One of the projects I have been seriously considering is to write an accessible “theology of place.” It is one of those obviously needed missing pieces in the rediscovery of the Gospel here at the close of Modernity, equally needed as an accessible theology of culture.
What is the relationship of “place” to God’s work of redemption in the world? Note that last phrase. It is not possible to talk of salvation without talking about redemption in the world, and a man named Jesus who was born in Bethlehem, lost on the edge of the Roman Empire, roughly two thousand years ago. It is not possible to talk of salvation apart from life in the real world.
Nor was it possible to write a rich and biblical theology of place while Modernity formed the foundation of western Christian thought. Modernity pushed us toward abstractions. Moreover, a heritage that favored Greek thought left us with hints of gnosticism, a tendency to divorce spirituality from life in this world. Even though “the Word became flesh,” in practice we have favored ascension as a theme, and Christology over the Incarnational life, neglecting the reality of the Spirit intimately involved in the work of redemption here and now.
Fellow Canadian Craig Bartholomew has made a timely and powerful contribution to a theological gap, with his book titled “Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today” (Baker Academic, 2011). At 372 pages, including the subject index, hardly a page is wasted. The work is comprehensive and rich.
Bartholomew is interested in “place” and the role it plays in God’s work in the world. He offers a few principles to aid us: First, “[place] is a human concept,” and “to be human is to be placed.” Second, “place results from the dynamic interactions of humans and their particular location.” Third, “although space and place are inseparable, place must be distinguished from space.” These principles form the foundation of the book.
The book is divided into three sections. Part I surveys the role of place in the Bible. I confess I skimmed this section, interested in getting on to Part II. But I was stopped cold on page 99 where the section heading reads thus: “Kingdom: Reign or Realm?” A discussion of the work of G.E. Ladd follows. This brief discussion continues to page 101, then leads into a survey of “place” in the Gospels. Bartholomew raises critical questions that can help all bible teachers more carefully nuance a theology of the kingdom. It is both wise and biblical to frame the kingdom as both creative rule and created realm (237).
Part II considers the role place has played in the Western philosophical and Christian traditions. I skimmed pages 167-188, and then read carefully to the close of this section on page 242. This was an outstanding survey of the Church Fathers on “place.” I was particularly interested in the work of Irenaeus here, since Irenaeus is less captive to Greek thought, and his Spirit-Christology holds rich promise for theological reflection in our time. Likewise Bonhoeffer in the Lutheran tradition, and Tillich with his existential concerns may be rich sources for reflection. Contemporary theologies of place consider both Santmire (writing twenty-thirty years ago) and Inge (very recent at 2003).
What is striking (and challenging for Anabaptist readers) is that it is very difficult to develop a meaningful theology of place apart from a sacramental worldview. This is not an ontological sacramentalism, where we argue for something like transubstantiation, but a functional and epistemic sacramentalism: the recognition that the Spirit meets us in matter and in flesh, and that our experience of God is both immediate AND rooted. Any bush may burn and become a vehicle for the sacred. Any dish and towel, dedicated to God’s service, becomes a vehicle for his presence. For Inge, a sacramental approach to place follows from NT eschatology: “Christ Himself is the reintegration of God’s original creation, and in Christ God has restored the sacramental nature of the universe.” (239) Sacramentality is both relational, and an event.
That brings us to Part III, “A Christian View of Place for Today,” continuing to page 323. I have only cracked this section, so will return with a closer look in January. The goal of Part III is to offer principles and practices that help believers to engage in the crucial work of place-making, an engagement that is very much part of making shalom. The very first chapter considers the urban landscape, and Sean Benesh (“View from the Urban Loft”) will contribute his thoughts on this one.
I easily and heartily recommend this book, a welcome and timely contribution to the broader missional conversation! For many of you this should be on your “must acquire” list in 2012.
Craig G. Bartholomew (PhD, University of Bristol) is professor of philosophy, religion, and theology at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, where he holds the H. Evan Runner Chair.