Over at Books & Culture, Halee Scott reviews Craig G. Bartholomew’s Where Mortals Dwell–a book on the importance of place in Christian theology. I won’t rehash all of her points, but this struck me:
Bartholomew notes that place has a formative influence on the lives of individuals throughout the Scriptures. Central to the Abrahamic narratives and much of the Pentateuch is the theme of journeying and the land; Abraham journeys through the wilderness to the land God promised, and the people of Israel wander through the desert after their release from Egypt. Likewise, God uses the desert as a formational place in the lives of Moses, the Israelites, and Jesus.
One implication of this, Scott notes, is that we should “care for our immediate environment, which begins with our home”:
Bartholomew advocates gardening and the “slow work” of homemaking such as making your own meals and replacing television dens with the front porch. Homes should also be smaller and more permanent. Since Christian institutions of higher learning already occupy a great deal of land, they ought to evaluate their use of the land and implement curriculum that teaches the importance of place and placemaking.
The idea is that we should care for the place we live, and that place will, in turn, nourish our own spiritual life. While this symbiotic relationship to place can be practiced in the city, it is (perhaps) easier to do in rural areas. Rod Dreher moved back to Louisiana last year for a number of reasons, but one of them was to regain a sense of community and connection. Patrick J. Deneen, who will be leaving Georgetown and D.C. mainly for professional reasons, also says this of his decision to move:
My wife and I hail from small towns, and both view our upbringings in those places as a deeply constitutive part of our worldview. We have sorely missed a sense of community in the DC area, a place where most of our lives’ activities are fragmented, often connected only by long car rides in heavy traffic. It has been a source of great dissatisfaction that our home life is so divorced from my vocation as a teacher and scholar. While teaching at Princeton, we frequently hosted dinners and gatherings of students; it was in the midst of those kinds interactions and colloquy that I wanted to raise our children. But, the reality of the D.C. area is that it is only possible for us to maintain a home relatively far from campus. This sense of fragmentation informs much of our daily lives – we have a set of very different spheres that rarely interact and overlap – home, work, schools, church, and so on. In the waning years that remain in which our children will live under our roof, I would like to give them that experience. This experience is palpably a part of the daily rhythm at Notre Dame.
I can sympathize with both Dreher and Deneen. My wife and I (and our four kids) live in the suburbs of Houston during the academic year. Houston has grown tremendously over the past fifty years, and there are many great things about the city that we love–great food, world-class arts, and beautiful parks. Yet, it has sometimes been difficult to develop a deep connection to the place we live for some of the same reasons that Deneen mentions. My wife, who is Swiss and comes from a family of farmers, carpenters and small-town pastors, has perhaps felt this lack of connection more than the rest of us.
Place is important, but another implication of the “Abrahamic narratives” is that God uses “journeying” to wean us from an attachment to this world and, significantly, build our inner spiritual life. Jesus himself had no place to live during his active ministry, and Peter reminds us that we are “sojourners and pilgrims” in this world. Why? So that we may “abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul.”
The adage of living in but not being of the world is applicable here. We should care for the places we live, and in so doing, they will, as Bartholomew suggests, nourish our spiritual life. At the same time, we need to be willing to live the life of sojourners, remembering that if place becomes the primary source of belonging and comfort, our homes will be at war with our souls.