial politics and institutional religion were deeply entangled.

Entangled”? How about testing the first atomic bomb at a place called “Trinity”?

Roughly three weeks before the detonation over Hiroshima, the technology was tested at a site in New Mexico with the code name “Trinity.” J. Robert Oppenheimer, the lead scientist for the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb, was the one to name that site. He was inspired to do so by a sixteenth century poem by John Donne, including these lines:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

Oppenheimer was eventually horrified by the weapon he had helped to create and lived with nearly unbearable regret. As he would later recall, as he witnessed the first explosive test, he thought of a famous line from the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

The explosive force of an atomic detonation is truly overwhelming and gruesomely destructive. Nearly everyone knows this, but what the world does not appreciate nearly as much is the far greater power of love. I don’t say this sentimentally, as if a loving feeling conveyed such energy. I mean instead the kind of love that speaks the truth, heals wounds, confronts injustice, and breaks down even the longest-standing barriers to harmony and peace.

So on this day, the Feast of the Transfiguration, a day that coincides with atomic destruction, offers a compelling invitation to ponder together what kind of power we wish to release into the world.

As I reflect on these powerful intersections, I’m reminded of another writer, a scientist, theologian, and poet of the early twentieth century, Teilhard de Chardin. He was convinced that in this dynamic, ever-evolving universe, God and humanity working together would one day transform—let’s just say transfigure—the world with love. May we remember that hope and confidence with the words Teilhard himself wrote:

Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, humanity will have discovered fire.

“Transfiguration,” Cornelis Monsma