Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today
by Craig G. Bartholomew
Baker, 384 pages, $29.99
The ability to “escape from place” is profoundly entrenched in America’s national narrative—and in millions of personal narratives—as a tremendous blessing, if not a right. The small towns from which we hail are stifling. The suburbs soulless. The countryside isolating. The urban ethnic enclave smothering. There is a better place for us down the Interstate. A place where people will understand us, where we can grow, move up, succeed, be happy.
Not surprising, then, that drawing connections between geographic mobility and social challenges—environmental destruction, the socioeconomic decline of Middle America, the breakdown of the family, declining civic participation—can be regarded as a form of treachery. Pointing out the dangers of a too-mobile society risks giving personal offense, rather like lamenting rising divorce rates to a husband who has just had to take up residence at the Holiday Inn. Everyone has been mobile—or wants to be.
To think in terms of place is also to be skeptical of ideology. Postwar American conservatism arose in part as a reaction to the universal (and universalizing) concepts, from liberalism to communism, that dominated twentieth-century thought and were insensitive to, even dismissive of, the historical, geographical, and flesh-and-blood particularities of real places. But postwar conservatism eventually began to adopt an alternative kind of universalist discourse, too, especially when it needed to translate its ideas into political proposals.
A new wave of particularists—many of them Christian—has renewed the attack on ideological universalisms. For them, the exploration and analysis of “place” as a proper horizon for human thinking and practices—and specifically, answering the question of what we may owe to the places we inhabit—has become a crucial intellectual project. This is one context, at least, in which Craig G. Bartholomew’s Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today can be considered.
Where Mortals Dwell apparently had its start as a course Bartholomew teaches at Redeemer University College in Ontario, where he is a professor of philosophy and theology. A not-quite-fully-synthesized collection of citations, quotations, reflections, fragments of arguments, and insights from a variety of schools and thinkers, it nevertheless provides a valuable overview of the place of place, so to speak, in the Bible and in the Christian tradition.
Place, as he freely confesses, “is a rich, thick concept which is notoriously difficult to define.” If sometimes it is too big and slippery to be analytically or exegetically useful, it often illuminates, and is itself illuminated by, Holy Scripture.
We see right away, in Genesis, that sin displaces. Bartholomew points out that to return from that exile to our “native land” or “home”—to a state of implacement, in his preferred terminology—provides the narrative framework of the entire Old Testament, with sin constantly presenting an obstacle to that achievement. From Cain onward, right relationship with God is also mirrored by a fruitful relationship with the land, for both rural and urban dwellers, and vice versa.
“Wisdom,” he concludes, “can and does lead to implacement and placial flourishing” in the Old Testament. He turns, for example, to the beautifully incarnational Song of the Valiant Woman (Proverbs 31). “In the history of interpretation readers have struggled with this passage because her activities appear to be so worldly,” he notes, “but this is precisely the point: it is in and through her rich implacement that she manifests wisdom.” Her detailed local knowledge is the foundation on which her skills, creativity, and prudence rest. The result is a happy, prosperous, virtuous, and even godly family.
But place is of fundamental importance in virtually all indigenous religions, with their sacred mountains and rivers and caves. Doesn’t this start to change with the discovery of the biblical God—and decisively change with the incarnation of Christ? Aren’t the holy places of Israel simply a theological way-station between the pantheistic pagan cosmos and the desacralized world of Christianity?
Bartholomew argues to the contrary, claiming that Christ’s teaching redeems all places precisely by extending sacred space beyond Israel—beyond the limited space inhabited by any particular nation or people—to the whole of creation. It does not destroy the theological significance of spatial particularity, but situates it precisely within the context of the one God’s universal dominion. It is not that no mountain is now sacred; every mountain is now sacred. That is not a distinction without a difference.
The third beatitude, for instance, which promises to the meek that they shall inherit the earth, must, whatever its other meanings, be taken as having a “clear placial referent” to this earth. Similarly, Jesus’ petition that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, though it “has a clear future, eschatological reference, . . . does not conflict with a desire to see signs of the kingdom now.” Jesus’ hearers would have understood “world” as meaning the world as a collection of particular places now made sacred, not as an abstraction.
It is true that without Christ, fallen human beings can never find or build a perfect home—can never become fully implaced—but with Christ they not only can, but will. Christ’s universality—the “universal perspective of the kingdom”—is, Bartholomew notes, “precisely what gives poignancy and density to the local and the particular.” Our obligation is to image heaven by working to build a home here that not only points to, but in some mysterious way is already part of, the greater home to be realized in the fullness of time.
“Just as the presence of the Holy One among the Israelites was to permeate every aspect of their lives, so now,” after Christ’s redemption of the world, “this is how it is to be throughout the creation, as groups of followers live the life of the kingdom in their particular places,” writes Bartholomew. The way of the cross is localized and placed in the everyday, the mundane.
Bartholomew does not directly engage many contemporary Christian place-skeptics—those who agree, for example, with Michael Novak that whatever diminishment of place it may cause, globalization has made these “the best of times for those committed to solidarity.” Or those who counsel, with Peter Augustine Lawler (and perhaps with Walker Percy), that humanity’s cosmic “homelessness,” a result of the Fall, means that we must remain aloof from attempts to become “too much at home” on this earth.
Or those who agree with Daniel T. Griswold that the relative placelessness wrought by globalization and easy migration is a small price to pay in light of the “cooperation and tolerance across racial, ethnic, and religious divides” that are its alleged results. Or those who are persuaded by the explicitly Protestant view of Max Stackhouse and Nancy Pearcey that taking a high view of the integrity of the natural world is to risk embracing a progress-retarding Aristotelian and Thomistic teleology, and possibly even an “ontocratic” paganism.
Bartholomew’s occasional asides about “the three great places of Genesis—land, sea, and sky” as existing “under [ecological] threat from human-kind,” or about the “industrialization of the food system” are unlikely to win him much credibility with such readers. I do not believe that these lamentations (and there are quite a lot of them) are wrongheaded. Pope Benedict XVI himself has said that an “industrial use of creatures, so that geese are fed in such a way as to produce as large a liver as possible, or hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds, this degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.”
In the final section of his book, Bartholomew discusses a wide array of practical measures for Christians to consider. He does not lack for ideas. He recommends, for example, some of the ideas of Notre Dame architecture professor Philip Bess, an orthodox Catholic and leading New Urbanist, who has argued that parishes or congregations ought to consider building new churches as components of new mixed-use neighborhoods. He suggests that there may be wisdom in the old “practice of giving our house a name.”
He challenges Christian colleges and universities to “facilitate reflection on place” and to place a high value on the development of a professoriate that is visibly committed to the surrounding community and knowledgeable and respectful of its history. Christians “have a vested interest in the creation of public memorials and public art that redemptively evokes our history and enables us to imagine what we might, with God’s help, become.”
The American exit-as-blessing narrative is a half-truth that finds little support in a theologically informed reading of the Bible. Yes, places can become too burdened with pain and disorder—too toxic—for certain inhabitants to flourish there. But that does not make the desire for “implacement,” and for the redemption of our individual places, a romantic mistake. Some families are abusive, suffocating, and stifling, to the point where leaving them becomes the best choice, yet few serious Christian thinkers advocate that we abandon the quixotic attempt to create loving and stable families. It is not clear why place-making should be treated any differently.
It is through the loving stewardship of particular places that we follow Christ. Precisely because we are redeemed in our particularity, a commitment to our places must limit and qualify our universalisms and thirst for unrestricted mobility, not the other way around.
Jeremy Beer is a founding editor of Front Porch Republic.