Wondering through Wilderness
When we took our kids back outback the six year old did not travel well, until we visited Trephina Gorge. Suddenly he was back to taking the lead, climbing rocks with disregard to gravity and safety, and all the rattiness was replaced by his normal good humour. My wife said, "It's the gorge walls! He has boundaries around him again."
The long roads of the endlessly wide desert had removed all the borders of his normal experience.
This is what wilderness does.
Wilderness is disconcerting in its difference from our domestic suburbs. Wilderness means we are not "at home." There is a sense in which wilderness for a desert dweller means coming to the city; we were profoundly discomforted by our first months living back in Adelaide after years in Central Australia.
Wilderness can also describe the inner disconnection that follows when we are separated from our habitual, ordered ways of thinking. To reject the normally accepted, "easy" answers of society, or church, or upbringing, can disconcert and terrify us as thoroughly as being lost in featureless desert or dense bushland.
But wilderness is ultimately about remoteness; it is "proper desert," to use a term I learned at Ernabella. You could fall and die, and lie undiscovered for decades, in Cobbler Creek or at Morialta. (These are semi wild areas inside the wider Adelaide metropolitan area.) What makes wilderness "wild" is its distance and separation from domesticated land. In the wilderness we are alone.
Wilderness opens us up to the experience of God.
Saul of Tarsus was a zealous Jew who took the law into his own hands for the sake of upholding what he took to be religiously correct. So we see
Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison. Acts 8:3 ... Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.... Acts 9:1-2
It's a religious style we are currently seeing among "Islamists," but the same ethos is present in the bombers of abortion clinics and the rest of the extreme right wing of "Christian America." The rhetoric is not dissimilar from what we hear from some Australian Christians.
Paul was brought up short by his "Damascus Road" experience, where he was suddenly and dramatically converted to the point of view he had been persecuting. He renamed himself. Shortly after this he spent three years in "Arabia," which I think N.T. Wright persuasively identifies as a desert or wilderness experience; probably Sinai. (See Galatians 1:15-17)
It is in the desert that he has his own experience of the "still small voice" like Elijah, and re-envisions God, and his understanding of the world. His conversion does not stop with Damascus. Neither does his theology arrive fully formed.
It is critical to be "undone" by wilderness, or else we will use our faith, and indeed, Paul, to consolidate our current prejudices. We will not continue to be converted to the way of Jesus, but be zealous in all the wrong ways.
This brings us to the Romans 8 reading set for Wilderness/Outback Sunday.
Romans Chapter 8 is experienced as a central chapter of spiritual abuse in our family. "All things work together for good" was used to silence dissent and justify abuse during both during childhood and our early faith experiences. I slowly came to understand that Paul's Letter to the Romans was part of a theological package that was destructive, condemnatory, and which was ultimately denying my experience of God— and expecting me to do the same!
So when I come to Paul, I face not only the separating gulf of time and culture that is common to any reading of scripture, but also a deep distrust and antipathy. In his words I hear the words of the abusers. It does not matter that I know Paul was far more radical than those abusers ever imagined, or that they misused him. It does not matter that he seeks to communicate an experience of the grace and unconditional love of God that has also set my own life free. I would rather go to the dentist than read Paul. Each time I open his words I feel I must pick my way around a deep misanthropy; I can not quite rid myself of the suspicion that this is not simply a fundamentalist overlay, but also a part of him. I do not think I would like Paul if I were to meet him.
I must remember diligently that his words do not define my world or my life. Instead, I may glean from them insights about the love of God and the nature of reality that may help me understand my own experience of God. As with all gleaning, there is a lot of picking through straw.
Doctrine or Doxology?
It is important to understand Paul to be speaking of his experience of God's love rather than writing a systematic theology. He has learned that we do not zealously bring about the kingdom of God; God so unconditionally loves us that this has in some way already been done for us, and it is coming to fruition, to actuality. NT Wright imagines Paul speaking to people like this:
... the God of Israel called me, like Elijah, to step back from this zeal and to listen to him afresh. When I listened, I heard a voice telling me that the messianic victory over evil had already been won, and that I and my fellow Jewish Christians were the true remnant, saved by grace and marked out by faith, apart from ethnic identity and works of Torah. I therefore had to renounce my former [pre-Damascus] zeal, and announce the true Messiah to the world.
Bill Loader says of Romans 8
Sometimes love's claims make outrageous statements which are true as celebration and doxology and become shaky if turned to the discourse of doctrine or definition.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. (8:18)
Paul makes an objective claim about the reality in which we live. We can accept or reject the claim. On the basis of this claim, and out of the love of God which he has experience, he also writes love poetry and doxology.
We know that all things work together for good... (8:28)
As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (8:36-7)
These are love statements and trust statements of the same order we make to our beloved partner in life. There is no "scientific" proof of these things. They are not forensic doctrinal statements, and to use them as such will take us into wildly abusive places.
We too often take Scripture which is seriously addressing issues surrounding the meaning of life in the manner of "Little Gidding" for example, and treat it as though it were a Wikipedia article on the same issues.
We shall not cease from exploration
Not known, because not looked for
... Scientific inquiry may be able to reveal which - if any - aspects of life are of essential value (and various materialist philosophies such as dialectical materialism challenge the very idea of an absolute value or meaning of life), but some studies definitely bear on aspects of the question: researchers in positive psychology (and, earlier and less rigorously, in humanistic psychology) study factors that lead to life satisfaction, full engagement in activities, making a fuller contribution by utilizing one's personal strengths, and meaning based on investing in something larger than the self.
One value system suggested by social psychologists, broadly called Terror Management Theory, states that human meaning is derived from a fundamental fear of death, and values are selected when they allow us to escape the mental reminder of death.
Neuroscience describes reward, pleasure, and motivation in terms of neurotransmitter activity, especially in the limbic system and the ventral tegmental area in particular. If one believes that the meaning of life is to maximize pleasure and to ease general life, then this allows normative predictions about how to act to achieve this. Likewise, some ethical naturalists advocate a science of morality - the empirical pursuit of flourishing for all conscious creatures.
From the Wikipedia entry on The Meaning of Life
Reading Little Gidding the way we read Wikipedia reduces it to gibberish.
19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
Verse 19 speaks of the creation in anthropomorphic terms; poetry, but then (on through verses 20 and 21) makes an objective claim: the "revealing of the children of God" will be fundamentally healing for the creation.
The text is written in the memory of Genesis 3: "... cursed is the ground because of you..." (3:17)
At first I find little to argue with in this. If humanity could live at peace, and with justice, we would have an opportunity to live well on the earth. As long as we humans are in deadly competition, all our attempts at ecological stewardship will be compromised. How can you afford to look after the land and buy F-35 Joint Strike Fighters at $90 million per plane? The health of the land and the health of humanity are inextricably intertwined.
But the damage done to creation— the "futility," is "... by the will of the one who subjected it..." ? The draining of the Aral Sea and the devastation of the Amazon rainforests is the will of God and part of setting them free from the bondage to decay!?
Reading those lines like we read Wikipedia will point us to a vision of the divine which is deeply incoherent with our wisdom about the nature of biology; a god not worthy of being God. It can be used to justify humanity being the plague on the earth which it currently is. Are we so important that God devastates the world as part of our salvation?
But in the text as poetry we hear Paul's glimpses of a divinity which risks and hopes, and which has a vision of glory that goes beyond what we imagine life could be. It hints at, hopes for, yearns for, and glimpses something transcendent. But it is doxology, trust, and hope, not science or even forensic theology.
22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Poetically, we are taken back to the curse of Genesis 3.
To the woman he said,
‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.’ (Genesis 3:16)
And like all good poetry it sets off a cascade of ideas. For example
- Even those who are Christians suffer and wait.
- There is more than being born to a new world; there is an adoption, a birth of a particular love and choosing of us.
- The new creation will redeem our bodies; there is no "spiritualising" of life here. This is a grounded, earthy, physical life. The material world is not inferior.
- Loader says about the last verses
We are caught up into the divine yearning for change far beyond what we can comprehend: we cannot capture it in words (8:26). ... It is love's yearning which knows no bounds and cannot be captured in definition.
There are two questions all this this raises. Firstly, how do we come to a vision and experience of God which is like Paul's? That is, how do we find this powerful sense of God which drives his poetry and which drove and sustained him through his life as an apostle? Far too often God seems an idea rather than a reality. What will open us up to God?
The second question is, how do we read poetry and metaphor and doxology? After all, Bill's comment on Romans 8:26 is poetry about poetry, metaphor upon metaphor. How can we get from having a "tin ear" to hearing the music? One of my friends sees such a "tin ear" at the root of much of Richard Dawkins' hostility to religion. How can we get beyond the prosaic, rationalistic bias of our culture when it comes to questions of meaning?
Added to this, how do we hear the deep poetry of Scripture rather than doggerel, ending up with a Bible which is a series of trite Helen Steiner Rice cards?
The answer is wilderness.
The first thing the Spirit does after descending upon Jesus in his baptism is to drive him out into the desert for a frightening encounter with the devil (Mark 1:12-13). Think about that … the desert … a place traditionally identified with temptation and trial. People should be cautioned about associating the Holy Spirit with “playing it safe” or material abundance. As a wise, older pastor once told me, the “Spirit brings us to where the pain is.”
The desert places open us up. They disconcert us, even destroy us. Wilderness is the place of "the devil." We are faced with ourselves. All the supports and distractions are gone. Life is raw. You can go mad in the desert; an acquaintance said of the legendarily unpredictable owner of a remote outback roadhouse, "He had been there too long."
Wilderness forces us to see the suffering of life. It will not let us pretend that life is basically "pretty good." Wilderness sits us in crowded, open wards, where people are dying. It walks beside us through the long bleak corridors back to the street, telling us there is nothing we can do.
Wilderness is also the place of God. Wilderness is where we find God not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in a still small voice. (1 Kings 19) That story is poetry for a new understanding of God. In the encounter Elijah was encouraged and renewed and able to see Israel and God in new ways. Indeed, wilderness is itself a raw poetry of God.
Safe and conventional religion drowns out the still small voice, and its distractions blind us to the presence of God. Domesticated life is satisfied with small entertainments and minor earth trmors.
Most of all, in light of our current climate crisis— the Islamic State is only a distraction— wilderness puts us in our place. Wilderness— physical, wild, unbuilt places— shows us how small we are. When we are not in the pretentious controlled environment of an air-conditioned office, we learn our place in the world.
In the wilderness we learn to be afraid of God and, to be enthralled by the love of God. I begin to understand how Paul finds the unconditional love he calls grace present in a Divine which judges.
Nature will not be denied. They say we must treat her with care or she will be destroyed. They are wrong. We may well destroy the conditions we need to survive. But nature and life will go on, despite us, and without us. The only question is how much we wish to remain a part of things.
"Let's be clear. The planet is not in jeopardy. We are in jeopardy. We haven't got the power to destroy the planet - or to save it. But we might have the power to save ourselves." Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park
I wrote those words some five years ago, and since then, in my commuting into the city, I have deliberately routed myself through the wilder places of the Adelaide region. I ride the creeks, the swamps, and the waste lands of the industrial areas. I take the long rides home through the minor roads and fire tracks of the Adelaide Hills. It has been a long slow confrontation with the wilder side of creation, sometimes scrabbling the bike up steep gravel unsafe to ride.
it is tiring,and devours my time. I could not do this and have a full time job! Being open to wilderness means abandoning some hopes and conventions. But my sense of the reality of the Divine has grown— as has my fear of what it means to live in the presence of the Divine.
I see my original post was too anthropocentric. It assumes we can choose whether or not to destroy our place the planet,and that the only uncertainty is whether we have gone to far to prevent this.
As I have seen teeming life in even the "spoiled places" around Adelaide, I am more inclined to see the live planet as its own self-regulating system; a system which self-corrects. (See, for example, the Gaia Hypothesis) We are one small part of it, and I wonder if we have even less autonomy than we have imagined. It may not be our destructiveness which makes the planet uninhabitable for us; the planetary system may "correct us out of existence" to allow life to go on.
Yet the grief and foreboding caused by this wilderness wondering— the undoing and desolation; the stripping away of what I knew of God— no more earthquake and fire, just the hint of a still small voice; all this is matched by a growing sense of Divine Greatness. I have a sense of being on the edges of unimaginable transcendence; glory.
During this time wilderness has been a catalyst, a stabilising anchor buried in reality, and also a revealer of a divine presence which the pretty city too often covers with concrete.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!