The common interfaith image of “God as a mountain with many paths” needs some tweaking to make more theological sense.
God as Lake and Mountain
Growing up in Oklahoma, one night at youth group we talked about whether all religions go to heaven or just Christians. A friend used the metaphor of “God as a Lake” which all the forest animals came to drink. They all drank in different ways. The duck would swim in the water, the doe would keep standing and bend her neck to drink, the dog would lay down and lap up the water, and the cat would summon a butler to put the water on a saucer and pillow. Even though each animal drank in a different way, they all experienced God through the lake. Therefore, through this metaphor, God is known through many religions, not just one.
Likewise, in seminary, I encountered the “God as a Mountain” metaphor: All religions climb up a mountain in different ways. The Methodists will be methodical in their approach, the Episcopalians will stop at every turn for a reading from the Book of Common Prayer, the Muslims will have to carry their prayer rugs for their daily prayers, and so on. Each climbs the mountain in their own way, their own tradition, and when they get to the top, they see that all the other religions have gotten there too. Through this metaphor, God is known through many religions, not just one.
I remember being inspired by both of these images back then, but looking back, they no longer have the power for me anymore. They were too clean, without any theology around if any religions did not lead to God, or why any particular religion was better than others. For people who believe God might save more than one religions’ followers, what can we do to make this metaphor better?
Varieties of Theology
It helps to get our heads wrapped around the varieties of theology around this question. I’ve used this chart many times (originally here), but it is helpful to reflect on it again as we consider what metaphor for God works best in interfaith conversations.
The graphic above is a primer on soteriology. A “primer” means a short introduction. “Soteriology” is the study of salvation: Who is saved? Who is left out? How does one become “saved?” While it is tempting to say that the chart is from “fewest saved” to “most saved” or concentric circles of salvation, to me the chart is more about a spectrum of certainty.
- Predestination: Calvinist position of only the “select few” are chosen by God, regardless of human action.
- Exclusivism: Traditional Christian position of “those who believe in Christ are saved by faith”
- Inclusivism: Most (or all) faiths worship in different ways through different avenues but all lead to God for faithful members of those faiths.
- The subform is “Christian Inclusivism” where all other religions are actually worshipping shadow versions of Christ and lead to the Christian God if they are faithful to the shadow Christ in their religion.
- Universalism: two forms:
- Soft (Universal Grace): God offers salvation to all in this life or the next. Rejecting salvation leads to life without God (hell, possibly).
- Hard (Universal Salvation): God saves every person in one heaven.
- Pluralism: each religion leads to its own Heaven, many paths, many destinations.
While not inclusive of all positions, it is helpful to articulate the differences between the many beliefs about who God saves and who has their religions’ idea of eternity.
A Better Mountain
Considering this chart, we can tweak the image above of “God as Mountain” by making it reflect what climbing a mountain is actually like, and bettering the theology in the process.
In Eric Elnes’ 2006 book The Phoenix Affirmations, Eric spent time with Christians in India who were living in a way that preserved the integrity of both Indian culture and Christian tenets of faith. One of the spiritual directors likened the variety of religions to climbing up a mountain–but with a twist from our example above: Each tradition has discovered a unique route for reaching the top. While they are climbing the mountain, the traditions cannot necessarily see each other through the brush and the angle of the mountain.
By envisioning it this way, it helps clarify the limits of our human knowledge. Individuals within the climbing parties may not even be aware that others are ascending the mountain. They think they alone are making the climb, and may be surprised when they reach the top and find more people there.
Diversity…with Christ Alone
I find this tweak to redeem the metaphor of “God as Mountain” for two reasons.
First, it helps us value diversity without minimizing it. Progressives tend to see all faiths as basically the same when they really aren’t. As former Bishop of Durham NT Wright says in his book Surprised By Hope:
“There is a world of difference between the Orthodox Jew who believes that all the righteous will be raised to new individual bodily life in the resurrection and the Buddhist who hopes after death to disappear like a drop in the ocean, losing one’s own identity in the great nameless and formless Beyond.”
The image of climbing a mountain gives integrity to other paths without challenging our own. It also allows for other paths to not reach the top as their paths didn’t quite make it.
Second, it doesn’t lessen the value, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ or our evangelistic call to share Christ’s story. Christ is the climber who went up the mountain before us and has come down to show us the way. As Christians, we have a promise and a gift offered to us. If we are on this journey on our side of the mountain, great, we follow it. And if we meet fellow climbers who don’t seem to be on their own trail, we show them a better way.
And it won’t be until we reach the top, following Jesus on his own time, until we know if ours was the only way, or it there are more people to celebrate our journey with.
I found this to be a helpful tweak of an image I’ve carried around for a long time. Thoughts?
How does the metaphor work for you or fail for you?
Discuss. Thanks for your comments and shares!
Portions of the above post are found in this 2014 sermon here.
Growing up around mountains, I really like playing around with this metaphor. Maybe an interesting thought: there are more routes at the bottom of a mountain than there are at the top. It makes sense, there’s just less land. The closer you get to the summit, the more paths converge. If you started with 50 trailheads at the bottom of the mountain, you can be sure there aren’t 50 trails intersecting at the summit. That analogy might run more with inclusivism. Fun stuff.
I like that, closer to the top, trails converge and sight of each other improves. Deep, experienced practitioners seem to get to “the simplicity on the other side of complexity” and are less territorial as well.
The first serious book my theology small group read was Will Willimon’s “Who Will Be Saved”. He discusses the mountain metaphor as well as goes into depth on many of the soteriological ideas you shared above. At the end of the day, I agree with the Bishop when he says we really don’t know who will be saved, nor is it our place to decide, that’s God’s and thinking otherwise is idolatry. However, it is my hope that God’s desire to redeem the world is inclusive of all people. For we’re all created in the image of God and all are in need of His saving grace.
Can you say more about the idea that some – what, religions? Strands of a religion? – don’t ‘reach the top’? What does that mean, exactly – what is the ‘top,’ and do you have any particular religions or strands thereof in mind?
In keeping with Tallessyn’s question… I thought it would have been appropriate to acknowledge that our own path might not reach the top… and that’s one way we might continue to think we are all alone. I don’t know that there is room for that kind of humility in the metaphor you are sketching here.
I think that a Christianity that requires disciples to imagine that they are following a single path, which is the only right one for Christians and has just one end point, is fundamentally incompatible with the lived experience of our time. I don’t have a problem with this metaphor as a useful way to underscore the integrity of multiple faith traditions. For Christians who lack the humility to affirm that their understanding is not only partial, but it may even be flawed, I am not sure that there is any motivation to adopt “better metaphors” to illustrate the simultaneous integrity of multiple traditions.
Of course, I could be wrong about that.
I hope that all will be saved. That said, I believe it would reflect extreme arrogation on my part to disagree with sacred scripture, the Apostles and the fathers of the Early Church and say that the entire world is not in need of salvation through Jesus Christ, or that other faith traditions are equallt valid, or that the understanding of the Christian faith as a whole (as opposed to my personal reception of it) is partial or flawed.
Humility requires that I accept the faith regardless of my perception as to how the “lived experience of our time” might shape it.
Otherwise, I would join the UUA, or maybe the Bahai faith or some other inckusivisit, transcendantalist group. Jesus Christ has a habit of saying what we don’t want to hear.
Did Eric Elnes cisit the St. Thomas Christians of Kerala? Most people forget that Christianity has been in India since the first century; it is older than Sikhism and Advaita Vedanta Hinduism. Indeed there is much reason to suspect that most modern forms of Hinduism (Shaivism, Vashnaivism, Smartism, and so on), and indeed Tibetan Buddhism, were heavily influenced by Christianity, for example, the Hindu concept of Trimurti.
Pre-Christian Brahminical Vedic Hinduism looks more like a more complex and elaborate form of Zoroastrianism. It is quite hard to find these days, although interestingly, there is a hold out group in Kerala.
My view is that “Christian ashrams” and so on are a bit silly, as they represent attempts to import into Christianity elements from a religion that was largely shaped by Christianity, and is arguably a corruption of it. I also am opposed to syncretism as a general rule.
We were commanded to make disciples of all nations, not to blend the teachings of our Lord with various pagan faiths. See also Psalm 95:5 LXX.
Your conclusion about the workability of the modified mountain metaphor seems to be flatly contradicted by the quote you give at the end from NT Wright’s book. The modified mountain metaphor still presumes that there is a single peak that everybody is climbing towards, even if by different paths that cannot always be seen from other points on the mountain. Yet, Wright’s point is that even the final end goal of religious life differs radically between traditions. The Orthodox Jew sees the ultimate state as a perfected material world existence in a physical body with an individual identity, the Buddhist sees the body of an enlightened being as the last attachment to drop away before the final liberation from the cycle of life and death.
So to really make the metaphor work we need to imagine not just one mountain, but a whole mountain range with various peaks. Some paths will climb the same lower part of the mountain for parts of the journey, but as one gets to more advanced stages, there will be breaking off points where one path starts climbing a one peak and another path starts climbing a different peak. Sometime we hit a the “top”, what we thought we were always aiming form, only to look out at the view and see an even bigger peak far off in the distance. Then we have to find a way to descend, doing the opposite of what we’ve always seen as spiritual progress, in order to find a way to access a this new peak.
I guess my point it: the spiritual life is complicated.
Servant of the Way
One way! John 14:6
All other ways lead away!
I don’t know how much more clear Jesus could have been in John 14:6.