Where You Live and Who You Are: Thoughts About The Importance of Place in Honor of Dr. John Patrick Harty
This post is written in honor of the birthday of my friend and former roommate, Dr. John Patrick Harty, premier cultural geographer of the western hemisphere, foremost authority on the legend of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, the man who has simultaneously existed in 1996 and 1997, mentor to Chuck Norris, and the last of the post-Cold War pinko Commies who secretly wish they could have married Sara Evans.
As a cultural geographer, world traveler, and brother in the Lord, John has, more than anyone else, made me aware of importance of place, not just to my spiritual life, but to the exercise of my humanity.
Happy Birthday, brother!
Have you ever considered that the shape of your spiritual life is influenced by the place that you live? Not just the culture, mind you—but the actual physical environment?
In Landscapes of the Soul: A Spirituality of Place, Robert Hamma provides the key thought for the biblical rationale for the importance of place. Citing the story of creation and the Garden of Eden, Hamma points out that Adam was created when the breath of God (Hebrew ruach: wind, life, spirit) was combined with “the dust of the earth” (Genesis 2:7). In other words, the first person was created out of the place God had made. Therefore, there is an intrinsic and fundamentally crucial connection between humankind and the environment. Ultimately, this is the Christian rationale for the importance of place—the importance of our surrounding natural environment—to our lives.
I don’t think most Christians realize this influence or importance. Many of us have failed to adequately recognize that the place in which we live greatly contributes to the person we are. How do we recover a rich sense of place? Of the importance of our natural environment? The central thesis of David Brown’s immensely learned and delightful book, God and Enchantment of Place: Reclaiming Human Experience is that “one way to recover enchantment [in relating to the world] and so recover a holistic view of how God relates to human experience in its totality is through a reinvigorated sense of the sacramental” (5). That is, we should recover the sense that the invisible is mediated through the visible and material. Since the environment itself is created by God and is visible and material, it—aside from the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist—is the primary means humankind has of experiencing his glory. Place—in all its variety—constantly surrounds us and we continually interact with it. Therefore, to neglect the importance of place is to neglect a fundamental spiritual resource.
Are you concerned that this emphasis on place—nature, the environment—is somehow unbiblical? Reformed Presbyterian T.M. Moore wrote a great book called Consider the Lilies: A Plea for Creational Theology. One of the main goals of Moore’s book is to dispel the misconception common among many American evangelicals that an experience of God mediated through nature is somehow out of step with historic Christianity. To many contemporary American Christians, the thought of contemplating nature for the sake of experiencing God is to throw your lot in with the heretical transcendentalists and pantheists (or–gasp!–the environmentalists!). The concern about the temptation to worship nature prevents many Christians from properly relating to it and enjoying it as a gift from God. Moore counters by citing historical examples of respected Christians who understand the role of contemplating nature in coming closer to God. No one theologian occupies more room in Consider the Lilies than the 18th century pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards, who referred to nature as “a capacious reservoir for discerning the glories of God” (25). Moore quotes Edwards: “I often used to sit and view the moon, for a long time; and so in the daytime, spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things: in the meantime, singing forth with a low voice, my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer” (27). This quote, along with myriad examples and biblical references, firmly establishes the careful contemplation and veneration of God through nature as clearly falling within the pale of Christian orthodoxy.
The place where you live is essential to who you are. The environment in which you live—the natural world around you—continually testifies to the glory of God (Psalms 19; Romans 1). Let’s stop neglecting the importance of place, the significance of our physical, natural environment. In doing so, we’re denying an essential part of our humanity.
Posted in Me