The theology of pilgrimage

August 7, 2006

HOW SHOULD WE RELATE TO CHRISTIANS OF OTHER TRADITIONS THAN OUR OWN? Over the past few weeks we have considered some dynamic lay movements within the Catholic church. Yet few protestants have heard of groups like the Focolare and St Egidio movements, even though they are as big as if not larger than Campus Crusade and YWAM, and enjoy widespread global impact.

On my return from visiting these movements in Italy, a pile of mail awaited me. An article in the Dutch theological journal Soteria caught my attention when I saw its relevance to the questions raised on my trip. The writer was Niek Tramper, a Reformed pastor I happened to bump into recently at Schiphol airport. In the article, Niek explores four theological approaches in his search for a response to the missionary challenge of the new spirituality. He then applies his discoveries to the Da Vinci Code phenomenon. He describes how he found wide open doors to share about the Person of Jesus with many convinced non-Christians, after adopting a certain theological approach.

First, he analyses the church’s mission to today’s culture in terms of four theological approaches:
· Dispute (Theologia adversaria-theology of the antithesis)
· Disassociation (Theologia distantiae-theology of separation)
· Encounter (Theologia viatoris-theology of pilgrimage)
· Embrace (Theologia acceptionis-theology of acceptance)
None of these four can be missed. Each has its place. We need apologists who unmask the lies shaping our culture. Theologians of the antithesis from Tertullian to Alister McGrath have helped strengthen the church through the ages by defending the truths of the faith. The Bible also gives much attention to the theology of separation, emphasising core disciplines such as prayer, holiness and teaching from the Word. The church community is not to be isolated, but as a counter-culture in the world, Tramper explains. Neutrality cannot last for long. If the church is not engaging with the world, the world will certainly engage with the church, accusing her of being sectarian and intolerant.

The theology of pilgrimage-theologia viatoris-specifically seeks engagement with the world outside of the church – and, we might add, outside of our church. This involves listening and speaking, and takes the pilgrim through several stations: 1. the exploration of the other’s motives and assumptions; 2. the search for common ground, shared understanding, mutual recognition; 3. the addressing of misunderstandings, clearing up the rubble of incomprehension and negative experiences, giving and receiving new insight; 4. finally, the persuasion of the other party. Sooner or later, writes Tramper, theologia viatoris arrives at a boundary, like the banks of a river. On the one side, we understand, share, clarify and persuade. On the other side we witness and testify: to the mystery of the Cross and the inexplicable Resurrection. We must cross the river.

Lastly, theologia acceptionis recognises and embraces the common grace of God in cultural developments that reflect biblical truth and values. Elements of post-modernism, for example, that resonate more with biblical spirituality than do those of modernity might include emphases on relationship and community rather than on function and institution. Yet here lies the danger of syncretism and compromise.

Tramper then pleads for the place of a theology of pilgrimage in responding to the widespread interest in the DVC, to walk alongside peers gripped by contemporary gnosticism. Yes, there is place for theologia adversaria in exposing Dan Brown’s many errors, especially so that believers know what they believe and don’t believe, and why. Yet how important the relational dimension is to building bridges of understanding in our anti-church culture! When he and his colleague held public study evenings on DVC, spirituality and truth, the response was overwhelming as they walked their public through the four stations explained above. A surprising number turned up at a follow-up evening to hear a gospel explanation, and invitations came to hold similar studies in Belgium across the border.

If this is true for walking alongside non-believers, how much more it should be true for walking with those who do name the name of Jesus? Theologia viatoris is what our trip through Italy was about. Some may propose theologia distantiae to be the only appropriate response to other theological traditions. But we live in a day of great opportunity to walk as fellow pilgrims with those from other backgrounds. One pioneer of this pilgrimage is David Bjork, missionary in France and author of ‘Unfamiliar Paths’, a title that hints at the risks and dangers involved. Further guidance is promised for those willing to embark on theologia viatoris by the title of Bjork’s most recent book: ‘As Pilgrims Progress: Learning How Christians Can Walk Hand in Hand When They Don’t See Eye to Eye.’

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,


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