Place is an interesting subject. It does not get nearly the attention it deserves. How many of us spend sunny afternoons meditating on that subject? It seems innocuous; hardly worth a first glance, let alone a second. But place is no small matter. Where would we be without it? Not a lot is written on the subject. It is not one of the subjects that has earned space (or, a place) in our theology books. Leonard Hjalmarson is one who has written on the topic.[i] His book, No Home Like Place: A Christian Theology of Place[ii] deals with the place of land in Scripture, borrowing and building off Walter Brueggerman’s view that “land is a central, if not the central theme of biblical faith. Biblical faith is a pursuit of historical belonging that includes a sense of destiny derived from such belonging.”[iii] Having lived among various cultures that put much stock in land and place, I agree that a study of God’s perspective on the subject is a worthy and profitable endeavor.
It is clear that both Brueggerman and Hjalmarson are writing of place as actual physical land; however, that aspect does not touch on the much broader concept of place. This broader concept goes beyond “a particular location or space or the particular area normally occupied by something. An example of place is Manhattan.”[iv] To understand this broader use of the term, a few examples of how we often use place in the English language might be helpful: “What do you consider to be the place of the husband in a family?” Or, “Watch it, buddy, you are out of place.” Or, “Sacrifice occupies an essential place in the work of redemption.”[v] Or, what place does gardening have in a discussion concerning legitimate Christian ministry?” Or, “To anticipate: what is “the meaning of the text” if it is not the author’s intended message? The short answer is that the author is never really absent. The reader has simply taken his or her place.”[vi]
See how the word is used; often it is not referring to ‘a particular location or space or the particular area normally occupied by something.’ It is this broader nuance and usage of the word that I want to explore. Place, used in this non-location fashion, refers to things like role, purpose, function, situation, and condition; but might be best described (borrowing from Heidegger) as a mode of being or a form of existence.
In his book, Being and Time, Martin Heidegger speaks to this broader concept of place. The basis of his work centers on the concept of ‘mode of being.’ He informs is that "taking up relationships towards the world is possible only because dasein, as being-in-the-world, is as it is. This state of being does not arise just because some entity is present-at-hand outside of dasein and meets up with it. Such an entity can ‘meet up with’ dasein only in so far as it can, of its own accord, show itself within a world.”[vii]
What Heidegger means by “dasein, as being in the world” is a kind of is-ness or present-ness in the world that transcends ordinary location. He is not referring to what our handy GPS device does for us. He is not referring to something or somebody merely taking up space, but rather he is alluding to what he refers to as dwelling. And by that, he has in mind belongingness, role, purpose, function, situation, and condition. In line with Heidegger, I submit that place (in the broad anthropological sense) is where something belongs because of it's inherent communally perceived role in the world. And, mind you, I are referring to where everything is perceived to belong – that’s every thing, every perception, and every idea. Where people place things is no small part of a community's comprehensive view of the world.
[i] See a synopsis of other works regarding a theology of place at Next Reformation, A Theology of Place, accessed on May 16, 2016, http://nextreformation.com/?p=11886.
[ii] Leonard Hjalmarson, No Home Like Place: A Christian Theology of Place (Portland: Urban Loft Publishers, 2014).
[iii] Ibid., 37.
[iv] “Place,” Your Dictionary, accessed April 1, 2016 (really, no fooling), http://www.yourdictionary.com/place.
[v] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), 92.
[vi] Vanhoozer, 1998, 90.
[vii] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, translated by J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962), 12:84.