The Journey Part 2: The Map

Alister McGrath

The question of how to get from A to B is one of the most basic issues of life. Travellers long ago mapped out the best routes from Egypt to Canaan, or from Babylon to Jerusalem. Looking at the map allowed the traveller to work out how much further he had to journey, and what road to take.


But how did that map come into being? At its heart, a map is the distillation of the experience of travellers – those who have journeyed in the past, and recorded their memories in the form of its pictures and symbols. The map represents the cumulative wisdom of generations of travellers, put together for the benefit of those now wishing to make that same journey.


To undertake a journey with a map is therefore to rely on the wisdom of the past. It is to benefit from the hard-won knowledge of those who have explored the unknown and braved danger in order to serve those who will follow in their footsteps. Behind the lines and symbols of the map lie countless personal stories – stories which the map itself can never tell. Let’s explore this by looking at one particular kind of map – the ‘rutter’. This strange word, which has now fallen out of use, comes from the French word routier, and refers to the records of those who undertook great and often hazardous journeys of exploration.


The sixteenth century was an era of exploration on an unprecedented scale. Following the discovery of the Americas in 1492, many European nations set out to explore the known world, opening up new routes to hitherto unknown regions. The secrets of the seaways of the world were being opened up, as routes to Asia were discovered and carefully recorded. Yet these voyages of discovery were undertaken at great cost. The seaways to the New World destroyed many who had hoped to conquer them. Those who returned had learned the secrets of the routes, and recorded them in a small book – the rutter. Rutters were the key to the secrets of the world’s seaways, and the best hope for a captain who wished to return home alive.


A rutter was basically a book which recorded every small detail of the voyage, so that it could be retraced in safety. The location of dangerous shoals, the bearings of landmarks such as headlands, the depths of channels, the location of safe harbours – all were meticulously recorded. Anyone getting hold of these rutters would be able to retrace the steps of those who had been there before, and gain access to the riches that lay ahead.


It is no wonder that the rutters for the trade routes to Asia from Europe were classed as secret by the Spanish and Portugese. Some were written in code; others included deliberate errors, known only to their authors, designed to mislead those who were not meant to have access to its secrets. Those who hoped to be guided to the new worlds thus found themselves lured onto hidden rocks, and destroyed. But a reliable rutter was the key to a safe voyage to the secret lands beyond the horizons.


The rutter did not aim to offer a complete chart of the oceans of the world. It was written down simply to ensure that one specific route could be travelled safely. Those who followed their author could do so in the knowledge that he had been there before them, and passed his hard-won knowledge down to them. The voyage ahead would be long and difficult. Yet it helped those making it enormously to know that someone had successfully completed it before them and that he had passed on to them a detailed notebook of how he achieved it. A rutter is thus more than a map. It mingles geography with personal experience, explaining how the journey was made so that others can do the same.


So what is the relevance of this for those of us travelling the roads of faith today? Simply this: it reminds us that others have made this journey before us, and passed down to us their discoveries – helpful ways of reading the Bible, of coping with doubt and temptation, or making sense of some of the more puzzling aspects of Christian doctrine. These are the spiritual ‘rutters’ that have been passed on to us. We can learn from those who have made this journey of faith before us!


Through God’s good grace, there are others who have made this journey before us. They have travelled through the wastelands and drunk deeply at the oases. They have shed tears in times of loneliness; they have shouted with joy in moments of refreshment. They can be our companions on the journey to the heavenly city. In our next piece, we will allow a travelling companion to share his thoughts with us


Used by permission of Alister McGrath


Alister McGrath is Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University, and President of the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics. He has co-authored the international bestseller The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine (InterVarsity Press) with his wife, Joanna Collicutt McGrath, who is a psychologist. He has also authored the forthcoming book, due to be published on 25 September, entitled Christianity's Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first (HarperOne). For further information about Alister McGrath, visit his website at

Originally published July 16, 2007.

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