Sunday, February 21, 2010

Lent 01: Into the Wild

Lent is about wilderness journeys: Israel wandering, David fleeing, Jesus tempted. Friend and colleague Penny Nelson preached her first sermon this week, and was kind enough to let me share a portion of it redefining the wilderness experience:

So often, we think of the wilderness as that dark, empty space—the void, the tundra, the desert. The wilderness is frightening because it’s viewed as being empty. But it isn’t empty—it’s almost always full of possibility. The wilderness is a transitional space—a place that is great for change because it allows the emotional and mental space for new ways of thinking and being to develop. The wilderness is full of choices—which way do I go? Which path do I trust? Where do I want to come out? I think this is what Jesus saw as he entered into the wilderness—this vast space was full of possibility for learning, and renewal, and growth.

I like this idea. I'm pretty comfortable with wildernesses, seeing as grew up in one. The topography of my hometown is the same as a desert. I did a lot of meditating while walking through the coulees in and around Medicine Hat, though I probably wouldn't have called it meditation at the time. Prairie winters are a hell of a wilderness, beautiful and deadly. That's the wilderness - pretty, but stay in it for too long or without the right gear, and you're dead. So I like going into the wilderness as a place of possibility, a place of beauty, but we can never forget that the wilderness is also a place where we can die.

Penny and I met while she was taking courses in religious studies and I was a T.A. for those classes. I was the former minister moving through religious studies on his way to an academic career. She was the student moving through religious studies on her way to a career as a minister. As I learned early on, religious studies and theology are not the same thing. Theology trains people to be epistemologically rigorous believers, while religious studies seems to breed atheists who read the Bible a lot. As a result, theologians who enter religious studies tend to take a spiritual shit-kicking, especially if they want to do more than defend their faith to the ostensible heathens who teach these classes. Both Penny and I wanted to really learn the material. To absorb the viewpoint of the religious studies department at the University is to risk standing at the precipice that overlooks the chasm of disbelief.

I've always been an advocate for the hermeneutic of suspicion. Blind faith is still blindness. Some of my best friends are atheists, or people of other faith persuasions. I've told people, if your faith can't take a walk with a Buddhist in a Hindu temple, then it's not much of a faith. That is to say, if you live your Christianity in a Christian bubble, then you'll never know how strong it really is. It's like a Jesus exo-skeleton against the Kung-Fu of the world - it keeps you safe, but it isn't really you. I have always needed to know if I really believed what I said I did. So I dragged my faith into the wilderness regularly.

Religious studies was one of those wildernesses. And in many ways, I'm still getting beyond the hangover it gave me. I'm very thankful for the academic rigor men like Willi Braun, Jon Kitchen, and Wayne Litke submitted me to. I'm indebted to them for helping me think about religion in ways I never had before. I no longer consider 'spirituality' to be some better form of religion. It's just another form, whatever the adherents of spirituality may say to salve their conscience.

Many of the posts yet to come this Lent will likely return to this confession. It's not really fully explained yet, but in short, it's that I think it's both healthy and dangerous to enter the desert, to enter the wild. It's the place of refining faith. You might grow stronger, or you might lose it entire. That's the risk you have to take, to know
how deep your roots go. I no longer remember who originally said it, but you only live as deeply as you believe.


  1. Your post reminds me of Paul Tillich's "The Dynamics of Faith", which you've probably read. If it weren't for Tillich, I don't know how I would've transitioned from being a good Religious Studies student that could "pass" for being an atheist into theological school. I think I still "pass" for being a good theology student, when most days my Religious Studies refinement is screaming bloody murder inside me. But my courage comes when I remember Tillich. He writes:

    "If faith is understood as being ultimately concerned, doubt is a necessary element in it. It is a consequence of the risk of faith."

    I love that Tillich makes the connection between doubt and faith--as though one could ever exist without the other. He later writes:

    " [Doubt] does not reject every concrete truth, but it is aware of the element of insecurity in every existential truth. At the same time, the doubt which is implied in faith accepts this insecurity and takes it into itself in an act of courage. Faith includes courage. Therefore, it can include doubt in itself."

    If we are to walk into the wilderness of our lives, our hearts, our minds, we need to remember that faith includes having courage. In ourselves, in God, in that connection (relationship) between us all. Even if we don't feel particularly courageous as we explore these spaces, I believe we have the ability to take heart in the fact that we aren't wandering through the desert alone.

  2. Reading this blog I think of three things:

    Food for the journey.