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Politics of Scripture

Mountain Theology

The transfiguration stories in scripture, and their mountains, are not places of answers. They are places of raw honesty about our own limits. They are places where words give way to water that flows where it will, to sustain life. They are places of confronting grief and loss. They are places of silence. And these mountains are places to wonder at the mystery of the God who created us to need each other and this earth.

12The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” 13So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. 14To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” 15Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. 17Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.

Exodus 24:12-18

“The mountains are calling, and I must go.”

This beloved quote from John Muir feels apt for Transfiguration Sunday. Mountains feature prominently in the Matthew chapter 17 Transfiguration story, and here in Exodus chapter 24, we find mountains mentioned eight times in only seven verses. This Muir quote is also a Pinterest, mountain-merch dream. While pastoring in North Carolina, I would see this quote artfully printed on t-shirts and coffee mugs in Asheville, and as promotional material for the beloved Presbyterian conference center in those same mountains, Montreat. Muir’s words, artfully printed, could easily adorn church banners for this Transfiguration Sunday. They ring with optimism, adventure, and hopefulness.

And yet these words are only part of the sentence, written in a letter from Muir to his sister Sarah on September 3, 1873 from the Yosemite Valley. Muir prefaced these oft-Pinterested words with a reality much rougher than the t-shirts and coffee mugs would tell, writing, “I have just returned from the longest and hardest trip I have ever made in the mountains . . . I am weary . . .  For two weeks I explored the glaciers of the summits east of here, sleeping among the snowy mountains without blankets and with but little to eat on account of its being so inaccessible.”

When he comes to those beloved eight words, Muir writes, “The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.” Muir’s mountain treks are less Instagram-worthy photo ops with mountains in the background, and more scientific expeditions in those unforgiving mountains themselves, rife with hunger, cold, and exhaustion. The mountains are work for Muir.

I am drawn to Muir’s words because I believe that the transfiguration texts of Exodus 24:12-18 and Matthew 17:1-9 are a calling to the mountains, but not in the way we might expect. The mountain matters beyond being merely a backdrop for divine encounter.

In Exodus 24, the glory of God settles specifically upon Mount Sinai. Presbyterian theologian Belden Lane explores his own encounter with Sinai in his book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality. Lane argues that Sinai, while a place of transfiguring glory, is also a place of emptying, or kenosis. This emptying mountain is in equal parts desolate and divine, hardness and beauty. He names Sinai a “‘no man’s land’ of fire and smoke” and goes on to describe his affection for such desolation. “But I loved it . . . in the same way the long-distance runner loves the last mile of the day—spent, beyond exhaustion, running from dusk into a night that refuses, it seems, ever to end” (186). Mount Sinai mattered for Lane, because it was a place to encounter his limitations, and to come face-to-face with loss. It was a place where the face of God was hidden, and yet somehow, also revealed. It was a place to be emptied, and to wait for the glory of God to fill it. 

I often wonder how the mountains themselves – both Sinai in Exodus and Tabor in the Gospels – might have been filled with God’s glory in these two transfiguration accounts. Did they take on a divine countenance? Were the rocks changed, too? And the hardy creatures that burrowed into the crags and cracks, and the water rooted so deep, and the green things that refused to budge: were they changed? Did they shine with divine light even as they bore their own sort of divinity in the dark places where life will not quit? Is it a failing of our human-centered theologies that we do not wonder about what a devouring fire and cloud of transfiguration might be doing to the mountain ecosystem itself? I believe so. Considering the momentousness of mountains to our daily lives, we need a robust mountain theology, particularly when attending to these transfiguration texts.

If you live in New York City, or Rio de Janeiro, or Nairobi, you would probably not have water to drink without mountains. As Grammenos Mastrojeni, Chair of the Mountain Partnership, writes, “Mountains are the world’s ‘water towers,’ providing 60-80% of all freshwater resources for our planet. At least half of the world’s population depends on mountain ecosystem services to survive – not only water but also food and clean energy.” Mountains, with their melting glaciers and harsh elements, feel the effects of climate change first. The people who dwell on them feel this, too.

The people who dwell in mountains often live a precarious existence. It has been estimated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations that one in three mountain-dwelling people experience food insecurity. As Mastrojeni writes, “Living far away from centers of power and decision-making, mountain peoples, especially in developing countries, are often marginalized in political, social, and economic terms. Mountain communities lack access to basic infrastructure, education, credit . . . Mountain communities, however, have a wealth of knowledge and strategies accumulated over generations on how to adapt to climate variability.”

I want to contrast this depiction of mountain peoples to a violent theological movement that has been gaining traction within evangelical mainstream United States Christianity for many years: the Seven Mountain Mandate. David French’s essay, “How a Rising Religious Movement Rationalizes the Christian Grasp for Power: On the Dangers of the Seven Mountains Mandate,” explores this in needful ways. This “vision” was allegedly gifted by God to Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, Loren Cunningham, founder of Youth With a Mission, and theologian Francis Schaeffer.

These men believed that God was calling Christianity to a radical expression of theocracy, and planting leaders in seven areas of influence in society; seven mountains. They are: government and military, education, religion, family, business, arts and entertainment, and media. This violent movement posits that Christ will not return until so-called “mountain kings” occupy enough influence in the halls of power. As Seven Mountains Mandate adherent Lance Wallnau argues, “We don’t really have a choice in the matter . . . It will require nothing less than the government of God to dispossess and occupy the territory dominated by the gates of hell . . . The sober truth is that everywhere the Church fails to exercise her authority, a vacuum opens for darkness to occupy.”

It is no accident that this dangerous dominionist theology employs tropes of light and darkness. The church is not meant to simply provide moral guidance to society; the church is meant to invade, infiltrate, and overthrow that society. Mountain kings are needed as generals in this holy war, and yes, this did include Donald Trump. His spiritual advisor Paula White was an adherent to this violent theological movement.

This movement, while employing the language of mountains, has very little to do with the emptying space of Sinai. Sinai as a place of facing limits, seeing and believing that God can exceed them, and entering the cloud of uncertainty willingly is in many ways the opposite of the Seven Mountains Mandate. This mandate is not about emptying, it is about grasping for and securing power. It is not about mystery, it is about mastery. It is not about the glory of God, it is about the Christian-exclusivist glory of powerful people.

Mountain kings exert extraordinary influence and capital to colonize every institution in the name of Jesus. And while they do this, mountain peoples themselves remain far from the centers of power. And perhaps closer to the actual witness of the divine in the transfiguration accounts found in Exodus and the Gospels.

In those stories, I see that what happens on mountains impacts all of us. The transfiguration that starts on the mountain ripples out. Even if the disciples are sworn to secrecy, surely those who know them best can tell they have changed. When Moses is enveloped by God’s glory at Sinai, that glory does not take the form of something easily captured, contained, and secured. That glory is a cloud: as ephemeral and pervasive as smoke. It cannot be held on the mountain. That glory knows no borders.

I believe the contrast between Moses’ encounter at Mount Sinai and the “mountain kings” of the Seven Mountain Mandate shows that transfiguration, or change, can go both ways. We can be transfigured by greed and power until we believe all things exist for Christian supremacy and conquest of all life. Or we can be transfigured by our interdependence with all peoples, all creatures, and yes, even the mountains themselves.

We can be transfigured by community, which is maybe why Jesus refused Peter’s suggestion of setting up an elite camp of the faithful on their particular mountain top. We can be transfigured by a theology that is not aboutseven mountains of influence and power, but, rather, a mountain theology that is honest about interdependence and the fragility of life. There is simply no dwelling on mountains for any amount of time, much less for forty days and nights, without coming face-to-face with human limits. Mountain dwelling people know this. Mountain kings do not. 

Being transfigured by our interdependence with all life means that the face of God is as close as the soil beneath our feet, and the water in our bodies. Being transfigured by interdependence means acknowledging the amazing fact that, in a closed loop of the water cycle, we may still be drinking the transfigured water from Sinai and Tabor today. The cloud of transfiguration is also the cloud of condensation.

Belden Lane’s mountain pilgrimage to Sinai and Tabor leads him to write that, “These mountains are not finished with me yet” (200). The mountains are not finished with him because they captivate his dreams, they lead him to a way of emptiness and mystery, where structures and words give way to question. He writes, “In God’s utter absence, when all seems lost, there is movement perceived from the cleft of the rock, and a burst of light beyond all seeing” (200). Lane needs the mountains as a tectonic theological site to face his own limits and not be afraid, and to face the glory of God and not be too certain of things. We all need mountains, not only as metaphors but also in their materiality. Our bodies need mountains as much as our spirits do. This is what it means to be transfigured by interdependence with the mountains themselves.

I believe Lane and Mastrojeni, and Muir for that matter, are beginning to build a mountain theology for us. This is a theology not of conquest and control, but of radical and fragile interdependence and community, especially with the earth itself. The transfiguration stories in scripture, and their mountains, are not places of answers. They are places of raw honesty about our own limits. They are places where words give way to water that flows where it will, to sustain life. They are places of confronting grief and loss. They are places of silence. And these mountains are places to wonder at the mystery of the God who created us to need each other and this earth. We are not transfigured by certainty; we are transfigured by mystery in the mountains. In that spirit, when the mountains call, we must go to protect, to sustain life, to grieve, and to exist for however long we can, in communities of care and interdependence. The mountains are not finished with us yet.

One thought on “Mountain Theology

  1. Thank you so much for this, Whitney. In my sermon, I’m also writing about mountains. Mountains that move. In Palestine there is a hill call Beit Taumar. It is right next to Herodium – a palace that King Herod built for himself. He was also buried there to fulfill a promise he made when his Nabatean mother was spared from death after an accident nearby. Beit Taumar is truncated. The hilltop is flat because Herod had his slaves and laborers remove the mountain top to make it fit for a king. He wanted to smooth the sides and raise himself enough to be seen from all directions. The Seven Mountain group is certainly modeling Herod. Everyone who is Christian in Palestine knows who and what Jesus is talking about when he speaks of moving mountains. Still today – Beit Taumar is a metaphor for all that oppresses them now. The hillsides there are still being built upon – settlements and outposts have razed/raised the mountains and hills all around. Here’s a picuture.

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