A CELTIC THEOLOGY OF PLACE
A lecture given at the international 21 st Century Celts conference run by the Celtic Education Resources Network (CERN) in Truro this September
The key passage in any examination of the Christian Theology of Place is when Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, is thought to have been told by God, probably about 1800 BC:
Walk before me and be blameless and I will make my covenant between me and you and will multiply you exceedingly. And I will give you and your descendants after you …all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.
In various such revelations the Jews came to believe God promised them a land to live in and gives them a law to abide by so that they may be an example to the world. However, they have to keep their part of the contract and fulfil their purpose and ‘be blameless’; if they do not, they will be cast out from the land which was to happen twice in Jewish history, the first time in the 6 th century BC and the next in 70 AD, the Jews not regaining control over the Holy Land again until 1948. This biblical relationship between land, people, purpose and God creates the precedent for the modern Christian Theology of Place, the theological examination of the relationship between God, a people, their purpose and their land, the experience of that land by them as holy or sacred.
The Theology of Place as a modern theological subject of study starts in 1978 with the book The Land by Walter Brueggeman. Looking at the example of the Jews and their 4,000 year relationship with the Holy Land, Bruggemann said that ordinary space can become theologically significant for a people. He defines place as:
[S]pace 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.
Bruggemann draws attention to a spiritual/psychological crisis caused by feelings of rootlessness in modern society. His book’s opening words are these:
The sense of being lost, displaced and homeless is persuasive in contemporary culture. The yearning to belong somewhere, to have a home, to be in a safe place, is a deep and moving pursuit .
While not a theologian, the secular French Anthropologist Marc Augé helpfully expanded on this definition by distinguishing between place which engages with our identity, which is filled with historical monuments and creative of social life, and what he calls non-place, where no meaningful social life is possible, non-places where we spend increasing time – supermarkets, department stores, airports, hotels, motorways, cinemas, sitting in front of a TV or a computer. For Augé, place is significant for communities of peoples, non-place is insignificant, trivialised locations and landscapes.
Just as Esau wrote away his precious inheritance to Isaac for the sake of a bowl of soup when hungry, so do we for the sake of social mobility and economic necessity. We are compelled by advertising and peer-group pressure to sacrifice our spiritual and mental well-being for more lavish housing, a foreign holiday, a new car, an Armani suit.
This spiritual vacuum in post-modern society is summed up marvellously in the cult film Fight Club . A charismatic, prophetic chimera called Tyler Durden founds a secret society of American men. Their answer to this vacuum is to challenge the triviality and meaningless of society, the emptiness within them, by fighting each other and playing dangerous practical jokes on unsuspecting members of the public.
In a memorable speech, Durden describes their common enemy, the members of the trivialised and fragmented society that they themselves are part of:
[They are] an entire generation pumping gas and waiting tables; or they’re slaves with white collars. Advertisements have them chasing cars and clothes, working jobs they hate so they can buy [rubbish] they don’t need.
We are the middle children of history, with no purpose or place. We have no great war, or great depression. The great war is a spiritual war. The great depression is our lives. We were raised by television to believe that we’d be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars – but we won’t. And we’re learning that fact.
If two world wars, the Nazi death camps and the use of nuclear weapons on Japanese civilians ripped the optimistic modernist world view of progress, of increasing and deepening civilisation and happiness, to bits, Durden says the only response is to play with the pieces.
Belden Lane concludes his study of the sense of place in modern North American spirituality by drawing attention to its essential absence in the USA:
It may be true that a few Navajos still speak in a religious way of their relation to the mountains north of Gallup, New Mexico; the older Portuguese fishermen of Provincetown may feel similarly about the North Atlantic waters beyond race point; a handful of farmers around Jonesborough, Tennessee tell haunting stories that have grown on the land like tobacco and corn for generations. Yet for the mass of 20 th century Americans the landscape remains mute, its mystery unavailable to the modern spirit. The world is not for us the clear window of access to God that it might once have been.
This is not surprising in the USA where a century ago 20% of its citizens moved house within a year, a statistic Lane states is still the reality in a land with no shrines, no holy places, no sacred landscapes. If Christian Americans want to go somewhere they can consider sacred and holy, they have to go elsewhere. Their own land is a spiritual desert when it comes to place. Nowhere there speaks to them of God.
We were told that increased social mobility would lead to greater economic efficiency and international competitiveness; we would be wealthier and consequently happier. The reality is that western capitalist society is getting more and more miserable; we have no meaningful ‘purpose or place’, we may have everything and yet possess nothing, certainly not the most important thing of all – a sense of belonging somewhere for some reason. As the great Christian writer Simone Weil wrote: “To be rooted is perhaps the most important need of the human soul.” And most of us today are not.
I once spoke to a 50 plus man and asked him where he came from, where he would regard as home. He said he didn’t know as he had moved around so much. Most people in these Isles today have few or no roots, but some are starting to see the need for them, to search for them; belonging needs roots in a place and in a community. There has to be a way out of this post-modern spiritual crisis of rootlessness and meaninglessness, a way we can find a greater spiritual meaning and purpose in life again.
Brueggeman’s insights into matters of place are profound and telling. Brueggeman contrasts the purposefulness and rootedness of the Jewish people because of their religious faith to the rootlessness and purposelessness of an increasingly-faithless modern society. The Jews are a people that have maintained their sense of belonging to a land for maybe 4,000 years through three exiles involving many years spent in foreign cultures. Despite all the odds, the Jewish people have maintained their sense of identity and purpose, their rootedness in a place some have never even seen.
Like Judaism, Christianity is about a people finding meaning and purpose but it has not been about finding meaning and purpose in a place. Place is not a central theme in the New Testament – Jesus told his disciples that after his death they would be able to worship him in spirit and truth anywhere, not just in the Temple in Jerusalem; St Paul’s belief is in a new people of Israel, the Church; that God’s promise is now for all peoples everywhere not just for one race in one promised land. It can seem as if the importance of place has been shattered by the coming of Christ except perhaps for places associated with the historical Jesus. Geoffrey Lilburne describes the new situation thus:
All the blessings associated with the [Holy] land – security, peace, plenty in the presence of God – are now directly connected with the presence of Jesus Christ. No longer can the community of faith hope for God to give them a special land, exclusively for their use.
How can the Church turn its theology on the proverbial sixpence and start helping people to become rooted in a place again? Where can it find the biblical texts and historical precedents to create a rationale, a Theology of Place, by which Christians can live by and feel they belong somewhere? Because that is how the Church decides and moves forward, through reliance on the twin authorities of scripture and tradition.
The first thing to say is that a sense of the spiritual importance of place has never entirely died out in the Church for there has been an unbroken tradition of pilgrimage. There has always been the greatest respect accorded to the Holy Land and places within it associated with Jesus such as where he was born, where he lived and where he died; also to smaller places where Christ’s disciples died such as Rome, even to places where significant things are believed to have happened quite recently in history like Lourdes. There were many sites of pilgrimage in Britain before the 16 th century Reformation swept them all away. Today we have two western Christian spiritual traditions – the Catholic and the Protestant, one with geographical foci of significance and holiness, one largely without. A sense of place has never died out in the Catholic tradition.
Today, however, the Protestant tradition is showing greater appreciation for what it has sought to destroy – witness the rediscovery of Iona by the Church of Scotland, Lindisfarne by Anglicans or the preservation of Billy Bray’s Chapel and Gwennap Pit by Cornish Methodists. In an ever more mobile world, there is a growing sense among Christians that they need to go and feel renewed by the history and significance of a place, places where they feel they belong spiritually and are at home. Ray Simpson, who has done much to put Lindisfarne back on the spiritual map, wrote of Lindisfarne:
The original hallowing is still buried there, waiting to be rediscovered and reconnected with the present. Today people who sense the aura of places are being drawn to sing, play music, pray or dance in them. Some Christians are called to re-awaken prayer and presence in ancient holy places.
The second thing which acts as a precedent for the recovery of a Christian sense of place is to be found again in the Catholic tradition in Sacramental Theology. Simply put, this says that if God can make himself known in a physical human being – Jesus Christ – then he can make himself known in matter such as bread and wine in a communion service or the water of baptism; and if God can do this, then perhaps he can make himself known to people through the land they call ‘home’.
It has to be said that many individual sacred places are increasingly being devalued and this has a knock-on affect with place as landscape. The abbey on Iona restored by the Wild Goose Community is now maintained by Historic Scotland which has put up a toll booth outside. We have lost our cathedrals to toll-paying tourists, those who come to worship in them being increasingly seen as quaint objects of curiosity at best, of ridicule at worst. You now pay your money to have your spiritual experience in Iona and cathedrals. This has happened because Christians have let it happen – Like Esau, we have not valued our birthright; we have not valued sacred places enough and now we suffer the consequences.
Yet Christians are reclaiming and re-sanctifying once-holy places such as Lindisfarne Island in Northumbria and Walsingham in Norfolk. Interestingly, neo-pagans are now re-sanctifying pagan holy places as well such as wells and stone circles and using such physical rootedness to witness to a social one – in effect, they are saying they belong and have belonged in that place for much longer than the Christian Church. The Church is currently unsure how to respond to this new challenge to its rootedness in certain locations such as Cornwall. Places can be battlegrounds between rival faiths on one hand and uninformed tourism on the other.
The last question I want to consider is, is it possible for a Celtic nation, a really big place if you like, to be regarded by its people as a sacred place in its own right or, perhaps as Bruggeman puts it, somewhere where for Christians “… important words have been spoken which have established identity, defined vocation, and envisioned destiny”? Can we see our nations as holy and we the people who belong to them as having a purpose?
While some Christians today may be disturbed by the concept of place as nation, such a connection has been made before – just read the words of I vow to thee my country or what is being called the English National Anthem, Jerusalem , and you will see what I mean:
And did those feet in ancient time Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Walk upon England’s mountains green? Bring me my arrows of desire!
And was the holy Lamb of God Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
On England’s pleasant pastures seen? Bring me my chariot of fire!
And did the Countenance Divine I will not cease from mental fight
Shine forth upon our clouded hills? Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
And was Jerusalem builded here Till we have built Jerusalem
Among these dark Satanic mills? In England’s green and pleasant land
Jerusalem was first sung in 1916 and was composed to stiffen morale in a nation that had suffered two year’s of senseless carnage in the trenches. William Blake in Jerusalem is effectively saying that the English can consider their land to be holy to them, that they have a divine purpose like the Jews to fight for and create a nation to be an example to the world.
This brings me to the only person other than me who so far as I know, has written about the Theology of Place of a Celtic nation. The Welsh Jesuit Priest, Dorian Llywelyn, in 1995 in Sacred Place , Chosen People , states that Welsh spiritual experience is based on
…belonging to the land; there certainly exists a sense of holiness of specific place, but this localised holiness is interpenetrated by and inseparable from a sense of belonging to a specific, trans-temporal community of people.
Llywelyn quotes Welsh Baptist Dewi Whatkin Powell who writes of Wales:
In the divine pattern, our nation has a purpose which we do not fully know and which we can perceive only as through a glass darkly. But we are a part of the divinely ordained natural law. It is hard to explain the existence and the continuation of the Welsh nation outside the terms of Providence.
What Llywellyn is saying in effect is that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, that the Welsh can look on Wales in a similar fashion to that expressed by the English of their nation in the words of Jerusalem or the Jews of theirs in the Old Testament. In effect, he says the Welsh have a spiritual purpose too.
Linking faith to nation as place in this way is incredibly risky in imperial cultures such as we have seen in the case of Serbia – for if a people believe their purpose is to conquer and subdue others, to be a master race or nation, then this world will never know peace. It should be seen that a Christian sense of place can be a major influence on national identities and thereby potentially dangerous.
Nation as place has some biblical justification. In the Old Testament (e.g. Genesis 17:6 & 16), God made the nations; it would be surely reasonable to assume he has not been uninvolved with nation building and preserving since then. All nations have had a religious aspect to their self-identity; some have claimed a religious calling or vocation, sometimes disastrously as in the case of Serbia. If this is the case, then perhaps the people of Celtic nations can consider our lands to be sacred places where things have been said and have happened “which have established identity, defined vocation, and envisioned destiny”. It is my belief that we can and should for three reasons.
Firstly, because of our proud history of stubborn resistance to cultural and political oppression. The late Pope John Paul II’s own country, Poland, suffered occupation many times during its history, most notably under the Nazis and Soviets which he had a direct and painful experience of. Ever the patriotic Pole, he wrote in one of his poems: “How weak the people that accept defeat, that forget their call to keep vigil until its hour should come”.
The persistence of Celtic national identities and the efforts being made to defend or reclaim our culture today are quite extraordinary. Such efforts were most dramatically seen in Ireland, resulting in independence for most of it, in Wales leading to recognition of its language and an assembly and in Scotland in the restoration of its parliament. If God has truly formed a nation, conquerors will find it impossible to kill it off.
Secondly, it may be possible to see Celtic nations as holy because of their past Christian history. Cornwall, for example, is called the “ Land of Celtic Saints” – they are everywhere in the Celtic landscape, in churches and place names, holy wells, caves and waterfalls.
Lastly, I believe we can consider our Celtic nations to be holy to us because the Celtic people have a holy and Christian purpose – to show imperial cultures the real way to live, a way witnessed to by the pacifism and neutrality of the Republic of Ireland and the anti-nuclear stance of the SNP. Jerusalem bears witness to the attitude of a nation at the apex of empire when it felt it had a right granted by God to conquer and rule other nations in that empire. It is also not un-coincidentally the anthem of the British National Party.
While there is such a thing as Cornish, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Breton or Manx patriotism, there are no Celtic nationalisms, only English nationalism, because, as the late Pope once said: “…nationalism involves recognising and pursuing the good of one’s own nation alone, without regard for the rights of others”. When you look at the broad sweep of history of these isles, you see that all the Celts ever wanted was to be left alone; except possibly the Scots at one or two points in their history, we have had no imperial ambitions. As Ian Bradley wrote:
It has been said there are two kinds of people in history – those who do things to others and those who have things done to them. The Celts as a race indisputably belong to the second category. Their story is one of oppression, suffering and progressive marginalisation – the way that was trodden by Jesus in his time on earth .
Our purpose as 21 st Century Celts is not an easy one; it is to re-sanctify our nations, to regain our freedoms and to defend our cultures. In such ways we will challenge the powerful and destructive imperial cultures of this world which deny it peace. We may be ridiculed and we may be marginalised and we may be culturally, politically and economically oppressed. But in this we will know, that it will all only bring us closer to Christ who too was unjustly ridiculed, marginalised and oppressed and showed solidarity with those who were too.
With him close by our side to defend us by His almighty power, we need never fear that we shall ever be defeated.
FATHER ANDY PHILLIPS RN
The Theology of Place is the study of the relationship between God, a people, their purpose and their place of belonging. ‘Place’ in this context is really about landscapes, although small, significant micro-places within them can and do help establish the overall ethos of a Place. When the expression ‘Place’ is used, therefore, it is usually referring to something bigger than, say, a building.
Genesis XVII:1, 2 & 8.
W. Brueggeman : The Land: Place as Gift, Promise and Challenge , SPCK,
London , 1978 p. 5.
Ibid p 1
Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthology of Supermodernity, London and NY, Verso, 1997.
Belden Lane: Landscapes of the Sacred , John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2002 p.190.
Simone Weil: The Need for Roots , Routledge, London/NY, 1997, p.43.
Geoffrey Lilburne: A Sense of Place, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1989, p.30.
Ray Simpson: Celtic Spirituality , Grove Books, Cambridge, 2003, p.15.
Dorian Llywelyn: Sacred Place, Chosen People , University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1999, p.7.
quoted in Dorian Llywelyn: Sacred Place, Chosen People , University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1999, p.6.
John Paul II, Memory and Identity, Wiedenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2005, p.85.
Address to UNESCO, 23 June 1980 quoted in John Paul II, Memory and Identity, Wiedenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2005, p.75.
Ian Bradley, The Celtic Way, DLT, London, 1993, p.30.