Call of the Wilderness

The Desert Fathers saw it as faith’s testing ground. The Transcendentalists saw it as sanctuary. The Gospel writers had their own views. /

I still recall my first encounter with the American wilderness, standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. I described the sight at the time, one defying all superlatives: “Before us opened out a vast valley—18 miles across—the precipitous slopes of our upland vantage point tumbling down to a lower plane, itself scarred with deep chasms, where, almost a vertical mile down, with the aid of a keen eye or binoculars one could occasionally espy the might of the Colorado River. All the way to the horizon massive peaks and ridges rose as a lithic pantheon, standing in solemn splendour over the canyon floor far beneath.”

Many have enjoyed the experience of awe when beholding some stretch of wilderness, even one less iconic. Wilderness in and of itself can inspire, but it does much more. It has also afforded deep reservoirs of meaning to many human societies, and has provided an anvil upon which men and peoples are forged. Through their relationship with the wilderness, societies have preserved, revived, and articulated crucial human values—but especially spiritual ones.

We witness this, for example, in the works and practice of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Perhaps the most famous was Anthony, whose life was recorded by Athanasius. Around A.D. 270, Anthony followed Jesus’ call to the young man in Matthew 19:21, sold his possessions, gave the money to the poor, and went into the desert. Athanasius’ biography describes how Anthony faced Satan and his demons and overcame them by a courageous faith. In Athanasius’ account, the desert appears like the front line of a spiritual conflict, a site where a person’s spiritual mettle is most proven. It’s where the reality and effectiveness of faith, prayer, and Christian discipline are displayed in sharpest relief.

Anthony’s move into the desert occurred at a critical juncture in church history. With the Edict of Milan in A.D. 313, the Christian faith became legal throughout the empire, and an age of martyrdom ended. The martyrs had deeply formed the church’s idea of spirituality in the first few centuries, but as Christianity became the formal religion of the empire, being a Christian was no longer a risk. Converts multiplied, as did spiritual laxity and weakness. In this context, as historian John Chryssavgis put it, “The voice of the desert’s heart replaced the voice of the martyr’s blood.” The Desert Fathers and Mothers became a spearhead that focused and strengthened the wider church’s spirituality. The wilderness became a place of enduring struggle where faith could be tested and proved.

Jumping ahead almost a millennium and a half, the wilderness also was significant in the Romantic and Transcendentalist movements of the 19th century—but for different reasons. Many of their contemporaries regarded the wilderness principally as an empty and inert territory to be populated and harnessed by man. For the Romantics, however, the wilderness evoked awe and wonder; they saw it as a witness to the beauty and majesty of the untamed natural world. This sensibility was powerfully expressed in the art and literature of the movement. As Roderick Nash observes, “Wilderness was a sanctuary both from ‘the turmoil, the anxieties, and the hollowness of society’ and from ‘the busy haunts of sordid, money-making business.’”

In the wilderness—in contrast to the artificiality of the city—Transcendentalists hoped to become reacquainted with their own nature. Note the vision of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,—no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God. . . . In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.

The Romantics prepared the ground for a deeper appreciation of the wilderness. Take the early preservationist John Muir. The “Father of the National Parks” frequently expresses a sort of piety before the beauty of nature: “I never saw one drop of blood, one red stain on all this wilderness. Even death is in harmony here.”

The wilderness was important in other ways for Theodore Roosevelt, Muir’s contemporary. For Roosevelt, and for many members of the elite class, the wilderness was about nostalgia for frontier values like manifest destiny and rugged individualism. It also had something to do with gender. According to the scholar Wendy Harding, men such as Roosevelt and Owen Wister believed that “the comforts and seductions of civilized life were especially insidious for men, who all too easily became emasculated by the feminizing tendencies of civilization.” A city-dwelling elite of capitalists and industrialists, wary of befalling the fate of effete European urbanites, flocked as tourists to “consume” the wilderness experience in dude ranches, hunting trips, and camps. As with the Desert Fathers and the Romantics and Transcendentalists, these Americans sought the wilderness as a site of spiritual renewal: re-creation through recreation.

The wilderness has a history before all these movements, of course. It is central to biblical thought as well. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each recount Jesus’ journey into the wilderness, each accenting a different dimension of wilderness.

Matthew 4:1 reads, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (NKJV). Matthew seems to be alluding to Israel’s being “led up” out of Egypt into the wilderness by the pillar of cloud and fire in the Exodus. For Matthew, Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness were like Israel’s 40 years of testing in the wilderness. In Exodus, the wilderness is a site of national testing, failure, and preparation. It is also a site of divine presence, protection, and provision.

Mark’s account is worded slightly differently: “Immediately the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12, NKJV). The verb that Mark uses here (ekballo) is the same one he typically uses to describe exorcisms. Jesus is expelled into the wilderness, to the realm of unclean beasts and demons (cf. Luke 11:24). For Mark, the wilderness is like a place of exile. Mark’s account is reminiscent of David being driven out from Saul’s court into the wildernesses (1 Sam. 23:14–15, 24–25; 24:1; 25:1; 26:2–3). While in the wildernesses, David lived with the wild beasts (the Gentiles), and resisted the temptation to snatch the kingdom for himself before it was time.

Finally, Luke’s gospel reads, “Then Jesus, being filled with the Holy Spirit . . . was brought in the Spirit into the wilderness” (Luke 4:1, author’s translation). This is the language of the prophet Ezekiel caught up and transported by the Spirit (cf. Ezek. 3:14; 37:1). We should also notice the similarities with Luke 2:27, where Simeon comes by the Spirit into the temple. A further interesting parallel can be seen in Revelation 17:3, where the seer John is carried away in the Spirit into the wilderness, where he encounters the Whore of Babylon. Luke encourages us to recall the visionary experiences of Elijah, who traveled into the wilderness of Sinai to meet with God in 1 Kings 19 and spent much time in the wilderness avoiding Ahab and Jezebel. The wilderness is the abode of demons and a site of spiritual struggle, but it is also a place of encounter with God.

For the gospel writers, Jesus was Israel, led through the wilderness by the Spirit in a new Exodus, resisting temptation where Israel once failed. Jesus was the new Davidic king, courageously resisting the current tyrant on the throne until the time came for him to inherit the coming kingdom. Jesus was the covenant-renewing prophet, resisting the false vision in order to pursue God’s mission and future. In entering into the wilderness, Jesus evoked and renewed core narratives of Israel’s history. As he emerged from his wilderness experience, Jesus was a revived Israel, an Israel transformed.

The Desert Fathers, the Romantics, and the Transcendentalists each sought and discovered something vital and truthful in the wilderness. This realm of vast tracts, awesome wonders, and hidden dangers continues to hold out the promise of spiritual renewal whenever we visit and behold them. In Jesus we see the call of the beckoning wilderness answered and fulfilled, faithfulness manifested in its dreadful trials, and the course of a reborn humanity pioneered within its isolation. This new humanity, first tested and proved in the loneliness of the wilderness, now sits on the throne of heaven.

Alastair Roberts most frequently writes at Alastair Adversaria and tweets @zugzwanged.

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Also in this Issue

Issue 29 / August 20, 2015
  1. Editors’ Note

    Issue 29: Fishing with fathers, what we go out into the wilderness to see, and how Joy began to find Jesus. /

  2. Reeling from Joy in the Texas Bay

    Fishing with my dad lends itself to all kinds of spiritual metaphors and benefits. But that’s not what keeps me casting. /

  3. The World’s Most Astonished Atheist

    The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki destroyed Joy Davidman’s worldview, too. /

  4. Lines Cast

    ‘So this is the face of the ocean.’ /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 29: Links to amazing stuff /

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