Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Sacred Journey (A Book Review)

Charles Foster, The Sacred Journey (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Press, 2010), 230 pages including notes, an index and a study guide.

For much of the Christian era, going on a pilgrimage was seen as a valid spiritual practice (at least for a small percent of the faithful). Christians would head to the Holy Lands, even after the Islamic invasion. Later, as Jerusalem became a more difficult destination, Christians would go to Rome or to Santiago or other places in Europe that were important to the faith, often to where relics of the saints were found. During the Reformation, Protestants discouraged this practice, thinking it silly for Christians to seek out relics or the need to travel to holy sites where they felt they could be closer to God. Yet, as Foster points out, human beings were created to walk and individual encounters with God seem to occur most often when we are less settled. Furthermore, when God summons, it’s often a call for us to move or to go somewhere (think of Abram).

Foster encourages Protestants to reconsider pilgrimage as a spiritual practice. He suggests that pilgrimages are a way to counter the ancient heresy of Gnosticism which is alive and well in our churches today. The Gnostics attempt to separate the body (which they see as corrupt) from the spirit (which they see as more godly). The struggles of a pilgrim merge together the body and spirit as one meets the challenges of the road. Another benefit of the pilgrim is to look at the world in a fresh and new way (with child-like eyes) which is easier when we are out of our comfort zones. A third benefit of a pilgrimage is the community that one finds on the road. Without the comforts of home, pilgrims are no longer divided by social castes and friendships abound as they learn to depend upon each other.

Although Foster writes from a Protestant Christian perspective, he draws from the larger Christian context as well as from other religious traditions. By looking at other traditions, we see the universal need for human beings to reach out and search for meaning beyond ourselves. Foster has many strong opinions that many Christians may find challenging if not offensive. Early on he suggests there is a need for a new awakening and in which we should get rid of language that carries to much baggage, including the words “God” (Foster prefers names like “Holy One,” “Blessed be He” or even the Hebrew “Elohim”) and “Christian” (after all, the faith was first known as “The Way”). Foster also makes some bold claims such as suggesting that “religion, like everything else, goes bad when imported into town” and that “Christianity is an Eastern religion that has had the misfortune to be particularly popular in the West.” Such hyperbole may seem shocking, but encourages the reader to think and consider Foster’s point of view.

Personally, I found a lot to ponder within these pages and recommend this book especially to those who are interested in exploring different spiritual practices. As a way of disclosure, I acknowledge I was given a copy of the book to review. Furthermore, I began reading this book with a certain presupposition toward pilgrimages. During a recent reread of my journal from the Appalachian Trail, I was reminded that even a quarter of a century ago I was struggling with the role pilgrimages play in faith development.
The Sacred Journey is the seventh book on ancient spiritual practices published by Thomas Nelson Press. I received a copy of it for review from their Booksneeze program. By the way, Frederick Buechner also has a good book with the same title!
A couple more "pilgrimage-type" books: Vagabonding and The Art of Pilgrimage


  1. A German theologian - I forget which- advised in the mid-50's that Christianity was going down a road of excessive legalism and this error would lead to virtual destruction. He saw that Mysticism was the antidote.
    I actually hold that this to be true.

  2. I think he wants the change because it seems the entire world has adopted the word God in so many other lights that it seems to not stand alone much anymore. You see the word lemon and what do you see? One reason I enjoy your reviews is that often the book someone gives me/or suggests, or I read accidently is usually a great read! Thanks!

  3. Sounds like an interesting read - and interesting that the book has the same title as Frederick Buechner's.

  4. The whole idea of the pilgrimage appeals to me too. it seems like a very human practice.

  5. Too bad we can't get along with the other religions well enough that we can all participate in pilgrimages to the holy land together. It would only add to the experience. But we have to insist upon trying to kill each other...

  6. Vince, I'm wondering which theologian... He may have a point. As an outsider looking into Islam, I wonder if that is the reason you have the Sufi movement (which has been persecuted by other Muslims)

    Karen, as for his comments on God: "the ugly, alien, proto-Germanic name 'God'" He does have some strong viewpoints!

    Lynn, Have you read Buechner's book?

    Charles, Yes, I agree and so does Foster. He even suggests that instead of being called "Homo Sapiens" we could be called "Homo Ambulans' (Walking Man)

    Jen, I find it interesting that in Indochina, you have religious areas which Buddhists and Hindus seem to co-exist. There seems to certainly be more tension in Jerusalem with Jews, Christians and Muslims all seeing it as a holy city!

  7. Sounds like a wonderful book! Pilgrimages can take many forms. And I heartily endorse them.

  8. it is an intriguing books...somewhere along the ay i read it...and i agree a pilgrimage can engage yyouin many way, one of which is spiritually...

  9. When people talk of pilgrimages to "holy" places, I'm reminded of something I heard a long time ago: "Places aren't holy; only God is Holy."

    That said, I think there is value in traveling without distractions, i.e. backpacking without cell phones, TV, IPods or whatever. It allows you to be more cognizant of your thoughts and the monotony of taking one step after another facilitates the way to being "still and know that I am God."


  10. Sage, I wanted to stop by and say hi. I hope you have a great weekend.