This article was first published in the Autumn 2015 issue of Bearings Magazine, a semi-annual publication of the Collegeville Institute.
In scripture, the first question God asks human beings is “Where are you?” The two are hiding in fear, having renounced their trust in God and their initial harmony with the place for which God made them. The rupture has changed their relationship with God, one another, and creation as a whole. “Where are you?” This question implies another: “Who are you?”
A place is not simply a spot on a map, a real estate listing, or a featureless cluster of square miles. Places are specific portions of earth where human beings have experienced life and glimpsed some dimension of its meaning. Places have stories. Further, how each community thinks about its location is shaped by prior stories. People do not come raw and culturally naked to a stretch of land, water, or pavement. Rather, they arrive with their minds and muscles already stocked with notions of how they might live there, and with images of life in place that over time can expand or contract or change altogether. In this period of heightened concern about earth’s well-being, human dislocation, and violent conflict over treasured places in many parts of the world, the stories that shape our sense of place matter immensely. Here the biblical stories that have formed us are especially valuable.
As the biblical narratives begin, God is providing places for creatures of every kind. For humans God provides a perfect fit. In a profoundly reciprocal relationship, the earth-creature of Genesis 2 is put into a garden, to till and keep it. Just as this creature needs the garden for sustenance, so the flourishing of the garden depends on this creature’s labors. Even after this original harmony is ruptured, yearning to return to the garden or something like it persists in the descendants of these tillers and keepers. The promise to the wandering Israelites that they will reach a land of milk and honey, and Jeremiah’s image of God’s people as a vineyard, articulate persistent yearnings for a fruitful place in which to work, rest, and thrive. The Israelites will make arduous journeys toward the place they have been promised, fight horrible battles for it, and establish earthly sovereignty over it. Yet their hold on the land is tenuous. As biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann has shown, the land yields blessing only when it is received as a gift, not when it is grasped as a possession.
Over time, and especially after the destruction of the temple in 587 BCE, an urban place also emerges as a focus for Jewish—and later in a different way for Christian—yearning. Through Isaiah God promises that when Jerusalem is restored, it will be a place where the people will know that they truly belong: “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit” (65:21). Neither biblical narratives nor actual history have ever allowed permanent and untroubled possession of either land or city. However, it is right and good, even godly, to long for them. Promises of places restored have shaped the deepest hopes of a people awaiting God’s final redemption. The Christian canon ends with a vision of the fulfillment of this longing, as a New Jerusalem descends upon the very earth where the people were once mere exiles.
Even so, within history it is impossible permanently to secure a place. As the eloquent narrative of Genesis 1-11 continues beyond the garden, it becomes evident that displacement is the fundamental human reality. Our forebears were men and women on the move, cast again and again into unfamiliar territory—banished from their first home, exiled for a brother’s murder, flooded off their farms, scattered across the earth after the collapse of a tower. Even the new start God offers Abram and Sarai in Genesis 12 requires them to undertake a strenuous lifelong journey. We humans have always been on the move, the narrative suggests. Scientists have come to the same conclusion after tracing evidence found in our genes and in prehistoric bones and pottery. Recorded history paints a similar picture.
Hebrew and Christian scriptures do not simply identify this aspect of the human condition, however. Both go on to make the human capacity for displacement an opportunity for God’s saving work. When Abraham answers God’s call, leaving a familiar home to undertake a long journey to an unknown land of promise, he initiates a saving pattern that recurs again and again. Ever after, Jews will be enjoined to remember that “a wandering Aramean was my ancestor” (Deuteronomy 26:5). In the Letter to the Hebrews, Christians, too, find in Abraham’s journey a model for their own. Indeed, highways and byways often turn out to be settings of transformation. The road becomes a liminal space, a site of instability that can become a place of healing. Only after forty years of wandering are the children of Israel ready to enter the promised land. Much later, it is on the road that Saul of Tarsus meets the Risen Christ. As Paul, apostle to the gentiles, he will spend the rest of his life moving from city to city sharing the good news. When he finally settles in Rome, he will open his home as a place of hospitality for other travelers.
God’s deep engagement in and for creation in all its earthy materiality and particularity is evident throughout scripture. In this sense, actual places always matter. Jesus’ parables draw hearers’ attention to farms, villages, and kitchens. The mountains, towns, and cities where the Gospels show him teaching and healing sit alongside recognizable waters and roads. That he was born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth, and crucified in Jerusalem—all real and richly-narrated places—matters immensely to the authors of the Gospels. The “where” in their accounts points graphically to the “who.” At the same time, this carefully placed Jesus was born while his parents were traveling far from home, and he understood himself as homeless. “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the son of man has no place to lay his head,” he says in Matthew’s Gospel (8:20).
Broadly considered, the most important place to which the New Testament texts witness is the material site where God’s deep engagement in and for creation is most fully manifest: the body of Jesus. This body didn’t merely change places constantly. Rather, it violated many established rules regarding place: Jesus crossed spatial boundaries between tribes; violated ritual boundaries between clean and unclean; and hung, exposed, outside the city gates. When the apostolic church began to carry his mission “to every nation,” his body—now understood as comprised of all the faithful, the church—was extended far beyond the specific places he had inhabited and his forebears had considered sacred. God is everywhere, the church proclaims, not only on the temple mount or in a specific land of promise. Christian faith does not require a pilgrimage to a distant holy site. It requires attendance at a table where bread is passed from hand to hand. At the same time, the urgent prayers of those who gather are for distant ones, not only for those within one small circle.
Places, storied bits of earth shared over time with others, are precious. Caring for them by tilling and keeping the soil, water, and air on which not only our own beloved places but all places depend is a crucial dimension of our human vocation—one to which the living are today summoned with special urgency. As we respond to this call, scripture helps us to see that this vocation entails letting go rather than tightening our grasp. No one owns a piece of land, a house, or even a backpack—the means of traversing place—forever. Even if we are not summoned away from places and possessions by vocation or historical change, we finally abandon them all in death. From earliest times, the holy places venerated by Christians have contained the bones of martyrs and saints, whose resting bodies simultaneously have sanctified a place and at the same time acknowledged that the human hold on all places is limited. Even as we foster care for place, then, a care based in the love of God, we also confess, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in every generation” (Psalm 90:1).
We need to commit ourselves to the care and well-being of all that is mortal—whether people, land, or home—while loving it in God rather than as an expression of our own desires. As we do so, we will continue to hear voices in scripture that remind us to remain open to the transformative potential of mobility, both hitting the road ourselves when called to do so and receiving generously those who find their way to our homeplaces. Whether we are in place or on the road, scripture will also prod us to remember that the neighbor is not only the one who is close at hand but also the one who is far off, perhaps even in a place we fear as enemy territory. And scripture will remind us, again and again, to repent of the false stories of domination, extraction, and consumption that have too often shaped our ways of taking up with places near and far.