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A THEOLOGY OF PLACE                      revised March 2012

Places are important architecturally, in planning, in everyday life - meeting places, symbolic places, territorial space, a favourite armchair. The concept of 'place' is socially and psychologically important.

What the Bible seems to say

Places are important in the Old Testament - the Temple, Shiloh, Abraham's altars, Jacob's pillar, the monument at Gilgal - just to name a few.

In the New Testament Jesus says that we should worship in spirit, not in Jerusalem or Samaria.

At the transfiguration Peter wrongly wanted to set up a shrine.

Hebrews says that we are looking for a city which is above, not a place on earth.

There is no longer a Temple, no longer priests. God can be met anywhere.

There was renewed realisation of this during the Second World War, and in communist countries where Christians met to worship where possible, which might be anywhere. There are still countries today where Christians have to meet in secret.

Evangelical experience

So evangelical Christians are ambivalent about 'place.' It is an Old Testament idea superseded in the New Testament. Place does not matter, but we experience places as meaningful! Suspicion of being unspiritual!

And we have even (heretically?) found that prayer seems more effective if we pray in the place! Hence prayer walks and prayer tours of Eastern Europe.

What the Bible really says

In the Old Testament the holy places - the burning bush, Sinai, the Temple etc. were places where people met with God, either just once or repeatedly. They were not necessarily geographical as the Tent of Meeting and Tabernacle kept moving. God met people anywhere.

In the New Testament people meet God anywhere. This is due to the indwelling spirit, not to the desacrilisation of specific places or making everywhere holy ground. Jesus chose lonely places, or hills, for prayer; He frequented Gethsemane. He died in a specific place - outside the city.

Jesus said worship in spirit and truth, rather than in Jerusalem, not worship anywhere rather than specifically in Jerusalem (John 4v21-4). He was speaking about the nature of worship and the kind of worshipper under the old and new covenants, not about geography or planning.

Hebrews says we have no lasting city (Heb.13v14), but neither did Abraham, so this is not a difference between the Old and New Testaments. Both are speaking of a journey of faith.

Peter wanted to set up a shrine (Luke 9v33), but Jesus chose a specific place, a mountain for the transfiguration (Luke 9v20), as He did for His ascension (Luke 24v50-1). And He will return to the Mount of Olives (Act.1v11 & Zech.14v4), a specific place even though all will see Him.

There is a danger of idolising a place, of limiting God to acting there only; but we also limit Him to acting in popular churches but not ours, to answering some missionary societies' prayers but not ours! There was the same danger in the Old Testament of literally idolising locations - the high places and under every spreading tree.

The parallel to the paradigm of the Old Testament of entering the promised land, is in the New Testament being in Christ - a spiritual reality fulfilling a physical one; hearts of flesh instead of hearts of stone; the indwelling of the Spirit, who lives in special places. Christians are temples, mobile ones.

So the New Testament does not abolish the importance of place, or the psychological and practical need of relating to places. Indeed the Bible recognises the importance of place by taking the promised land as a type of Christ. Spiritual matters are more important but we shall still be physical emotional beings after the resurrection. Heaven is a place containing the New Jerusalem (Rev.21v2), not simply a state of spiritual being without locality. It is a house with many mansions (John 14v2 AV). While heaven has to be described with images we can understand, the Bible chooses place rather than state of being - it is man who tends to spiritualise heaven to sitting on clouds playing harps. The Bible and Jesus are far more down to earth, geographical, and place making when they speak of New Jerusalem and the house with many mansions.

Jesus' memorial is a meal, not a place (Luke 22v19), neither where He died nor where He was buried, nor where He ascended into Heaven. This is not anti-place,  but a spiritual act all believers, wherever they are, can join in. We do not have to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem.......

The importance of places

.... And yet how wonderful when we do! Visiting the places brings the Bible alive, helps our understanding, our visualisation of what happened, the appreciation of geographical and planning facts. This is important because Christianity is an historic religion, about events which really happened, people who actually lived, in places which are still there, however changed.

If it is educational, moving, and even a spiritual blessing to visit Epworth or Jarrow, how much more so to visit Bethlehem or Jerusalem. If we still think that places are not important under the new covenant then we should not visit the Holy Land, should not pray for the peace of Jerusalem, should not sit in a specific chair for our quiet time, or the same pew in church - indeed should not meet in a church; we should not have favourite holiday spots, favourite walks or favourite places to pray; it should not matter if every street, every suburb, every town looked the same.

But it does matter.

Of course there is more to 'place' than geography and architecture; they relate to people, but only because those people relate to that place, and to associations and memories, but again because of those people, doing what they did, in relation to that place.

And of course the people and events are more important than the place - I am not denying or lessening that, merely saying that places are also important. Even if we say they are not important they are nevertheless still significant.
 

The power of place

Significant is perhaps the word to use. Places signify something, they have meaning, and they affect people. Places therefore have power!

That is also their danger - they may have psychological or spiritual power and deceive you into idolatry! But wait.... God created the earth and it was good. God has redeemed mankind, and all creation groans waiting for its redemption (Rom.8v21-2). So places whether natural or manmade can have good effects on people. Revelation says that the cultural riches of all the nations, which must include their architectural settings, will be taken into the New Jerusalem (Rev.21v24).
 

Celtic Christianity

Celtic Christianity recognises four kinds of place.
The thin place where earth and heaven seem close together, a place where God has met with us, and where we feel close to Him when we return there.
Secondly a favourite place where we like to meet with Him, perhaps a study or armchair.
Thirdly, and one which overlaps with others, is typically  mountain tops or gardens where we feel close to Him.
Finally, and one particularly relevant to this article, is the place where God has placed us to serve Him, which may be Babylon or Ninevah, Jerusalem or St.Pauls Cathedral, suburb or inner city, but where we can see people and places transformed.

Conclusion

Places are biblically and theologically acceptable, and they exist as part of God's good creation and mankind's creativity. Like all God's gifts they can be thankfully received and prayerfully enjoyed (1Tim.4v4) or they can be despised or idolised, used selfishly and with evil intent.
 

So Christian architects and planners should take great care in the design of places, from the rooms within buildings to the spaces between them, and from the layout of neighbourhoods to city regions.

These principles apply to everyone as all are involved in homemaking or building communities.
 

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