Make no mistake: there has always been theological Wilderness. The Genesis writer described a Garden in the midst of the Wilderness. Before the Fall, there exists Wilderness. Wilderness is a part of Creation. It did not come into existence with humanity’s Knowledge of Good and Evil. It was part of the separation of the Earth and Sky, the Land and Sea. Separation is distinction and offers the opportunity for analysis and reflection. The Wilderness was already Good. Humanity just became aware of it through the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
The Wilderness is not necessarily what has not been explored (we find ourselves in the same Wilderness all the time), but what has not been mapped and catalogued. Though theological Wilderness can be analyzed, it is that space and place that can never be mapped and catalogued. Every time we enter the Wilderness, we say “Ah! This is familiar. I am in the Wilderness.” But in no way does that mean we know how to navigate it, to comprehend it. The Wilderness is always already the Wilderness. Every map and category is made strange upon one’s return. To steal from Heraclitus, you can never step into the same Wilderness twice. And so, we humans have devised ways to never step into it at all.
Biblically, Cain is the founder of civilization. He builds the eponymous city Enoch for his son and his descendants. He carves out society in the midst the Wilderness. Born in the Wilderness, he destroys the Wilderness to create safety and stability. Cain creates the familiar, not God. God creates the Wilderness. Cain created place. God created absence.
To venture into the theological Wilderness is the closest to the Garden of Eden that we will ever come. For Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden and they entered the Wilderness. The Wilderness is our return to our roots. It is our home. And homecomings are always difficult and disconcerting. One never can really go home again. It is not home anymore. Ah! This home is familiar. I am in the Wilderness.
The unfamiliar familiar is what we label as “the uncanny.” The German word is Unheimlichkeit, “un-home-ness.” The Wilderness is the uncanny, the unheimlich, the eerie and unsettling. It is familiar and unfamiliar. This is why it is all the more disconcerting and causes so much anxiety: Adam and Eve’s exile from Eden. Noah, out of doomed civilization. Abraham and Sarah out of Ur. Abraham and Isaac to Mt. Moriah. Israelites out of Egypt and so many other lands. Joseph and Mary out of Judea into Egypt. Jesus into the Wilderness. Over and over and over again, the biblical narratives put humanity back in the familiar place of the unfamiliar. Accept that anxiety is our norm. Home is ever being destroyed. Why? We cannot understand this: home is ever being destroyed. Cain’s destruction of the Wilderness is trumped by our constant return to the Wilderness. Anxiety is not sinful, but an expression of who we really are: human.
To be human is to constantly re-encounter the unfamiliar. In Lent, we emphasize this unfamiliarity by venturing voluntarily yet again into the Wilderness. We cannot describe God, yet we continue to return to the Wilderness to encounter God. And this is why we go. What we find instead is God’s absence and we encounter what God is not. In the Wilderness, God overturns all expectations and every certainty. In Lent, every preconception is overturned.
The radicality of Easter’s hopeful claim unnerves us. Already, we expect an empty tomb, a barren home of the dead. But still, again, it is uncanny, unheimlich. Behold! The dead God is not at home! And this is eerie. It troubles us, deeply so. The dead is said to be risen. Immediately, anxiety ensues. The Wilderness does not end with Easter. We are in perpetual Wilderness. Lent is merely the season of our lives’ year when we choose to acknowledge the productive, familiar role of anxiety, of displacement, of uncertainty.
Ultimately, the only limits in the time and place of Wilderness are Eschaton and Parousia, End and Presence. But this is only what we’ve been told. These are stories we share with one another by the fire under the stars in our Wilderness. These familiar stories we share are about the limits of death and suffering, when every tear shall be wiped away. Or so we hear.