Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Christian Explorations of Traveling

By Joerg Rieger

Travel takes many different forms. Some travel for pleasure, others for work, and many more travel in order to find work and a better life. Moreover, there are different travel movements under way in our time.

One is vagabonding, where mostly young people leave their homes to explore the world, seeking adventure and broader horizons. Another, very different travel movement is migration, where people leave their homelands for reasons of need and survival.

Pilgrimages constitute different kinds of travel movements—some tied up with deep religious quests and others indistinguishable from tourism, which constitutes one of the biggest travel movements of all times. These movements seem to have little in common at first sight. Yet as we explore different layers of travel, we will see what the various travelers can learn from each other and what even those staying at home can learn.

I wrote the book Traveling as someone who has learned a great deal on the road. Travel is woven into my life in many ways, combined with a lifelong wanderlust. I grew up in southern Germany, thousands of miles away from Dallas, Texas, where I live now. I have had the opportunity to travel to many countries, in both the Northern and the Southern Hemispheres. I also have had the opportunity to travel for very different reasons: for pleasure, for work, and out of sheer necessity.

Nevertheless, I write this book not merely as a traveler but also as a Christian theologian who is convinced that travel has significantly shaped our Judeo-Christian traditions and our varied experiences with the divine—a role that has for the most part been underappreciated.

Perhaps the most surprising insight of this book is that traveling is so deeply rooted in our traditions that many of them fail to make sense without it. Consider how much of the material of the Judeo-Christian traditions actually developed on the road. Abraham, regarded as one of the pillars of the faith, has nothing static about him. The people of Israel spent a good amount of time on the road. Their stories speak of slavery in the lands of a foreign empire called Egypt, of an exodus from Egypt, and of forty years of wandering in the wilderness. On this journey, they learned important theological lessons, which included profound challenges to outdated images of God.

In the New Testament, Jesus’ ministry takes place almost entirely on the road, as a person who has “no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). Perhaps one of the most important theological challenges that travel poses to the Christian life is summarized in the Letter to the Hebrews: “Here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).

Christianity is what takes place on the road. Travel, it appears therefore, is more than a metaphor of the Christian faith. Location and constant relocation are central matters of the Christian life.

Traveling is, thus, a central topic for faith and life. Those who travel to live and who live to travel might be in a position to make important contributions in today’s world. These contributions include a habit of thinking on one’s feet, the broadening of horizons, a flexibility that is typical especially of travelers who have less control, various challenges to the status quo, and a much-needed awareness of our own limits and finitude.

Travelers who spend much time on the road experience in their very being what is at the heart of the logic of the Jewish-Christian traditions and what took philosophers thousands of years to understand: a new appreciation for small, particular experiences of life, out of which broader universal ideas grow. This appreciation is where theology and philosophy started when religion took place on the road, rather than with the big concepts and ideas proposed by the powers that be.

Finally, those who find themselves on the road without safety nets often develop special bonds and relationships. No travel ever occurs in a vacuum. Power, as well as the lack of power, plays an important role in our travels. Becoming aware of these things is part of the broadening of our horizons.

*Joerg Rieger is Wendland-Cook Professor of Constructive Theology at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. Among his most recent books are Globalization and Theology (Abingdon Press, 2010), No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics and the Future (Fortress Press, 2009), and Christ and Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times (Fortress Press, 2007). His website is http://www.joergrieger.com.

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