The Construction of Utopias
One of the seductions that continues to bedevil Christian obedience is the construction of utopias, whether in fact or fantasy, ideal places where we can live the good and blessed and righteous life without inhibition or interference. The imagining and attempted construction of utopias is an old habit of our kind. Sometimes we attempt it politically in communities, sometimes socially in communes, sometimes religiously in churches. It never comes to anything but grief. Meanwhile that place we actually are is dismissed or demeaned as inadequate for serious living to the glory of God. But utopia is literally “no-place.” We can only live our lives in actual place, not imagined or fantasized or artificially fashioned places.
A favorite story of mine, one that has held me fast to my place several times, is of Gregory of Nyssa who lived in Cappadocia (a region in modern Turkey) in the fourth century. His older brother, a bishop, arranged for him to be appointed bishop of the small and obscure and unimportant town of Nyssa (a.d. 371) Gregory objected; he didn’t want to be stuck in such an out-of-the-way place. But his brother told him that he didn’t want Gregory to obtain distinction from his church but rather to confer distinction upon it. Gregory went to where he was placed and stayed there. His lifetime of work in that place, a backwater community, continues to be a major invigorating influence in the Christian church worldwide.
The Closing of Distance
Never in history has distance meant less. . . . Figuratively we “use up” places and dispose of them much in the same way we dispose of Kleenex or beer cans. We are witnessing a historic decline in the significance of place to human life. We are breeding a new race of nomads, and few suspect quite how massive, widespread and significant their migrations are.
Location, Location, Location
As in buying real estate, three principles are crucial to understanding a person’s words: location, location, and location. We cannot make sense of what someone says unless we understand the context in which his or her words were uttered.
To use the real estate comparison, Jesus—in his speaking—did not just move into an empty part of town and begin to build all the houses himself. He moved into a neighborhood already built up: in fact, one that had been occupied for many centuries by the same people—his people, the Jews.
Scripture Grounds our Story in Place
Our Scriptures that bring us the story of our salvation ground us in place. Everywhere they insist on this grounding. Everything that is critically important to us takes place on the ground. Mountains and valleys, towns and cities, regions and countries:
Haran, Ur, Canaan, Hebron, Sodom, Machpelah, Bethel, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Samaria, Tekoa, Nazareth, Capernaum, Mt. Sinai, Mt. Of Olives, Mt. Gilboah, Mt. Hermon, Ceasarea, Gath, Ashkelon, Michmash, Gibeon, Azekah, Jericho, Chorizan, Bethsaida Emmaus, the Valley of Jezreel, the Kidron Valley, the Brook of Besor, Anathoth.
Big cities and small towns. Famous landmarks and unvisited obscurities. People who want God or religion as an escape from their place because it is difficult (or maybe just mundane), don’t find this much to their liking. But there it is—there’s no getting around it. But to the man or woman wanting more reality, not less, this insistence that all genuine life, life that is embraced in God’s work of salvation, is grounded, is good news indeed.
Space vs. Place
‘Space’ means an area of freedom, without coercion or accountability, free of pressures and void of authority. Space may be imagined as week-end, holiday, a vacation, and is characterised by a kind of neutrality or emptiness waiting to be filled by our choosing. Such a concern appeals to a desire to get out from under meaningless routine and subjection. But ‘place’ is a very different matter.
Place is space which has historical meanings, where some things have happened which are now remembered and which provide continuity and identity across generations. Place is space in which important words have been spoken which have established identity, defined vocation and envisioned destiny. Place is space in which vows have been exchanged, promises have been made, and demands have been issued. Place is indeed a protest against the unpromising pursuit of space. It is a declaration that our humanness cannot be found in escape, detachment, absence of commitment, and undefined freedom.
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Place. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!