The blog has been silent for exactly one month, primarily because I’ve been involved in gearing up for a new ministry position. My call has taken me to Kansas, and so this is my first blog posted outside of Kentucky! (Blogs, like swallows, may or may not be migratory.) In any event, much of my time over the last month has been spent in the various stages of moving: deciding what to pack, wondering why on earth I ever bought that, asking if I ever wore that horrible shirt, deciding what to donate, deciding what not to pack, labeling boxes, piling boxes onto a Uhaul in the snow and ice, taking said Uhaul to Kansas, and unloading it in the relative warmth of a late February in the Plains.
Clearly I didn’t take everything I owned with me on the move. Some things were left behind in my parents’ house, mainly because of their extreme sentimental value — I feared for their safety if they were forced to come with me. But I did pack up a lot of things directly related to my former place of residence: an old license plate, a newspaper, recognition of merit from state lawmakers, pictures of the mountains, and that sort of thing. Inasmuch as I still have those things, Kentucky is still with me.
All of this has me thinking about the theology of place. Do specific locations have theological significance? What makes a certain shrine or field or part of a temple holy? If the Holy Spirit dwells within us and makes our very bodies the temples of God (1 Corinthians 6:19), has God abandoned the idea of “dwelling” on his holy hill, as the psalmist says of Mount Zion? We may call Israel the Holy Land, but . . . is it? And if it is, what do we do with such a sacred space?
I think any talk of theology of place has to begin in the Old Testament’s portrayal of the Promised Land. (We could start in Eden, or even in the creation narrative itself, but I think this is a better spot.) When God calls Abram in Genesis 12, the first thing he commands the man to do is move. Leave. Pack up your belongings, your servants, your livestock, and your family and go. But go where? Go “to the land which I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). Later on, of course, this land is revealed to be the land of Canaan, flowing with milk and honey (and overflowing with Canaanites; slightly problematic). It’s interesting to note, though, that God had a very specific place in mind to begin his relationship with his chosen people and to establish a real community of faith. God can do whatever he wants, of course, and so he could have easily started a covenant with an Inuit or aboriginal Australian, but he didn’t. He chose a specific time in history and with it a specific place: the Ancient Near East. Mesopotamia. The Levant. Canaan. Israel.
Haven’t the foggiest. As the community of faith grows and Judaism expands, however, a possible reason emerges. Through the Torah, God establishes a set of practices designed specifically to keep the Israelites distinct from their surrounding people groups (Leviticus 18:3 and Deuteronomy 18:9, for example). It’s theoretically possible God claims space as sacred for the same reason: as long as the people maintain residence in a set geographic region, they remain separate from the peoples around them. That would make it easier for people to point to the hills to the west, for example, and go, “Over there? That’s where those people of Yahweh live. They live differently than we do.” (It’s significant to note also the specific provisions to care for the land contained in the Torah [but, like so many other things, that’s another topic for another day, and it’s an entire field of theology in its own right: creation care].) The land was different because of who was in it: people with a relationship with God.
This relationship was centered around the tabernacle, a movable tent which was carried through the wilderness into the promised land. I love the fact the tabernacle had specific instructions about how to be torn down, moved, and set up again. In a time where almost every god on the market was tied to a specific place, the tabernacle told a different story: this God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, was mobile. He went with you wherever you were. No required pilgrimages to some holy site; no specific residence where God set up shop (like Mount Olympus). No, Yahweh was a God who moved. So when they finally reached what would become Israel, God went with them, every step of the way.
From there, the rest of the Old Testament tells the same story: the specific land of Israel was sacred to God. His people lived in a space promised to them, and they knew it to be holy. This is one reason the exiles into Assyria, Babylon, and Persia were so devastating: God couldn’t be worshiped anywhere but his own land. The holy land. They had forgotten the lesson of the tabernacle. God was fixed in space, and they didn’t know how to worship him outside of that space. The result was devastating.
But all of that changed again. In a way that underscored the idea of mobility, God gave himself two fully-human feet and walked the earth beside his people. And when Jesus died, resurrected, ascended, and sent the Holy Spirit to us, everything changed. No longer was the mandate to worship at the temple in Jerusalem. The mandate was to go to all nations, to the very ends of the earth (Matt. 28:19-20; Acts 1:8). God was mobile again, and being in a specific place wasn’t necessary. Anyone, everyone, everywhere, could worship this God.
With that said, I still believe in a demarcation between spaces, if you will. God can be (and should be) worshiped everywhere, but there are certain locations that are simply more conducive to worship. My generation (i.e., the postmoderns) have adopted the notion that everything is sacred; there is no longer a sacred/secular or holy/profane distinction or dichotomy. Well, frankly, I disagree. Strongly. To borrow from The Incredibles, if everything is sacred, nothing is. Will everything be redeemed and made holy at the end as God claims his own? Yes. But that time is not now. Right now, you can enter certain locations and feel the profanity. Evil spirits and the like are still very much a reality, and the demonic has much of creation in its grip. Should we engage in some sort of territorial (also called strategic level) spiritual warfare? I’m not so sure. Should we go into the dark places of the earth and be light? Oh yes. But at the end of the day, there are still some places which are simply evil (porn studios come to mind, as do places where people are bought and sold into slavery), just as there are some places which are also good and holy (churches should be in this category — sadly, not all of them are).
Are those places sacred simply because they happen to be in Kansas? Kentucky? Jerusalem? Doubtful. I’d say they are sacred because they’re where the people of God seek his face and his peace showers down upon them. They’re holy because the Holy One is at work there in special ways. So even though I may be in Kansas now, I’m still somewhere God is at work, and I’m still somewhere I can be at work for God. When all is said and done, that just might be the only theology of location that matters.