Last week, in regard to my post on Christo’s land art, Jim and I began a discussion on the relationship between people and place, and how that might be explored through art (such as Christo’s land art). In particular, he asked why I thought the relationship between people and place was theologically significant. Because that question sort of opens up a whole new can of worms, I thought I might explore a few of those issues in a new post.
First, we might ask a more general question about the theological significance of place itself. There are mountains of writing on this topic in recent years, so I won’t try to give a comprehensive explanation by any means. Basically, though, I think place is seen as theologically significant for these reasons:
1. Particularity of Place: Place is by its very nature particular, and is often differentiated from the more abstract notion of “space”. We live in specific places and times and this affects who we are and what we do (and how we relate to God, for that matter). There seems to be a picture of God embracing the particularities of the created world in scripture—this reaches it’s ultimate climax in the Incarnation of Christ in the land of Israel at a particular time in history.
2. Place as Gift and Calling: In the book of Genesis and throughout the Bible, we are called to cultivate the earth and treat the land responsibly as a gift. Place is important from a theological perspective because it is through particular places that we act within the created world as a whole. In valuing place, then, we are fulfilling part of our calling as human beings living in the world made by God.
3. Place as Center of Meaning: In scripture and in our everyday experience, we experience place as a center of meaning and identity. For example, the Jerusalem Temple was seen as the center not only of everyday life for the Israelites, but also as the center of the world itself. We even later find medieval maps that place Jerusalem as the center of the known world (both physically and symbolically). In relation to the religious significance of place, Mark Wynn talks about the ability of place to” image microcosmically the significance of the created order as a whole.” It does this because it functions as the particular center of meaning of our knowledge of the world and our understanding of the world spreads out from there. Our identity is also intimately related to this notion of place as center. For instance, our sense of identity and belonging in place might be said to radiate out from a specific house or neighborhood, town, county, state, country, then world.
Connected to these points, and bringing us to the specific topic of the relationship of people and place, is the fact that place is relational, to use John Inge’s term from his Christian Theology of Place. He describes place as “the seat of relations and of meeting and activity between God and the world.”  Throughout scripture, we see a three way relationship between God, people, and place, which suggests not only that God values using the particular in his interactions with us, but also that places are important in the way that we experience and understand God.
Ultimately, then, place is theologically significant because of the role God affords it in his interactions with us on earth, as well the centrality of place for our own sense of identity with, our actions within, and our experience and understanding of the world in which we live.
Would you consider anything else when thinking about place from a theological perspective? And in connection with the previous post, do you think the arts might help us understand some of these aspects of place better, which may, in turn, affect our religious understanding of it (for instance, art might give us insight into the particularity of place in various ways, etc)? How one approaches the theological or religious significance of place may result in different emphases. I point out these issues, then, as a helpful start to the discussion on place in a theological/religious context.
 Inge, Christian Theology of Place, 68.
Photo: taken by author.