Where Am I? The Middle-Class Crisis of Place
Craig Bartholomew, a philosophy professor at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, has been at work on a curious topic. "When people ask what I'm working on, and I say, 'place,' I get a blank stare," Bartholomew says. But examples help. "The home is a place, the city is a place, the university is a place, the mall is a place, and the placial dynamic of all these places must be attended to for people to flourish."
To exist at all, we must be somewhere. And as embodied creatures, we are implaced in specific contexts. Yet in contemporary culture, this aspect of human existence is threatened by what Bartholomew calls a "crisis of place" created by several elements of our technological society. To fully flourish as human beings—and to flourish as entire communities—Bartholomew argues, we need to recover the lost art of placemaking.
On behalf of the City project, Halee Gray Scott recently interviewed Bartholomew about his work, Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today, newly out from Baker Academic.
In your book, you not only provide a biblical and theological discussion of the concept of place, but do so in a way that addresses the crisis of place in contemporary culture. What's the nature of the crisis?
What we are experiencing in our world is a wide sense of displacement, which does not lead to human flourishing. Outside Christian circles, the literature on the crisis of place is huge, but within Christianity, it's only starting to get attention.
Contemporary life roots against this deep implacement through the speed of culture, technology, the automobile, and the state of economics. The middle class is always on the go through places and are not generally deeply rooted in a particular place.
When I travel I have opportunities to see new places, but many are all the same corporate chain stores that we have here in Hamilton. Everything is monochrome. All the houses look the same, and houses are not viewed as homes but as assets. Wendell Berry wrote that "a house for sale is not a home." It is not wrong to move, but if we want to flourish as humans, the house must become a home, not an economic asset.
I want to wake Christians up to the crisis and have them take off their blinders. We are out of touch with what is going on. Christians haven't led the way on this issue. Non-Christians are capable of enormous insight and in a sense, we have to catch up.
What contributes to Christians' blinders?
The diagnosis is that we have lost a robust doctrine of creation. Place is rooted in the doctrine of creation. If we recover that doctrine of creation and see the wonderful redemption in Christ as God recovering his purposes for his whole creation, then suddenly all these issues—like city, home, gardening, and farming—are spiritual and thus not second-rate.
Of the several hundred thousand churches in the United States, many are property owners. Just imagine if each of these churches attended closely to their property as a place and develop it in healthy—not necessarily expensive—ways. This would make a major contribution to the commons of our culture and bear plausible witness to Christ. Just as the creation constantly declares God's goodness and power (Psalm 19), so too our places would continually bear witness to this extraordinary God who has come to us in Christ.
Are urban churches the exception to this?
Of course, churches are people and not only places, but it is normal for a church to have a place. You can have a family without a home, but it is not good for a family to not have one. It is good for a church that is growing to have its own building to attend to.
Being a person means having a connection to multiple places, and that needs to develop in ways that bring human flourishing and bring glory to God. Downtown urban churches may be more in touch with their place, and it may be because it is so obvious they are impoverished placially. It is a broken urban center that the church is trying to help in contrast to the middle-class suburban church.
Is the renewed interest in spiritual formation, the spiritual disciplines, or liturgical practices related to our knowing there's a crisis of place?
Absolutely. And there are so many ways you can point this out. In the book, I note that if you want to take place seriously, you have to slow down. You have to learn to be still and attentive. Because slowness, waiting, and stillness are fundamental to the practice of Christian spirituality.
As an academic, it is easier for me to read about spirituality but spirituality is about practice—habitual practice is the formative part. The father of monasticism, Benedict, said that placial stability is important. To grow really deeply into Christ, you need to stay in one place.
What spiritual disciplines would serve to keep a Christian community more aware of and connected to their neighborhood?
Take time to stand and stare. We are in a situation where people do not see their house or their neighborhood because those are things we pass through. If you want to learn about your neighborhood, take a walk around it. Most suburban developments are not designed for walkers. We continue to build huge box houses—ironically a meter from one another but don't facilitate community—people open the garage and go into the house where they are sealed off from the rest of the world.
Pay attention to your house as a home and ask how you can develop it to promote the flourishing of its occupants. For example, pay attention to the interior décor—where the TV is placed, the colors, the artwork, and so on. Have a good look at your garden. Is it full of pesticide with the immaculate lawn, or is it a place of tranquility for humans, plants, and animals, with porous borders that enclose and yet open out onto your neighborhood?
The challenge of placemaking today should not be underestimated. We are at war against ourselves as my friend, engineer Bill Vanderburg, points out in his recent book (Our War on Ourselves: Rethinking Science, Technology, and Economic Growth). The very things we aspire to—the big suburban plots, the double garage, the two cars—the goals of middle-class life are easily the very things that get in the way of human flourishing.
What spiritual disciplines will help us better see our city's beauty and brokenness?
The more deeply we are centered in Christ, the more we will be able to be attentive to what is in our own backyard. In his book Until Justice and Peace Embrace, Nicholas Wolterstorff notes that we spend most of our working lives in the midst of cities, but we are not attentive to them to see if they are places of human flourishing. What will it take for us to become more attentive? Becoming more focused and more concerned about our neighbor—not the box house next door but poor people struggling to survive in the inner city.
We need a spirituality that will undermine Western individualism.
I hope this book will stimulate much more work and practice in this area, but also that people will sense the joyful possibilities of placemaking. You don't have to wait to start practicing place in a healthy today.
Halee Gray Scott teaches spiritual formation and leadership at Wesley Seminary and theology at A. W. Tozer Seminary.
Christianity Today magazine recently reviewed Where Mortals Dwell.