navigating the wilderness

The analogy of map and compass is a useful one for considering our navigation the ‘wilderness of this world’ and especially useful for navigating the ecclesiastical wilderness.

For a good understanding of the analogy, though, one must have some understanding of how maps and compasses work. A much more full description can be found from a chapter of a book, The Backpacker’s Field Manual, excerpted here on the Princeton University site, but I’ll attempt a bit in this post.

I suppose when we think of ‘mapping’ the locations on the ecclesiastical landscape, we probably envision a political map, with nation-states and their boundaries. Such maps seem fairly objective and definite in allocating the bounds of various domains, but they are of limited value for navigation.

What political maps can’t show are the alliances between nations (who can be at some distance from one another). They also cannot show disputed territories that may lie between any two nations – boundaries are not always as clearly defined as they appear on a map. In addition, political maps usually give very little idea of the topographical features of any given territory – the slopes, slippery or otherwise, the heights and the lowlands, very little sense of the direction of the watershed, and so on. Thus, there are things political maps cannot tell us.

For navigation purposes, topographical maps are much more useful. They tell us the relative steepness of slopes and the prominence of various geological features, giving an idea of the easiest way to traverse a particular area of land.

Mapping, both political and topographical, are one thing. Reading maps and compasses are another. One might think getting a compass reading is a simple matter. Look where the needle is pointing, find North on a map, orient it correctly, identify some prominent landmarks, and you’re off.

It isn’t quite that simple. There is north and there is north. That is, there is true north (pointing directly to the north pole) and there is magnetic north (pointing to the north magnetic pole). These two points on the planet are two different things and one of them is constantly changing (albeit relatively slowly). Your compass points directly to the magnetic north pole, but parallel with the lines of magnetic force at your starting point. In order to get your compass set right (and your map oriented properly), you need to know something about where you are starting from and calculate the deviation from true north in that area.

A diagram from the Princeton site might help describe the way the magnetic field lines distort compasses in the United States:


Your compass needle will deviate from true north according to these angles.1 According to the Princeton site,

You can see that location makes a great deal of difference in where the compass points. The angular difference between true north and magnetic north is known as the declination and is marked in degrees on your map as shown … Depending on where you are, the angle between true north and magnetic north is different. In the U.S., the angle of declination varies from about 20 degrees west in Maine to about 21 degrees east in Washington.

In order to navigate, you have to make allowances for the angle of declination, set your compass accordingly, and then orient and read your map to ascertain position and the next direction you will set out on.

Maps and guidebooks are the fundamental tools both for trip planning … and while you are out on the trail. [emphasis mine]

If you really want to know more about real maps and compasses, you can read all about it at the Princeton site and other places.

Very good, Mr. Badger, now what does this have to do with navigating the ecclesiastical wilderness?

What does this have to do with ecclesiastics and separation? That is a most vital question.

In this discussion, an emphasis is being made in getting biblical principles of separation down so that we can navigate. We could call this ‘orienting our compass’. In discussion elsewhere, we have been told that we also need to get our fixed points – but isn’t ‘fixed points’ the language of maps?2

Having oriented our compass, gotten our fixed points, what should we do next? The next step is to set one’s course through the wilderness. We will need a map to identify the best route along the way. The compass is useful to help us see where we are on the map and determine the direction of travel, but that is all. A compass can do nothing else.

As we traverse the hills and valleys of the ecclesiastical wilderness, no doubt we will make some missteps along the way. We may experience some slips and falls. We may not always see our way clearly – our line of sight may be obscured by overhanging vegetation and obstructions along the way. We might even lose our way. If we don’t have good maps, our compass will be of no use to us on the mishaps of the way.

In my previous post, I was advocating that we need men in the map-making business. You can see that navigating the wilderness is much more involved than you might think. I am sure if I was out in the real wilderness with the best maps and the best compasses, I would soon be lost.

In the ecclesiastical wilderness, I would suggest that we all vary in our skills and wisdom in using the tools the Lord has given us. We need good solid principles to guide us, to be sure. If you will, we need the compass that was given us in recent weeks. But are all of us ever going to be equally proficient with these principles? It is hardly likely.

Do we not need men who will take the time to adjust their compass accurately, who will labour to understand the declinations from true north that there be, who will explain those declinations and their seriousness to the less skilled? There are some men who seem to point north, but they are actually pointing very wide of the mark. The declination of some may not seem so great at first glance, but the declination is serious, and if you attempt to navigate this wilderness without adjusting for their declination, you will miss the mark and land far wide of true north.

We are not talking about men who point south – these men we are observing do point northish.3 But the influence of the southern magnetic field is real. Many of these men are much influenced by their interaction with the southward pull. Accepting their direction without allowing for their declination will lead you astray.

One last quote from the Princeton site:

Navigation in the wilderness means knowing your starting point, your destination, and your route to get there.

Given the unwillingness of some Fundamentalist leaders to make maps for us, how well do you think we are going to keep people pointing to the True North?



  1. I was going to boast that in Canada, we tend to be more generally in line with true north, but then I noticed that red line in the middle… it appears that anyone along a line running through eastern Ontario, Wisconsin, Illinois, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, and even the Florida panhandle (Pensacola??) have no deviation from true north with their compasses. Does that mean these areas are the most clear seeing? []
  2. Perhaps we have discovered a mixed metaphor? []
  3. Who points northish? Those who believe the true gospel. []