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On Place and Purpose and Christian Imagination

We make decisions everyday that change the places around us, and these decisions lead to other decisions. Our forward-thinking theology, like our forward-thinking economics or art, impacts the future place we imagine.

New York City has GPS coordinates of 40° 43' 50.1960'' N and 73° 56' 6.8712'' W. But that doesn’t tell you much about the place. From those numbers you don’t see rays of sunset painted across an old church, you don’t hear the guy handing out mixtapes in Times Square say you look like a surgeon, and you don’t smell the overnight trash or the fresh bagels or the hydrangeas in Riverside Park.

A place is more than its location. A place also has a locale — its buildings and cars — and a sense of place — its memories and relationships. This is the difference between a house and a home. And this is what I learned this week from David Larsen, senior research fellow at the Kirby Laing Center for Public Theology, in a church meeting room in Dallas, Texas. I learned that viewing the Bible in this way can revolutionize our understanding of, as Larsen put it, the other grand narrative of Scripture.

The story of the Bible begins in Genesis 1, when God created the heavens and the earth. He created a place for himself. Then he inspected and evaluated his place, and declared that it was good. You know the rest of the story. But at the end of that story, God will restore his place to fulfill its original purpose: a kingdom to delight and dwell in forever.

“The story of the Bible is this,” Larsen, who wrote his dissertation on the theology of place, explained. “‘There once was a God who created a wild, wild world. ... And then he lived there with his family happily ever after.’ We often think about the creation narrative and the redemption narrative as two separate narratives, but the redemption narrative fits within the creation narrative.” The first commandment as well as the first curse, he argued, focused on the earth, the ground, the place that God created. And the final chapters of Scripture focus on the new earth, the city, the place that we and God will inhabit forever.

In other words, the purpose of God’s place has everything to do with the purpose of redemption and restoration. More practically, place affects not just urban planning but also how we view public theology, social and environmental justice, as well as art and economics.

A hope and a place 

Think back to New York City. You can see the intention behind much of its design. Imagine you’re on the committee that helped create the street grid or Central Park in the 19th century, or the Public Library, Grand Central Terminal, or the Met during the so-called American Renaissance soon after. Would you plan and design the city with a certain theology in mind? Toward what purpose would you include this or that feature? How would your designs change as the city itself changed?

This idea impacts even more abstract concepts. Imagine you’re leading a capital campaign for your church. Something as practical as today’s interest rate environment, tax policies, or inflationary pressures on, say, lumber and fuel deeply affect the use of your funds. Perhaps as rates and prices change, so too does your vision. The shape of the yield curve, in other words, changes the shape of the land around you, and vice versa.

A placial hermeneutic can help us understand the world and our place in it. In philosophical geography — which, I checked, is a real thing — philosophers have put forward a theory for analyzing a place, in addition to the properties mentioned above. They use the terms firstspace, secondspace, and thirdspace to denote what you see without any interpretation, the ideologies competing within a place, and “the other” comprising the place, respectively. Larsen argues for a fourth dimension, what he calls “futurespace,” or the intended, hoped-for purpose of a place.

With these properties, you begin to build a gridlike framework for analyzing the places of Scripture, the places around us, and how they fit together as a whole.

Shaping place and the future 

Today, for example, many argue for the “direction” in which our country is headed, whether schools should teach Critical Race Theory, or whether human-caused climate change is melting streetcar cables in Portland. What could a placial analysis help illuminate?

We know the location of the United States won’t change anytime soon. The locale, however, could change quickly: New heat-resistant cables or cold-tolerant turbines could be installed, albeit at a prohibitively expensive cost. The sense of place could also evolve: We could devise new ways for young students to relate to learning, perhaps teaching them that school is, in fact, a place to engage ideas with which you disagree. 

We could see the firstspace of New York City with its throngs of homeless people strewn about Midtown. We could see how its secondspace ideologies like discrimination, stop-and-frisk, and lockdown policies affected the homeless population over time. We could see thirdspace, or the “others” that inhabit a place, like the other races, genders, sexual orientations, backgrounds, or politics that comprise wherever you happen to be.

But futurespace, the purpose of a place, is where our Christian theology becomes most crucial. What kind of world do we want to build? What does the kingdom of heaven on earth look like in tangible terms? Too often people think of heaven as an abstract, ethereal floaty place with harps and clouds. In reality, it’s a place with roads and rhetoric, lawns and laws.

Someone must be there to design the streets and lay bricks of gold. Someone, you, perhaps, must design a monetary policy that efficiently stewards the kingdom’s capital to mine that gold and pay the road workers. We can start thinking this way now.

Today, we make decisions at work and in ministry that change the places around us, and these decisions lead to other decisions. Our forward-thinking theology, like our forward-thinking economics or art, impacts the future place we imagine. However, as economist Thomas Sowell said, “There are no solutions, only trade-offs.” In that way, we all need to use our theology and our imaginations to realistically build a world that, one day, will become a place fit for a king.

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