Paul describes the Christian life as the process of “being transformed into the same image [of Christ] from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18). There is an upward and downward reading of this text. One reading will transform and the other deform us.
On the upward reading, transformation “from one degree of glory to another” means becoming more “heavenly” and less “earthly.” To understand this reading, consider a competition that broke out between some Protestants and Catholics in sixteenth-century Europe. It was not a competition for converts, or land, or political power. It was a contest over who could use less soap—yes, who could use less soap. Charles Panati’s work Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things offers a fascinating history of hygiene, revealing in grimy detail a close correlation between stink and spirituality in the sixteenth century. The less you bathed, the thinking went, the less you were fixated on the trifles of bodily existence. The more odorous your filth, the more amorous your faith. Why? Because your stench reveals your zeal for what really matters the spiritual world and your carelessness for what doesn’t matter the material world.
This prejudice against the world God made and called “good” has nothing in common with Paul (or Jesus). It was Plato who famously argued that “the noblest and the highest” form of inspiration is a state in which one “stands apart from worldly interests and is fastened upon the divine, careless of the world below” (though it is doubtful whether the great Athenian pondered the pungent implications of his philosophy). Such an upward vision of glory would later inspire such western ascetics as Simeon Stylites the Elder to spend 37 years on a pillar in the Syrian desert. Then there was Alypius who stood atop a pillar for 53 years before his legs gave out, after which he laid another 14 years until his death.
But Jesus, in his topsy-turvy way, turns such spirituality on its head. He reveals the profound spirituality of all of life, how even the most mundane and material of actions can be acts of worship. Whether he was fixing tables, finishing dinner, or fishing with friends, Jesus was spiritual. And it is Jesus, not Plato, who shaped Paul’s view of glory. We are better off, then, with a downward reading of “being transformed into [his] image,” a reading more compatible with what N.T. Wright calls, “God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven.”
A downward reading of what it means to be transformed first struck me in the dairy box of a local supermarket. I was working the graveyard shift. Around 3:00 a.m. the big rig would pull up with pallet after pallet of cheese—goat, cow, blue, Brie, American, Swiss, Colby jack, Monterey jack, pepper jack, hard, soft, shredded (you come to appreciate how many shapes, sizes, and styles of glorious cheese exist working in a dairy box). As the city slept we began our nightly ritual known to my crew as “throwing cheese.” We would slide the boxes down waxed floors, tear into them with box-cutters, and begin the tedious task of placing each of the thousand-and-one cheeses under the right tags.
One night, a few blocks into the cheddar section, an old quote (falsely attributed to Martin Luther) popped into my hazy head. It was something to the effect of how a widow sweeping her floor to the glory of God can be every bit as worshipful as a clergyman doing his “spiritual” work. If she can sweep floors to God’s glory, why not throw cheese for the same reason? Having long associated worship with singing in church on Sunday morning, I wasn’t quite sure what worshipping in the cheese aisle at 3:00 a.m. on a Tuesday should look like. I prayed very simply, “Jesus, I don’t know what it means to throw cheese for your glory right now, but, please, somehow be glorified in this.”
Kraft mild cheddar, medium, sharp. Oh Lord my God . . . Tillamook mild, sharp, extra sharp. When I in awesome wonder . . . shredded mozzarella, thick cut, deli-cut. Consider all the world’s Thy hands have made . . . Daisy sour, extra sour. Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee . . . Gouda, feta, Gorgonzola. How Great Thou Art . . . Muenster, provolone, Havarti. How Great Thou Art!
It wasn’t that my body went on autopilot while my soul focused on Jesus. It wasn’t a matter of worshipping and throwing cheese but worshipping as throwing cheese. There was no Platonic split between the spiritual and the material.
We must recover our vision, not of Plato’s demiurge cursing creation, but of Jesus who made and blessed, entered, died, rose within, and will one day liberate and glorify creation. This biblical vision frees us up from trying to jump through the clouds. As Luther says in The Freedom of a Christian, “our heavenly Father has in Christ freely come to our aid, we also ought freely to help our neighbor through our body and its works.” We are “transformed into his image from one degree of glory to another” down here, in everyday life, in cheese aisles, freeway traffic, gardens, sanctuaries, classrooms, bedrooms, DMV lines. We need the same breakthrough that Irish poet, Evangeline Paterson, experienced:
I was brought up in a Christian environment where, because God had to be given preeminence, nothing else was allowed to be important. I have broken through to the position that because God exists, everything has significance.
This article is adapted from REFLECT: Becoming Yourself by Mirroring the Greatest Person in History (Lexham Press, 2019) by Thaddeus Williams.