The importance of place

One thing I haven’t posted much on is “place”. A theology of place. A psychology of spaces. The personal significance of geography. It’s something a few others have thought about a lot and is one of those things that I has always been important to me, even though I never realized it.

It’s come up in three different pieces I’ve come across lately and struck me as very profound. I don’t have much to say about it now, so I’m just collecting snippets. Who knows, maybe it will take years to digest, like a lot of things.

Here, in C.S. Lewis’s autobiography, he talks about distance and how the automobile and quick travel has destroyed our sense of place. What good is a long pilgrimage now?

I number it among my blessings that my father had no car, while yet most of my friends had, and sometimes took me for a ride. This meant that all these distant objects could be visited just enough to clothe them with memories and not impossible desires, while yet they remained ordinarily as inaccessible as the Moon. The deadly power of rushing about wherever I pleased had not been given me. I measured distances by the standard of man, man walking on his two feet, not by the standard of the internal combustion engine. I had not been allowed to deflower the very idea of distance; in return I possessed “infinite riches” in what would have been to motorists “a little room.” The truest and most horrible claim made for modern transport is that it “annihilates space.” It does. It annihilates one of the most glorious gifts we have been given. It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation and pilgrimage and adventure than his grandfather got from traveling ten.

-C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Hope, p.157

I want to take a walking pilgrimage if, for no other reason, just to regain a sense of this. I am certain this is why some people enjoy hiking.

This sort of travel power also created the modern American suburbs, broke apart church and family relationships from their geographical chains. Not all chains are evil. Perhaps we function best as human beings within their restrictions.

I’ve mentioned before that GPS and global mapping is the last nail in the coffin on this. There is no longer an unexplored jungle or mountain. You can pick out individual bushes and shrubs on the side of mount Olympus from the safety of your laptop and Google Earth.

If some people are so adamantly against the idea of a virtual/internet church, I suspect it’s more because of the breakdown of a sense of place than because communication is really so stifled by it. Its proponents have proven that communication is often enhanced. They (the opponents) often don’t appeal to the sense of place though. It sounds silly, like religiosity. But Lewis, Tolkien, and the other Inklings weren’t afraid to appeal to it. They realized how powerful it was.

For the record, I’m against virtual/internet church for most of the typical reasons given, though I’m certainly FOR some aspects of it. Am I not blogging right now? I think I’ll move “sense of place” out of the shadows now though and near the top of the list.

Shifting gears, Travis Prinzi mentioned this piece by Caleb Stegal. It’s full of insight.

It is more and more difficult for us to imagine making Odysseus’s choice to forsake eternity for home. Liberalism’s ideas have consequences—from widespread divorce to mass marketing to spaghetti interchanges—but those consequences also shape ideas, reinforcing the frame of mind that gave birth to them. They break our ties to imagination, to craft, to the land, and to the shop, so that our cities and pastures alike are blighted. Because we have repeatedly bowed at the altar of convenience, we are isolated from the very things that would feed and nourish our imagination. It should be no wonder that civil society has largely lost its ability to mediate between the individual and society at large. It should be no wonder that people live with a vague sense of lostness. We have become a people without a place.

Individualism. Consumerism Separation from family, friends, and neighbors. Our technology (cheap cars, planes, telecommute, quick financing for real estate sales, well-stocked supermarkets, etc.) increasingly facilitates this. We are so mobile. We change jobs, schools, careers, cars, real estate, and even spouses at a fast pace. Does the call of God look like the fast lane? I’ll bet it’s more likely to look like settling down:

If modernity is an exercise in un-sticking ourselves from family, job, and home, the discipline of place is an exercise in re-sticking.

The good life, and the good society, begins only when we unhitch our hearts from radical individualism. Civil society will only be worthy of the name when people begin to make Odysseus’s choice: to step out of the void, gather together the permanent things scattered and strewn throughout their lives, and begin the hard work of cherishing.

-Caleb Stegal, Practicing the Discipline of Place

Also, God does not just speak to us as solitary individuals, alone on an empty Cartesian plane. Look at how often his words to us are to us in the context of where we are. It’s almost too simple to notice.

The sorrow of Job had to be joined with the sorrow of Hector; and while the former was the sorrow of the universe the later was the sorrow of the city; for Hector could only stand pointing to heaven as the pillar of holy Troy. When God speaks out of the whirlwind He may well speak in the wilderness.

-G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p.109

Here, Prinzi draws from other pieces of Chesterton to relate to the wonder of place and the wonder of theology. It’s hard to pull excerpts from.

Fighting weeds while trying to restore a backyard that’s suffered 15 years of neglect puts me in a place and makes me have to do one of two things: get bitter that I don’t have more time for sitting in front of a computer debating theology with people dumber than me, or find the wonder in creation, consider the tragedy of the fall, and find even greater wonder in redemption.

Most people are bored with the monotony of one place, and we’ve become very transient people. I think that boredom is a weakness which plagues us, and I’m fighting hard against it.

It is much more often foolishness, not wisdom, that makes people want to move away from family and community for ideas of finding a “better life.”  We’re bored with the monotony.  We’re thinking we’re better than this place.

Yes? Eh, I think so.