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God in a mobile world

By Trisha Elliott

Canadians are on the move. The average Canadian will own about five homes in his or her lifetime. Roughly 15.4 million Canadians commute to work, averaging 25 minutes per day.

Increasing transience, mobility and globalization and the ubiquity of the Internet have generated a flurry of thinking around the theology of place — theology grounded in the recognition that place is, as British bishop John Inge writes, “the seat of relations and of meeting and activity between God and the world” (A Christian Theology of Place, 2003). In other words, the place in which we live affects who we are, what we experience and how we relate to God.

Sounds basic enough. But theologians are concerned that our modern world — with its chain stores and mass-produced imported goods — contributes to a deficient sense of place. Lack of place feeds a view of humanity that Alvin Toffler in Future Shock (1970) first heralded as a “new race of nomads” who have no idea “how massive, widespread and significant their migrations are.”

Theologians are concerned that having “no place” erodes our ability to form community, a prime vehicle through which God speaks.

“In our hectic and mobile and fragmented culture, and in a time when our cultural ideals of freedom disavow our need for roots and encourage rootlessness, our hunger and sense of dis-placement is only more acute,” writes Leonard Hjalmarson in No Home Like Place (2014). Hjalmarson’s book traces loss-of-place philosophy through time, from the founders of the church to Galileo and Newton, whose concept of infinite space reduced places to mere fragments with no independent value.

In contrast, the Bible is profoundly locational. In almost every passage, the reader is told where something occurs. In the beginning, the sense of covenant was tied to the land; even the exiles in Babylon are told through Jeremiah to “build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce” (Jeremiah 29:5). In the end, a new and holy city is built.

“The kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” we pray. But where on earth? Hjalmarson and author Simon Carey Holt both call for a recovery of the idea of the parish. “The term parish, derived from the Greek noun paroikia — meaning those living near or beside — was used from the second century to describe the intimate relationship between the congregation and its neighborhood,” writes Holt in God Next Door (2007).

Similarly, Sigurd Bergmann in Theology in Built Environments (2009) writes that neighbourhoods should be constructed to reinforce the sacred in human life. “People need environments that offer access to the sacred. . . . We need to build into cities what is precious to us.”

By creating neighbourhoods with the sacred in mind, we may have more experiences that echo Jacob’s: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it!” (Genesis 28:16).

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at City View United in Ottawa.

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