Is Your Faith an Adventure or a Quest? The Difference Between the Two
Our culture loves admiring (from a safe distance, mind you) the glory of quests. We love watching them in movies and reading about them in novels, but in actual practice, we much prefer adventures over quests. In fact, our Western culture, despite all the lip-service it pays to them, tends to avoid quests with the same fear that it avoids death.
While listening to a Timothy Keller sermon (from a podcast called "Real Security and the Call of God," posted on iTunes 2/10/10) he explained something striking about adventures and quests.
An adventure, at least in the world of literary analysis, is a "there and back again" journey. You leave your home -- your comfortable world, whatever/whomever/wherever that is -- you go somewhere dangerous and adventurous, and then you return home and continue living your life just as you did before, but with the added benefit of having that adventure alive and shimmering in your memories. Bilbo Baggins went and faced the dragon, survived a great battle, then returned home and lived a happy life just as before but with new treasures added to his comfortable Hobbit hole. "There and back again."
But with a quest you don't return home.
You either die in service to the quest or you return home so changed from the quest that you can never return to your old life or live it quite the same way. A part of you has died in service to the quest, even if your body has survived, and you come back unrecognizable to yourself -- maybe even to others.
In the Gospels, when Jesus said to "take up your cross and follow Me," He was making it clear what kind of faith He meant. He was announcing a quest. But we reject Jesus' call and re-shape Christianity into an adventure. We like the excitement of following Jesus, but we want a "there and back again" experience. We want to return to our earth-centered delights and comforts undisturbed when the Sunday service has ended or when our monthly outreach event comes to a close or when we exit the prayer closet.
Of course, we do return to our hobbit holes of comfort with a little fire in our hearts flickering from the recent spiritual experience, but we only tolerate the little flame as long as it serves to enhance, not threaten, our stable routine of comforts. If that flame begins to grow too large, and if it threatens to consume us and our comforts, we snuff it out. We remind that little flame, "Excuse me, little flame, but, if you recall, it is there and back again. You must always allow me to return home to my world of comforts undisturbed when I am finished with our adventures." In the grand scheme of things, we may love our faith, our church life and the spiritual happiness it all brings, and we may love the upper case Cross -- the one that Jesus died on for us out of His fierce love -- but we want nothing to do with the lower case cross, the one that Jesus requires His followers to "take up." We do not want death or irrevocable transformation.
We want Adventure Christianity. We do not want Quest Christianity.
Frodo went on a quest. His journey to Mt. Doom brought severe wounds to him -- so severe that he could not return home. Instead, after the quest was complete, he set sail from the Grey Havens and went far from Middle-Earth into the Undying Lands far over the ocean in the West with the elves. It was his only chance to find healing, both for his body and his spirit. He lost everything because of the quest. Yet Sam begged him to not go with the elves. Sam just wanted to go back home to the comforts and simple happiness of the Shire and eat dinners with his best friend Frodo at the pub again and laugh and enjoy life as they had always done. But Frodo said this to Sam in reply:
"But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”
It is a broken moment. It hurts to read it. The world is saved, yes, but, somehow, all is still lost.
But then the far-off longing comes, that stab-of-joy desire that C.S. Lewis wrote about in "Surprised By Joy" -- some strange desire for a home we've never seen wells up -- and we hear a voice of hope in the blackness. This voice says something that reminds me of this line from "Return of the King":
"For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”
...light and high beauty forever beyond the the reach of the Shadow.
And even for those who are allowed to return home after the quest, they can never be the same again. They lose a part of themselves. Yet, even in such deep, heart-rending transformation, an Unseen Hand pulls treasures from the dark -- treasures that we could have never imagined.
Again I turn to "The Lord of the Rings." After the war ends, the king, named Aragorn, comes to the houses of healing to visit the wounded. There he finds the hobbit named Merry. Merry has been grievously injured both in body and spirit, and he is unconscious, but he will survive. The king says this about Merry's suffering:
“His grief he will not forget; but it will not darken his heart, it will teach him wisdom.”
Timothy Keller points out in his sermon called "The Two Great Tests" that nothing tests our faith and refines our spiritual wisdom more than two things: great suffering and great success. Both whip around us as white hot fires, and their flames have consumed far too many to number.
But, whatever tests and fires may come, if we can accept that we are on a quest and not an adventure, and if we stay close to our True Companion on this quest, our grief will not darken our hearts.
It will teach us wisdom.