Bicycle Pilgrimage

April 4, 2012

A contemplative journey in the land of Abe Lincoln, Robert Owen, and Paul Tillich

America’s greatest president—Abraham Lincoln, one of the twentieth century’s premier theologians—Paul Tillich, and a social reformer in the early 1800s—Robert Owen, all have strong connections with Southern Indiana. With this fact in mind, I used to conduct “religious pilgrimages on bicycles” for youth and adults through this fascinating section of the country. While other parts of the world may have more notoriety, there are few places so well suited for contemplative travel on bicycles.             

One of these pilgrimages took place June 17-23, 1979. Nine adults and a thirteen-month-old baby gathered on a summer Sunday afternoon at the Bedford Christian Camp in the hill country of southern Indiana. During the next six days, we rode bicycles over a 250-mile course of country roads and state highways, through covered bridges, past cemeteries and churches, penetrating ever more deeply the rural fastness near the place where the Wabash River flows into the Ohio.

We found lodging night by night in the churches of small towns along the way (Washington, Princeton, Poseyville, Dale, and French Lick), cleaning up in their bathrooms, cooking in their kitchens, sleeping on their floors, and praying in their sanctuaries. We took time to stop at sites that radiate religious and cultural power. This journey became a religious quest on bicycles, a spiritual pilgrimage for contemporary Christians.

The character of the week had been set in the brochure announcing the journey: “Pilgrimage travel, journeys in search of meaning!” How can we, the brochure continued, find this kind of religious life, with automobiles, motels, and franchised food outlets all around? How can we make a pilgrimage, which requires that we be cut loose from normal life patterns, exposed to the elements, subdued by deep fatigue, and invited to contemplate the centers of religion’s power?

The answer promised by the brochure was to travel by bicycle, with others in the same search, following a regimen of disciplines appropriate to the venture. On bicycles, travelers are forced to deal with terrain, weather, danger, and the frailties of flesh and spirit. They travel slowly, in a way that isolates them from motorized reality and intensifies their relations with others on the spiritual journey. Among the disciplines that the pilgrims were told to expect were daily services of worship, reflective writing, sharing in group tasks, and the daily ride of 40 to 50 miles.

The key to the pilgrimage’s success, however, was the character of the places that would be visited. From ancient times, pilgrimages have functioned this way. They have been occasions when people have traveled to places that are significantly related to the origins of their faith and culture. Visiting these sites, pilgrims experience the reviving of faith and passion for what they believe. Their personal powers are reorganized to be more consistent with the principles and disciplines of their communities of faith. Their sense of who they are as a people is renewed. Read more. . . Bicycle Pilgrimage


Passionate Quests for a Meaningful Life

September 5, 2011

Less than two years before his death, Paul Tillich delivered a series of three lectures to a mixed crowd of pastors, theological students, and university intelligentsia in Berkeley, California. His subject: “The Irrelevance and Relevance of the Christian Message.”

When is Christian preaching relevant? Tillich asked. When it answers “the existential questions of life today.” He then listed seven of these questions, questions that confront people now as forcefully as they did in 1963 when he delivered the Earl Lectures at Pacific School of Religion. The reason for their enduring character is that they “concern the whole of human existence: not only knowing, but also feeling and willing—all sides of our being as they come together in the center of the personality.

1.  What is the meaning of my being, and of all being of which I am a part?

2.  What does it mean to be a human being in a world full of evil in body and mind, in individual and society?

3.  How do I get the courage to live?

4.  How can I save my personal being amid the mechanized ways of life?

5.  How can I have hope? And for what?

6.  How can I overcome the conflicts that torment me inwardly?

7.  Where can I find an ultimate concern that overcomes my emptiness and has the power to transform?

After listing these basic questions of human life, Tillich says that they could “be called passionate quests for a meaningful life.”

He then asks the question that frames the rest of the slender book that follows: “Is Christian preaching, as it is done today, able to answer these questions and longings for a healing message?” Preaching that does provide good answers is relevant. Preaching that fails to meet this test is irrelevant.

With these questions in mind, I will continue reading Tillich’s book (his lectures take up only 62 pages) in order to see his approach to developing answers. Then I plan to work up my own responses, following a three-part format: a) define and describe the problem as people today seem to experience it; b) propose answers based on scripture and developed by wise Christian teachers through the generations; and c) provide “evidential experience” from recent times that demonstrate that these answers continue to work.

The first reason for thinking about these passionate quests is that the process can help me in my own life of faith. Despite having been a professing Christian most of my life, I need to reconnect my life to the foundations. The process is retrofitting my basic self in order to withstand the “shaking of the foundations” that is sure to come (to use the title of one of Tillich’s most famous sermons).

A second reason is to use these questions in my work as leader in a Christian community. If I were an every-Sunday preacher, I would think about developing a series of sermons on these passionate quests, perhaps for the festive season following Easter next year. I can imagine using this series in courses of study for youth and adults in churches. It would be challenging to use them as the basis for a program that introduces the Christian message and way of life to people who are for the first time considering the possibility of looking for life in a Christian context. They could become the basis for a small book, but someone else will have to write it because my list of high priority projects is already longer than my energy and life expectancy will be able to accommodate.

I’d love to see your thoughts about these passionate quests. Maybe they could provide the stimulus for collaboration now or in the future (so long as it’s not too far away).

Note: Tillich delivered these lectures from notes rather than from a written manuscript. Through a collaborative effort by a team including A. Durwood Foster, professor of theology at Pacific School of Religion, tapes of the lectures and the notes were compiled into a faithful rendering of the lectures. Foster prepared a 20-page introductory essay in which he described how these lectures relate to the rest of Tillich’s work and to the condition of the churches in the early 1960s. Thanks to Pilgrim Press and later to Wipf and Stock for publishing this meaningful little book. Thanks also to Powells Books in Portland where I bought my used (but perfect condition) first edition.