“When Faith Tramples Reason”

 Matthew 17:1-9

 March 6, 2011



Today is Transfiguration Sunday.  This celebration of the church is always on the last Sunday after Epiphany, just prior to the beginning of Lent.  In all three assigned readings for this day we hear from the texts confirmation of the power of God revealed in the midst of our simple human reality.  The disciples experience a ‘vision.’  A vision, or even a good idea, enables you to see something as it can be, but is not yet.  A vision may allow you to see something as it really is, but is quite invisible to others.  The disciples have a vision.


In second Peter, it sounds like some doubt his story.  There are probably some here this morning who believe the time of ‘visions’ has passed…or that such experiences were and are a bunch of ‘hooey.’ To those who insist we operate on an intellectual level, consider a ‘good idea.’ A good idea is nothing unusual, even if rare.  A good idea is something that allows you to see how something might be different, or it allows you to picture how it might be.


If we are allowed a ‘religious experience’ we are allowed to see things as God intends them to be, or rather as God see’s them in the present.  The disciples, on the mountain top, in the fog, have an experience.  They ‘see’ something extra-ordinary for a short time, and then, let’s say, they return to having normal vision.


What do they have? Let’s call it a ‘religious’ experience.  That’s what it is. A religious experience is an experience of the Holy (as Rudolph Otto might say, the numinous).  By definition, the disciples are experiencing something that is not explainable by modern perceptions.  A religious experience, to me can be everything from a ‘still small voice’, which nags you from time to time…to a powerful vision from a sickbed or an answer to prayer.  In each case it is an experience of holiness. It is an experience of God.


The purpose of such an encounter is not to protect us from our world. The purpose is to change the way we live in the world, not for our own sake but for the sake of others. Jesus demands the same thing. For some reason or other, we often miss that point. We are more inclined to want a religion that comforts us than challenges us. Why? Where did we ever get that idea? Maybe it is because we have misunderstood, or at least forgotten, the purpose of religious experiences, and as a result, we miss their benefits.


Karl Barth, in his Church Dogmatics, suggests that the experience of God only exists for the service of God.   The church is not so much concerned about what the apostles and prophets said, but what we must say (and do) on the basis of the apostles and prophets proclamation.1  John Calvin, in his Institutes of Christian Religion says that ‘real religion’ is so joined with awe and worship that we are moved to serve God.[1]  


One of the places I expect to have a ‘religious’ experience is gathered around the Lord’s table.  I was once at an ‘ecclesiastical council’ where a seminary student was asked, “What is shared in the Eucharist, in Holy Communion?”  He replied that we shared the memory of Christ.  I decided that if that was all it was then I wasn’t interested.  That I can receive from reading the gospels or watching, again, the Passion of the Christ.  Memory I don’t need more of.  I seek a religious experience.  I expect and encounter with the Holy: that in and through the receding of the sacrament I experience the presence of Christ and all his gifts.  I expect to be moved; compelled in mind, body,  and spirit.


To be honest, religious experiences do not always have the clarity the disciples receive on the mountaintop.  These “religious” experiences are sometimes difficult to respond appropriately to.  Despite the clear instruction, the disciples, here, appear confused.  They are engaging in a useless, nervous chatter.  Disciples, in every age, in the presence of God, sometimes talk too much.[2]


Talk, in this case is an effort to understand.  If the effort was to experience, to soak it in, then their lips would be buttoned.  But as it is, they are busy thinking with their mouths open.


We, as children of the Enlightenment, are fond of such talk.  Let me tell you what I mean by that…the Enlightenment was a period in history, basically the eighteenth century, in which reason was the ultimate source of legitimacy and authority.  At its core was a critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs, and morals, and a strong belief in rationality and science.


There is a certain fanaticism in religious circles that has taken the literalism of the enlightenment and applied it to the substance of faith.  Such approaches turn scripture into something it was never supposed to be, a science book for instance; and so-called science into a joke.  Just look at what they are doing with Creation. 


There is another, much larger segment of our society, let’s call them the ‘cultural despisers,’[3] who have so embraced the seemingly rational way of life and thus abandoned the faith and it’s mystery and mysticism.  For these smart, modern people, religious experience falls into a system that we have conjured up to manage the forces in the world around us, like a psychosis.  And so like Dicken’s Scrooge, they might dismiss a revelation as a bit of tainted meat from dinner. 


Matthew does not include Mark’s explanation that Peter spoke as he did because “he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” But it is clear for Matthew that Peter’s offer to build three tents is a trivial, ludicrous outburst.  Matthew’s Peter seeks to engage this revelation of God in a concrete way, a rational way…let us build  something.   His response is like lots of other rational talk, ill timed and diversionary.  We end up discussing matters to death, arguing the fine points of theology or the meaning of the biblical testimony, swooning in the ecstasy of our perceived understanding of God. In mid-sentence, he is interrupted by a voice that speaks what is really essential: “This is my beloved son, listen to him.”


When the situation gets really mystical, when the cloud terrifies them, Jesus speaks words of reassurance and re-direction.  Again and again he does this to those who seek to respond to who he is, in all his Holiness, he touches them and says: “Rise, and have no fear.” 


The search for the Holy continues and will not go away despite our further development of the so-called ‘hard sciences.’  The yearning to find a stronger bridge between our heart and mind and the presence of God cannot be easily dismissed.  This quest is not something to grow out of, but rather something to grow into.  Our obsession with the intellect has bankrupted our Spirituality.  Christianity is, after all, something to be experienced and practiced.  That is why Spiritual Formation is so important to the church today.


We dare not discount how important it is to teach others how to pray, or how and why we worship the ways we do, or the blessings of generosity, and of course the grace of service.  After all, there stand Moses and Elijah, who (if nothing else) teach us about the human struggle to respond to what vision faith offers. 


I am not suggesting that our own experience of the Holy should serve to make us stupid.  There is much to be gained in this world through the use of the sciences, psychology, and philosophy.   They will not, however, help us one whit in our striving to be faithful.  To be disciples requires that we regularly travel to those ‘thin places’ where God may just break into our nicely ordered lives, order us up and on to a mission that we yet dimly see, saying, “have no fear.”




1Barth, Karl Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of the Word of God, Clark: Edinburgh, 1936, p. 17.

[1] Calvin, John The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Philadelphia: Westminster, vol. 1, p. 43

[2] This experience is, of course, “Ineffable”, one of William James’ categories in Varieties of Religious Experience that cannot adequately be put into words.

[3]“Suavity and sociability, art and science have so fully taken possession of your minds, that no room remains for the eternal and holy Being that lies beyond the world.”  Freidrich Schliermacher: On Religion: Speeches to its Cultural Despisers,  Cambridge University: 1996