(written for the March 2011 Synchroblog)
Lately I've been thinking a lot about mountain-top experiences, treks through the wilderness, and all that jazz. Partly it is Lent coming up – and Shavuot, too, the Jewish festival honoring Moses's reception of the Law at Sinai. Partly it is the faux-libertarian turn politics in my country are taking lately, which coupled with our response to the Jasmine Revolution in the Middle East doesn't exactly send the message of a global fraternity of all humans. And yes, partly I've been thinking about these things because the March Synchroblog topic is "Experiences in the Wilderness."
But, really, it's much simpler than that. It seems like in my own life, I am constantly being confronted with both the need for seclusion and the need for community. Here's an example (one among many!): I heard today that I received a senior teaching fellowship, a higher stipend in exchange for a heavier teaching load. This is a big honor because not only does it look good on your transcript – not all graduate instructors get them – but also because I'm a year younger than most of the recipients. So I wanted to celebrate and decided to go to McDonalds for a cup of ice cream after class today. I know, it sounds like nothing, but it's an indulgence for me because of health reasons and I had been truly craving it.
McDonalds is near the Grand Concourse, which draws a fair number of panhandlers. It's not unsafe or anything, just less residential than where I live. In the time it took me to enjoy my ice cream I was approached by two panhandlers looking for spare change to buy something to eat. (This was actually in the McDonalds.) I was more than a bit frustrated with it all, really. Not the panhandling per se because I assume these guys really need it, but the incursion of the "real world" into my mini-celebration. I didn't want to think about suffering and crises and the like, if only for an hour! What I really wanted was a break from the reality of human suffering (in my own life or otherwise). And I was pissed that those two people had intruded.
I think what I wanted, and what I wasn't quite able to get, was what the church community I grew up in termed a mountain-top experience. The term as I understand it does not refer to emotional or spiritual heights, but to isolation. It is partly a reference to Jesus on the Mount of Olives at the transfiguration, partly a reference to Moses' ascent on Mount Sinai where he too had a prophetic vision. There is an element of mysticism in these experiences, but there is also the sacredness. You see it, too, in our more modern myth, whether it is Gandalf's time in Lothlórien after he fought the balrog or the way Captain Sisko of Deep Space Nine eventually checks out of the whole space-time reality at the end of that show. Sometimes we all need a break.
But mountaintops must be a break from the normal rather than our true reality. Compare, for example, my desire to have an hour away from poverty to someone who lives his entire life in a gated community. Who goes to church, school, work, and even the supermarket among his socioeconomic group. Or (an example more apropos to my life) a professor or grad student who spends all her time buried in books, the blogosphere, and teaching in an educational system that has become all too inaccessible to the have-nots of our society. Such escapes are tempting precisely because they are safe and comfortable. This too can be a sojourn into the wilderness. I see it again and again in our culture today: the idea that individual choice is more important than the common good, so that it is an individual's responsibility to (for example) obtain health insurance or pay for services like firefighters -- and if they fail, well, that's on their head, no mine.
I don't mean to make this political. That word, political, belittles the situation. The truth is that man is a social animal, to borrow Aristotle's phrase, and Christianity is a faith built on relationships. Love is relational. The Trinity is relational. Family dynamics, including our place as sons and daughters of God, is in some sense the ultimate relationship. And it's no accident that church clergy are called fathers, sisters, brothers, patriarchs, and the like. Look at the early church: Paul and the rest did not write to individuals nearly as often as they did to faith-communities, and the account of early Christianity given in Acts seems to have more in common with communism than it does with capitalism, especially the laissez-faire variety.
The irony is that, in my life, the situation seems flip-flopped from what I think the norm ought to be. I am a grad student, which means I spend a lot of time squirrelled away with my nose in books or grading my students' work. Occasionally I peek out from my office and socialize with other grad students, but that's rare. Lately, though, I've gotten in the habit of going to the movies every other week at a fancy cinema in downtown Manhattan. It's a beautiful building with mosaics on all the walls, urbanites dressed in their best clothes, good food, and fantastic movies. In a way it is the modern Temple because I am with like-minded people seeking after a narrative. It is my break from my reality – yet it is part of a crowd, and I think that is part of why it is so refreshing. It is ultimately fulfilling a deep need I have in my life for community.
If I may be allowed another political digression, this comes up all the time in how Christians approach homosexuality. And the perpetually single of any sexual orientation. The standard Christian response to homosexuality is that homosexual people should just live celibate lives. And for the perpetual singles, that we should be like Ruth and embrace our lives until God brings us a mate (or forever if that doesn't happen). I am one of the perpetually single and am truly happy with that life, but that is because I have sought out other relationships. Deep friendships. Love comes in more than one variety, after all.
The thing is, if you are going to say that someone else shouldn't be able to pursue whatever mode of love they want to open themselves up for, there's something deeply twisted about that. And when people say that they should be allowed to live (or that others should have to live) a life that is in some sense individualized, I think that is soul-rending on a very deep level. I really can't put it better than Dr. Martin Luther King, who wrote about racial segregation:
All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I it" relationship for an "I thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?
Now, King is talking about "colored" fountains and whites-only lunch counters, but his point applies today as much as it did in King's day. Of course in practical terms I cannot be friends with everyone. I shouldn't have to try, but I must want to love everyone, and I must love everyone as much as my human nature allows. There is no political solution to all of this, of course, no economic system or governing style that will solve all the answers. I am not pushing that. But I must suffer when my neighbor suffers. Or the countryman who's not really like me (c.f. Good Samaritan), or my enemy. That's in the Bible, too. And if I do not have the money or opportunity to fix his situation entirely, I can't just paw that off as "his responsibility" like it doesn't affect me. I am not allowed to disengage like that. In a very real sense, I am my brother's keeper.
So, thinking about all this, I came up with three major types of mountain-tops/wilderness experiences/whatever:
1. Rejuvenation. This is like Jesus going off to pray after the sermon on the mount or, in more modern terms, my Friday night movie.
2. Education. In every myth the hero has to go off for a while as he comes of age. Think Luke Skywalker's tutelage under Yoda, or Moses's stint with Midian after he escapes from Egypt. Or Aragorn's trek into the wilderness, for that matter.
3. Permanent escapism. The people who seek only what benefits them, and only take responsibility for themselves and (perhaps) their families and close friends.
The first two clearly have their place, but they are temporary in nature. You do them so you can be a better part of whatever community you find yourself in. The third, though? I think when this happens we lose a very distinctive part of our humanity, and harm ourselves in the process. This may be what many people think of with a wilderness experience: a rejection of duties to others, and a cutting off of ties with the harmful elements of a larger society.
And that kind of wilderness experience can only hurt us, really.