The Desert God

Concept Art Pict 008


T.E. Lawrence, a low-level officer in the British 1914 offensive of World War 1 against the Germans and Turks in Arabia, acted as a contact officer with the Arab leader Emir Feisal. Lawrence’s job included persuading the Arabs to fight with the Western allies for their freedom. But Lawrence did much more, organizing the Arabs into hit and run guerillas, and setting off a two year campaign that led to the defeat of the Germans and Turks.
Our Concept Art illustrates the powerful links between T.E. Lawrence (in Arab dress), the Arabian peninsula, and his touch with God.


Though scientists like Richard Dawkins make their case today for genetic determinism and atheism (The God Delusion, Houghton Miffin, 2006), they neglect the human cravings for sublimity and immortality, ideas more salient in driving human cognition than any Darwinian principle of evolutionary determinism.
The harshness of the desert literally delivers occupants to the concept of God. For them, there is no choice, no rationalization, no coffee-house atheism. Their challenge is not intellectual; it is survival under the most austere circumstances, where nothing relevant can be verbalized or written in any language. The challenge is only survival in the desert’s eternal drought, its intense shifts from bitter cold to dehydrating heat, its common infestations, along with the inability to sleep without insect persecution, and its impenetrable rocks and cutting sands. The vastness of the wasteland, with its ever-present threat of annihilation and incalculable beauty presets the body and mind to accept the desert’s dominance with its constant rhythms of life and death.
T.E. Lawrence said this about his resolute band of guerrillas (Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Random House, 1926):
Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent
in our circumstances. For years we lived anyhow
with one another in the naked desert, under the
indifferent heaven. By day the hot sun fermented us;
and we were dizzied by the beating wind. At night
we were stained by dew, and shamed into pettiness
by the innumerable silences of stars. We were a self-
centered army without parade or gesture, devoted to
freedom, the second of man’s creeds, a purpose so
ravenous that it devoured all our strength, a hope so
transcendent that our earlier ambitions faded in its glare.
Then there are these unforgettable passages by Lawrence that revealed the Arab mind, all simple illustrations of mental concepts, and resigned destiny.
There was no human effort, no fecundity in Nature: just
the heaven above and the unspotted earth beneath.
There unconsciously he came near God. God was to
him not anthropomorphic, not tangible, not moral or
ethical, not concerned with the world or with him, not
but the being …[Latin]… thus qualified not by divestiture
but by investiture, a comprehending Being, the egg of all
activity, with nature and matter just a glass reflecting Him.
This creed of the desert seemed inexpressible in words,
and indeed in thought. It was easily felt as an influence,
and those who went into the desert long enough to forget
its open spaces and its emptiness were inevitably thrust
upon God as the only refuge and rhythm of being.

His sterile experience robbed him of compassion and
perverted his human kindness to the image of the waste
in which he hid. Accordingly he hurt himself, not merely
to be free, but to please himself. There followed a delight in
pain, a cruelty which was more to him than goods. He found
abnegation, renunciation, self-restraint. He saved his own
soul, perhaps, and without danger, but in a hard selfishness.

The “desert God” comes to us in times of deprivation, pain, sickness, and hopelessness, but it finds us in one form or another, in the prospect of our death and the suffering in our reality, in the “foxhole” that hides our fears from our knowledge of disaster and the fear of no redemption, on our deathbed of regret and self-loathing, in the loss of material supports and untested spirituality, in the cancer of our lives, and in the abandonment we feel from loved ones and the indifference we experience.
Yet, strangely, there stirs hope in the mix, in the people we love, the truths that we bathe in, and the identification with the beauty of all things – even our death – the grandeur of the universe, and our inevitable ties to all things manifested and dreamed of. Art is one of the beauties that concentrate our beliefs, both in awe of creation and the knowledge that we are all tied together in the common struggles of life and an unending quest for a resolving future.


Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, University of Texas at Austin, February 27, 2015

Thiessen photo

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