“To be human is to be placed.” (Gorringe, Theology of the Built Environment)

“To be at all – to exist in any way – is to be somewhere, and to be somewhere is to be in some kind of place… Nothing we do is unplaced. How could it be otherwise?” (Casey, Fate of Place)

 

[BACKGROUND: I was recently on a Zoom chat with a group of friends who are leading various faith communities around the world, and whom I respect and love. Amongst many other things, one of the subjects of discussion was the importance of leaning into a ‘theology of place’ in an increasingly digital, disembodied world. That was truly music to my ears. And it inspired me to write this. Quick side note for those thinking ‘I thought theology is about God – what’s a theology of place?!’ In short, theology of place is: exploring the theological significance of geographical location.]

 

I recently read a blog by a church leader that confidently asserted “everyone you want to reach is online” – and then told its presumably-church-leading readers that the key is for churches to invest on “going fully digital”.

 

Oh man.

 

Really?

 

I suppose the writer just doesn’t know much about contexts beyond his own. Fair enough. Nor do I really. But one thing I do know – from my own context – is that many of those our Tree of Life church community wants to reach with the love of Jesus don’t have access to either Wifi at home nor limitless data – many households in Manenberg share a phone.

 

“It is only by enabling alternative stories to be heard that an elitist ‘history’ may be prised open to offer an entry point for the oppressed who have otherwise been excluded from the history of public places.” (Philip Sheldrake, Spaces for the Sacred)

 

I think the prophetic voices we need to hear now more than ever are the voices of those we tend to shut out (maybe because they are not online). Namely, the poor.

 

The poor are always prophetic.

 

Though you’ll rarely see them on church platforms, now more than ever we need to listen to what God is telling us through them. “Vox victimarum vox Dei: the cries of the victims are the voice of God. To the extent that these cries are not heard about the din of our political, cultural, economic, social and ecclesial celebrations or bickering, we have already begun a descent into hell.” (Bosch, quoting Matthew Lamb, Solidarity with Victims) I don’t want to begin a descent to hell. I imagine you don’t either.

 

In an increasingly digitized world, the poor have a lot to teach about rootedness and place, because the poor live in a reality which epitomizes what has been described as a state of “rebarbative particularity.” In short, living a life that is limited to one place but within the ever-moving, ever-accelerating reality of a globalized world. Rooted, but often landless.

 

There is a move for the church to become even more globalized and disembodied than it has already been begun to be. (How many of us have ‘attended’ online church in other locations during lockdown? Me. I have.) We tend to celebrate the increasingly un-local as a sign of being impressive and successful. We also tend to look down on small town local as something to grow out of, a bit boring and unambitious. Think travel stamps in passports, or organisations celebrating ‘going global’. You know what is also un-local? Homogenised glass-fronted office blocks generic the world over; soulless motorway service stations; sweet smelling airport terminals containing mostly the same shops (unless you go to a small town airport, where the shops are often charmingly local); hipster-style cafes with plastic plants, bicycle pictures on the wall and woodgrain effect-chipboard panelling; these ‘non-place’ spaces encapsulate the globalised aspirations of liminality and reach over notions of rootedness and home.

 

Is it any coincidence that the literal meaning of the word ‘utopia’ is ‘no place’?

 

The rise of globalism has given us a term, ‘World City’. Simply put, as technology advanced in the 1980’s and communication and travel became easier, external links between cities were seen to be as crucial as internal dynamics within cities. A city transitions into ‘world city’ status by becoming active in the resulting network of elite urban business hubs. The network itself could be seen as a simple explanation of globalisation – the process of transcending cultural, national and geographical barriers in the name of capitalist endeavours.

 

This is, I believe, what we are witnessing happen in churches and Christian organisations.

 

There will be a move (there already is) towards becoming a ‘world’ church and a ‘global’ organisation. I think it’s problematic for at least a couple of reasons – creating spiritual consumers and exacerbating inequality.

 

So this is where we have got to. Prepare yourself for the true advent of drive-thru church, bloating consumers on spiritual happy meals of shiny trans-local digital content that I fear may ultimately underwhelm and leave souls still hungry.

 

In the same way that world cities major on welcoming tourists, the new digital church experience will major on welcoming spiritual tourists. And, as tourists tend to do, most will return home [where ‘home’ equals ‘not church’]. A small number might stay. Until churches that are wed to consumer-oriented global capitalism begin to see through the pursuit of ‘stuff’ (where stuff equals larger numbers and more social media presence), expect to see increasingly homogenized church ‘experiences’ catering for the ‘seeker’. And in the same way that the world city phenomenon has increased segregation and inequality, expect to see the church grow in catering for the digitally empowered suburbanite whilst tending to forget about those without a smartphone or device, or who simply cannot afford the mobile data costs (relatively much higher as a percentage of income in the developing world) that following Jesus requires of us in our ‘new normal’.

 

The scriptures convey place as being inherently relational.

 

This relationality is conducive to divine encounter. “Places…develop their own story as a result of human experience in them.” (John Inge) There is a dynamic interrelationship between place and story, people and God. Lose place, lose story, lose encounter. Martin Heidegger’s concept of Dasein proposes that “to be a person is literally ‘to be there’, to be in a particular place.”

As Bishop of Worcester, John Inge, writes in his brilliant book A Christian Theology of Place, “if places are the geography of our imagination, it is…true to say that how we are affected by them will be a function not only of the place, but of the people we find in it.” This is the heart of the relational view of place – that we encounter the geographical personality and the relational personality of a place, for “places and people are irrevocably linked.” The linking of place and people translates to ‘neighbourliness’, a notion on which Inge places such great emphasis that he calls it “the very best form of evangelization”. He sees Christians as responsible for demonstrating to the world the transformative effects of a valuing of place and community. “Our ‘placement’ is much more important than is generally imagined. It is no mere backdrop to actions and thoughts. This needs to be part of the ‘unavoidable witness’ of the Christian community.” Bringing this home for me, here in Manenberg, means celebrating the limits of physical place, and cultivating relationship and rootedness in distinct redemption to a segregated past, and in emphatic opposition to a globalised present.

Saskia Sassen, renowned sociologist and globalization ninja, wrote ages ago (back in 1994 – I know, right?) about “how the dominant economic narrative argues that place no longer matters…that major industries now are information-based and hence not place-bound.” (Sassen, Cities in a World Economy). And she noted then, as we would be wise to realise now, that the problem with this is that “economic globalization has contributed to a new geography of centrality and marginality.” In other words, the trend of globalisation shows “immense concentrations of economic power…[where] highly educated workers see their incomes rise to unusually high levels while low- or medium-skilled workers see theirs sink.”

If we are not very mindful to push against this in the digital church movement, we will end up aping this – where the educated and those with access to data and tech will see their church ‘contentment’ rise higher, whilst the financially poor and digitally unconnected on the peripheries of the mainstream will be re-marginalised. My big worry is that the poor will then become (even more than currently) mere objects of charitable gestures, along the lines of: ‘sure we can’t cater for the poor in our online gatherings, but we are handing out x number of food packs each month.’ And so relationship with the poor gets sacrificed on the altar of reach and profile.

Here in Cape Town there is a great irony to the aspirations of the globalised mindset. The Cape Flats – our very own ‘east of Eden’, conceived of and built by the white supremacist spirit that fuelled apartheid – surround the international airport. This means there’s no shortage of local cheap labour serving the trans-national elite. Yet despite the aeroplanes coming and going with such noisy regularity and proximity – before COVID grounded them –  (flying as they do, right over township shacks), international travel remains a utopian dream for the vast majority of those who live closest to the airport. This neatly sums up the disconnect of living in a globalised world where one can simultaneously benefit from it and feel imprisoned by it, for “mobility, and control over mobility, both reflects and reinforces power.” (Doreen Massey, Space Place and Gender) We could now add ‘digital mobility’ as that which reflects and reinforces power. If this is even slightly true, then church leaders will need to take a long hard look at how their church reflects and reinforces the status quo, albeit in pixelated form.

 

(Ok – deep breath – final couple of paragraphs coming up…)

 

I believe more than ever we need to see that the local is the key to the global.

 

I believe an emphatic mark of the apostolic in this coming season is rooting deep locally rather than equipping trans-locally (not that the two are contradictory – I’m aware they fuel each other – we have just over-emphasised the latter, ultimately because it looks cooler and feels easier). This is a prophetic contradiction to the allure of increased reach and the kudos of shinier production that comes at no relational cost or personal sacrifice.

 

Can we trust God’s gift of limitation to expose our innate narcissism? We can be incredibly narcissistic. Let me be brutally honest. There is a grandiosity I have that fuels me to want to heighten profile and reach. Ruth Haley Barton remarks, “one of the ways to recognize narcissism within ourselves is to notice when we have not yet accepted the field, the sphere of action, that God has given us – the opportunities and the limits of life in this body, this community, this set of relationships, this financial situation, this place where we have been called by God to serve.”

 

There seems to be an innate craving for an ‘expansion of our tent posts’ (to spiritualise it) – which I think the COVID crisis is exacerbating in the name of what some are calling ‘innovation’. There seems to be a dissatisfaction with the smallness of the work. There is a restlessness to ‘conquer’ more territory, whether that means wider networks, increased funders, more ministries, better selling books, more public recognition, etc. And the thing is, we are often applauded for that. People look on and say ‘wow, that shows God is really doing something amazing through you!’ (I’ve often wondered why there is so much satisfaction I derive from securing funds for Tree of Life – because it makes me feel big, grandiose, important, influential.)

 

But now more than ever, it seems to me that there’s prophetic mandate: the church needs to be “committed to its context, to the local as the key to the global, to the concrete, and to the necessity of praxis.”

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