The desire to make and dwell in places in a life-giving way is part of our creaturely makeup. Being made in the image of God, we seek creative ways to cultivate the world around us. Genesis 2 details the first humans as placemakers — gardening, naming, and forming relationships with both God and one another in the natural environment.
But sin mars the story of creation and so our relationship to places.
A theology of place that considers this question too lightly is overly nostalgic, incomplete, and incapable of engaging with the contemporary problems of place. If the problem of sin is interpreted too harshly, though, we fail to recognize the ways in which our own work might align with that of the Holy Spirit, participating in the kingdom work of God here in the places of creation. What does a Christian sense of place look like, then, that properly considers our sins of place?
A Christian sense of place requires an honest and critical engagement with both history and present spatial systems. When we take a critical look at the history of Christian placemaking practices, it is hard to maintain a rose-colored view. Theologian Willie James Jennings, for instance, recounts the ways in which the white European church operated on what he calls a “diseased imagination,” building the church and its theological systems on the displacement of people from land and community. These practices were grounded in a misreading of the doctrine of creation, which saw dominion, mastery, and manifest destiny for the elect people of God as the catalyst for exclusion, racism, and mistreatment of both land and people. A redeemed sense of place must both lament this historical past and re-assess the theological ideas upon which it was built in order to establish a more just placemaking practice for the future.
A Christian sense of place seeks complexity and clarity. Farmer-poet Wendell Berry argues in his new book The Need to be Whole that the problems we face in North America today ask not simply for the “right” side to “win,” for justice sees no losers. Instead, we must seek clarity, which acknowledges the necessary complexity of the problems of place and in doing so opens up space for a renewed imagination. Place never operates on a limited frame — our sins within it are never siloed, never separate, never disentangled from the human and nonhuman life that operates within it. Very rarely will this mean a sole focus on an individual’s sin, as the power of sin operates on a larger scale in these networks in ways we must not neglect.
A Christian sense of place must embrace the full work of the Holy Spirit, which both places and displaces. The Holy Spirit clarifies, orders, and inspires, while at the same time disrupting older patterns of behavior and thought. Scripture often implicitly reveals the tension at play when the Spirit moves. People are called to leave one place for another. One’s own traditions, relations, and stories are abandoned for new ways of imagining the kingdom of God. Some groups of people are displaced for the homemaking of another. These texts become ripe for misuse when interpreted with over simplification, though. European colonizers, for instance, used biblical models for their practices of theft, slavery, and land abuse. But sometimes older patterns of behavior do need to be disrupted and done away with, and we must listen for the Spirit of God to understand when this is the case.
While these are not the only features of a Christian sense of place, they are central to re-imagining right relationships and practices in light of human sin and brokenness. Failing to understand the ways that our imagination wanders from the promises of God will only harden the soil further, impeding good work in the places of creation. But upon such a proper accounting and lament of our proclivities toward sin alongside a hopeful vision of the redemptive power of Christ in us, we might begin to open up new conversations and practices for what it means to be placemakers for the kingdom of God on earth.