Up on the Mountainside

These themes have been kicking around in my head for years, but recently two wholly unrelated events conspired to push them to the top of my “to-think-about” list. First, while volunteering at the Ojibweg Winter Games in Lac du Flambeau, WI last weekend, I listened to Wayne Valliere (an Ojibweg artist, canoe-builder, and community leader) recount how an elder once told him to respect other religions, because there are multiple ways up but we’re all climbing the same mountain. This is precisely the metaphor that occured to me, half a decade ago, when considering religious faith in a pluralistic world; I am gratified to learn that my thought is in fact hardly original at all. It suggests, I think, that the faith-mountain metaphor is so obvious/instinctive/rational that it’s readily available for all to discover, either independently as I did or culturally as Wayne did.

Second, I was listening to a podcast episode this morning of Slate’s Political Gabfest (first aired February 13, 2015) and was struck by how one of the discussants, John Dickerson, spoke about forgiveness and restraint. The discussion was prompted by the recent revelations concerning Brian William’s enhanced reporting techniques, but his observations—paraphrased below—were considerably broader than that. To whit:

I think it depends on… As Al Gore would say, “It depends on your faith tradition.” The first thing that I think about is Matthew, you know, “Don’t judge lest ye be judged.” Which is not to say you can’t be critical of other people, but just to be really cautious and humble about human failings….

He goes on to discuss restraint, in both public and private spheres, and suggests that the lack of simply pausing (“to let flow in a little bit more perspective and context) before reacting is “corrosive.” Despite his reference to the New Testament, his opinion is measured and otherwise wholly secular, and I think that most Americans would agree with him.

But the fact that he does default to a New Testament reference right off the bat is instructive, I think. I do not believe that religiosity of any description is a necessary basis for morality, but I think that wise, discerning adults still need mental maps to help them navigate the tricky business of being alive and adult and human all at the same time. This is the mountain, or one enormous slope of it, and whether your map is rooted in the Upanishads or Ojibweg tradition or Darwinism we’re still trying to get to the same peak.

My map is—perhaps very loosely—rooted in what I understand, via my Quaker upbringing and adult considerations, in what I understand are the fundamental messages and promises of Jesus Christ: to forgive, to feel gratitude and humility, to cherish; to understand divinity as a force that nudges us ever so gently towards progress in the sense of becoming existentially better. This, of course, is also the mountain, and I find most of it impossible. But for me that’s the real root of my Christianity, that the gentle current of godliness insists on performing inhuman acts of love, forgiveness, and humility. And I suppose I should admit to a strain of mysticism in my faith as well—because I think everyone has to find his own path up the mountain, with whatever guides he finds.

As a different and differently spiritual Wayne put it:

I’m on a motion mission, wishin’ kids would listen, knowing
That the temple’s merely guarded by a stern condition:
Namely, that the whole thing is an intuition.
You can’t get it as a secondhand transmission.

See you on the mountainside.


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