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The Sacred Journey by Charles Foster

The Sacred Journey (2009)

by Charles Foster

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Every so often you come across a book that provides the proverbial yet necessary slap across the face, showing you things that were always there but were not put together or were otherwise missed. In the end, you might not agree with everything said in the book, but you walk away thankful to have been challenged and to see things a bit differently.

So it was for me in reading The Sacred Journey by Charles Foster. The book is part (really, the conclusion) of The Ancient Practices Series, a series of seven books published by Thomas Nelson regarding seven practices prevalent in early forms of Christianity (fixed prayer, sabbath, fasting, tithing, sacred meal, liturgical year, sacred journey). To this end the book is supposed to discuss the ancient practice of pilgrimage. The subject gets discussed, and in context, but this book is far more than that.

This book is a boldly written attempt to challenge the reader to re-think everything he or she has ever thought regarding the nature of God, physicality and spirituality, and the sacred in the world, as they all relate to pilgrimage. One will read the book and perhaps mostly agree or not agree much at all, but the author's forcefulness, bluntness, and other stylistic forms demand some kind of visceral reaction. The book is quite well-written and engaging throughout.

The author is really making two arguments within the book. One involves a theology of pilgrimage, and the other involves pilgrimage itself. Both have merits but end up getting weighed down by their extremism.

The theology of pilgrimage is quite compelling. He returns to Cain and Abel and uses the story as a means of understanding a tension throughout the rest of the story-- Cain as the farmer, the settled, the one who will found the first city; Abel the shepherd, the nomad. The shepherd is accepted; the farmer is not; the farmer kills the shepherd; in his punishment and isolation the farmer and his descendants begin what we deem civilization. Abram is then called to wander as a nomad; the Israelites will leave Egypt and be led to YHWH's presence in the wilderness, the "God of the nomads" among nomads. Even in the land they are to observe the Feast of Booths, living in temporary tents.

Jesus goes on pilgrimage in utero to Bethlehem and then immediately after His birth to Egypt and back. To whom is the message of His birth given by angels but to shepherds? Jesus does not grow up in the city Jerusalem but in nowhere Nazareth, outside the city, on the margins of civilization. John, His compatriot, exemplifies the outcast, living in the desert, eating honey and locusts, condemning aspects of the establishment. His ministry begins in the wilderness and is a nomadic ministry; His call is to "follow Him." "Go." "Walk." He calls people like James, John, and Matthew to just get up and follow Him, and they do so immediately, leaving everything.

One can find other examples-- Nimrod's cities (Assur and Babylon) and Sodom and their negative associations; Jacob, Moses, David as shepherds and thus nomads; Israel eating the Passover with the expectation of going on a journey. Foster is certainly on to something, much to the chagrin of all who find comfort in civilization. God, in Scripture, most certainly seems to be a God on the move. How many times have we heard the exhortations to go and follow Jesus, to be sojourners and exiles, but never really stopped to think what that would mean in literal, physical terms?

Foster's other argument, often unhelpfully intertwined with the theology of pilgrimage, involves pilgrimage itself. He tries to have his cake and eat it too-- to merge scientific consensus about human origins with a thoroughgoing seriousness about the Biblical text-- to suggest that humans are designed for nomadism. In this analysis, man began being on the move from his east African origins. Even when he lives in civilization he has the urge to get up and go out-- out to nature, out on the road trip, etc. He traces this impulse through the major religions of the world-- pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Jews (and Christians, and Muslims), "holy places" for Christians, the Hajj of Muslims, pilgrimages to holy sites for Hindus and Buddhists-- and speaks of how to find the sacred within the world. As the Cain vs. Abel story is the backdrop for the theology of pilgrimage, so gnosticism vs. orthodoxy becomes the backdrop for the value of pilgrimage. A pilgrimage is an experience; it breaks down barriers; it is inescapably physical, and leads to a level of dependence on others and appreciation for the sacred in the physical.

Foster's approach with these arguments can certainly lead down the road to complete ecumenism and an acceptance of the physical to the extent of idolatry. Nevertheless, they are arguments that must be taken seriously.

A major difficulty with the presentation of the arguments is its extremism. Foster attempts to come to grips with the presentation of the church as the New Jerusalem in Revelation, but misses what could be perhaps one of the most compelling points about the Biblical presentation of life in his otherwise distaste for what civilization has done to man. It's not as simple as "civilization vs. barbarism," or "nomadism vs. settled life." Yes, there are paradigmatically bad cities-- Sodom, Babylon-- but there is always Jerusalem, the Zion, where the Nomadic YHWH causes His name to dwell. Jesus is raised in Jerusalem; He ascends from Jerusalem; the first proclamation of the message of the Kingdom is in Jerusalem. While the Apostles and others go out and wander, preaching the Gospel, they primarily do so in cities. And some cease from wandering-- Philip goes to Samaria, along the Mediterranean coast, but then stays put in Caesarea. In terms of God and the Temple in Jerusalem, Foster attempts to put too much on David and Solomon's enthusiasm and misses the point-- nomadism is not the panacea it's made out to be. For every example Foster gives of people being forced to "civilize" and give up the nomadic life, there are plenty of other examples of nomadic peoples who voluntarily gave up nomadism for settled life-- the Arameans in Syria, the Chaldeans in Babylon, the Aryans in India, the Mongols in south Asia, let alone the Israelites themselves in Canaan. Abraham is called on to wander but was promised land and thus stability; the Israelites wandered but looked forward to settled life in Canaan. Likewise, the Bible does not approve of nomadism for nomadism's sake-- Jacob the shepherd is preferred to Esau the hunter. Furthermore, pilgrimage isn't much of a pilgrimage without having a place from which to depart, a place toward which one is going, and places along the way. And so we have the paradigm: leaving to become a sojourner in order to obtain settlement. Thus it was with Adam, Cain, and Abel; so with Abraham; indeed with Jesus; and, clearly, with the Christian, for we are sojourners in this world in order to obtain our place in the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven in the next. We are pilgrims heading for Zion, and much can be learned and gained in that journey.

The Sacred Journey is a necessary tonic for civilization and the insistent justification of civilization that permeates our culture. Foster shows that one cannot remove the journey, not just spiritually but also physically, from the story of Scripture; he also makes the best possible case that can be made for the physical practice of pilgrimage, to just get up and go. His warnings against gnosticism-- the tendency to over-spiritualize and under-physicalize many aspects of faith-- is good to heed. Nevertheless, civilization is not inherently evil; it can be evil, but all of this is rather academic if humans never developed civilization and remained purely nomadic. Just as one cannot excise the nomad and the pilgrim from Scripture, so also one cannot excise Jerusalem from it either. We are supposed to understand ourselves as wanderers and sojourners now, and we should hesitate to make that wandering and sojourning merely spiritual. Nevertheless, we look forward to wandering to a point, and making our pilgrimage to a destination-- the New Jerusalem, Zion, the assembled collective of those who are God's, in His presence forever in the resurrection. Yes, life is what we learn on that journey, and Foster outlines the many excellent reasons to experience that journey to its full, but as with the pilgrimage, so with life-- whatever transformation we have during the journey, we are heading somewhere. And that somewhere is not another journey. The journey is only the means to the glorious End.

*--book received as part of an early review program ( )
  deusvitae | Apr 29, 2011 |
I’ve been canoe tripping for years. I started adventuring to conquer distance, but that desire has morphed into a love for the journey itself. In my old mindset, rain and bugs were tragic. Now, they’re just another part of the trail. Until now, Bill Mason and Sigurd Olson have been my chief aids in interpreting the wilderness experience. Now, I’m happy to add Charles Foster to their company. His The Sacred Journey has given me a way to understand the difference between tourism (placing checkmarks beside the names of rivers and lakes) and real pilgrimage.

Foster’s writing is as eloquent as always. In addition to the mere information you can strip from this book, his style of writing makes you want to experience that sort of life for yourself. I often found myself longing for my next pilgrimage (taking the form of a two week journey through Algonquin Park).

One of the interesting treasures of this book was Foster’s ability to demonstrate how many various religions have all promoted the idea of pilgrimage. That places it in the category of caring for the poor and the golden rule: things that religions besides Christianity have perceived are important. This isn’t to suggest that we learn doctrine from alternate religions—it just adds a nice synergy to the study.

Foster’s attack on gnosticism made me smile. He reminded me at times of Eugene Peterson, who first taught me (through many of his different books) that spirituality is not primarily otherworldly. To my chagrin, Foster often used the writing of Paulo Coelho to attack gnosticism—while I’ve stopped reading him for his gnostic impulses!

If you’re looking to find a carefully reasoned theological argument for the role of pilgrimage in the life of the Christian, don’t bother. You’ll just find yourself frustrated (as other reviewers have been). If you want to experience the best of God’s good creation and explore the depths of your humanity, Foster’s book is an inspiring guide.

Disclaimer: I received this book for free as a member of Thomas Nelson’s Booksneeze program. ( )
1 vote StephenBarkley | Apr 16, 2011 |
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A great deal of the universe does not need any explanation. Elephants, for instance. Once molecules have learnt to compete and to create other molecules in their own image, elephants, and things resembling elephants, will in due course be found roaming through the countryside . . . Some of the things resembling elephants will be men. —Peter Atkins, The Creation
Go as a pilgrim and seek out danger . . .

Our interest's on the dangerous edge of things . . .
For David Monteath,
a great pilgrim who doesn't like to leave London
First words
Imagine, as Darwin did, a tangled bank.
Lots of humans wander.
ID should certainly be taught in schools. It should be taught in the marketing classes. It is a superb example of how, if you package an idea (like shampoo, a skin cream, or toothpaste) in pseudoscience, people will buy it.
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Der englische Strafrechtler Charles Foster öffnet nach 2.000 Jahren die Akte Jesus wieder. Mit Mitteln moderner Kriminalistik führt er einen Indizienprozess um die Frage, ob Jesus von den Toten auferstanden ist - und kommt zu einem erstaunlichen Urteil. http://www.weltbild.ch/
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0849900999, Hardcover)

Have Christians rejected pilgrimage?

The Israelites knew it. David knew it. The writer of Hebrews knew it. John Bunyan knew it. "Blessed are those whose strength is in You. They have set their hearts on pilgrimage" (Psalm 84:5). We are strangers and pilgrims here. We're passing through this place, on a sacred journey to somewhere else. Charles Foster explores the approaching of each day as a pilgrimage--a chance to move one step closer to our ultimate goal and to experience tastes of that goal, even now, through prayerful awareness, study and meditation.

Culling from his many journeys across the globe, Foster exhibits the very definition of pilgrimage: a journey to the most holy locations of our faith. This is at once both internal and external, and the author shows us how the two intersect. 

A best-selling author and barrister in Oxford, Foster has spent much of his life testing the limits of human and spiritual endurance.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:00 -0400)

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Published to coincide with two Darwin anniversaries in 2009, this is a compelling look at the evolution/creationism debate.

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