Reclaiming Travel

Airplane in flight
Licensed by Creative Commons (smemon87)

This morning I spent some time booking London hotel rooms for next January, when I’ll take a group of Bethel students to Europe for a three-week course on the history of World War I. Having that kind of planning in mind, I was glad for the recent reminder, from literary scholar Ilan Stevens and editor Joshua Ellison, that we (post)moderns need to be more attentive to what it means to travel.

While they agree that the compulsion to move about seems hardwired into human DNA, Stevens and Ellison point out that we are living in a time of unparalleled movement: 200 million of us live outside of our countries of birth, and a UN agency reported one billion tourist arrivals last year alone. (If anything, they undersell: they claim that “An immigrant is a traveler without a return ticket,” but others have stressed that migration in this century has become ever “more fluid and temporary.”)

But with the volume of global travel increasing comes some profound changes in how we (especially we First Worlders) think of it. While premoderns attached enormous significance to relocation (exile as a theme in the Hebrew Scriptures; the “archetypal imagery” of epics like Gilgamesh and The Odyssey), the best-off among 21st century humanity treat travel as

routine, devoted mainly to entertainment and personal enrichment. We have turned travel into something ordinary, deprived it of allegorical grandeur. We have made it a business: the business of being on the move. Whatever impels us to travel, it is no longer the oracle, the pilgrimage or the gods. It is the compulsion to be elsewhere, anywhere but here.

Ellison and Stevens don’t see restlessness as a bad thing (they quote Augustine’s Confessions here), but how we respond to it varies — travel, in and of itself, is neither ridden with vice nor flush with virtue:

Travel has no inherent moral character, no necessary outcome. It can be precious or worthless, productive or destructive. It can be ennobling or self-satisfied. The returns can be only as good as what we offer of ourselves in the process.

The remainder of the piece suggests how we might engage in travel as a quest rather than the “self-serving escapism” known as tourism. Stevens and Ellison touch on the virtues of hospitality and humility, plus the possibilities of genuine awareness of other cultures (rather than superficial familiarity generated by media).

Ultimately, they aren’t sure that we can engage in travel the same way that premoderns did, but they think it can be reclaimed to a degree:

We might never understand travel as our ancestors did: our world is too open, relativistic, secular, demystified. But we will need to reclaim some notion of the heroic: a quest for communion and, ultimately, self-knowledge.

Pilgrims on the Road to Canterbury
13th century stained glass image of pilgrims on the way to Canterbury – Wikimedia

At least as I think about how my students will experience travel next January, I’m perhaps a bit more optimistic. I won’t hesitate to present my Christian college students with models of travel that are anything but “secular, demystified,” models that I reflected on early in my series last summer blogging day-by-day through my expectations for the WWI trip.

First, I suggested that students think about the traditional Christian practice of pilgrimage, describing it as

an external manifestation of the interior journey that begins when anyone joins Jesus on the Emmaus Road and becomes a person “of the Way,” seeking truth in the person of Jesus Christ. They might not find much that seems redemptive or holy in the story of World War I, but they may well find Christ, since he was certainly present in the trenches we’ll walk through, where soldiers awaited death and suffered pain (as he had), and in the cemeteries we’ll visit, where people mourned the wrenching loss of family and friends (as he had). And they may get a vision of a “reality greater than what sits in front” of them in the Midwestern suburbs.

Second, I highlighted the biblical theme of God’s people as “sojourning in this world as ‘foreigners and exiles’ (1 Pet 2:11), since ‘here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come’ (Heb 13:14).” Here’s how I contrasted sojourning with tourism:

Sojourning anticipates difficulty and accepts dislocation. Tourism promises pleasure, leisure, and convenience….

Sojourning expects no home in this world; tourism promises to replicate the traveler’s home anywhere and everywhere, ultimately reassuring her that “There’s no place like” it.

So while I want to create spaces in our itinerary to let students “see the sights,” I also want this kind of travel to be somewhat disorienting, dislocating, and disturbing — perhaps to an extent that will surprise students who simply liked the idea of spending the depths of Minnesota winter in London and Paris.


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