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Conspiracy Theories, Suffering, and the Transfiguration

Am I right in thinking that Conspiracy Theories are an attempt to escape legitimate suffering? And what do they have to do with the Transfiguration?

A sermon preached for Preston High Street Uniting Church for the Feast of the Transfiguration Year B 2021.

Life can be confusing – even overwhelming. Things happen all the time at a furious rate; a chaos of random seeming events. Was it last week that an angry mob occupied the Capitol Building? Or was that a little while ago? COVID related statistics and rules change all the time. Facemasks on. Facemasks off. Facemasks back on again. Just when we think we have things sorted out, along comes something to derail us. It might be personal, like losing a job or a loved one getting sick. It can be a huge geopolitical event like COVID. 

Life can be so hard sometimes, so impossible to understand. It makes us ask whether beneath all these events, is there some sort of underlying truth? Some sort of reality?

That, at heart, is what today’s reading is. For a brief moment, the veil is torn in two and we can see what is really going on. No wonder Peter wanted to build a small informal settlement up there on the mountain!

­­There are a lot of theories about the world. Everyone has a bunch of them, and they don’t always mesh together very well. Some are well grounded – like those of physics. And some of them… perhaps less so. This is a golden age of conspiracy theories. For instance, the idea that Bill Gates is scheming to inject microchips into our blood stream via the COVID vaccine so that… I’m actually not quite sure why to be honest. I mean, I already have a copy of Windows and the Microsoft Office, I’m not sure what else he wants from me. To use Bing and Outlook.com more perhaps?

The impulse behind conspiracy theories is completely understandable. The idea is that, if only we had the clue – the little bit of knowledge behind all these seemingly random events, then, at last, we would really understand what was going on. And who wouldn’t want that?

Of course, this comes with all sorts of other problems. It is, for instance, famously very difficult to talk a conspiracy theorist out of their beliefs. Everything can be made to fit into their particular little scheme – and, as far as the conspiracy theorist is concerned, all official channels of information are completely unreliable. That’s more or less the point of a conspiracy theory after all – that the official sources are lying.

I wonder whether, at base, the thing conspiracy theories have in common is that they are a way to try to avoid legitimate suffering.  If the whole coronavirus thing is a hoax, dreamed up by Bill Gates and, I don’t know, Nelson Mandela or someone, then it means that it isn’t real. People aren’t really dying, it isn’t really going to affect me.

The more I think about the world of conspiracy theories, the more I’m struck by the way in which they are a sort of denial of reality, driven by grief and fear. A way to try to avoid legitimate suffering.

We are all tempted by denial to deal with situations of suffering, guilt, and grief. What I mean by “denial” here is a little technical: I mean something like: pushing the awareness of a situation out of our consciousness and replacing it with something we like better. The reality which we are facing is so difficult that we don’t want to believe it, so we cling to something comforting, but false, instead.

I’m going into all this detail about denial and conspiracy theories and other esoteric seeming ideas because the Transfiguration, our text for today, is such a very strange story, so completely beyond our experience of reality, that we are tempted to push it away as “just a story.”

In fact, for people outside the Christian faith, that’s really the only solution to mysterious stories like the Transfiguration, and, of course, the resurrection of Jesus.

In fact, one traditional school of thought about Christianity is that it is just a conspiracy theory. That Jesus was “just a good moral teacher” who was tragically executed by the religious and Roman authorities, and that all this supernatural stuff is an attempt to cover it up, to protect ourselves from the awful truth about our situation: That we are nothing but weeping naked apes. Or, as an internet meme I came across recently put it, cucumbers with anxiety.

I understand the thrust of this argument: the idea that God even exists, let alone that God was born into our world of suffering and transience and is still somehow involved – I have days where it all seems too good to be true.  

The thing is: if Christianity was an attempt to escape from the difficulty of our situation in the world – if it were, like the conspiracy theories we began with, an attempt to deny reality – then it is really quite an odd way to go about it. For a start, right at the centre of it we have the image of the crucified Messiah. God became man, and then was executed by the state. Suffering really is front and centre of our faith.

Christianity is in no way an attempt to escape from suffering, to turn ourselves in on ourselves to make the smallest target for a hostile world. It is, in fact a way to face the world in all its beauty and terror, and even at the worst time, see that God is present.

Our faith says: even in the worst situations, God is at work. Even in the crucifixion of Jesus, where humanity did its level best to kill God – God brought forth great goodness.

Both before and after Jesus’ trip up the mountains with his disciples, Jesus tells them that he is on his way to suffering and death. But between these two hard sayings we have this transcendent moment when the truth about Jesus is suddenly revealed in the most distinct and startling way.

The transfiguration is part of God’s great “nevertheless.” The way is hard, the mountain is steep, and we don’t really know where we are going. But, in the midst of this, in the midst of life, God reveals who Jesus really is.

God says “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

For that one, shining moment, the disciples saw Jesus as he really is. And through the memory which they recorded, we, too see Jesus as he really is. The Son of God, who we, too, need to listen to.

Image: Latimore, Kelly. Transfiguration, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57114 [retrieved February 11, 2021]. Original source: https://kellylatimoreicons.com/contact/.

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

One reply on “Conspiracy Theories, Suffering, and the Transfiguration”

Thanks this is very interesting, I was just in the process of writing intercessions for transfiguration so it gave me some ideas!

While I agree with your characterisation of conspiracies as a type of denial, I’m less convinced by the description of them as a way to ‘avoid legitimate suffering’. A lot of the theories don’t deny the suffering itself, they deny the reasons for it and can actually add to the suffering, for example, US politics can be depressing to anyone, but is it more or less stressful to think that’s a result of normal human flaws or because it’s being orchestrated by a paedophile ring?

For some people maybe the latter feels more within our control / ability to solve, perhaps if your imagination only extends as far as ‘we can lock up the paedophiles’ and not as far as ‘humanity and its leaders can become better.’

Lines like, ‘even in the worst situations, God is at work.’ sound to me exactly like the classic responses to the problem of evil, e.g ‘It’s all part of a higher plan’. I think these answers are dodging the very real fact of suffering in our world just as much as any conspiracy theory. The difference between them is that one points to the controlling agent being an omnibenevolent god and the other points to a nefarious illuminati.

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