Monday, May 16, 2005

knowing where you are going: The Pilgrim's Progress

We rarely travel for the sake of travelling but actually to get somewhere. If life is a journey then it too must have a goal, yet if many rarely travel for the sake of travelling, many live for the sake of living. Travellers are, however, people of destiny - they have a destination whether they like it or not. John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress reminds us that we need to know where we are going in terms of our ultimate destination. Our life ought to be a journey 'from this world to that which is to come'.


Pilgrim's Progress opens, as you might expect, with the question of knowing where to go. We see a man helpless without any such knowledge, and are gripped by the stark vision of a ragged, burdened man in a 'certain place'. All our attention is focussed not upon the location but upon the man and his pitiful, angst-ridden cry, "What must I do?" It is a vivid description of the desperate emptiness of any man in a state of nature. The puritan John Rogers felt this emptiness very deeply in reflecting upon his own experience: "for what I was before I know not what, a mere - I know not what".

The ragged man has only enough knowledge to ask the most basic, helpless question in a bare statement of ignorance. This shows us man in his lostness, he has no answers in himself, they must come from outside of himself. God must speak. With a little more knowledge from the Scriptures he is able to increase his question to "What shall I do to be saved?" Evangelist must present to him plain exhortations on where to go and how to get there. Having recognised the great gulf between mere existence and eternal life, the man will run from Destruction crying "Life! Life! Eternal life!"

It was a firm principle with the puritans that knowledge, or 'a right understanding' (as Richard Baxter put it), was vital to any sound conversion. This didn't mean that conversion was simply absorbing new information, on the contrary the puritans spoke of it as a supernatural act of God's redeeming grace alone. The mind, however, had to be informed by the Holy Spirit and the Word to start with, for the will to respond consequently with the Holy Spirit's gift of faith. The Westminster Shorter Catechism reminds us very helpfully that we are inwardly and effectually called by "God's Spirit...convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills"


As Bunyan's pilgrim progresses therefore, he continues to be dependent upon knowledge. Failing to discern ignorance in Mr Worldly-Wiseman he acts upon false knowledge until 'he stood still, and wotted not what to do'. Again he is helpless and dependent upon knowledge from Evangelist.

The Christian remains dependent upon the Spirit after conversion, in order to 'grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ' (2 Peter 3:18). The Holy Spirit's instruction in knowledge by means of the Word of God continues to be fundamental to the living of the Christian life. The believer must still know how to progress, how to continue to journey to the destination that he has begun earnestly to pursue. Christian is instructed in Interpreter's house and helped with some necessary knowledge so that he is able to say upon leaving: 'Here have I seen...things to make me stable in what I have begun to take in hand'.

Later Christian cannot go forward having lost his roll which signifies the knowledge of election; Bunyan repeats twice that Christian 'knew not what to do', he cannot keep going forward in this situation but must retrace his steps. The knowledge that Christian requires is not barely intellectual therefore but vitally united to experience and faith. Knowledge may sustain faith, but faith (through grace) sustains Christian. The Christian does not say "I think therefore I am" but "I believe (through the grace of God) therefore I am". John Calvin expressed this point powerfully, 'Each moment of faith becomes the foundation of all existence: I see my self continually flowing away, no moment passes without my seeing myself at the point of being engulfed. But since God sustains his elect in such a way that they never sink and drown, I firmly believe that I shall live despite innumerable storms'.

Christian too faces many troubles, toils, and snares, but he is led safely on. The shepherds that Christian meets at one point both encourage and unsettle with their enigmatic replies based upon the principle of 'no fears, no grace'. It is a difficult journey but not impossible. When Christian asks 'How far is it thither?', the Shepherds wisely respond, 'Too far for any, but those that shall get thither indeed'. Christian's enquiry ' Is the way safe, or dangerous?', meets with the truth 'Safe for whom it is to be safe'. These are answers that are intended to stir up resolute faith and committed progress.


Through the character of Talkative, Bunyan makes the very important point that despite an emphasis upon knowledge, those who 'say and do not' are in fact outside the truth no matter how orthodox their speech. Talkative is tight-lipped on 'Experience', but 'The Kingdom of God is not in word but in power'. A Christian must be of the truth and thereby know the truth and its power (John 8:32). Bunyan had been instructed by his pastor John Gifford to seek the truth in its power and not to take 'any truth upon trust, as from this or that or another man or men, but to cry mightily to God, that he would convince us of the reality thereof, and set us down therein by his own Spirit in the holy Word'.

The pilgrims relate their experiences of the Word in order to encourage each other in the journey. The spiritual wisdom that Puritan ministers offered accorded vital importance to experience, as John Rogers put it, 'Now to a poor soul all such things as are in the soul, are made known by experiences; experience we say, proves principles'. When Bunyan was in prison for preaching the gospel, he wrote a letter to his congregation in order to strengthen them, in it he encouraged them to call back to mind the times of confrontation with the truth in their past experience. 'Have you never a hill Mizar to remember? Have you forgot the close, the milk-house, the stable, the barn, and the like, where God did visit your soul? Remember also the Word, the Word I say upon which the Lord hath caused you to hope'.


When the Lord Jesus Christ said to Pilate, 'Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice' (John 18:38), His 'judge' immediately proved the point by responding with blind wilful ignorance, 'What is truth?' Again and again those that Christian meets that are not true pilgrims betray the fact that they are not of the truth out of their own mouths. Atheist for instance betrays his blindness when he says, "There is no place as you dream of, in all this world". Ignorance too is ignorant of all that will save him, his lack of true knowledge leads him to an all too modern and familiar position that we call relativism: the idea that everyone has their own truth. He says 'That is your faith, but not mine; yet mine I doubt not is as good as yours'.

Formalist and Hypocrisy have the same relativism; all the ignorant reject God's truth and therefore condemn themselves. The ignorance of the ignorant in Pilgrim's Progress is not an innocent lack of knowledge, rather it is a wilful rejection of the truth. They ought to know where they are to go and how they are to get there, but they have refused that knowledge.

Against the vision of those crossing to the Celestial City we see one wretched soul entering into damnation, it is significant that this is Ignorant himself. The point that Bunyan seeks to make is stated very powerfully by one the books that made a strong impression upon him as an early Christian. In The Plain Man's Path-way to Heaven, Arthur Dent writes, 'Our Lord foreseeing the great danger of ignorance (how thereby thousands are carried headlong into Hell) doth admonish all men to search the Scriptures which do testify of him...Oh therefore that men would earnestly seek after the knowledge of God in time'.

A popular modern approach to Bunyan's classic has been to enjoy the narrative like a novel, ignoring its themes and concern for truth and knowledge. It had occurred to Bunyan that some readers might attempt this and so he cautions us in his Conclusion not to play with the 'outside' of his dream but to 'put by the Curtains and look within' the 'Vail'. We must make sure not to be blind to the truth as the ignorant travellers but to seek the reality and power of the truth. As the author himself says, 'O then come hither, and lay my Book, thy Head and Heart together'.