June 10, 2011
Goddess Behaving Badly
Chomolungma, the Goddess Mother of the Earth, is one harsh deity. Otherwise known as Mt. Everest, this tallest of the world’s peaks has claimed the lives of over 215 climbers in nearly sixty years. Several months ago I attended a presentation by a home-town young man who had ascended Everest several months earlier and was giving an account of his experience on the expedition. In fact he is the son of a famous Everest climber.
The young climber was deeply affected by his experience and spoke of it clearly and at some length in spiritual terms. He spoke of visiting the base of the mountain several years earlier, of gazing up at the Khumbu icefall, of feeling the spiritual energy of the mountain and of his weeping in response. He spoke of Buddhist prayer wheels, of a blessing by a lama, and of offerings made to Chomolungma at Everest base camp before beginning the climb. He also told of his fitful night at the South Col (traditionally the highest camp, at about 26,000 feet), where the harsh weather conditions had pinned down his climbing team and threatened to send them packing back down the mountain without reaching the summit. He told us how that night at the Col he prayed earnestly and repeatedly to Chomolungma to allow him the opportunity to reach the summit. And of how the weather cleared, and the climb went on with great success.
I was intrigued by his apparent spiritual hunger and by the way in which his experience with Everest intersected with that hunger. But I marveled at the way this tall, handsome, intelligent and affable young man could speak with religious conviction of the mountain as a deity. Just how does he conceive of this? Is it more than a metaphor? (Apparently, for him, yes.) How is it integrated with his view of the world? And what does it mean to him that this same mountain could snuff him out at any moment? (His understanding of this reality was clear!) Just who is this deity? And if the wrath of the biblical God is such an offense these days, why not the perilous wrath of Chomolungma. Does its wrath find its place in a redemptive storyline? What about those frozen corpses of unfortunate climbers he passed along the route? Is there something more going on than their becoming macabre ornaments adorning Chomolungma’s corniced neck?
Then too, I thought about the parallels between his account and Christian testimony. (I could almost transpose it into some accounts of short-term mission trips I’ve heard.) I wondered how the gathered audience would have responded if he had spoken of the trip in overtly Christian terms. Let’s say he had commented on the grandeur of God’s creation and how it reminded him of the power and transcendence of God and of the frailty of life? Perhaps he could quote a few lines from Psalm 8. Well, I think I know how many of those gathered would have responded. From unease to hurrumph! I would expect to hear, “You’re using this as an opportunity to shove Christianity down our throats.” Where I live, we are an educated, tolerant, embracing community. Up to a point.
If Yahweh has to answer for his terrors, why not Chomolungma, Goddess Mother of the Earth? I wanted to ask. But good manners mastered me. And I asked for an autograph instead.
But if you do have questions about the behavior of the God of Abraham, Moses, Isaiah and Paul, take a look at David Lamb’s new book, God Behaving Badly. It won’t explain Chomolungma’s behavior, but it will give you new insight into the ways of Yahweh with Israel and humankind.