There seem to be two obvious extremes in religion. You either go rules-based and practical, clearly labelled and top-down authoritarian; or you go mystical-transcendent, about self-discovery and waftiness. With Christianity, both are clearly present, though Jesus embraces neither. But neither does he reject them.
Unlike vast swathes of the church in his name, Jesus very rarely, if ever, got caught up into either a dominant-authoritarian or a mystical-candlelight narrative. He didn’t carry a clipboard and checklist; yet neither did he waft around carrying tea-lights and pebbles.
One of the events that holds this tension clearly for me is the transfiguration. Usually in encounters with Jesus, everything is quite earthy. There’s people, walking, eating, touching, speaking, all quite easy to visualise and translate into our present reality. But in this event the very ordinary – a walk up a hill with Jesus (what is it with him and hills?) – becomes extraordinary, a strange, mystical event, with brights light, clouds, voices from heaven… It isn’t something that can be easily explained, especially for rational evangelical minds.
The event could be in danger of disappearing up it’s own transcendent artiness… I can imagine the disciples talking about it and wanting to add bits, to make it even more dramatic. The arrival of Elijah and Moses could be bolder, unconventional, maybe swirling in on chariots of fire; instead of covering Jesus, the cloud could make an arrow, and as the voice speaks fireworks could burst from the centre… I mean, if you’re going to have a spiritual experience like this, why not embellish it a bit?
But they don’t. In the middle of this mystical encounter with the long-dead, Peter asks (out loud) whether he should build a shelter for them. I can imagine them re-telling this story, and wondering whether to put this bit in. It’s a bit silly. But maybe for Peter this is an authenticating moment, one that proves that as a hardened, working fisherman, he wasn’t dreaming, hallucinating; he had his wits about him, he was really there. And his brain was engaged.
Therein lies the attraction of this account for me. It balances the mystical and the practical, because both are real, both are true, but neither should dominate the other in our narrative. Our faith isn’t just about doing things, following rules, and life isn’t just about eating and feeling and seeing. But neither is faith an escape from those earthy practical moments into a incense-fuelled mystical trance of other-worldliness. Jesus takes the ordinary and infuses it with the mystical, where we can get caught up in the Spirit but not leave our brains at the door.
Or the bottom of the hill.