If you go to the St Mary's website there's a little sign at the bottom which comments, among other things, that 'bacteria is the only culture some people have'. In an attempt to bluff my way out of that category, I can announce that I do occasionally listen to Radio Three, and consequently heard a 'studio guest' session with the biologist Prof Steven Jones.
Now the professor is a fully-paid-up member of the British Humanist Association, so I didn't expect him to be talking about his next pilgrimage to Lourdes. But my ears did prick up when he announced that the reason that science and religion were fundamentally incompatible is because science deals in questions and religion in certainties.
I suspect that he's taking the street-corner picture of religion and comparing it with the lab and the lecture theatre. I know the scientific community do talk about whether science ever does 'prove' anything, but I reckon that if you talked to most folk in the street they'd think in terms of science being about 'proof' (and therefore certainty), and it's much the same with religion. 'Compare like with like' is one of the oldest phrases in the philosophical handbook, and he's not doing it.
But where do I get my deluded idea from that religion is indeed about questions rather than certainties? From the Christian tradition, is the answer, and from the basic Christian belief that God is beyond all our categories and comprehendings. And today's Gospel gives some nice examples of people being challenged with questions rather than spoon-fed certainties.
This may strike you as odd, since there's not a single question mark in the entire story. But the entire story is structured as a question, and one which the hearer has to puzzle out for themselves: what is the meaning of the events on the mountain?
For anyone soaked in the Old Testament there are loads of divine hints: the cloud recalls the pillar of cloud which went before the Israelites in the Exodus story; the shining whiteness recalls the story of Moses coming down from (you got it) a mountain after an encounter with God; the divine voice which both Moses and Elijah hear. But for me the critical bit of the text is easily overlooked, and here we have to chalk one up to lectio. For years I'd read this passage and not noticed the line, 'who were talking with Jesus', but yesterday morning I did, and it rang a little bell.
It's a pity that there's not a reading from Deuteronomy 34 here, because it contains the line, 'Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face'. It hints at something: the fact that when Moses and Elijah mountain-top have conversations, they are not chats with the PCC, they are conversations with a God who is present. Moses in Exodus 34 encounters the Lord on the mountain, which leaves the skin of his face [shining] because he had been talking with God. All these are hints to the well-versed -in-Scripture Christian: Moses and Elijah are not talking with an interesting teacher – their conversation with Jesus is of a piece with their previous conversations with Yahweh. The author of Mark's Gospel, writing around 65-70 AD, long before 'In the beginning was the Word', wants to raise the question, 'Who is this Jesus?'
And the questions continue. Why are only three allowed to witness this? Where's Andrew, the only one of the first four disciples not to be there? Wouldn't it be better to have this endorsement of who Jesus Is witnessed by the hordes? And what does it mean – to devout one-God-and-that's-yer-lot Jews – to see a human set forth as the God of Mt Sinai and Mt Horeb?
This passage is meant to unsettle and to challenge certainty. For us, we're so used to it that we probably don't see how provocative it is. For early Christians, whether they came from Jewish or Pagan roots, it stirred up the mind about what sort of a God the God of the Church was. None of the old categories worked any more.
Sometimes we can feel that being faithful is about doing as were told, trying to believe a bit more those things which we find suspect, trying to bolt the questions and the doubts down in a place where they won't disturb us. This is precisely the sort of religion which Steve Jones doesn't believe in. The Christian calling lies elsewhere, in confronting the questions which disturb us, which stir us up, which leave us speechless with incredulity or incomprehension. The Christian way, as held up in the Scriptures and in the tradition of the Church, is to expect to meet question and challenge and incomprehension and uncertainty because that is the way that it has always been, and it is through our being stretched and challenged that we grow in faith.
As Lent looms large, can I suggest a little honesty in our walk with God? He doesn't want to be told how wonderful he is when you think he isn't; he doesn't do flattery, regardless of what some hymns seem to imply, and he isn't particularly longing for us to believe a handful of impossible things before breakfast time each day. Just as any other significant relationship is more conversation than lecture, more journey than package deal, so surely it is with our faith. If we think that the opposite sex is hard to understand, at least we're the same species, bound by time and space. Surely we shouldn't be surprised if we find the adventure into God confusing, unsettling and sometimes incomprehensible, calling out question after question?
Try praying what you mean instead of what you think God wants to hear. Read and re-read – SLOWLY – small passages of scripture to see whether anything's hidden there for you. Talk with trusted others about the things you can't get your head round. Read something that does your head in. Try being silent in a noisy world. God is the only certainty, and every step of the way to him is a revelation, a new thing, and unleashes a new set of questions – even a new sense of wonder.