No Home Like Place: A Christian Theology of Place
Paperback: Urban Loft Publishers, 2014.
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Reviewed by Alden Bass.
I grew up in a tradition which resolutely refused to meeting places “sanctuaries.” There was no biblical warrant for the term, and besides, it sounded too Catholic-y. Had not Jesus himself prophesied that the time of sanctified places was coming to end? “The days are coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…but true worshipers will worship in spirit and truth.” The apostles, too, seemed to deny the holiness of any particular place, preferring to characterize the saints – either individually (Paul) or corporately (Peter) – as the new, bodily temple of God. “O Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary.” We preferred to call our meeting places “auditoriums,” using the neutral latinate designation for “a large room for hearing speeches,” (in the process revealing our predilection for the word over the sacrament). For altogether different reasons, there is a movement afoot among the church-growth sector to eschew the freighted and old-fashioned designation in favor of the more neutral and seeker-friendly “auditorium” as well. Unsurprisingly, this trend has resulted in many anxious late-night word studies by blogging seminarians.
Leonard Hjalmarson does not weigh in on this fine point of church architecture, but he does make a case for a renewed appreciation of the sacrality of particular places, and not only houses of worship. The concept of place has a venerable history in the Western tradition, until, so the story goes, Enlightenment thinkers subsumed particular “place” to universal “space.” At least this is the argument made by phenomenologists like Martin Heidegger, who believed that Truth could be revealed only by carefully attending to the things and people nearest to us. The philosophical recovery of particularity converged nicely with a late-modern cultural nostalgia for the local, a concept lost amid the big box stores and MacDonaldized franchises now homogenizing every square inch of the United States. Localism is the reigning philosophy of the day, and theologians have not been exempt from its pull. No Place Like Home: A Christian Theology of Place is one of several works in this vein: John Inge’s A Christian Theology of Place, Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today, and Eric Jacobsen’s The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment are just a few of the recent contributions.
Hjalmarson, a theologian, pastor, and community leader, is enthusiastic about place. He attempts to show how the recovery of particularity, especially with regard to geography, has the potential to shift one’s worldview. The stated mission of the book is to help readers “see their seeing,” that is, by attending to the immediate material world around them, to appreciate the very conditions for knowing anything at all. Indeed, the first chapter of the book makes this epistemological point. The importance of social location has often been observed, but Hjalmarson is right to draw our attention to the geographic location as well.
A major obstacle to identifying any particular place as sanctified is the seemingly universal claims of Jesus. After the Incarnation, every place and every people has the potential to be holy, not only the Temple, or the High Places, or Jerusalem or even the “Holy Land.” This has been a fundamental Christian contention since the apostolic era. Or at least that’s what we’ve been led to believe. Hjalmarson argues that the New Testament doctrine of the New Creation (graciously recovered for us by N.T. Wright) allows us to revisit the idea of holiness. Creation itself, he contends, is the original temple of God. God’s universal presence was neglected, however, until God became flesh in the person of a peasant child in a Bethlehem cowshed. The particularity of the Christ event calls humans to find God nearby – as Paul told the Athenians, “you anxiously grope for God, but he isn’t far from you.”
The particular bodily presence of Jesus continues in the church, whose mission is to “make place,” that is, to live out the New Creation. Thus the mandate of the Great Commission is actually a continuation of the original commission of Genesis 1-2: “Be fruitful and multiply…tend the garden and keep it.” As Hjalmarson puts it: “place is real, upheld and embraced by God as we participate in his ongoing work of creation. Things and places in the world respond to God’s creative work by becoming what they are. Similarly, place-making is our participation with God in his ongoing creation. It is effective when a place images God’s idea of it, and when we know it in its form in the world as faithfully representing itself.” People make place simply by doing ordinary things well, ordinary things like gardening, baking, and the practices of hospitality. Through deep engagement with such quotidian material realities, our world expands to make room for the Spirit.
The term “place” is slippery, and Hjalmarson doesn’t get around to defining it until halfway through the book. He suggests several possible understandings of place – as “units of environment,” as “awareness of self and of externals,” and as “the integration of activity and persons within location” – before concluding that place is better experienced that defined. Most simply, it is an area with an “intuitive sense of wholeness.” Paradigmatic of the places humans inhabit are the neighborhood and the parish. Such confined areas, bounded by natural features like rivers and mountains or human-made constructs like roads and state-lines, provide a sense of belonging. To be familiar with a place, to be able to call somewhere “home” is a prerequisite for building trust, trust between individuals and eventually trust in social institutions. And of course, trust is just another word for faith.
Hjalmarson provides a helpful introduction to the conversation about the significance of place and particularity, and he does it well by interweaving bits of poetry and song lyrics with the technical philosophical arguments of Heidegger, Duns Scotus, and de Certeau. While the book does a good job of getting one excited about the concept of place and the return of the local, I had a hard time finding any particular thesis in the work. No Home is largely derivative of other work – more of a synthesis than an original contributions to the theology of place. Moreover, the book suffers from a lack of editing – e.g., whole sections are repeated, seemingly unintentionally. Nevertheless, Hjalmarson has rightly engaged perhaps the most important theological issue of the day. Clement of Alexandria said that the goal of life is coming to be at home with God – a state where there is no gap between knowing ourselves, knowing each other, and knowing God. Leonard Hjalmarson reminds us that wherever we are, we may be closer to home than we realize.