In the Wilderness with God by Noel Forlini Burt

“The narrative of faith is characteristically about a journey in and through the wilderness.” 1] So begins Walter Brueggemann’s marvelous book A Wilderness Zone. Brueggemann understands wilderness to involve vulnerability and dislocation, coupled with fear and anger, all elements of Israel’s original wilderness sojourn which are present in our contemporary social crisis. Brueggemann’s work is significant for the way it weaves biblical theology with the contemporary socio-political concerns of COVID-19, Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of Trumpism, and economic disparity supported by capitalism and the cheap labor that makes that very capitalism possible and sustainable. In some ways, the global pandemic ushered in nothing new. Trumpism merely highlighted what was already present among us—an unwillingness at a political level to engage with those different from ourselves, a weariness and xenophobia that drives our policies about immigration and boundary or border crossing of any kind, a mistrust and even disgust of brown and black bodies and communities, and a denial of science rooted in mistrust of medical authority. Brueggemann’s work underscores what the last six or seven years have already shown us—that wilderness is not a concept relegated only to the pages of the Bible. Wilderness remains part of our own lived experience in the here and now. Further, Brueggemann’s A Wilderness Zone is a decidedly Christian book. He orients his work squarely in the biblical story. Brueggemann reminds us—the narrative of faith is a journey through wilderness.

This means that for people of faith, wilderness is a journey we takewith God.Wilderness is the part of our faith journey that in fact shapes and stretches the very faith we proclaim. As such, our experiences of wilderness raise questions of faith that we might not grapple with in other seasons of life with God. When the world begins to bottom out around us, suddenly our theological systems undergo a kenosis, an emptying, a bottomless collapse. Theologically and spiritually, we become children again. This childlike vulnerability awakens in us a curiosity that dismantles the very adult and systemized language we develop in higher education generally and in seminary particularly. In short, our experiences of wilderness collapse the language we have for and about God.

Brueggemann’s work on wilderness, as well as my new book, Hope in the Wilderness: Spiritual Reflections for When God Feels Far Away, also reveals that our personal experiences shape our scholarship. While Brueggemann’s work largely addresses the global crisis of the pandemic, thus examining wilderness at the macrocosmic level, Hope in the Wilderness addresses interior spaces of wilderness. I began writing about wilderness in the wake of a personal crisis. While that crisis is no longer in the foreground of my life, the experience of it remains in the background of the research and writing that I do, in some ways continuing to drive my own research on the subject. In the Academy, it has been my experience that our disciplinary subjects find us. After spending time speaking and writing on the subject, I have also found that wilderness is a distressingly portable image. Most of us have experienced some form of spiritual or existential wilderness. Out of nowhere, The Big Terrible Thing happens (the cancer diagnosis, the job termination, the dissolution of an important relationship). Or, out of nowhere, life becomes startingly barren—the usual things upon which we have relied are stripped away (our self-determination and resilience, the nearness of our friends, or the felt nearness of God). Perhaps a significant birthday compels us to reexamine our priorities and shift our paradigms. Perhaps a major move or career change proves more disorienting than we had imagined. Any number of things can plunge us into a metaphorical wilderness in which the life we had once known seems very far away indeed.

For those of us who make our vocational home in theological education, these experiences texture us not just theologically, not just in what we say about God or believe about God. More importantly, if we are present to our own experiences and to those around us, our wildernesses can become the center from which we teach. Academics need not bifurcate head and heart—we bring all that we are with us into the classroom. If we are people of prayer and not only of study, the wisdom or compassion we glean from our wilderness experiences can ricochet beyond us out into the hearts and minds of people we may never know. When I consider my own scholarship on biblical wilderness or any other topic, this is the most I can hope for.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, A Wilderness Zone (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2021), 1.

Noel Forlini Burt teaches and lectures widely in the intersection of Bible and spiritual formation. An academic, spiritual director, retreat leader, and author, Noel believes the Bible is a deep well from which people can draw in their own spiritual formation. Her publications include Hope in the Wilderness: Spiritual Reflections for When God Feels Far Away (Cascade Publishing, 2022), Encounters in the Dark: Identity Formation in the Jacob Story (Semeia, 2020), and articles in The Other Journal, The Journal for Spiritual Formation and Soul Care, and others.