Transgenderism and Transfiguration
All good stories have a soteriology.
No seriously, every last one of them! Every good story tries to answer the question: “what must I do to be saved?” Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean “saved” in the religious sense… it can mean being saved from an oppressive political system, or a meaningless and empty life, or any other thing that we humans see as being our “main problem.” The point is that it doesn’t matter whether you’re watching a Star Wars movie or reading a Dostoevsky novel or listening to the news on NPR—all good stories have some underlying theory about salvation.
Take, for instance, a story that we’ve all been following for several months now: Bruce Jenner’s decision to present himself as a woman and to call himself Caitlyn. According to Jenner’s story, salvation is to be found in revealing one’s true self. From start to finish, the soteriology that underpins the Caitlyn Jenner story has been that the key to happiness is in “finding out who you really are” and in making choices that reflect that. By trying to become a woman, Jenner is saving himself from “unhappiness,” or from “not being authentic.”
I think we can see this as a sort of post-modern transfiguration story: Jenner climbs atop Mt. Vanity Fair, and in a flash of light from the photographer’s camera, all that conceals her true identity from the world melts away. The veil of biology is stripped off, and for the first time, we the public see who Jenner really is. Gone is the Olympian and Kardashian foil we thought we knew; in his place we are given a liberated and empowered “true self”, a paradigmatic hero of the aftermath of the sexual revolution.
Not only does the Jenner story (as told in the media) have a soteriology, it’s one that many Americans seem to find compelling. From magazine covers to Espy awards, Jenner is being lionized left and right. What is it about Jenner’s soteriology that has so captivated the nation’s attention?
For one thing, we are a people desperately searching for an identity. We have no idea who we are, where we come from, or where we are going. The Jenner story claims to be about someone who has answered all of these questions by looking deep within.
For another thing, Americans love to believe that we can completely overcome the past. Or rather, to use the popular catchphrase, we love to believe that we are “on the right side of history.” The story we tell about ourselves is that we have already (or will in the near future) overcome every vestige of the past, from monarchy to slavery to communism to terrorism. Caitlyn Jenner is in complete continuity with that story: every human being has heretofore been “held captive”, shall we say, to the gender biology gave him or her. But America is on the right side of history, and now we can overcome that too.
Of course, the facts tell us that the joy of “overcoming” one’s biology is rather fleeting. In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, a Johns Hopkins University medical professor notes that, 10 years after a sex change surgery, post-operation transgendered people have a mortality rate from suicide that is 20 times higher than comparable demographics. So poor are the psychological outcomes of transgendered people that Johns Hopkins will no longer perform sex change operations. Sic transit gloria mundi, as they say.
But there’s another Transfiguration story, one that takes a central role in the Christian story, but which we far too often overlook. Today, though, it demands our attention. And it holds out a very different soteriology…
Every August 6th, Christians who follow traditional liturgical calendars celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration.
The feast commemorates a story we hear from all three of the synoptic Gospels: Christ’s goes up Mt. Tabor, where, in the presence of Peter, James, and John, “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.” (Luke 9:29) Moses and Elijah initially appear with Christ. The disciples hear the voice of the Father proclaiming, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”
In Eastern Orthodox theology, the Transfiguration is a key moment in salvation history, and for this reason, today is a feast day on par with Christmas or Pentecost. Like the Baptism at the Jordan, it is a story of Jesus Christ’s revealing his divinity in an unmistakable way. I’d like to contrast Jesus’ Transfiguration with Jenner’s in three main ways:
First, the Transfiguration roots salvation in who Jesus is, not who we are.
We do not find our “true selves” in this Transfiguration story. Rather, we find out who Jesus Christ truly is, and it is in his identity that we find salvation. From an Orthodox hymn for the Transfiguration:
“On the mountain You were transfigured, O Christ God, and Your disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it; so that when they would behold You crucified, they would understand that Your suffering was voluntary, and would proclaim to the world that You are truly the Radiance of the Father.”
The veil is torn away, and the disciples see Jesus of Nazareth for who he is: the glorious Son of God. In the light of the Transfiguration, the disciples are better prepared to eventually understand the Cross. All of salvation history makes more sense when Jesus shows Peter, James, and John that the rabbi they thought they knew is the God who dwells in unapproachable light.
Second, the Transfiguration shows Jesus’ story in continuity with all that God has done to save his people in the past.
Jenner’s transfiguration seeks to overcome the past. Jesus’ Transfiguration fulfills the past. From another Orthodox hymn:
“Moses the God-beholder and Elijah of the fiery chariot, who traversed the heavens without being consumed, beholding Thee, O Christ, in the cloud at Thy transfiguration, bore witness to Thee as the Creator and Fulfiller of the law and the prophets. With them vouchsafe Thine enlightenment unto us, O Master, that we may hymn Thee forever.”
In the story of the Transfiguration, we find a soteriology based not on our own ability to overcome the past, but in God’s faithfulness to his people. The very God who showed up to save the Israelites from Egyptian captivity in Moses’ story, and who showed up to defeat wicked monarchs in Elijah’s story, is here now in human flesh to free us from the captivity of hell and to “trample down death by death.”
Third, Jesus’ Transfiguration Gives Eternal Joy
The Jenner story offers the fleeting joy of fulfilling an urge. Jesus’s Transfiguration gives the hope of eternal joy in Heaven.
St. Gregory Palamas, one of the foremost theologians in Eastern Orthodox history, has this to say in his sermon on the Transfiguration:
“Hence it is clear that the Light of Tabor was a Divine Light. And the Evangelist John, inspired by Divine Revelation, says clearly that the future eternal and enduring city ‘has no need of the sun or moon to shine upon it. For the Glory of God lights it up, and the Lamb will be its lamp.’ Is it not clear, that he points out here that this is Jesus, Who is divinely transfigured now upon Tabor, and the flesh of Whom shines, is the lamp manifesting the Glory of divinity for those ascending the mountain with Him?”
The Transfiguration is nothing short of a preview of the eternal joy that awaits Christians in heaven! Peter cries out, “Master, it is good for us to be here”, and we can’t help but agree with him. What better place could there be on this earth than the presence of the Light of Christ?
And although Peter and the other disciples have to come back down from the mountain, their faith would be strengthened by this foretaste of Heaven for the rest of their earthly lives. As Peter wrote later:
“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.” (2 Peter 1:16-18)
We have looked at two very different stories today. Even though we have compared them by calling them both “transfigurations,” the soteriology they offer could not be more different. We already know which story is going to continue to sell more magazines in our country, but we also know story contains true light.
Let me leave you with a few more words from St. Gregory Palamas. May his words be our own this feast day:
“Let us, considering the Mystery of the Transfiguration of the Lord…strive to be illumined by this Light ourselves and encourage in ourselves love and striving towards the Unfading Glory and Beauty, purifying our spiritual eyes of worldly thoughts and refraining from perishable and quickly passing delights and beauty which darken the garb of the soul and lead to the fire of Gehenna and everlasting darkness. Let us be freed from these by the illumination and knowledge of the incorporeal and ever-existing Light of our Savior transfigured on Tabor, in His Glory, and of His Father from all eternity, and His Life-Creating Spirit, Whom are One Radiance, One Godhead, and Glory, and Kingdom, and Power now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”
Ryan McLaughlin is a high school math teacher, husband, and father of three. He lives in the Tampa Bay area and is a member of St. Andrew-the-First-Called Orthodox Church in New Port Richey, FL. This summer, he has travelled to Africa, taken classes on the Israeli martial art known as Krav Maga, and watched all six Star Wars movies with his four-year-old son. Thus feeling accomplished, he is ready to once again inflict algebra upon teenagers in the coming school year.
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