Tim James explores how the Covid-19 pandemic contributed to our understanding of the divine importance of physical place in our modern world
“You must stay at home.” Those were the famous words spoken to the nation by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the 23rd March 2020. They were just five short, one-syllable words but they were words that had the profound impact of ushering in the first lockdown which confined each of us to our homes and local communities.
Little did we know how much those words would go on to impact our lives and shape our communities over the coming weeks, months and years. Even now, almost three years on from the beginning of the first national lockdown, we continue to disentangle, analyse and attempt to make sense of the radical changes that took place as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The national command to stay at home was one that was driven by health concerns, but its impact spread far beyond the realms of health, casting profound ripples across every area of our lives. When considering this event theologically, one of the significant implications of this command was, for many, a re-discovery of a theology of place. The Covid-19 lockdowns gave us an opportunity to immerse ourselves more fully in our local communities and to root ourselves more permanently in the physical places where we lived. We had no option but to stay at home, engage with our neighbours and invest in our local community.
The policy decision of a national lockdown had and continues to have numerous theological implications, not just for our understanding of ourselves and of God, but also for our understanding of the sanctity of place. It pushes us to reflect on a renewed theology of place, to see afresh the importance of our physical spaces, and to understand more fully the divine importance of our embodied communities.
Location dissonance and Covid-19
In the lead-up to the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a growing awareness in the West of an increasing disconnect between human experience and physical space. Many people perceived a sense of location dissonance between their embodied selves and the geographical place in which they found themselves. This was especially the case for those living in cities. The transient nature of life, a disconnection from the land and natural world and the increasing drive towards a globalist way of living all contributed to a sense that there was a significant schism between our existence and our understanding of the sanctity of physical places.
This was the case regardless of the growing concerns that surrounded this detachment from place. We were already aware of the impact that detachment from the natural world can have on mental health (see Johann Hari ‘Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression - and the Unexpected Solutions’) and we were cognisant of how loneliness and isolation were at epidemic proportions in most urban environments. There was a proven, clear correlation between nature and improvements in mental health yet, prior to Covid-19, we were moving rapidly away from the intrinsic relationship with the natural world that defined much of human history prior to the modern era.
From a biblical perspective, this should have and should continue to ring alarm bells. Scripture sets an important precedent for taking seriously the divine nature of place. We are reminded that, in God’s kingdom, physical place has a role to play in forming communities and building lives which best reflect the beauty of God. From Genesis through to Revelation we encounter a God who invites us to meet with him in physical places. Whether it be the Garden of Eden, the Promised Land, Calvary, or the New Jerusalem, in scripture physical place is not incidental but intentional. It is a key character in the meta-narrative of God’s redemptive work, which is often loaded with purpose and pregnant with physical, spiritual and relational meaning.
A (forced) re-discovery of place
Through Covid-19, many of us were forced in some ways to re-discover a theology of place. The national command to stay at home forcefully rooted us in our geographical locations. Overnight, companies transitioned to remote working, schools transitioned to remote learning and homes transitioned to all-encompassing places for family life, work life, school life and more. For many, this transition to being grounded in a particular place was the first time we had the time, perspective and capacity to think deeply about our physical location. We were confronted with the reality of our geographic place, the roots (or lack of) that we had established, and the ties we had developed.
Being rooted in one place forces us to engage with the reality of our physical locality, make deeper connections with those on our doorstep and invest our time, energy and resources in our local neighbourhood. Through the first lockdown there were many wonderful tales and stories of great community service and renewed community relationships, as a result of a forced physical grounding in one particular place.
The command to stay at home also resulted in the closure of churches across the nation. Yet, as we re-discovered the sanctity of our physical locations, we began to yearn for a return to physical gatherings in an ecclesial context. When churches ‘went online’ we discovered a digitalised way of doing church. Yet, there was a growing realisation that Church is more than just watching a service. There was a clear awareness that there is power in the gathering of individuals in one physical location. In many ways, we began to re-discover something of the power of place in our personal, familial and ecclesial lives.
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Place and belonging
So, what conclusions can we draw from this historical event that can help us to develop a more profound theology of place, which can help us relate more intimately to our physical locations and ground us more clearly in an understanding of the divine nature of place? Perhaps the primary conclusion could be that a broader theology of place contributes significantly to our sense of true belonging.
Humans have an innate desire to belong. It’s not something we’re taught at school nor educated to crave through our family upbringing. It’s something that simply is, as a result of our humanness. In psychology this idea is often referred to as ‘belongingness’. Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary, in a paper exploring this theory of ‘belongingness’, conclude that “human beings are fundamentally and pervasively motivated by a need to belong, that is, by a strong desire to form and maintain enduring interpersonal attachments.”
It is this sense of belonging that is amplified through a larger understanding of the divine nature of place. We know that one of the primary ways we belong is through community; being tied to geographical place by deep relationships. And it was this sense of belonging which rose to the fore for many during the Covid-19 pandemic. Stories of communities coming together, neighbours looking out for one another and renewed sense of local pride all suggested there was a renewal of belonging that was rooted in the reality of physical location.
The role of place in our theological outlook
More simply, we can conclude that physical place is important for God and, as such, it should be important to us. God called the Israelites to a particular place (Gen 12:1). He revealed his presence in a particular place (1 Kings 8:11). He planned for Jesus to be born in a particular place (Micah 5:2). And he promises us a great future that will be realised in a particular place (Rev 21:2).
These allusions to place that we read about in scripture are not incidental to the biblical narrative. Rather, they are a key contributing part of the stories that shape our understanding of God and of ourselves. Place, therefore, plays a significant role in what it means to be human and what it means to be in communion with others. Place matters! Where we live, where we work, where we build community, is not incidental to the plan of God but central to it. We are rooted in physical places for a reason, and we must both seek and help others to seek a deeper understanding of what that means for our lives as followers of Jesus.
So, as we unpack and develop a firmer grasp on the need to journey towards a divine theology of place, we equally journey further to a sense of true belonging and a sense of recognising the call of God to a deeper revelation of the sanctity of place.
Towards a theology of place
While we may no longer need to stay at home, and while the world is slowly getting back to the routines and rhythms that existed prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, we can nonetheless carry with us the lessons and revelations of the last three years, particularly with regards to our understanding of the role that physical place can play in our walk of faith.
God has created us as physical beings who live in physical places within physical communities. He is calling us towards a deeper revelation and a renewed appreciation for the sacred spaces we find ourselves in. He is inviting each of us to take our part in forming communities and places that reflect his beauty and usher in his kingdom, as a part of our missional work here on Earth.
Timothy James is a theological researcher and writer, and an undergraduate tutor at St Mellitus College, London. Tim is also the founder of Access Theology: a start-up organisation which is committed to equipping followers of Jesus and resourcing churches through the creation and distribution of accessible theological resources.