Three Problems with the Claim, “God Is Like a Mountain”

The contemporary wisdom of our day says that the more sophisticated we become, the more we’ll realize that God is “bigger than we can describe.” He’s like a mountain, and different religions are really just paths up that mountain. We may prefer our path, but the truly wise person sees that they all lead to the top in the end.

This attitude is epitomized in the parable I heard in college:

Several blind men fall into a pit. An elephant happens to be in that pit, so the blind men begin to argue about what they’ve discovered. Grabbing the tusk, one says, “It’s like a spear.” Grabbing the tail, another says, “No, it’s like a rope.” Feeling the elephant’s side, still another says, “It’s like a wall.” And the last takes hold of an ear, claiming, “It’s like a fan.”

The point is pretty clear. We’re the blind men groping in the dark, and God is the elephant. We’ve got to stop being so narrow-minded and dogmatic and open up our minds a little bit.

Respectfully, as the saying goes, “It’s good to have an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.” I worry that many of the well-intentioned “wise” of our day may have loosened the hinges on their mind a little too much.

The Arrogance Problem

The first problem with stories like this is the hidden arrogance of the person telling them. On the surface, it seems humble to say that “God is like a mountain,” or that “we all only see a part of God’s truth.” That would be well and good, if it weren’t for the total enlightenment that the speaker assumes for herself.

Both of the illustrations above reflect this problem. With the mountain illustration, the narrator looks at us feeble religious folk, stumbling up our path, and says, “Well, if you could just see what I see, you’d realize these paths are all the same!” With the elephant parable, this is even clearer. The blind men (again, this is us) don’t know what they’re looking at, but the narrator does. That’s the only way she can confidently conclude that the blind men are interacting with one complex reality: She sees it and can correct their ignorance.

There is a real humility that says, “I don’t know everything, and I’m willing to learn.” But let’s not confuse that for the false humility that covertly claims to see the whole picture while denying that claim from every other quarter.

The Logical Problem

It takes some real mental gymnastics to claim that the major religions of the world are saying complementary things. Most people are only able to make statements like this because they haven’t thought too deeply about the supposed contradictions between the religions.

The mountain and elephant metaphors hinge on the notion that religious claims are complementary. Certainly many of them can be. But all? Religions ask dozens of critical questions, and the answers they provide on any one issue prove impossible to reconcile. As just one example, take the issue of what happens to people when they die: Some say you go to heaven or hell; some say you are reincarnated into another life here on earth; some say you disappear into nothingness. Even a child can see that you can’t possibly do all of these things at once.

To claim that the differences we see from one religion to another (and among those without any “religion” to speak of) are real differences isn’t bigotry. It’s simple logic. If we’re to have any sort of public dialogue about religion, God, or truth, we have to acknowledge where we differ. It does nobody any good to pretend we all agree when the facts say otherwise.

The Relational Problem

The main problem I have with these open-minded approaches is that they don’t align with any other aspect of our lives. Where else in our lives do we think with such silly reasoning? Or, to put it differently, who else would you approach with the foolhardy assurance that it doesn’t matter where you look?

If you are having a heart attack, you need a cardiologist. But what if you decided to head to Walmart to find one? You think, “I just love Walmart. Their prices are great. There aren’t any pesky employees around to bother me by asking if I ‘need anything.’ So I think I’ll take my heart problem there.” You can be as sincere as you want, but you won’t find what you’re looking for at Walmart. You can get a lot at Walmart—a Big Mac, an eye exam, a haircut, a tire rotation, a bathing suit you’ll immediately regret. But heart surgery? Not your best bet.

If you want to find a cardiologist, it matters where you look, and the consequences of looking in the wrong place can be fatal. “Come to my place,” the cardiologist says, “with my name on the door, and my healing instruments inside. I can give you help, but you have to actually come to me.

The Answer

If God were a fiction we’ve made up or some projection of our imaginations, it wouldn’t matter where we sought him. But if God is real, then as unpopular as it sounds, he gets to set the terms of where we seek him and how we seek him. He’s more like a cardiologist than he is an elephant or a mountain.

The gospel message is a narrow one, and many sophisticated people balk at it, just as they did in the days of the Apostles. But we make the same claim that they did. There really was a man with miraculous healing power, who made the blind see and the dead come to life. And only through him, through Jesus Christ, can we—blind and dead as we are—receive the sight and life we need.