Schleiermacher, Novalis, Barth: Wilderness Theology (Part III)


Dragons and the wilderness:

If you look for information on a man named “Samuel Vincent”, after searching for some while you’re likely to find this short, two-sentence summary (see here): “Pastor Samuel Vincent is a typical representative of French Protestantism from the South of France in the early 19th century. His writings and the theological reviews he helped to found contributed greatly to the development of theological thought in France.”

Fair enough: Sam Vincent was just an ordinary man.

Yet, it is only through his ordinariness that I was able to come to a better understanding of what I wish to call “Wilderness theology”. I like Sam because he, too, insists upon the separation between “the Bible and Revelation as such”. To set the mood, I’ll quote at some length:

The content of Protestantism is the Gospel, its form is freedom of examination » (Le fond du protestantisme, c’est l’Evangile ; sa forme, c’est la liberté d’examen). This often quoted sentence gives an inkling of the general tone of the book. In it, Vincent stresses the difference between religion, the living faith of believers, and ecclesiastical organisation. He recalls that the Church is not essential to salvation, it must merely be useful and efficient, which is only possible if it acknowledges each person’s full freedom of examination, especially in matters of faith.Vincent also stressed the distance between the Bible and Revelation as such, which is primarily a matter of conscience, even of individual conscience. For him the Reformation cannot be limited to what the reformers said or wrote : the latter could not immediately display all its potential.

For Vincent, spiritual freedom and freedom of examination go together. He was therefore one of the great instigators of the liberal trend in French-speaking Protestantism. His vision of man was rather optimistic (this was implied in his concept of freedom and he did not mention “original” sin) ; he claimed that freedom of examination be applied to the biblical texts and wanted them examined scientifically, in accordance with the historical methods of his time.

At the same time, Vincent cared for the growth of believers’ individual piety, while warning his fellow Protestants against ready-made concepts of faith. Faith requires permanent and individual efforts in such areas as thought and freedom.

If I were to, in advance, provide a verse which characterizes Wilderness Theology, I would have to give Malachi 1:3 (KJV) “And I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness.” A dragon, here, is much like our understanding of the Sphinx. In the Wilderness, of all the Dragons one should meet, it is the self which frightens the most.

In any case, a connection or a bond nonetheless is made to our beloved Schleiermacher by way of Vincent, who advocated his theology. As we have found in our encounter of moving with and beyond Barth, it is indeed a “mediated Schleiermacher” that we need to return with a stronger, scarier kind of universalism.

Can we, with the help of Sam Vincent, think with and beyond Barth in developing a (non-)theological and (non-)hypothetical account of the Wilderness?

Fall through like the sand in a sieve:

The word “crisis”, from the Old Irish criathar and the Old Welsh cruitr meaning “sieve;” or the Middle Irish crich meaning “border, boundary”, and so on (see here) carries undertones of being-on-trial, judgment, discernment with a very good reason. It is the lesson of Kafka’s The Trial that we fall through like the sand in a sieve:

“Everyone strives to reach the Law,” says the man, “so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?” The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and, to let his failing senses catch the words, roars in his ear: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

But we are first and foremost concerned with understanding the Wilderness on its own merit; that is, we must understand the Wilderness in (non-)theological and (non-)hypothetical terms before we should begin our gardening.

It is with this in mind that we must bear in mind Wilderness Theology is intimately personal, individualistic, and wholly self-determined. Rather, it determines the self in its entirety. It is you who are on trial here, it is Crisis that concerns itself with you on the most personal level.

I should like to outline Wilderness theology with the following propositions:

Revelation 1: The Wilderness is a place of Crisis.

Characterized in this way, one has no choice to enter. There is no necessary warning sign; there is no decisionism.

One is taken in involuntarily, and presently one cannot escape it. This is our first normative, revelatory guideline. Such an involuntary takenness necessarily stands in contrast to the givenness of Kant’s voluntarism. This revelation can read otherwise: Where there is givenness, there is also takenness. And: there is a Givenness prior to the givenness-takenness dichotomy itself (i.e. we shall call this the World).

You may notice this mirrors Deleuze’s (correct) critique of Foucault’s mantra “[w]here there is power there is resistance”, whereby there is a certain primordial Resistance which proceeds the power and resistance dichotomy altogether. This also mirrors our recent findings of life-death in Nietzsche, whereby Life is likewise anterior to both life and death. Here is our affirmation at work.

Moving beyond Kant’s (mistaken) belief that objects are always already given to our knowledge of them, we must recognize that when an object is indeed given to our cognition, it is also taken away in a kind of doubleness. It is first taken, or otherwise disturbed, from its physical space. It is picked up and observed by the subject, placed under a microscope, or otherwise carved out from its space in nature.

Not only does this physical displacement occur, but its prior state of non-cognition also changes abruptly. To put it more succinctly, Knowledge — empirical or otherwise — is generated of and through this object that did not exist before. This knowledge is then given to us. It is this violence done to objects which gives us knowledge of the world that we did not previously possess.

When acting upon the subject instead, the Wilderness in this very same structure of dual takenness gives us a similarly unprethinkable crisis.  That is, on one hand, the self as an object or body is in the same way taken by a crisis as an object is to our cognition. One stops whatever one is doing, and attends to the crisis. One physically rushes to a hospital, makes a few phone calls, provides aid to a victim, attends a funeral, and so on.

On the other, the self as a free subjectivity loses its constitutive freedom and autonomy. It loses the peace of its non-cognition of the crisis, and such a peace is irretrievable. One’s mind is now occupied with such despair, with no choice but to suffer the trauma in its intense immediacy. One is taken away, like an object in nature or an animal in its habitat, and placed into a new, foreign realm which might be a strange mix of panic, fear, depression, anger, and shock.

Revelation 2: Crisis commands.

Wilderness theology, then, has the roots of a theory of normativity which functions as a hypothesis, and vise versa.

As such it is non-theological and non-hypothetical at the same time. This normativity, then, does not come with the subject. It comes from without it. In a word, it comes from the Wilderness itself, from a voice crying out in the Wilderness so to speak. This is the hypothesis. Should the subject wish to deny the existence of the Wilderness, one may indeed do so, but only insofar as one is not taken by crisis. The cry would thus be ignored, the hypothesis rejected, etc.

Qua hypothesis, Wilderness (non-)theology is such that its non-theological normativity may be freely rejected by the self. Yet, the open space of such a rejection tends to obsolescence insofar as the crisis commands the self otherwise. Should the self be taken by crisis, there is no room for rejection of this normativity. One can’t not attend to the cry, for it is commanded by the Wilderness.

There is no decisionism here because in Crisis one does not decide to take a course of action, one simply takes a course of action. What is at stake here, then, is the scope of the Wilderness relative to the World. What counts as a crisis? Rather, how vast is your Wilderness? These questions are to be buried immediately, for Crisis does not allow of it.

“Crisis commands” is to be read universally, and in line with the dual structure of this takenness. First, there is the sense which reads: where there is a crisis, there is always a command.  Secondly, and less obviously, is the sense which reads: there is always a crisis that commands. Therefore, following Schleiermacher’s universality, and in the capacity of a theology, the World is the Wilderness itself.

Revelation 3: The Wilderness is (given) for Wandering.

What does it mean to say that the Wilderness is given for Wandering? It means that one is shaken as it were by Crisis, and that Wandering occurs following this interruption.

The Crisis commands, in this very normativity, that you must change your life. But how? It is here where Wandering begins, as the Crisis commands that you must Wander.

Wandering is the process of determining the ways in which one’s life is to change in the Wilderness. Wandering in the Wilderness brings you to the vision-in-One, if only you should Wander long enough. If you do not wander, Crisis commands otherwise.

Thus we stand in absolute solidarity with the God-striken, with the likes of Esau and with Job, as we are all God-stricken. We are all foreigners, exiles, cast out into the Wilderness.

Wandering in itself is both punishment and cure, it is both burdensome and liberating. For the paths one takes are unknown: When one Wanders, one does not know where one is going.  The unknown may often be frightening, but it just as often maybe rewarding.

Revelation 4: Wandering is (taken) for the Wilderness.

Where there is givenness, there is takenness. If the Wilderness is given for Wandering, then Wandering is also taken for the Wilderness itself.

That is to say, succinctly, that Wandering changes the very structure of the Wilderness. By Wandering, one creates various paths which others may follow when they themselves are Wandering in the Wilderness. We may take the history of Philosophy, of Science, of Theology, and so forth as a series of paths which have been trailed by others in the Wilderness.

Some paths indeed lead to more Wandering. One wanders until one is content again, and then one settles. In the Wilderness, however, the Crisis always commands, and so long as there is a crisis there is also Wandering. In this way, the givenness of the World is that of a world of Crisis.

It is precisely for the Wilderness that there is Wandering, as Wandering reveals the Wilderness to be otherwise than a place of Crisis. The more one Wanders, the more Crisis loses its command. That is, Wandering constitutes a preparedness for handling subsequent Crises.

Revelation 5: The Wilderness is the World

To restate: There is no opposite to the word Crisis, and Crisis wants nothing to do with decisionism. Provided, then, that there is no opposite to Crisis, that the Wilderness is a place of Crisis, and that there is a primordial Crisis that is the World, our final revelation is that the Wilderness is the World.

Here, as we have noted, the given/taken dichotomy is itself overcome and all possible distinctions break down. This is the crisis of the Wilderness itself. When the Wilderness is put on trial, it is revealed to be but a mere mask for the World at large. The implications of this are profound, as now the World is given for our Wandering of it, and Wandering is taken for the World.

This is also our Revelation-in-the-last-instance: that the World and the Wilderness are One. The revelation-in-the-last-instance is primarily a matter of conscience, even of individual conscience. It is the multiplicity of such aforementioned anchorages unleashed in the One; it is many paths of past Wandering through the One. Crisis is revealed in-the-last-instance as the essential feature connecting the World with the Wilderness.

A concern for Crisis is carried over from Wandering in the Wilderness into the World as the distinction between World-Wilderness disappears in your life. To be concerned, perpetually, with Crisis is to be in the Wilderness, and thus to be in the World. Where ever concern for Crisis is lacking, and where ever Wandering slows, there Crisis commands your attention again and sets you into the Wilderness once more.

To take up the vision-in-One is to wander in the Wilderness, the place of Crisis. It is to be concerned with, and to intervene in Crisis itself. It is to realize that one is making a path as one Wanders, and that one’s Wandering is transforming the very nature of the Wilderness, and of the World, itself. It is a recognition of the uniqueness and importance of each and every cry.

When the Wilderness is no longer a place of Crisis, then the World will become anew.

This is Wilderness Theology.

Church in the Wilderness:

Following our tacit axiology consisting of a series of Revelations until the last instance, we have arrived at Wilderness Theology plain and simple. In summary, it marks a certain disposition or orientation towards the World and all that is the case, one which is governed by a normativity of Crisis in response to recent continental concerns for Decisionism.

Associated, then, with Wilderness Theology are practices of non-violent resistance such as Gandhian satyagraha, refusal to take part in Violence, Crisis intervention techniques, advocacy for restorative justice and victim-offender mediation, preparedness for dealing with Trauma and Emergency, and so forth. To insist upon Wandering in the One, of maintaining a plurality of thought, multiple anchorages, or of lifting the anchor to sail, and so forth – such is the aim of Wilderness Theology.

Let us return to Sam Vincent for a moment. A little more searching may turn up this brief mention in The Encyclopedia of Christianity, Volume 5, Si-Z, page 383:


Our previous reference included the notion of a “Church in the Wilderness”, a term which may become important for us. He believed that the Church is not necessary for Salvation, but it is only a useful and efficient means. To speak of a Church in the Wilderness is to speak of a collective of Wanderers. This is a useful and efficient means of Wandering, for let it be known you do not have to Wander alone.

The time has come for a trans- or otherwise post- religious orientation. Wilderness Theology seeks to situate us with just that kind of mentality.

So, let us Wander together!

Works Cited:

Fahlbusch, Erwin. The encyclopedia of Christianity: Volume 5 : Si-Z. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2008. Print.

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