Friday, July 24, 2009

Are they different paths up the same mountain?

Many have said to me that all religions are simply "different paths up the same mountain." We're all on a journey that ends up in the same place. I'd love to move beyond this way of thinking.

I have heard this metaphor often, frequently said as a counter to a Christian claim that only way to God (up the mountain) is through Jesus Christ.

My experience has been that while I deeply respect devout people of other faiths, I don't feel I have exactly the "same" religious experience or understanding as them.

But are all paths equal, even if different?

I think not. The truism that we are all on "different paths up the same mountain" can be countered with the truism that "the journey is the reward." As apartheid has shown us, separate but equal doesn't work. Seeking the same goal is not enough. The path we take changes us and forms us. How we perceive God on the top of the mountain will in part be determined by how the journey has strengthened and/or weakened us, how we have dealt with obstacles on our path and the place on the mountain at which we arrive. We may be glimpsing the same God but, because of our different paths, our understandings of God will be different.

All religions are not the same and because of that, I wish we would look more critically at the "different paths" metaphor. The major religions may share many major precepts, including a belief in lovingkindness and charity, but that does not make them identical to each other. They have different histories and have intersected with different cultures. Each of the major religions also has fundamental differences from the others. Buddhism and Christianity have similarities but Buddhism has no concept of God and Christianity has a strong concept of a loving and involved creator God. Buddhists, as I understand, believe we must self-empty of all illusions, even the illusion that love holds the universe together. After that, in resignation, Buddhists act in loving charity. Christians believe that God is love and that love does hold the universe together as the strongest of all forces. Jews share many many beliefs with Christians, but do not believe Jesus was more than a great teacher. Muslims revere Jesus, but only as a prophet. The list could go on. These are not "minor" details.

I worry that some people who think "all religions are the same" will, metaphorically speaking, spend their time at the bottom of the mountain, transferring from path to path as soon as the going gets tough, convinced there is an easy way up the mountain. I have read of people who want an "easy, beautiful" faith--my favorite example is the famous playwright's daughter, who, after rejecting the patriarchy of Judaism, had herself and her husband-to-be helicoptered in for a few hours to an Indian reservation to be married. Native American spirituality, she declared, was more pure and meaningful than Judaism.

At least for an afternoon.

I know that people use the different paths metaphor as a gentler approach to religion than what they perceive as Christian exclusivism. I agree that saying "Jesus Christ is my personal savior" is not a magic mantra to guarantee a place in the Kingdom of God. In the first place, saying an incantation is a form of magic and magic--the attempt to control God--is utterly contrary to the teachings of the Bible, which specifically counsel subordination of our wills to God's will. Second, Jesus himself said that he would not recognize many who came to him crying Lord, Lord. In another story, he points out that he (or she) who does God's will is the obedient servant, not the person who says he will and doesn't.

I think that the "same paths" metaphor must come from the modernist view that wants to classify and compare all religions as if they were flora, and which wants to get the uncomfortable miracle and mystery out of religious faith. This method purports to boil religions down to their "essence" and hopes this will allow us to live in harmony. Of course, this way of looking at the world and religion was devised by white European men, usually from prestigious universities--in other words, the wishful view of an elite. But as history has shown, you can't distill faith down to a set of principles. Better to reject "different paths" and embrace the differences that separate us--and love each other all the same.

Why do you think the "different paths up the same mountain" metaphor is so popular, when it so easily falls apart under scrutiny? What could we replace it with?

17 comments:

Johan said...

My problem with overuse of the "many paths up the mountain" metaphor is the reality of dead ends and cliffs. If you do not believe that error is possible, of course, then you can use the metaphor uncritically.

The Russian Orthodox theologian Alexander Men' said a couple of things that seem important to me in this discussion. First, in some writing (can't find it now) he expressed grief about the brilliant theologians he knew who went into the parallel universe of occultism--interestingly furnished but ultimately circular, leading nowhere.

Second, he credited all the world's great religions with truth about the nature of the mountain and the difficult journey upward. Jesus is unique in that HE meets US at the bottom of the mountain.

See the lecture Men' gave the night before he was murdered.

Tom Smith said...

I don't necessarily think that all religions are the same but I do believe there is that of God in everyone and that the Spirit of Christ can "teach his people himself."

The analogy that best fits my views as that all compasses point north. To me the spiritual world could be compared to the Earth's magnetic field. Each of us has an Inward compass that points the way to the "top of the world." However, there are many eternal and internal "magnetic" forces that can disturb the compass needle. If one can strip away those localized and individualized forces the compass points to the "True Source." If anyone follows the true leadings then they will reach the "top of the world" rather than the top of a mountain.

My own experience is that when I follow the leadings of the Spirit of Christ as evidenced in Jesus' life and the witness of Friends, the compass seems relatively steady and is also consistent with the witness and leadings of others in various religions.

I am not sure I have expressed myself clearly at all, but feel the need to share what I can.

Anonymous said...

I have gone back and forth on this point. I think it depends on where one looks for "sameness". Take three people; George Fox (Christian), Thich Nhat Hanh (Buddhist), and Gandhi (Hindu). In terms of doctrine and belief they are, obviously, very different. In terms of the lives they lived, though, there are many striking similarities. All three embody a Peace Testimony. All three had their Peace Testimony tested in actual civil strife. All three embrace a life of simplicity. All three have a central belief in the innate worthiness of all people (the inner light, the soul, Buddha Nature). All three entered into campaigns for social justice.

In many ways I would say that Thich Nhat Hanh and Gandhi are examples of a Quaker life, or that George Fox is an example of a Gandhian life (etc.).

From the perspective of doctrine their belief systems are incompatible and diverge; it's not even clear that they are on the same mountain let alone the same path. But from the perspective of the lives they lead, it seems that they all three are walking on the same road.

Best wishes,

Jim Wilson

Bill Samuel said...

In the address by Men that Johan posted the link to, I want to highlight this part:

As Christian ascetics recite various prayers they, in certain respects, resemble their eastern or Indian counterparts who recite various mantras. But one of the most important prayers of the Christian ascetic tradition is called the “Jesus Prayer” where one continually repeats the name of the One who was born, lived on earth, and was crucified and resurrected. The Christocentrism of this foundational Christian prayer radically distinguishes it from all other meditations and mantras, because through it an encounter takes place: not mere concentration of thought or submersion in an ocean or spiritual abyss, but a personal encounter with the face of Jesus Christ, who stands both in and on the earth.

The personal nature of the encounter with God is unique to Christianity, to the best of my knowledge. This way up the mountain offers the kind of personal accompaniment that is not in any other way. And, in fact, as Jesus said, He becomes the Way. Praise God!

forrest said...

A fundamental insight of early Friends was that God, as Jesus described him, was not one to deprive any human being of the benefits of knowing “Christ.”

Their Christianity made it obvious to them—about people born before Jesus, people born later who'd never heard of him—or people who'd never heard anything good about him—given that they'd “come into the world,” Christ must somehow enlighten them.

Some pretty good Christians (William Stringfellow and Jacques Ellul among them) have somehow missed this nobrainer, and assumed that only Christians could know God as a personal being. This is, simply, untrue.

I've met Buddhists who happened to call God “Buddha;” perhaps they should have known that “Buddhism” doesn't teach anything about God, pro or con, but since they were “Buddhists;” they thought that Buddhism was what they thought it was, not what some Christians have heard about it.

Any religion is more than any one person's doctrine. Even where the words are the same, what different people see in them; what they incorporate and what they miss, allow some people of “different” religions (thinking of a meeting between Thich Nhat Hahn & Thomas Merton, for example) understand each other perfectly, while others of the “same” religion (GW Bush and Martin Luther King?)must be mutually unintelligible.

Some religious ideas are more helpful than others. “My religion is better than your religion” is not one of them. “Jesus said something that sheds light on this”--That could be helpful to someone of any religion (particularly Christianity.) But is it fair to say that, without some willingness to see what light God might send you via (for example) Rumi?

leftistquaker said...

I would want to mention that one of the most influential proponents of universalism, Gandhi, was not a white male. Eastern traditions have a longer history of seeing other religions as different, not necessarily inferior.

Same with pre-Christian religions in Europe. Egyptian myths were assimilated into Babylonian, Greek, and Roman forms. Not to defend cultural imperialism, but something must be better than declaring that everyone who doesn't accept Jesus divinity and saviorhood is inferior.

Inclusive theology is a work in progress, so one can't just declare the "many paths to the same goal" to be a flawed analogy (all analogies are flawed) and thereby expect that Universalists and Pluralists will just give up on doing better at interfaith cooperation. Personally speaking, it is a fundamental part of my very life and my Quakerism.

Bill Samuel said...

"Eastern traditions have a longer history of seeing other religions as different, not necessarily inferior."

Then why is there such a problem in India of Hindus attacking Moslems and Christians?

Rich in Brooklyn said...

This post makes an important point and is well-expressed.

The "many paths up the mountain" metaphor has always bothered me but I have never been able to articulate so well what was the problem with it.

Thanks for sharing this.

- - Rich Accetta-Evans

Diane said...

leftist quaker,

Thanks for you comment! I'm not saying that we should give up on discussing universalism because of a flawed analogy. I'm trying to fire the discussion and maybe get it from being "stuck." From what I can tell, it's been stuck for at least 50 years. I don't think universalists should give up on interfaith cooperation because of a flawed analogy--but maybe we should try to improve the analogy.

Johann,

I enjoyed the article you linked to.

Hystery said...

I am reminded of a Christmas season event back in college in which all the several students from different traditions were invited to describe their Christmas or Christmas-like experiences. My friend, a Bangladeshi Hindu, was unhappy with the implication that all faiths are good faiths (as long as they remind us of our version of Christianity.) With what I considered delicious perversity, she waited until all the others had spoken of lights and carols and whatnot and then she busted out with the most lurid description of the Goddess Kali she could muster. She got the reaction she wanted and was never asked to participate in that school event again. Her response, adolescent as it was, was an honest reaction against interfaith discussion that seeks peace by paving over the rough spots of our diversity.

I believe there is that of God in all of us. I believe that as rational and loving beings we share common motivations toward love, peace and justice. I do not, however, think our spiritual journeys are all really just variations on a theme. I do not think they have to be and I wouldn't want them to be. There are things I learned from my Hindu friend I could not have learned from my Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or Neo-Pagan friends. She had clear vision where I did not. I like to think I offered her the same. Certainly at times we offended each other. At times, we wounded each other but we sure did grow from those struggles.

If like Walt Whitman I can say, "I am large. I contain multitudes," how much more complex the Divine must be. I prefer to remain suspicious of any simplification of the human/divine relationship or any system that expects the Ineffable to respond like a Pavlovian dog to our own favorite bells and whistles. As my first biblical studies professor liked to say, "God is not some kind of cosmic bellhop."

Karen said...

Interesting to see such a very different interpretation of that metaphor than anything I've ever got from it. I've always assumed that the paths might be very different; that some paths would involve some unnecessary suffering and misery; that some paths will dead end (perhaps any path might dead end for any given person); that the paths might intersect unexpectedly or be set in tortuously complex ways so as to avoid intersection, even where it would make more sense to allow it to happen; that some paths would exclude whole groups while others would welcome them; that some would require more thought and others less; and I had always assumed that the paths lasted the whole lifetime, so that it is our perception of the divine during our lifetimes that look different, as we only reach the top at/after death.

It always struck me as a very complex metaphor which explained that we're all yearning for the same thing, but that we are inevitably unable to see our own and others' paths in perspective, only from the perspective of where we are on our own paths at any given time. It simply never occurred to me that it might be saying that all paths are equal or that all paths are the same, but that there are many, many paths and ours is one of them.

Maybe I'm just a bit weird! :)

Diane said...

Hi Karen,

I think we're agreeing that the paths are different. The implication behind the metaphor is that the path really doesn't matter since we all end up in the same place. I argue that the path does matter. I do think we yearn for the same things and those deep yearnings unite us. However, I think we would agree that some paths to those yearnings are more fruitful than others.

Hystery said...

Diane,
I read Karen's interpretation (very much like my own) followed by your comments to it and now wonder if my confusion has to do with a disconnect elsewhere. I would agree that not all paths are as efficient as others but I always assumed that all make it back to the Divine with a story to tell. Do you not believe in "universal salvation" (to use the Christian term)?

Diane said...

Hi,

As Johann said, I think people can get off their path up the mountain and get lost, be they Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, whatever.

Ted M. Gossard said...

I guess in this conversation I really have to say I see indications from Scripture which would seem to argue against the salvation of everyone in the end. Though I'd love to see everyone saved, as it sounds like everyone here would!

Good thoughts, Diane, and I especially appreciate the thought that not all paths leave us the same way. Doesn't the Spirit of God and the word of God have the impact on us in life, as we follow to be increasingly conformed to the Son of God?

I guess I'm too much of an evangelical to think that those who reject the gospel somehow will be taken in anyhow. At the same time I think there is so much we just don't know, things God has not revealed to us.

Greg Denholm said...

All religions are NOT the same ecause they are each built on a different premise. As a result, they each ask and seek to answer a different question.

Christianity says that through our representatives, Adam and Eve, we rejected God - the Creator of the universe - and fell into sin. The fundamental problem of our existence, therefore, is our state of uncleanness and our need to be cleansed and reconciled to God. This is accomplished in and through his one and only Son, Jesus Christ.

In contrast, Bhuddism has no conception of God or sin. Rather, it says that the fundamental problem of our existence is suffering, which is caused by desire. If we can eliminate desire, we can eliminate suffering and rise to a higher state of being, so breaking the cycle of reincarnation within which we are trapped.

These two paths - Christianity and Bhuddism - most certainly don't lead up the same mountain because they are addressing two fundamentally different questions. As such, each is a path up a different mountain.

But the differences between these two paths are even more profound than this metaphor conveys. Whilst Bhuddism is an attempt to ASCEND a mountain, Christianity is actually all about a DESCENT - that of God himself in the form of his Son, Jesus Christ. And its ultimate goal is another descent - the establishment of God's kingdom (also called heaven) on earth.

Ultimately, we must come to the realisation that we can't ascend; we have no capacity within ourselves to rectify what is broken in the human condition. Indeed, our desire to climb up by means of our own power or self-transformation is a symptom of our disorder - our conceited belief that we are ok without God.

God has come down to us because he loves us, and he knows that we can't heal ourselves. He has shown us what love is - indeed, he is love's embodiment. Let's stop trying to climb mountains and realise that he has descended all the way from heaven into our valley and climbed the mountain of righteousness from which we fell when we rejected our Maker and went our own way. He has done this in our name - on our behalf. By allowing him to include us in himself, we are included in his ascent - his ascension - and in his love, rest and joy forever.

Why on earth would we continue our ridiculous charade of climbing mountains of our own making in order to feel like gods?

Greg said...

All religions are NOT the same because they are each built on a different premise. As a result, they each ask and seek to answer a different question.

Christianity says that through our representatives, Adam and Eve, we rejected God - the Creator of the universe - and fell into sin. The fundamental problem of our existence, therefore, is our state of uncleanness and our need to be cleansed and reconciled to God. This is accomplished in and through his one and only Son, Jesus Christ.

In contrast, Bhuddism has no conception of God or sin. Rather, it says that the fundamental problem of our existence is suffering, which is caused by desire. If we can eliminate desire, we can eliminate suffering and rise to a higher state of being, so breaking the cycle of reincarnation within which we are trapped.

These two paths - Christianity and Bhuddism - most certainly don't lead up the same mountain because they are addressing two fundamentally different questions. As such, each is a path up a different mountain.

But the differences between these two paths are even more profound than this metaphor conveys. Whilst Bhuddism is an attempt to ASCEND a mountain, Christianity is actually all about a DESCENT - that of God himself in the form of his Son, Jesus Christ. And its ultimate goal is another descent - the establishment of God's kingdom (also called heaven) on earth.

Ultimately, we must come to the realisation that we can't ascend; we have no capacity within ourselves to rectify what is broken in the human condition. Indeed, our desire to climb up by means of our own power or self-transformation is a symptom of our disorder - our conceited belief that we are ok without God.

God has come down to us because he loves us, and he knows that we can't heal ourselves. He has shown us what love is - indeed, he is love's embodiment. Let's stop trying to climb mountains and realise that he has descended all the way from heaven into our valley and climbed the mountain of righteousness from which we fell when we rejected our Maker and went our own way. He has done this in our name - on our behalf. By allowing him to include us in himself, we are included in his ascent - his ascension - and in his love, rest and joy forever.

Why on earth would we continue our ridiculous charade of climbing mountains of our own making in order to feel like gods?