Scouting paths up the mountain of faith


Despite the fact that "Finding Your Religion" is an invitation to scale a craggy and perilous peak, you will close the book feeling cosseted, comforted, and eager to lace up your hiking boots.

A Unitarian minister and the chaplain at Tufts University since 1984, Scotty McLennan has written a mountaineer's manual for people with skinny souls who hunger for bread from on high. In chapters on topics like self-renewal, prayer, fellowship, jubilation, and suffering, he sketches portraits of real-life trekkers and the footpaths they have followed in their hunt for holiness. The identity of each hiker has been artfully disguised, but as factual fictions their stories are as gripping as a good novel.

Ordained pastor, seasoned counselor, and gallant pilgrim, McLennan has what it takes to feed the spiritually undernourished - both those who were reared in worshiping families and those who were not.

The motif made manifest in the metaphor of the mountain is religious pluralism - the ecumenical conviction that despite their differences, all the major faiths lead toward the same pinnacle, toward the same Reality or God. McLennan embraces this outlook without reservation. None of the world's great religions, he argues, "has a lock on 'salvation,' insight, community, creativity, or meaning."

But what about truth? As trails up the mountain, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism have very different things to say about the Being at the summit. These doctrinal differences are pure contradictions, not mere inconsistencies. McLennan urges us to seek spirituality thoughtfully, yet he says nothing about the existence of conflicting truth-claims among the world's principal faiths, nothing about the possibility that his metaphorical mountain may rest on quicksand.

But enough of this grousing. In a chapter on the need for laughter in worship, McLennan talks about his roommate at Yale during the 1960s, Garry Trudeau, and about "Doonesbury," Trudeau's comic strip, in which McLennan appears as the Reverend Scott Sloan, the red-bearded idealist. Regular readers of the cartoon know that while Scott is on occasion full of balderdash, he is also the embodiment of jumbo virtues, three of which are enshrined in a celebrated passage from Micah: "He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God." McLennan calls this passage the Gospel according to "Doonesbury."

The qualities reflected in "Finding Your Religion" are the ones cherished by Old Testament prophets like Micah. With the help of blazes painted on conspicuous boulders by park ranger McLennan, lots of millennial Americans now wandering in the desert will have the opportunity to do some climbing.

*Colin Campbell teaches English at Principia College in Elsah, Ill.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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