Down Ancient Paths: A Quest for the Global Christian Heritage

Down Ancient Paths: A Quest for the Global Christian Heritage

The Down Ancient Paths Travel Study Program (DAP) was birthed at Ambrose University in 2000. Travel had been a dream since boyhood but in midlife, I experienced an inner disturbance generated by observing an accelerating illiteracy and disinterest regarding the global Christian heritage. By the 1990s, boyhood desire and the witness of this distressing trend spreading across society and even inundating churches provoked the inception of DAP.

The program's name stemmed from the clarion call of the Jewish prophet, Jeremiah, to his fellow countrypersons who were suffering from spiritual amnesia. He exhorted them to take stock of their beleaguered situation and to 'ask for the ancient paths' where they would 'find rest for [their] souls' (Jer.6:6). Tragically, they persisted in squandering their religious heritage as are western nations today.

From the outset, DAP focused on investigating the global Christian heritage contained in the Sacred Scriptures and ancient Christian traditions preserved in a worldwide collage of historical and cultural landscapes. Many of them were seeded by Christ's apostles in perilous, mission-minded exploits recorded outside the New Testament. Our most renowned, imaginary travel companions included Jesus, his apostles Paul, John and Thomas, Helena, Patrick of Ireland, Francis and Clare of Assisi, Marco Polo, Columbus, Luther, Francis Xavier, Cortes and Magellan.

DAP has featured an award winning proliferation of adventurous itineraries that have frequently tested the limits of physical stamina as well as residential institutes lasting several weeks. Its global vision over twenty years invited participants to discovery on almost 40 ventures to 34 countries on five continents, from China to Chile, Norway to Ethiopia and Israel to Mexico.

We delved into the origins of Christianity in the Middle East and traced its dynamic spread to Asia, Africa, Europe and eventually the Americas. On veritable odysseys of learning, we asked big historical, theological and cultural questions and contemplated crucial, transformative events that shaped its development.

Significant islands, with their layered histories, intriguing cultures and embedded spiritualities, figured prominently in the DAP travel agenda. We journeyed to Celtic Iona (Scotland), early Christian Malta ( in the Mediterranean) Greek Orthodox Patmos (in the Aegean) monasticized islands of Lake Tana (Ethiopia), and stone-faced Easter Island (in the Pacific.)

Some of the world's great cities drew us into their cosmopolitan orbits and disclosed their aged, Christian souls. In Stockholm, Moscow, London, Berlin, Prague, Barcelona, Rome, Athens, Istanbul, Damascus, Amman, Jerusalem, Cairo, Alexandria, Casablanca, Addis Ababa, Chennai, Beijing, Xian, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, and Mexico City we repeatedly pulled back the the veil of time. Our goal – to get a glimpse of each city's specific, storied contribution to Christianity's impact on the evolution of world civilizations.

The program did face some daunting challenges. With a growing constituency of Ambrose students and life long learners from a broad swath of backgrounds, we soldiered on. We were compelled at times to navigate unpredictable and dangerous natural disasters, endure meteorological extremes, sidestep regional military conflicts and dodge global pandemics.

DAP possessed a prophetic ring. Two decades into the new millennium, the foreboding clouds of dechristianization are rapidly darkening over our culture. Faith without roots will hardly persevere through the coming storm. Ancient Christians know well the struggle to survive under duress. Many exist today as long conquered and harassed minorities in Islamic countries.

An abundance of vocational joys have flowed from DAP – the serendipitous teaching/learning moments supplied by a kaleidoscope of classrooms without walls; provocatively probing conversations with a caravan of invited local guests; a myriad of highly informative lectures by academics whose expertise in Christian history complemented my own; amicable, indepth dialogues with venerable leaders of ancient churches sometimes suspicious of modernity; and treasured, epiphany moments when faith sparked and came to mean something profoundly new to individuals. Some found faith for the first time on a DAP venture. All this was framed by a life sweetening conviviality shared with highly motivated, travel companions, desirous of faith-based travel of an informed, interesting and inspired kind.

Charles Nienkirchen, PhD
Professor Emeritus of Christian History and Spirituality
Ambrose University

Dr. Nienkirchen conversing with a Greek Orthodox monk on Mt. Athos, Greece (Credit: Strati Papageorgiou)

Dr. Nienkirchen conversing with a Greek Orthodox monk on Mt. Athos, Greece (Credit: Strati Papageorgiou)

 Dr. Nienkirchen with a Down Ancient Paths travel study group on Easter Island in the Pacific (Credit:  Dr. Charles Nienkirchen)

Dr. Nienkirchen with a Down Ancient Paths travel study group on Easter Island in the Pacific (Credit: Dr. Charles Nienkirchen)

Dr. Nienkirchen at the Wartburg Castle near Eisenach, Germany where Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German  (Credit: Dennis Knudtsen)

Dr. Nienkirchen at the Wartburg Castle near Eisenach, Germany where Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German  (Credit: Dennis Knudtsen)