Of all the many images that Christians have used to define themselves, the image of the pilgrim has been among the most resilient. The Christian-as-pilgrim emerged as early as the second century and has taken on varied new clothing throughout its travels since, but the account of its journey has remained largely unchanged. It goes like this: the Christian pilgrim, awake to their new life of Christ, recognizes that this world is passing away. Therefore, rejecting final belonging in this world, they regard themself as a wayfaring stranger in this life, passing through en route to an eternal home with God. Simple and rich, this story has shaped worship, animated Christian artists across mediums, and structured our own self-accountings. But, because it is a powerful story, it is also a dangerous one. After all, a pilgrimage through the world could easily mutate into an escape from the world and our responsibilities in it. This raises the question: what does it mean to love the world if we are only passing through it? Can it, in fact, be done?
One major challenge to the traditional view of the Christian pilgrim is that the pilgrim’s position is no longer seen as a countercultural one. When early theologians like Clement of Alexandria or Augustine described Christians as pilgrims in this world, they believed Christians were the exception to the rule, choosing to live as foreigners to the society around them. Those outside the church, in the conventional narrative, remain broadly unaware that this world is passing away and cannot promise stability. Today, however, few things are more broadly obvious. Through the disruption caused by the climate crisis, a global refugee crisis, and increasingly precarious labour conditions, the world increasingly makes wanderers of all its people. If anything, rather than being exceptionally aware of this truth, Christians—namely, wealthy white Christians—are among the most sheltered from the material consequences of that instability.
Even if the Christian pilgrim is no longer exceptional, current conditions of instability might seem to support their attitude towards this world. However, among those Christians most concerned over these apocalyptic threats, this pilgrim image is not a popular one. The emphasis on earth’s impermanence feels fatalistic; the rejection of this world as a home and orientation towards another seems antithetical to supporting this-worldly action. For many, the pilgrim’s narrative is seen as not so much predicting but helping to create the current situation, a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that hastens the world’s own death. These critiques, unfortunately, are solidly backed up by what some Christians will openly profess. A poll from 2016 found 11% of Americans sympathetic with the claim that “we don’t need to worry about global warming” because “the end times are coming.” In the face of these sentiments, it becomes easy for Christians concerned with justice today to argue that we cannot be mere pilgrims, that loving the world requires claiming it as our home more fully. Accounts of the end times that emphasize a “new Earth” or “new creation” are often mobilized to these ends, showing that Christians are destined not to depart from this world but to participate in its redemption. In these arguments, Christian love for the earth requires claiming it as our home, not merely a place through which to journey elsewhere.
I write from a position of great respect for many authors and friends who share in these critiques of what I’ll call the pilgrim metaphor. Certainly, no attitude of apathy towards current world and current injustices can live up to the life Christ demands. Yet I admit to discomfort with the idea that the world must be home to be properly loved. True, the vision of Christian life as journeying elsewhere has been deployed to escape from present obligations, but need this always be the case? Or, can Christian love of the world be compatible with, perhaps even bolstered by, the belief that our time here will not last forever?
First, living as a wanderer does not require detachment from material reality—in many ways, it deepens the connection. Consider here the actual experience of pilgrimage as a storied devotional practice across multiple traditions. No one would seriously claim that the point of a pilgrimage is to rush through the journey on the way to the destination. Walking the path well and being mindful of it is central to the whole practice. Now, on one hand, taking on a pilgrimage does involve a certain relinquishment of present comforts, forsaking for a time the reliability of a stable home. In this sense, St. Francis and his followers rightly connected their voluntary poverty to being “strangers and pilgrims in this world.” Read very superficially, this ascetic edge of pilgrimage might imply a disinterest in the material. However, this very state of material lack fosters a pressing awareness of material needs that those who are stationary typically do not have. One is made newly aware of physical space when traveling long distances on foot; one becomes newly aware of hunger when meals are not taken for granted. Those in the world who lack the privilege of stability, far from becoming simply disconnected from the physical space around them, also come to live in space more thoroughly.
Under these conditions, it would be absurd for a pilgrim to meet their sources of food or shelter for the night with hostility; the pious response is gratitude. Likewise, then, why should the Christian pilgrim be hostile to the world surrounding them, which nourishes them on their path? Additionally, the pilgrim should be uniquely aware of the needs of others who are living precarious, wandering lives. Thus, conceiving the life of faith as a pilgrimage provides its own positive basis for gratitude towards the world and solidarity with its other inhabitants.
All this seems to be fairly obvious from a quick glance at the experience of pilgrimage. Why, then, is there such deep skepticism of this language’s capacity to support Christian life? There is, of course, the fact of the metaphor’s abuse and contortion into more simplistically escapist modes. But more deeply, I think, there is a misreading of the distinction between eternal and temporal at work. Many progressive Christians are trained to revolt against perceived dualisms in theology: not just temporal and eternal, but also body and spirit. True, such binary divisions ignore more generative, messy overlaps; and Christ’s incarnation is perhaps the key example in which a binary, that of God and creation, is overcome by a both/and. Where things go wrong is the assumption that all “dualisms” operate in the same way: namely, an oppositional mode where one is holy and the other is sinful. N.T. Wright has written well about the range of “dualisms” in theology, and how rarely that term is satisfactorily defined. In this case, while there is a critical distinction between eternal and temporal in Christian life, that distinction does not simplistically favour one at the other’s expense.
Those who reject the pilgrim metaphor often believe they are rejecting an oppositional dualism between the physical and spiritual. By emphasizing that Earth will not be replaced by an ethereal heaven but will be redeemed in eternity as the new creation, they aim to show that God deeply loves the material world. Surely, God does. But notice that, beneath this argument, the conflict between temporal and eternal is assumed to remain in place. The fact that God loves the material, and that we should too, is supported by the evidence that the Earth will persist into eternity, not being a merely temporary thing, which is, implicitly, less deserving of God’s love and ours. To really assess the case against the pilgrim metaphor, we must ask whether this preference for the eternal over the temporal always holds in matters of love.
This question can be answered, not only from “theological” resources narrowly conceived, but from ordinary experience. In daily life, we see that things do not need to last forever, or even very long, for us to love them. Indeed, we treasure our time with places and people due to their transience as often as for their perceived stability. This can sometimes take the form of a problematic desire to “get it while it’s hot,” exploited by marketers to promote fast fashions and panicked consumption. But it can also take more benign or even virtuous forms.
For instance, we love to savour moments in places where we will not and should not remain forever. In fact, even the destinations of holy pilgrimages are not typically places where we settle, but sacred places that are cherished for a short time before our lives carry on. Perhaps being “guests” in these places means a certain detachment, but not one that ends responsibility: we can take ownership of our own actions without taking ownership of the land. When we arrive in a place as a guest, whether it is sacred or secular, we know that we ought to treat it well precisely because it is not our home.
Then there is the fact that, as people, we are obviously bound for dust but love each other regardless. We justifiably cherish every season of life, from infancy to old age, even though each must eventually give way to another. Most of all, when a loved one enters the final days of life, they are not left alone so that the living can invest in other more lasting relationships. Instead, faced with the imminence of their departure, the need to care for and spend time with them is felt all the more keenly. This is the bitter blessing of final days. Granted, death is not final in the face of the resurrection, but the resurrection is not the reason that we love the dying. It is not because of eternal life that we are deserving of love, but because of God’s love for our dust-bound selves that, in Christ, we are offered eternal life.
In scripture, we again find more complex pictures of the temporal and the eternal. Consider the scene of Jesus’ anointing, recorded in all four gospels. In response to those who rebuke his anointer for wasting money that could have gone to the poor, Jesus responds: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (Jn 12:8). This text has often been abused as a prooftext to avoid attempts to end poverty, exactly contrary to the meaning of the Deuteronomy passage it cites. Yet notice that, in this passage, Jesus exactly inverts the positioning we would expect of a religion that always favours the eternal over the temporal. Jesus justifies the attention he receives, not on the basis of his eternal worth, but on his very temporary presence in contrast to an ongoing reality. He is a guest in this house, one who is passing through and deserves to be hosted. He is also soon to die, and his body must be prepared for burial (Mk. 14:8). He is loved now because he will leave soon, because he will die soon. Again, the resurrection will come, but the call to love precedes it.
This defense of the pilgrim metaphor is not a rejection of the alternate vision, which emphasizes earth as our home over our status as foreigners in it. Both conceptions can provide support for loving the world, and while one could argue for one over another, my purpose here is de-escalation. We may emphasize this world’s death at some times and its rebirth at others. Either way, love can occur; either way, love can be avoided. One can spurn the poor because they will forever be on the face on the earth, or one can spurn the poor because the earth and its problems will not last forever. If the abuse of Jesus’ words at his anointing tells us anything, it is that those hellbent on avoiding the duties of love can and will find loopholes in any theological imagination.
I believe the world will be reborn and redeemed, but that is not the reason I love it, any more than we love the dying only because we believe in their resurrection. Even so, to speak of the world as dying can feel like giving into despair. How can an emphasis on the Christian’s journeying elsewhere be valuable right now? Is this not the time to dig our heels deeper into the earth, “fix” climate change, resolve the crisis? The sentiment of these questions is right, but the picture is dishonest: not all the harm we have done to God’s creation can be easily fixed or reversed. Love demands that we work to reduce that harm, but we cannot rely on a false optimism in doing so. The fact is that we do not know what will happen next, and this does not change our Christian obligations. The real despair would be to believe that our efforts to heal an aching world must succeed for our love of it to be worthwhile. This is the wisdom of the pilgrim’s perspective for our moment. Because the pilgrim’s path of love does not assume the world’s persistence, love can survive whatever prognosis it hears.