The patriarch Jacob, on the run from his family, lying down to sleep in what seems like the middle of nowhere to him, far from his own local territory, has a vision of angels ascending and descending between earth and heaven, and on waking cries out “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28.16)
My starting point for the exploration of the sanctity of place start with the simple observation that the world is full of places; it is made up of locations. Everything that is, is somewhere. It cannot be otherwise. This is an inevitable consequence of materiality, of being made of stuff in a world made of stuff.
|Seal village, taken from the tower of Seal Church.|
Inge suggests that the relative importance of “space” and “place” has varied across time, and has subtly but significantly affected the way people behave. Place is specific – things are in a place and not, therefore, in another place – while space is abstract, implying simply an area of absence or emptiness which could be anywhere. Place is material, while space is intangible. Place is limited, while space is potentially limitless. He suggests that place was the more important concept to Medieval Christians while Post-Reformation and Enlightenment Christian thinkers preferred to focus on space. Words and ideas – abstract things which could be said or thought without regard to their location - replaced the tangible, visible elements of Christian worship, the pictures, statues, candles, beads and relics of medieval Catholicism. The rich, public, outward materiality and sensuality of the medieval spiritual tradition, gave way to the prioritization of the interior and the private, the thoughts and prayers of the individual.
This wasn’t something which happened all at once at the Reformation, or that ever happened completely. The tension between inner and outer, material and spiritual, public ritual and private intention, has always been a feature of religious discussion but the balance shifts periodically. Since the Reformation, in Protestant majority areas at least, Inge’s contention, which seems to me to have merit, is that there has tended to be a suspicion of materiality in worship.
That does not mean, however, that material things are not important to worship, of any and every tradition, (see below for the tradition of the Salvation Army "Mercy Seat") but it does mean that they have tended to be looked down on. Whether it is Rosary beads or Promise Boxes, materiality is often regarded rather snobbishly as something for those who don’t have the intellectual capacity or appetite for wordy theology. Things are for simple people; words and ideas for those who are more intellectual. Inge suggests that, in the wider world, this disdain for place has been a contributing factor in the homogenization of our public spaces. Every shopping mall looks and feels essentially the same. While these might seem to be temples to materialism, it is a generalised materialism. It doesn’t matter where you buy your big Mac, so long as you buy it! Current laments about the death of the High Street, with its individually owned small, local shops, displaced by the multi-national, and essentially placeless, big businesses, are often really laments for the sense of community, which those small shops had symbolised ; these people in this place, giving it a distinctive and comforting sense of “hereness” to those who inhabited it, and an interesting sense of “thereness” to those who visited.