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Recovering a Theology of Place

We so rarely know where we really are. We drive around in cars, spend our days under fluorescent lights in artificially re-circulated air, staring at screens and moving so quickly from task to task the actual location where all this happens hardly matters. We move from the city of our birth to another, and then another, and another, following education, jobs, and opportunities.

We so rarely know where we really are.

A frequently quoted statistic observes that most children can name over 1,000 corporate logos but very few local plants and animals. I suspect that is still true for many of us, no matter how old we are. This kind of mobility and geographic amnesia is a hallmark of privilege—to have options. But with those options comes a cost, and the cost is this: we have lost the stories of the places we inhabit.

There are theological ramifications to this, because place matters in our story of faith. We could trace the entire history of God’s dealings with human beings through key place names: Eden, Egypt, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Galilee, Golgotha. The story of God’s people is a story rooted in particular people in precise locations. Our modern-day oblivion to the places we live is symptomatic; we also overlook the importance of place in our theology.

We could trace the entire history of God’s dealings with human beings through key place names.

I learned a lot about this at a seminar I attended this summer at Calvin College led by Dr. Willie James Jennings, author of The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race.

In his book, Jennings explains that one of the key losses of colonialism and the forced enslavement of African peoples was the loss of place-based identity. Instead of identity being rooted in the rich texture of a specific community in a particular geography, it became reduced to one thing only—the colour of skin: “native identities, tribal, communal, familial, and spatial, were constricted to simply their bodies” (43).

Now you were not Igbo, from a community in West Africa that contained mothers, grandmothers, uncles, and cousins sharing life near a river, you were (after the horror of the Middle Passage) just “black.” You were not Cree, Apache, Blackfoot, Mi’kmaq, or Okanagan, rooted in tribal identity and raised with stories that taught you how to live on the land of your people; you were just an “Indian.” And with that profound simplification of identity that separated people from their land and put white Europeans at the top of an imagined hierarchy, a distorted understanding of peoples and places became embedded in our theology to the point where we now see this separation and this hierarchy as normal (if we see it at all).

Now you were not were just “black.”

Those of us of white European descent should listen, and listen hard, to the voices of Indigenous peoples and the stories they tell about their places, their histories, and their faith. We created this wound, and cannot heal without them. We need a rich sense of communal identity, where peoples and animals, plants and waters work together in the same kind of life-giving, community of love modeled for us by the Trinity. Without that, we impoverish our faith and our relationships with one another. Rather than a community of blessing, each calling out gifts of the other, we see ourselves instead as cut off, fragmented, competitors living in an increasingly fast-paced and superficial world.

Perhaps recovering a robust theology of place is one way to move beyond the divisions that plague us today. How can we do that?

  • Re-read the Bible through the lens of place. Notice how and where and why places matter in the story of God’s intervention in human history.
  • Listen to the voices of those whose story includes the loss of place-based identity as a result of colonialism and be willing to re-think your theological assumptions. Learn about the first peoples and the treaties of your town, city, state, or province. (Check out to get started and learn how to acknowledge the territory you stand on here.)
  • Get to know the place you live and the rich diversity of creation God has surrounded you with. Whether you live on a farm or in the middle of the city, there are plants and animals everywhere around you. Find out the names for the trees and birds you see most often.

My place is Edmonton, Alberta, and I have lived here for over eleven years. Before I moved to Canada from the United States, I had never once heard a treaty acknowledgment at the start of a public ceremony. Now I am very aware that I live on Treaty 6 land, specifically in the southeast area of Edmonton called Mill Woods.

This was once the Papaschase Cree Indian Reserve before the city annexed it.

This was once the Papaschase Cree Indian Reserve before the city annexed it; multiple land claims by the Papaschase have been rejected by the courts. I am still asking myself what justice and reconciliation look like here, in this place. For me, it begins with knowing the truth of this land’s story.

And it is a beautiful land. From where I sit right now, I see the clematis growing up the front of our balcony, with the tall white spruce next door allowing just enough sun for it to thrive, along with the crowd of peonies, irises, and tiger lilies at its feet. The birds love our Snowbird Hawthorn tree, and we’ve had red-breasted nuthatches, house finches, black-capped chickadees, and even a merlin come to visit, along with lots of house sparrows.

For me, it begins with knowing the truth of this land’s story.

It gets cold here. This year, we had snow several times in September, but the skies are so bright blue they provide the perfect backdrop for an ever-changing landscape of clouds, and there are more than enough warm months to let us grow carrots, potatoes, zucchini, beans, beets, and tomatoes in the rich soil of our backyard garden. It is a land that holds both the bounty of these creatures and also the pain of those who were forcibly removed from it. I wonder sometimes how it can hold such contrary things at the same time.

Perhaps recovering a theology of place begins to answer that wondering. We root our lives in Christ, who became incarnate in time and place, holds all things on earth together, and calls us to live as sisters and brothers together in confession, humility, and also in hope. As Jennings reminds us:

“If Christian existence stands on nothing greater than the body of one person, then it could be that the only way for Christian communities to move beyond cultural fragmentation and segregated mentalities is to find a place that is also a person, a new person that each of us and all of us together can enter into, and possibly become.” (249)

This is the second post in our The Land We Stand On series. Read Dr. Sylvia Keesmaat's first post, and sign up to make sure you don't miss a post!

[Photo by Mir Ali on Unsplash]

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