Conversatio Divina

Part 7 of 14

Classical and Modern Understandings of the Journey

Alister McGrath

The Bible is saturated with the image of a journey. Wherever we turn, we read of individuals making journeys—the forty-year journey of the people of Israel from their harsh captivity in Egypt to the promised land of Canaan, or Abraham stepping out in faith to leave the land of his ancestors and go to a place chosen by God. He did not know where he was going, but he knew with whom he would be traveling—and that was good enough for him.

We also read of pilgrims setting out to travel to Jerusalem, daunted by the thought of the mountains they must climb and the harsh conditions they will face—and yet consoled by the thought of the presence of God as they travel. We learn of the people of Jerusalem returning home after their long period of exile in Babylon. The New Testament relates how the earliest term used to refer to Christians was those “who belong to the Way” (Acts 9:2, nrsv Scripture quotations marked (nrsv) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.). They were to be seen as travelers on their way to the New Jerusalem.

Thinking of the Christian life as a journey through the world offers us a vivid and helpful way of visualizing the life of faith. The image reminds us that we are going somewhere. We are on our way to the New Jerusalem. It encourages us to think ahead and look forward with anticipation to the joy of arrival. One day we shall finally be with God and see our Lord face to face! Yet traveling does more than lead us to the goal of our journeying. A journey is itself a process that enables us to grow and develop as we press on to our goal. To travel is thus about finally achieving journey’s end, with all the joy and delight this will bring—but it is also about inducing personal and spiritual growth within us as we travel. Journeying is a process that catalyzes our development as people and as believers.

For many, the journey begins with a sense of dissatisfaction. There has to be more to life than we know. We sense that somewhere over the horizon, there is something as yet unknown which will offer us the spiritual satisfaction and fulfilment which has thus far eluded us. We are like an early explorer, convinced that new worlds lie beyond the horizon, who will not be satisfied until he has discovered and explored them. To encounter God is to begin a new way of life so radical that we could speak of “being born again.”

For others, the journey has already begun. Some have loved God ever since they were capable of loving anything. Others have grown up within a Christian environment and absorbed its ideas and values. For such people, the journey is that of deeper exploration into something which they already possess—yet do not fully understand or appreciate. The journey promises to be rewarding, in that they are aware there is much more to their faith than they have yet grasped. The goal is to discover new depths of something we already know.

Wherever we find ourselves positioned on this great journey of faith, there is no doubting its importance and our need to reflect on what we are doing. This is something Christians have been doing since the apostolic era. By God’s good grace, there are countless role models for us to imitate, and a myriad of individuals who can encourage and inspire us as we journey. The Christian past is a rich treasury of wisdom, which can help us gain a sense of direction and purpose as we travel.

Yet when we begin to explore these great resources from the past, we soon notice there is something different about them. The past, as we are often reminded, is like a foreign country—they do things differently there. And at times they seem to speak another language. In this article, I want to explore the differences in language between classical and modern ways of thinking about the journey of faith, and ask what we may learn from these. Let’s begin by considering the classic approach.

Bonaventure, the great Franciscan spiritual writer of the thirteenth century, saw the Christian life as a mystical journey in which we seek to achieve union with God. There are three stages on that journey, like three milestones on the way to the city of God: purgation, illumination, and union. The language sounds unusual to modern Western ears and is likely to cause evangelicals in particular to tread warily, in case there are theological land mines ahead on this particular road to Zion.

01.  Classical Understanding of the Journey

The first of these stages is traditionally designated purgation, although purification or cleansing would be entirely acceptable alternatives. The basic idea is that, before we can draw close to God, we need to purge the soul of sin and reorient ourselves towards God. Purgation involves a deliberate, conscious decision on the part of the believer to get to grips with sin. “Whoever wishes to ascend to God must first avoid sin, which deforms our nature; then exercise his natural powers by praying, to receive restoring grace; by a good life, to receive purifying justice; by meditating, to receive illuminating knowledge; and by contemplating, to receive perfecting wisdom.” Bonaventure is careful to avoid abstract ideas and focus on specific things that need to be done. The road to a deeper relationship with God sets an agenda for the future.

Purgation leads on to a heightened awareness of the presence and beauty of God. Once sin and all distractions are out of the way, we are better placed to grasp the beauty of God through illumination. Our inner senses are restored and enabled to experience the delight of drawing closer to God. Illumination leads on to the final stage—the ultimate goal of the mystical life, which is the union of the believer and God.

This classical approach is found in many writers of the sixteenth century, including John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, and continues to be helpful to many. Yet others now find its vocabulary, and perhaps also its theology, alienating. Contemporary evangelical spiritual journeying has a new vocabulary. So is the difference just about updating traditional language, allowing older approaches a new lease on life? Or is this about an altogether different understanding about the journey of faith?

To explore this question, we must first have a look at contemporary evangelical understandings of the journey.

02.  Contemporary Evangelical Understandings and Concerns

There is no doubt that many evangelicals today find the image of a journey immensely helpful. It is a highly accessible idea, whose plausibility is constantly reinforced by long commutes into work, vacation trips, and family reunions. Talking about the Christian faith as a journey makes a lot of sense for a lot of people. Older ways of talking about pretty much the same idea—such as the Christian life as a pilgrimage—have generally fallen by the wayside, in that they are not seen as linked to a specific aspect of modern living.

The idea remains; the traditional way in which it has been conceived, however, does not. Even Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s great work of spirituality, seems out of touch with the realities of modern life. The modern vocabulary is that of “being saved,” “becoming Spirit-filled,” or “becoming sanctified.” So what is different? Let’s try and tease out some of the issues.

It is clear that many evangelicals have some theological problems with the classic approach of purgation, illumination, and union. For a start, they’re nervous about the language of being united with God, fearing this could easily degenerate into some kind of mystical, touchy-feely stuff, more akin to the New Age than to Christianity. They’re much happier about the idea of drawing closer to God, or walking more closely with the Lord.

This is entirely understandable. Yet it’s important to note that the Protestant tradition does allow us to speak in this way, while remaining firmly bound to certain key biblical texts. For example, Martin Luther spoke warmly of the Christian life as union with Christ, as we can see from his work The Freedom of a Christian: 

Faith unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom. From such a marriage, as St Paul says (Ephesians 5:30–32), it follows that Christ and the soul become one body, so that they hold all things in common, whether for better or worse. This means that what Christ possesses belongs to the believing soul; and what the soul possesses, belongs to Christ. Thus Christ possesses all good things and holiness; these now belong to the soul. Quote appears in a devotional pamphlet published in 1520. Totten, Mark. “Luther on Unio Cum Christo.” Journal of Religious Ethics 31, 2003, 443–462.

For Luther, it was perfectly biblical to speak of the Christian life in terms of union with Christ, providing this was not misunderstood as some kind of crass identification of the believer with Christ. Again, Calvin argued that this way of thinking about the Christian journey was perfectly acceptable, and even endorsed some earlier medieval ways of thinking and speaking about this aspect of faith.Dennis E. Tamburello, Union with Christ: John Calvin and the Mysticism of St. Bernard, Columbia Series in Reformed Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994).

A second point at which many evangelicals feel a sense of unease about the classical language of journeying is its emphasis upon the need for personal activism. We are called upon to break free from sin, to do our best to expel it from our lives, to discipline ourselves, and to turn towards God in an act of reorientation. Where, some concerned evangelicals might ask, is the idea that we are dependent upon God for such things—that we cannot actually do such things unless God motivates and inspires us? Is there not a risk of Pelagianism in this approach? Does it not make the journey of faith into a human achievement rather than a divine gift?

Once more, the validity of the concern needs to be recognized. The Protestant reformers were deeply concerned that spirituality would be seen as a matter of personal achievement and went to considerable lengths to avoid any suggestion that our salvation was dependent upon our achievements. Three particular misunderstandings might lead to unacceptable consequences. (1) Activism might be understood to place God under an obligation to reward our actions, thus denying the graciousness of justification and the freedom of God. (2) Activism could lead to human works being seen as meritorious, capable of having a purchase upon justification. Justification would thus have become a reward, something given to us on the basis of human merit. The reformers believed that this was dangerously presumptuous. (3) Activism encouraged a spirituality of achievement, by which humans were encouraged to believe that they could achieve the necessary standards for justification unaided.

Yet these concerns do not require us to abandon any concern for discipline in the Christian life. As works such as Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline stressed, there is no inconsistency between the gospel of grace and the need for personal spiritual discipline. Grace does not leave us where we are: it moves us on. It does not merely diagnose our situation; it heals it. It does not merely point out our weakness; it comes to our aid. The human nature that was incapable of justifying itself, on account of its inability to perform good works or to achieve anything of significance, is radically transformed. With the aid of grace, it becomes capable of doing things—for God and with God.

Drawing upon the New Testament imagery of a tree, Luther argued that the productivity of the tree is totally dependent upon its roots. A good root leads to good fruit. Faith, Luther argues, provides the sound root which is essential to the life of the tree. From that point onwards, it is able to produce good fruit naturally. The presence of a good root establishes the final link in a complex biological process which, by the laws of nature, leads to the production of fruit. The tree does not need to be told to produce that fruit—it just happens naturally. Once the root is established, enabling the tree to draw upon nourishment from the ground, the remainder of the process takes care of itself.

So it is with faith, Luther argues. Faith is like that good root. Once it is established, a process is established which naturally leads to the living out of a good life and the performance of good works. A true faith naturally leads to good works. From faith flow love and joy in the Lord, and from love, a joyful, willing, and free mind that serves our neighbours willingly. As Christ came to our assistance, we are to help our neighbours, each Christian becoming Christ to others.

Yet just as a tree cannot bear fruit until its root has been established, so are no good works possible before faith. For Luther, the essence of good works is that they are performed in a spirit of thankfulness and a desire to please God. Faith thus establishes the proper motivation for good works. They are not an end in themselves; they are not undertaken to impress our friends and neighbours; rather, they are the natural response of the believer to God. “Our faith in Christ does not free us from works, but from false opinions concerning works (such as the stupid idea that we are justified through works).”

We are thus liberated from an oppressive, achievement-oriented mindset. We are not put under an obligation to grow in our faith; we are enabled both to want to do so, and actually to do so, by God’s transforming grace. Seen in this way, what Bonaventure terms purgation is not really so theologically problematic. It can be seen as “working out our salvation” while at the same time firmly grasping the truth that it is “God who works in [us] to will and to act” (Philippians 2:12–13, NIV Scripture quotations marked (niv) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™ ). The problem is more the vocabulary Bonaventure and his age used than the actuality they were attempting to describe.

This problem with the older vocabulary can be found even in more recent writings, such as John Bunyan’s classic Pilgrim’s Progress. The imagery and vocabulary of pilgrimage now seem strange and alien to us. Within the evangelical tradition, people simply do not go on pilgrimages. Speaking about the Christian life as a pilgrimage sounds quaint, perhaps even theologically dubious. After all, what is the point of making a pilgrimage, given the evangelical belief that God may be known as fully and reliably as possible through Scripture, which relieves us of any spiritual necessity of journeying to holy places.

Yet the immense spiritual potential of the journeying theme can easily be retrieved from this difficulty and adapted to our new cultural situation. Journeying is not about the denial of grace, but about allowing that grace to transform us as we travel. It is about allowing our lives to express the fruit of that grace, in the full knowledge that, apart from God’s grace, we can do nothing. When properly understood, journeying is seen as a process of transformation by grace, not of human achievement.

So how can we best visualize this in our postmodern culture? In what follows, I shall offer two ways of thinking about journeying which help us make sense of the process and also allow us to identify the key role that other Christians can play in our growth in faith. The two images are the hitchhiker and the personal trainer.

03.  Two Images of Journeying


One of the most enduring symbols of the popular culture of the 1960s and 1970s is the hitchhiker, reflected in the titles of books such as Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The hitchhiker was someone without a care in the world, who wandered round the world by hitching rides with friendly truck drivers. It is an image that is immensely helpful to Christian spirituality, as it reminds us that we do not have to be alone or depend on our own resources as we journey. There is another option open to us. We can hitch a ride with someone else.

To hitchhike is to get a free ride and travel in company. By the end of our ride, we are farther along the road than when we started, and we have enjoyed company along the way. To hitch a ride is to learn more about people and life, as well as to move along the road to our destination. It is to learn from the wisdom of others, who accompany us for a while along the road before dropping us off. We can then rest and reflect by the side of the road before hitching another ride with someone else.

I have found this image enormously helpful as I have tried to deepen my own grasp of the Christian faith. To be quite honest, I am lousy at prayer and personal meditation. I realize they are important. It is just that I don’t seem to be very good at them. I’m honest enough to admit I need help here in a big way. Yet one of the great themes of Christian faith is that we do not have to journey on our own. We are not the only ones on the road of the Christian life, nor are we the first ever to have made that journey. In his grace, God provides others who can help and sustain us, allowing us to draw on their strength as we hitch a ride along the road to the New Jerusalem.

All of us need to face up to our limitations. I can’t write music like Mozart. In fact, I can’t even play Mozart’s music. Yet I feel uplifted and moved when I hear someone else play his music. Someone else is able to ennoble me by doing something I just couldn’t do for myself. I can’t paint like Rembrandt. As a matter of fact, I even have difficulty in painting my bathroom door. Yet I find Rembrandt’s pictures deeply inspiring, moving me to reflect more deeply on the meaning of life and history. I may be lousy at something, but there are others who are much better, and from whom I can try and learn.

In much the same way, I am not much good at praying. Yet when I read the prayers of someone like Augustine or Luther, I find myself being deeply moved by what they say. Somehow, they are able to help me to help myself. Now isn’t this what the body of Christ is all about? Each part of the body has its own distinctive role to play. Not all of us are good at everything. But through God’s good grace, there are people around who can help us do things we aren’t good at. They are there to help us, and they are meant to be used as we travel along the road of life.

To hitch a ride with the great spiritual writers and thinkers of the past is to learn and be encouraged. They set out—sometimes long ago—on the same journey of faith. Through reading and reflecting on their writings, we can travel alongside them, absorbing their wisdom on the one hand, and taking great comfort from the fact that they chose to undertake the same walk of faith as ourselves. The ideas they developed arose from a lifetime of wrestling with the rich resources of the Christian faith and the realities of the spiritual life. Their efforts are to our benefit. We can absorb the wisdom of a lifetime as we walk along with them. When the time comes for us to move on, we find we have learned from their ideas and examples, and been encouraged and affirmed by their presence with us as we travel. In practical terms, this means that when I read writers like J. I. Packer, John Stott, Eugene Peterson, and Dallas Willard, they carry me along the road of faith, encouraging me and challenging me, and leaving me a wiser person than when I began my conversation with them as we traveled together.

Many who read this article will know of Daniel Defoe’s great novel Robinson Crusoe. The book is set on a desert island, on which Robinson Crusoe has been shipwrecked. He believes he is utterly alone. He begins to face the challenge of loneliness and prepares to cope with all the difficulties he knows must lie ahead. Then something happens which changes his entire perspective on his situation. While walking along the shoreline, he notices a human footprint in the sand. Suddenly, everything is changed. Someone else is there. Crusoe is not sure whether to be frightened or delighted!

So often we try to get on with the life of faith as if we were hermits, struggling on our own. Perhaps we are too proud to admit that we need help; more likely, we have simply failed to realize that others are accompanying us. Every step of the long kingdom road has been graced by the presence of others before us, and moistened with their tears, whether of joy or sorrow. We may learn from what they have already experienced, just as we may find reassurance in the knowledge that they have been through the wildernesses of this world before us. We may take comfort from the presence of others who even now are making that journey alongside us.


Spiritual Training

While hitchhiking is a great way of making sense of the journey of faith, there is another model for the kind of spiritual mentoring and encouragement we need in these postmodern terms—the spiritual trainer. Many individuals invite a personal trainer to supervise their fitness programs. What does that trainer do? He devises programs suited to the individual’s aspirations and abilities. He gets to know them and works out what is realistic for them. Their shared goal is increased fitness, health, and vitality. The trainer assumes the role of a mentor, devising ways of helping individuals achieve their goals, and offering advice and encouragement along the way.

Isn’t spiritual growth like that? We want to grow in our faith, to become spiritually fit. As Ignatius Loyola pointed out back in the sixteenth century, it’s like a soldier training for battle. Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises remains a classic of its kind. And it envisages people undertaking these exercises under the supervision of a more experienced Christian—in other words, a spiritual trainer. It’s a good way of conceptualizing the role of the spiritual mentor, and helping us develop, under God’s grace, the spiritual resources we need to keep us going on the road of faith.

At several points in his letters, Paul highlights the importance of preparation and training—for example, the athlete preparing for a race, or the soldier for battle (1 Corinthians 9:24–27; 2 Timothy 2:3–7). In each case, the point is the same: we need to prepare ourselves for the journey of faith and the challenges this brings. This preparation is itself a work of grace, in which we receive from God as he seeks to enable us to keep going and keep growing in the Christian life.

In conclusion, we need to reaffirm that journeying is about both a process and a goal. Our journey of faith is not simply about getting from A to B; it is about growing in faith as we travel, discovering our identity as believers, and preparing ourselves from our final entry into the New Jerusalem. Some modern writers question whether we can ever achieve our heart’s desire—assuming, of course, that we can identify it. Franz Kafka once quipped that “there is a goal, but no way.” You may know where you want to go; getting there is rather more complicated and demands a compelling vision that will sustain us as we travel. But by God’s grace, we have neither been set an unattainable goal, which can only tantalize us, or denied any goal altogether, which can only lead us to despair. Both our journey of faith and its final goal are real, and by God’s grace, we shall one day enter the courts of the New Jerusalem and gaze upon the risen Christ in all his glory. Then we shall be home, our time of exile having ended.

I hope and pray that readers of this article will find this image of the spiritual journey helpful, and that it may be of some use as we run the race that is set before us, keeping our eyes firmly faced on Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:1–2).


Alister Mcgrath is professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University, and principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He has written a number of important works on Reformation history and theology, and on the development and prospects of Evangelicalism. His writings include Bridge-Building, Christian Theology: An Introduction, and Christian Doctrine of Justification.