Starting thinking about place

“‘Dwelling’ for Heidegger meant much more than just living in a house. It described a way of being in the world… (bos in Cornish is a verbal noun meaning both ‘to be’ and a building or dwelling). So to be is ’to be in a place…” – Marsden, 20

(Place is distinctive and local. Space is conceptual and general)

I’m reading Philip Marsden’s Rising Ground: a search for the spirit of place while I’m in Cornwall. It intersects with a book I’m reading for work at the moment, Willie James Jennings’ Christian Imagination on the origins of the idea of race.

Marsden is going exploring in Cornwall’s mythology of place, reflecting on the way history, memory and storytelling are woven with place – in a way that creates a sense of a land. Jennings, at the start of his book, is talking about the way the European age of discovery in the 1500s and 1600s is an incursion into and disruption of other peoples’ places in ways that rip people from their places (slavery) or reorganise and re-form them (e.g. in the encomienda and the reducciones as Spain conquered the Americas), extending European ‘space’ around hierarchies of race and religion.

“Christian intellectual tradition in the New World denies its most fundamental starting point, that of the divine Word entering flesh in time and space to become Jewish flesh.” – Jennings, 113.

Jennings thinks that this has damaged our theology and discipleship. I don’t think he’s wrong.

It has also, as Christendom has given way to Enlightenment and the secular, damaged our way of being with reference to the rest of the world that we don’t always fully understand, but which I think is connected at least in part to a swapping out religious hierarchies for those of ‘progress’, and to an over-inflated sense of our own importance in the world.

This is Miroslav Volf:

“[There has been a shift in interest] from universal to particular, from global to local, from equality to difference, a shift informed by the realisation that ’universality’ is available only from within a given ‘particularity’, that global concerns must be pursued locally, that stress on equality makes sense only as a way of attending to differences.” – Exclusion and Embrace, 18.

He notes a tension between growing global cultural heterogeneity and attachment to tribal identity – especially where the former is combined with power and wealth imbalances. Think UKIP, think BNP, think Tea Party, think of the rhetoric that is coming out of the British government about the migrants in Calais…

Some strands of thoughts for pursuit:

  • There is an importance of place to identity, and its legitimate to think that matters.
  • Invasion of a place is different to migration into a place.
  • Change will always happen in places and peoples’ relationship to place.
  • That change will be different depending on whether the factors contributing to it are welcomed or rejected.
  • Our place is no more or less important than other peoples’ places – but it’s a heck of a lot more privileged.
  • Our development of our place in ways that suit and benefit us, are not unconnected from what happens to other peoples’ places.
  • We prefer to ignore the specifics of what that looks like. We shouldn’t.

It’s easy to see and enjoy the irruption of place into contemporary space in Cornwall. The local myths remain, and not just for the sake of the tourist dollar. But, confronted with the homogeneity of most space in the Western Hemisphere at the very least – it’s not always benign (side note: the last time I was in somewhere in Europe and knew I wasn’t going to see a Starbucks for a week? Rome, in 2009. Is there Starbucks in Rome now? If so, the apocalypse is coming).

We want our own place, but often without thinking of what the extension of western-led, western-benefitting global space is doing and has done to the places of others. I don’t think we get to build our own little Eden that combines our place with all the nice bits of global space that we quite like, and to ignore the rest.

We have a government that says it would like us to embrace the concept of personal responsibility. Let’s have at it, Mr Cameron. What would it look like for us, as a nation, to embrace our personal responsibility to other places?

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