Place in a Pandemic:
The Challenge and Gift of Density
In 2020, the questions Where are you? and What are you? are likely answered with exasperated, exhausted, and uncertain responses. It’s no secret that the shape of our lives has been drastically altered – for better or for worse – by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the places to which we have bound ourselves and ensouled have – out of necessity – shut their doors, including churches. We have all felt the sting of quarantine as we have become displaced from the places which comprised our daily routines, and also the place in which we participated in our highest calling. The result is something to be grieved. But on the other side of grief, I can’t help but wonder if there is a gift.
Among the casualties of World War II was the UK Chamber of Commons – the building in which parliamentary democracy was formed, and which had been a victim of Germany’s Blitz bombings of London. In 1943, the House of Commons debated its reconstruction, deliberating how the new chamber should take shape, literally. Some were in favor of a new circular or horseshoe design, and others – Prime Minister Winston Churchill among them – favored preserving the adversarial, rectangular design because of its contribution to forming Britain’s two-party parliamentary democracy. When petitioning for its preservation, Churchill quipped, “We shape our spaces and our spaces shape us.”
There is truth in Churchill’s statement; the built environment does much to shape the lived experience of our daily lives. And the dialectical relationship between place and people is echoed by theologian T.J. Gorringe, who writes, “...people en-story and en-soul their places and then, in the course of the dialectic of material life, their places en-soul them.” Just as the Chamber floor has shaped democracy, city streets shape the route of the pedestrian and the car, kitchens shape the motions of the baker, and so on. All places divert our everyday actions toward a fixed set of patterns, and shape our habits – physical, mental, and spiritual – in the process. The question of What are you? is thus intimately tied with the question of Where are you?
We ensoul and are ensouled by the built world around us. Yet, it’s become somewhat of an evangelical slogan to say that “the church is not a building.” Though the sentiment is well-intentioned, it must be put under a microscope and reexamined in light of a theological understanding of space and place, lest we mistakenly adhere to a type of gnostic ecclesiology that adopts the spirit of the church and loses its embodiment.
Scripture gives unique insights into the deep connection between who we are and the places we inhabit. Eric Jacobsen alludes to the annexation of Eden as an act intricately tied to the new nature of Adam and Eve as sinners (Gen 3:24). Who they had become displaced them from the place God had for them. Alternatively, the ontological identity of the Israelites as the people of God leads to the inheritance of the Promised Land (Gen. 15:18-21; 26:3; 28:13; Ex. 23:21). And eschatological redemption points to a New Heaven and a New Earth inhabited by the redeemed people of God (Is. 65:17-19; 2 Peter 3:10-13; Rev 21:1-5). Where we are often tells us who we are.
In his book entitled The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith, Walter Brueggemann develops an expository analysis of the relationship between ancient Israel and the land. In doing so, he explores the divine question of Genesis 3. It’s interesting that God does not ask a question of morality, What have you done? but instead leads with a spatial question, Where are you? which is simultaneously also, the question, What are you? As Brueggemann suggests, this question insinuates that location, proximity – or the lack thereof – is significant to humanity’s relationship with the divine. Adam and Eve’s desire to hide from God reflects the deep longing of humanity’s desire for space, or as Brueggemann writes, for “an arena of freedom, without coercion or accountability, free of pressures and void of authority.” In the dislocation of one’s self from place, she produces space from her involvement with and responsibility to the physical, relational, and spiritual world around her. But this freedom, as the arc of Scripture reveals, is unpromising.
Instead, Brueggemann suggests humankind commits itself to place. He writes, “Place is indeed a protest against the unpromising pursuit of space. It is a declaration that our humanness cannot be found in escape, detachment, absence of commitment, and undefined freedom.” It’s our charge as believers to commit ourselves to place – to an embodied, incarnate integration of ourselves as we are where we are, that fights against the lawless “freedom” of unorganized space. Here, two urban design concepts are of help: sprawl and density, as they illustrate the challenge and gift of place as embodied believers in a pandemic world.
In his 2001 work, Bowling Alone, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam describes the ever-widening spheres of daily life. He argues that suburban America has spatially – and thus communally – stratified our lives. Subtle architectural and design differences like the loss of the front porch, the allocation of the garage as the main home entryway, and the creation of the highway, have all contributed to the damaging atomization of our lives. Work, play, faith, and family often operate in separate spheres with little-to-no overlap, and it is this sprawl that Putnam argues has fractured the spatial integrity of people’s lives.
We can parallel Putnam’s observations of sprawl with the notion of space set forth by Brueggemann. Sprawl has decontextualized us and fragmented our existence. Anecdotally, in a pre-pandemic world we answered the question, Where are you? with an exhausted, “Everywhere!” And we were not wrong. In the ebb and flow of contemporary culture, it’s difficult to locate where the holistic integration of all the parts of ourselves occurs. While we might have been committed to place in some ways, it’s hard to argue that our pre-pandemic lives had not become scattered and staccato-ed. But what is the alternative to sprawl?
If the post-modern city has a protagonist, Jane Jacobs is it. A heroine in her own neighborhood of Greenwich Village, New York, her advocacy in ink and demonstration championed cities designed and built with its residents in mind. She argued for the practice and implementation of what is called density, a concept in urban planning that refers to the number and diversity of inhabitants in a given area. Jacobs advocates for a density rate of 500 people per square acre – one which prevents overcrowding but fosters diversity of uses and convenience in a given place. Density, she argues, leads to organic encounters among dissimilar residents, and also allows inhabitants to live within a local sphere because most all of their needs can be met with what is available in or within walking distance of their community. As opposed to the picture painted by Putnam’s sprawl, Jacobs’ density allows for a much better illustration of what Brueggemann means by place as a declaration against the unpromising pursuit of space. Jacobs does not deny that such proximity and diversity is a challenge, but she accepts it as a worthy one for the gift that it can produce: Community.
I wonder if this year, a time when life has been upended and the lines between our various spheres of life have been blurred, is an opportunity to give up the endless pursuit of space and an invitation into place, as Brueggemann defines them. Through the weeks of quarantine, we experienced the sudden density of our lives, where home, work, play, and faith all took shape in the same location. At times, I’m certain this has been a challenge for us all. Density, especially the kind of density that forces the meeting of the various sectors of our lives, can be crowded, uncomfortable, and – dare I say – convicting. But at a time when dense populations can be deadly, the densifying of the textured layers of our own individual lives can be life-giving. God is ever and lovingly asking us, Where are you? and density is the challenge and gift that allows us the opportunity to respond, “All of me is here.”
As Christians who worship an incarnate God, we must always be looking for the places in which we can see, meet, and join the work of Christ in the world. Part of worshipping an incarnate God is the responsibility to recognize how the thereness of our time and place shape the practice of our faith. To understand and remain contextually aware is the charge of the Christian who prays “Thy Kingdom Come.” Philip Sheldrake writes:
...the particularity of the event of Jesus Christ is the measure of all authentic forms of Christian discipleship in the sense that they presuppose that event but are not identical repetitions. In a sense, the particularity of the event of Jesus ‘permits’ the placed nature, the particularities of all subsequent discipleship...The world of particular places is therefore the theatre of conversion, transformation and redemption.
So, before we jump back into the pews or return to the busyness of life as we knew it, I challenge each of us to ask ourselves: Have we embraced the particularity of this moment? Have we been transformed by the gift of density? Have we ensouled this dense layering of our lives and allowed it to ensoul us? Or have we rejected it by continuing our endless pursuit of and desire for space?
Wendell Berry, a gifted writer and committed agrarian advocate, has made it his life’s work to belong to his place. He writes:
It occurred to me that there was another measure for my life than the amount or even the quality of the writing I did; a man, I thought, must be judged by how willingly and meaningfully he can be present where he is, by how fully he can making himself at home in his part of the world. I began to want desperately to learn to belong to my place.
Jim Elliot put it another way, “Wherever you are, be all there.” 2020 has landed us smack-dab in the middle of a global pandemic, and the question remains, Where are you? To respond faithfully, we must first grieve what was lost. Lamentations 1:1 offers us Israel’s striking grief after the fall of Jerusalem and the loss of the Temple. The church is not just a building, but the building matters. We, too, must grieve the place of worship as we previously knew it. There is much lost when we are displaced, and we all long for the day when the church walls can hold us together and bear witness to our worship again.
But after our grief, we must take survey of what we’ve gained, realigning our lives to accept the challenge and gift of this particular place of density. When church is at home, our faith stands alongside and on top of all the other layers of our lives. Suddenly, we see where our faith is congruent, we’re convicted by the parts where it’s not, and we’re offered a way to end the unrelenting pursuit of space that we’ve inadvertently embraced. We have been estranged from a place that embraces and ensouls the fullness of our lives. And, perhaps for the first time, we’re invited to participate in place in a way that responds to the divine question with, “All of me is here.”
 Winston Churchill, “Speech on the House of Commons Rebuilding,” Parliamentary Debates, Commons, 5th ser., vol. 393, (1943–44), cols. 403–73.
 T.J. Gorringe, A Theology of the Built Environment Justice, Empowerment, Redemption (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 38.
 Eric Jacobsen, Sidewalks in the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2003), 34 – 36.
 Walter Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002), 4.
 Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001).
 Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Random House, 1992), chapter 11.
 Philip Sheldrake, Spaces for the Sacred: Place Memory, and Identity, 30.
 Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2010), 87.
 Jim Elliot and Elisabeth Elliot, The Journals of Jim Elliot (Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 1978), 278.