Here we have one of the classic Advent themes associated with our preparations for the birth of Christ, but actually referring to John the Baptist as the forerunner of Jesus’ ministry 30 years later. I want to suggest an unorthodox and creative way of interpreting this text, one perhaps more in-keeping with the current context. We are inclined to ask ourselves “whose are the voices?” and “where is the wilderness?” I will reverse these questions in order to throw some light upon the nature of vocation and the reasons for the apparent frustrations of it.
Why would anybody knowingly or deliberately set out to be a voice crying in the wilderness? Surely, if there is something in which we believe, or a point of view that we feel is worth sharing with others in order that they might respond, we are going to articulate these views somewhere where they are likely to be heard? So why go into the wilderness, if by that we understand that it is empty and uninhabited? It does not make sense. Of course, the wilderness of John the Baptist was not empty anyway. He took his followers with him, and others also followed to hear his preaching and to be baptised. We must not confuse this wilderness with that of the Desert Fathers, for instance, where silence and solitude were deliberately sought, but for other reasons. If our vocation is to preach, teach and challenge, we need to be where people are and might gather, and we need to ensure that they can engage, if not necessarily agree with, what it is we feel called to say. To imagine that there is a preaching vocation that demands we retreat into the desert or else communicate in terms that makes the message incomprehensible is surely perverse. Yet I do sometimes wonder whether colleagues deliberately set their stall out in such as way that they can then say “but nobody listened” or “nobody understood”. I was a lone voice and nobody heard me. Well maybe sometimes there is a simple explanation for that.
I am reminded of those now famous artists, thinkers and scientists who only reached a wider public after their death. You can find lists of them of course and they include such names as Van Gogh, Galileo, Franz Kafka, even the novelist Stieg Larsson. Did they want to be dead before they got a serious hearing? I doubt it very much. Recognition in their own lifetimes would have been a much more acceptable outcome I am sure. Then I think of the economists and social commentators who were warning before the Global Financial Crisis that the system was unsustainable and heading for an inevitable crash. They now have the satisfaction – if such it is – of saying “I told you so”, but nobody listened so their impact at the time was nil. Apparently, Jacques Delors, one of the founding fathers of the Euro and the Eurozone, is now saying that he argued all along that the system was flawed and would collapse. Fair enough, but it is too late now. Another case of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” perhaps? It is only in retrospect after all that any particular warning or prediction is proved to be correct. And what about all the dire warnings that ultimately proved groundless or mistaken? Wiped from the historical records presumably?
So let us reverse the normal interpretation and ask instead “where are the voices?” and “whose is the wilderness?” Surely, the voices that set out to speak (uncomfortable) truths or insights into the public sphere have to be out in the public square and accessible to those who participate in the wider social discourse? This can often be a blurred and compromising position where getting a hearing requires a willingness to step down from one’s soapbox, being willing to listen and to take the other seriously. It matters less who we are, than where we are to be found and how we conduct our relationships. The wilderness then is made up of those of us who, for whatever reasons, refuse or find it impossible to listen to or engage with those challenging and disturbing points of view. What is it that prevents (Christian, amongst other) adults from learning? This is the critical issue that I see colleagues shying away from constantly, either because the question is itself too uncomfortable, or because they think they already know the answer. It also requires that they themselves be willing to learn and to change, even to admit that they might be wrong. For all too many Christians, this seems too much to ask. Friends, we ourselves are the wilderness, to the extent that we believe we have understood it all and got all the answers. Where people are unable or unwilling to grow, to think again (repent?) or to engage with who and what is other, to admit that they also are “out in the fog” or the “cloud of unknowing”, there is the true wilderness.
John Reader is Rector of the Ironstone Benefice in the Diocese of Oxford and a Senior Honorary Research Fellow with the William Temple Foundation (University of Chester. UK). His first degree was from Oxford (Philosophy and Theology); then an M.Phil from Manchester University, and finally a Ph.D from the University of Wales, Bangor on “The Problem of Faith and Reason after Habermas and Derrida”. He has taught on a number of courses and been Director of Pastoral Theology at an Anglican theological college. His books include Local Theology (SPCK); Blurred Encounters (Aureus); Reconstructing Practical Theology (Ashgate) and Encountering the New Theological Space co-edited with Chris Baker (Ashgate). He is also a visiting scholar at OxCEPT based at Ripon College, Cuddesdon.