Pilgrim on the road

Copyright mohnd / 123RF Stock Photo

These days, more and more American Christians are finding their identity in the concept of exile. In blog posts and articles over the past year, Carl Trueman, Rod Dreher, Peter Leithart, and Matthew Young, among others, have all identified Christians as exiles in a politically and culturally hostile America. Not everyone is completely on board with this metaphor. Trueman and Dreher, in particular, have been criticized for a defeatism that is born more of nostalgia than of an accurate description of the Christian condition.

Russell Moore, President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, responded here with the best exilic analysis that I’ve seen. (I’m totally in love with the phrase “exilic analysis,” by the way; I read it somewhere and I don’t remember where.) Moore says that Christians can be called exiles not because of their loss of status in a Christian America that perhaps never existed, but because this world will never be their home. Christians are citizens of a higher kingdom.

As a student of history, particularly the Christian Middle Ages, I’m surprised to see so many Christians embracing the identity of exile. In the discussions I’ve read, commentators seem unaware that in the Christian tradition, we find another, more hopeful way to talk about the feeling of displacement plaguing believers today. Literally, it’s a way—the way of the pilgrim.

In the early Christian and medieval traditions, exile and pilgrimage were two sides of the same coin. Sometimes, they even shared the same word (peregrinatio in Latin). This doesn’t seem obvious. Exile means banishment and wandering, while pilgrimage is a purposeful journey. Exile is (usually) enforced, while pilgrimage is voluntary. Yet in describing the journey of humanity, many writers in the Christian tradition, from New Testament authors to Church Fathers, feel the need for both concepts. In fact, they would never talk about exile without also referencing and even privileging pilgrimage. Which makes me wonder, why do we? Why is it easier for Christians today to describe the human condition in terms of exile rather than pilgrimage? Could it be that we don’t really understand what pilgrimage is about?

Christian history opens with a story of exile-turned-pilgrimage. I refer, of course, to the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. This is not distant history. We feel its effects today. Eden is the home in which we were meant to live, the home from which we have been cast out. This brings us to Dr. Moore’s point—as Christians, we are all exiles. J. R. R. Tolkien famously wrote, “We all long for it [Eden], and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile’” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Mariner Books, 2000, 110).

Here’s where the narrative takes a turn. The Christian tradition makes clear that we’re not just exiles from. We’re also travelers toward. Having been ousted from Eden, we have no real home in the world. But we do in the next. As we wander this earth, we’re on our way to the heavenly Jerusalem. Like a medieval pilgrim on the road to the Holy Land, we leave everything behind to reach a place (a person, really) better than anything we could have imagined. Our enforced exile is transformed into a voluntary banishment. We become pilgrims, purposefully taking step after step to arrive home.

We need the narrative of exile-turned-pilgrim to keep the faith. No matter the political climate in which we live, no matter the country we temporarily call our home, Christians everywhere and at all times are called to embrace a narrative of hope. We find it proclaimed in the book of Hebrews, which calls the church to follow the example of the ancients:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth . . . If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:13-16 NIV)

Depending on which version of the Bible you’re reading, you’ll see variations of the phrase “foreigners and strangers” in verse 13. The ESV calls the Israelites “strangers and exiles.” The King James Bible uses “strangers and pilgrims.” Partly this is an issue of translation, and partly it’s because the terms (peregrini and hospites in Latin), or at least their connotations, are nearly interchangeable. The Israelites are exiles who have no home on this earth and pilgrims who travel toward a sacred place (the city God has prepared for them).

Hebrews is merely one (a divinely-inspired one, to be sure) telling of the exile-turned-pilgrim narrative. In his works, Augustine of Hippo frequently speaks of the Christian life as a kind of wandering—but not of the aimless variety. In the Confessions, he mentions our heavenly home, calling it “the eternal Jerusalem, after which Thy pilgrim people sigh from their going forth unto their return” (9.13.37). We are a pilgrim people, Augustine says. We sigh because we have been cast out of the home God set aside for us. But we also sigh for the place toward which we journey. We know that we are on our way to Jerusalem.

This theme is summed up magnificently in The Two Cities of Otto of Freising, the 12th-century bishop and chronicler. Describing the first events in human history, he writes of Adam that, “by a righteous judgment of God he was cast out into this pilgrimage” (Columbia University Press, 2002, 123). This phrase reminds us of Tolkien’s quotation about Eden, but Otto takes it a step further. Adam and Eve initiated humanity’s exile. But in our exile we find the place of our pilgrimage.


Below the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve begin their pilgrimage. Detail from the Hereford Map (ca. 1300). Image courtesy of Groningen University Library.

I’m not saying that there are no differences between exile and pilgrimage. Instead, I want to introduce a more hopeful way to discuss the human predicament. Christians are not just outcasts but are also people moving toward a clear and certain destination. As we walk through this world that is not our home, we know exactly where we are headed. We can see it in the distance. Yes, it’s a long and winding road. Yes, the going is difficult. But our pilgrimage fills us with hope and gives us an eternal perspective on our earthly trials.

What we call ourselves matters. How we frame our journey matters. What are you? An exile or a pilgrim?

In my own faith, I embrace the identity of pilgrim. I’m a firm believer in using the metaphor of pilgrimage to describe our spiritual journey. Please understand that I’m not talking in vague or therapeutic terms. I don’t mean a journey within or a voyage of self-discovery. I embrace a Christ-centered definition of pilgrimage. For me, pilgrimage describes the way we follow Jesus. It’s the way we walk away from self and toward him. The way we respond to his call each day.

In this blog series, I’ll be exploring how our identity as pilgrims helps us to live out our faith. I’ll be turning to—surprise!—the Middle Ages, which fine-tuned the practice and theory of pilgrimage. How medieval Christians did pilgrimage can help us understand our daily journey to Jesus. We can learn to live not just as aliens but as a people who are on the move.

Join me, won’t you?