Do all paths lead to God?

Do all paths lead to God? December 3, 2010

I want to address a question I'm asked quite a bit by catechists here in comments or, occasionally, via e-mail. I call them catechists because it doesn't seem that they're asking the question because they want to learn the answer, but because they already know the correct answer and they're quizzing me to see if I know it, too.

I don't. I don't even understand the question. I can't make sense of it.

The question is this: "Do you believe that all paths lead to God?"

I have a hard time figuring out what this could possibly mean given what I know about paths and what I think I know about God.

We Christians believe that one of the attributes of God is omnipresence. It's hard to know what to make of a question about paths leading or not leading to someone who is, by definition, everywhere.

"You hem me in, behind and before," the Psalmist says:

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there …

That whole omnipresence thing really wreaks havoc with spatial metaphors like "all paths lead to God." But even apart from that, the question makes no sense not just because of the nature of God, but because of the nature of paths.

It could not be true that all paths lead to X even if there were only one single path, because the same path that leads to X would also, by virtue of being a path, lead away from X. That is how paths work.

The path outside my front door leads away from my house to the sidewalk and the street and all points beyond. The same path, of course, also leads to my front door. The trajectory is determined by the traveler, not by the path itself.

About 20 years ago I got the chance to hike along a very famous and ancient path — the road to Jericho. That same road, the same exact path, is also the road to Jerusalem or, in other words, the road from Jericho. Every step of the way covers the same ground on both roads because they are the same road, the same path.

We chose to hike the road to Jericho rather than the road from Jericho because, even though it was the same path, the latter route is a much more grueling walk. Jericho, you see, is 850 feet below sea level, while Jerusalem at the other end of the road is about 2,500 feet above sea level. So that road provides a vivid illustration of what is true for all paths — the experience of traveling on it varies according to the direction of the traveler.

That particular path is also the setting of a famous and wonderful story that illustrates the problem with asking whether or not any given path "leads to God." Everybody in that story is on the same path, headed in the same direction. But what they do along the way determines for each whether it is for them a path that leads to God or away from God.

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two days' wages, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”

The priest and the Levite in that story were on a path that led to God, but when they arrived, they passed by on the other side and it became, for them, a path away from God. They probably don't even realize who it was they just walked past. ("When was it that we saw you …?")

My catechists may be thinking at this point that I am just trying to escape the clever trap of their question — that I have taken us on a long detour along the Wadi Qelt as a way of avoiding giving them a straight answer. But I've invoked that famous road and the famous story set on it for the same reason that story was originally told: Because someone is asking the wrong question.

"Who is my neighbor?" the catechizing inquisitor asked Jesus.

"Be a neighbor," Jesus replied.

That's not an answer to the question he was asked. But Jesus wasn't giving an evasive answer to a straightforward question, he was giving a straightforward answer to an evasive question — the kind of squirrelly, lawyerly question we tend to ask when we've gotten so far from the point that we've started thinking that sitting around formulating correct answers to tricky questions is what we were called to do.

Questions like that are a path away from God. Whatever path you're on, God will meet you there. How you respond in that encounter matters far, far more than whatever path you happen to be on, or where you thought you were going, or whether or not the catechists think you have the correct answers to all the wrong questions.

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