This World IS My Home:
A Theology of Place
Dr. Mark Eckel,
Professor of Old Testament
Crossroads Bible College, Indianapolis, IN
“We live in virtual relationships,” Kaycee lamented. Russ added, “We serve Facebook, rather than allowing Facebook to serve us.” “We only have so much time,” Katie rightly ascertained, “Only so much emotion to give. Can we continue far-flung relationships with those whom we no longer live near?” The Christian thinker Sertillanges spoke in 1920 about the issues these students raised in the 21st century:
Avoid, even with these, the excessive familiarity which drags one down and away from one’s purpose; do not run after news that occupies the mind to no purpose; do not busy yourself with the sayings and doings of the world, that is with such as have no moral or intellectual bearing; avoid useless comings and goings which waste hours and fill the mind with wandering thoughts.
I was struck by the students’ acknowledgement, the unstated need, for relationship in proximity. How much do we have need for longevity in a place to build physical, visible relations with others? How necessary is the day-in-day-out connection with folks who know us best, in all our moods, situations, and interactions?
The intentional choice to live a long time in one place, Sertillanges contends, is “the first association of the intellectual . . . with his fellows.” We think alone but we must think together. Mobile moderns, however, are not establishing roots in communities. As the Indianapolis Star reported,
While promotions or new, better-paying jobs typically mean new wealth, the increasingly rootless habits of Americans has come at a price, leading to declining participation in neighborhood organizations and local politics and frayed connections to the community at large. “The overall impetus in society is towards mobility, of searching for prosperity,” said Scott Russell Sanders, author of the book Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World. “(But) we are so enamored of mobility that we don’t recognize what is being lost in the process.”
Michael Pollan in his book A Place of My Own declares that ground is “sacred” that each of us looks for a “privileged place” which is “invested with meaning.” What is necessary is a place.
“Sacred places” began with “the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Yahweh gave land to Israel (Genesis 12:1-3), “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27), where boundary stones would secure “a place of my own” for Israelites (Deuteronomy 19:14; 27:1). In an early response to care of creation Heaven’s injunction included, “Are the trees of the field people that you should besiege them?” (Deuteronomy 20:19). One of Judah’s great kings Uzziah was said to have “loved the soil” (2 Chronicles 26:10). When God’s original intention is restored ”every man will sit under his own fig tree” (Micah 4:4) culminating in “the New Heavens and Earth” (Revelation 21:1).
The students’ concern about enjoying relationships in a place targets the world they know—virtual and technological. The necessity of rootedness continues to be necessary for us all, to have our place. From Genesis to Revelation, it seems God intention is not for mobility but for the consistent universal cry for a place to call our own. For instance, take the following multiple choice quiz:
- A first grader will usually take better care of something (a) she was given by her parents (b) that belongs to someone else (c) she purchased with her own money.
- Who generally takes better care of land? (a) environmentalists (b) government agencies (c) the land owner.
- Stability in this life is perhaps best anchored to (a) money (b) power (c) community.
Depending on one’s views of human nature, each of us might answer a certain way. For my part, I would argue for the last answer in each question. I believe the closer one’s ties to place, the more one will contend and care for physical property. Movies such as Places in the Heart, The River, Fried Green Tomatoes, or The Field might offer visual examples of people who care deeply enough for place, that they will invest their lives for it.
Connection to people and place has its origins in Genesis. God uses wordplay in Genesis 1-3 to suggest the importance of the connection between adam (man) and adamah (ground). We are tied directly to the ground. God created ground (Genesis 1:10) establishing the physical basis upon which creatures would live life on the ground (1:25). The ground belonged to God which He sustained with water (2:3-6). Man was brought from the ground to work the ground (2:5). The ground would then produce food for human sustenance and pleasure (2:9).
After sin, maintenance of the ground (2:15) brought with it hardship (3:17) and relocation for production (3:23). Before sin, man brought fruit up from the ground (2:5, 9). After sin, man would go down to the ground (3:19). However, while the ground was cursed, man was not (3:17). Crops from the ground were to be given as a physical display of thanks to The One who gave it (4:2-3). While its productivity was withheld as a punishment for the criminal (4:11-12, 14), the ground even allowed shed blood to bear witness of crime (4:10-11). The curse of the ground by God was not left without its comfort or “rest” brought by Noah whose name means just that—“rest” (Gen 5:29). The destruction of the ground (7:23) would not be done again (8:21). Even Noah is called “a man of the ground” (9:20). And from this lineage would come Abram through whom “all peoples of the ground would be blessed” (Gen 12:3).
John Milton called it Paradise Lost; being displaced from our place in the Garden of Eden. What was lost, however, will be regained, the ground retained. Not only will believers be fully restored to their original state as “Adam,” but the ground (“adamah”) too will be returned as “the garden of Eden”. Since Genesis two we have been rooted to the ground. We have a place and know our place. We invest in our place. Place is property and ownership. Place demands a boundary. Place identifies individuality and nationality. Place must be protected. Place can be holy or a memorial. Without a place we are lost, nomads, “a man without a country.” Because we are linked to a place we will fight for it.
Owning a piece of ground produces thoughtful reflection. All people should be reminded where they came from (the ground) and where they are going to (the ground). We are participants with God in managing the creation. Having a “home” is important to everyone. Community necessitates a place. To be in community with others, The Church’s place is to know its place—its setting, its neighbors, its culture, its locale. For the believer “this world IS my home, I’m NOT just passin’ through,” contrary to the gospel tune.
Does one’s identity depend upon a cause and ultimately, a place? George Eliot examines the theme in her book Daniel Deronda. An oft quoted line (included, for example, as the frontice frame to the movie Gods and Generals) she presses the issue of identity and place:
A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of earth, for the labours men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, and kindly acquaintance with all neighbours, even to the dogs and donkeys, may spread not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as a sweet habit of the blood . . . The best introduction to astronomy is to think of the nightly heavens as a little lot of stars belonging to one’s own homestead.
God’s intention for humans was a linkage to their origin, the ground. The young must learn that personal cost heightens personal responsibility. Landowners have a vested interest in caring for the land where they live than any outside group. Communities spring up because there is a common commitment to place by the people who live there. Any permanence that can be acknowledged in this life is tied to the ground we walk, the property we own. The piece of land we call our own will survive us; we who have but seventy to eighty years of life to live. It would seem clear that our best efforts on this earth, in this life should focus on loving our neighbor by creating from our place so that provisions of food and shelter would be abundant. Yet, beyond our current responsibilities toward others, we must prepare our place for the next generation and the next generation for our place. Only then, will our offspring be able to properly answer the multiple choice quiz.
 A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods. Translated from the French by Mary Ryan. Forward by James V. Schall. Reprint, Catholic University of America Press, 1998, p. 47.
 Ibid, p. 54.
 “Career-driven moves fray families’ sense of place,” Indianapolis Star 30 Oct 05.
 Michael Pollan, A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder. Random House, 1997, pp. 51, 41, 39.
 Genesis 28:14-15; cf. 1 Kings 8:34, 40; 13:34; 14:15; 2 Kings 21:8; 25:21; Nehemiah 10:37.
 Ezekiel 36:24-30, 35; cf. Jeremiah 31:33-34; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Hebrews 8:8-12.
 George Eliot. 1876, 1984. Daniel Deronda. Harmondsworth, p. 50.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com