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More on “place,” ideology, and incarnation

Some of this appears in the comment tread on yesterday’s post, but I thought it needed to be expanded into a post in its own right as well. As we consider what it means to think in terms of “place” and the church’s life, I want to be clear. My point is not that the church should not seek concretely dwell in and be concerned for its particular context. Rather my point is that we need to look not to “place” as a sort of cultural-theological category but rather need to ask “What place? Which spaces?” Inhabiting the culture of suburban affluence is not the same thing as inhabiting the culture of the urban ghetto, and we cannot include them both under the rubric of “place”, at least not if we are talking about how to avoid ideology.

In some of these discussions, as is often the case the language of “incarnation” has come up. If we relativize “place,” does that amount to a denial of the incarnation, in which God in Christ comes and dwells in a particular place and culture? If we are to be in the world as Christ himself was, does that not also mean that the church ought to enculturate itself, establishing rootedness, identity and longevity by stabilizing its life in a particular place, thus imitating and participating in Christ’s incarnation?

This use of “incarnation” I take to be an extremely widespread problem in a lot of contemporary ecclesiological and missional discourse and practice. It relies on an an unbiblical expansion of “incarnation” into a theological category that neglects the actual meaning of that doctrine in terms of the concrete history of Jesus Christ. That is to say, “incarnation” does not name a broad theological principle or metaphysical-ecclesiological quality. Rather it is a doctrine about Christ’s singular person and work that is derived from the radical event of his crucifixion and resurrection. “Incarnation” must be understood concretely in terms of Christ’s own history, his concrete story.

Taken in that light it becomes clear that the incarnation does not sanctify “place” (rootedness, cultural identity, etc.), though it continues to be taken that way. Rather we learn that the Word became flesh and tabernacled (skenoo) among us (John 1). Indeed when the Word comes to those who were “his own”, those who are his own people, those who concretely dwell in the land and the Holy Place of Jerusalem, it is precisely they who “did not receive him.” The mode of God’s “dwelling” is not that of rootedness, of Temple, but rather of Tabernacle, of sojourning without a secure “place.” And thus Jesus never “roots” his ministry anywhere but rather is found traversing all sorts of places, going to the Samaritans, Galilee of the Gentiles, and even to the houses of the Romans. He does indeed come to “the holy place” — only to be reject, driven out, and crucifed outside the city gate (more on this later). His ministry is not one of “inhabiting place” but rather of traversing place, venturing into abandoned spaces with the unclean and the marginalized. As such it is a profound theological mistake to jump from “incarnation” to a vision of rootedness, stability, a sanctifying of place. That is decidedly what Jesus does not do. Rather his whole ministry consists in the relativizing of “place”, especially the Temple, which of course was a major cause of his crucifixion.

Likewise, in the New Testament the incarnation never functions as a way of describing the scandal of the Gospel, rather it is an afterthought, a doctrine that is a mere consequence of the earth-shattering fact of the resurrection of the Crucified One. The notion that God would come and dwell with his people is not the scandal of the Gospel; that was Israel’s earliest hope as well attested throughout the Old Testament. The Scandal of the Gospel was that God would come among Israel as the Crucified One, the one cursed under Torah (Deut 21:23). It is Christ Crucified, not “Christ incarnated” that is the scandal of the Gospel. And it is always to crucifixion-resurrection, not “incarnation” that the Apostles call the church. That’s why I’m hesitant to allow “the incarnation” a sort of independent status to determine the nature of the church and its ministry. The pattern of the New Testament gospel is not from incarnation to “incarnational ministry”, but is rather from crucifixion-resurrection to cruciform self-abandonment. We need to understand “incarnation” from the cross, not the other way round.

Thus I must say again that the call to discipleship of the crucified leaves us in an unstable relationship with “place” and “rootedness” and “culture.” I’m haunted by statements like those in Hebrews: “Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Heb 12:13-14). Jesus comes among us, not as one who “inhabits place”, but as one who is driven out of the security and peace of “place”, rootedness, culture, etc. He is found outside the city gates, driven into the abandoned spaces along with the lepers, prostitutes, and the godforsaken. If, as Hebrews suggest, our calling is to “go to him outside the camp”, I think that should orient us, not towards the lure of stability, place, and culture, but towards the forgotten and hidden spaces in this world, the spaces that “place” crowds out and paves over, where the despised and the worthless of this world, “the poor of Jesus Christ” are abandoned, having no “place” to lay their head. That, it seems to me is where the church should be found, and towards which it should continually move.


  1. Dave wrote:

    Halden, while I am in deep sympathy with what you are doing here, I do think that in some ways this sort of critique needs to first think through what it might mean to recover a theological sense of place as it relates to the work of Christ and the Christian social imagination–especially in a post-colonial world. WIllie Jennings has powerfully argued that the formation of the colonial racial world is inseparable from the logic at work in a Christian theology that had replaced (or “displaced”) land-place and its significance for human identity with the universality of whiteness and its reordering of space/place: As Jennings says,

    “With the emergence of whiteness, identity was calibrated through possession of, not possession by, specific land. All peoples do make claims on their land. But the point here is that racial agency and especially whiteness rendered unintelligible and unpersuasive any narratives of the collective self that bound identity to geography, to earth, to water, trees, and animals. People would henceforth (and forever) carry their identities on their bodies, without remainder. From the beginning of the colonialist moment, being white placed one at the center of the symbolic and real reordering of space. In a real sense, whiteness comes into being as a form of landscape with all its facilitating realities” (from *The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race* pg.59.

    Here I might beg the question of how appeals (even apocalyptic!) against the centrality of place for Christian (cruciform) identity might still be caught in the logic of the universality of a whiteness that would separate both the work of Christ and Christian identity from creaturely-identity-inseparable-from-place. I certainly don’t read what you are doing here as “anti-place,” but I simply want to press a little deeper on the possibility of recovering place as a theological category. Thanks for the post.

    Tuesday, June 7, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Thanks, Dave that’s very helpful. I think (off the cuff) what I want is certainly not to be “anti-place” (as if that were possible) but rather for us to think theologically about the social forces that divide up spaces, thus creating “place”. That seems to be what Jennings (and others) are so helpful about. We cannot just think “place”, we have to figure out what this particular place has been power-fashioned to be and then figure out how to confront that reality in a way that participates in Christ’s work of liberation.

    So yeah, thanks very much for that comment.

    Tuesday, June 7, 2011 at 11:15 am | Permalink
  3. “If we are to be in the world as Christ himself was, does that not also mean that the church ought to enculturate itself, establishing rootedness, identity and longevity by stabilizing its life in a particular place, thus imitating and participating in Christ’s incarnation?”

    Yes, this certainly is a most pernicious and faulty use of that doctrine. Christendom at its purest.

    And to make the incarnation an independent criterion for church and mission, utter folly.

    I stand with your critique of this “extremely widespread problem in a lot of contemporary ecclesiological and missional discourse and practice.”

    I’m being serious (mostly, serious).

    But I don’t think Dave Fitch or the “Marquette School” or many others I know use the doctrine in anyway remotely related to that expressed above (if I might offer a clarification).

    I don’t know if this helps, but when I (to speak for myself) use the term ‘incarnation’ it is just shorthand for “the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus” and only secondarily something like the two-natures of Christ, etc, all of which I think have ecclesial, missional, and even metaphysical meaning and significance.

    Tuesday, June 7, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink
  4. Nate Kerr wrote:


    All of this is well-said. I think especially your concern to think the incarnation through cross-resurrection is of supreme importance generally, especially insofar as it is in the event of his cross and resurrection that Jesus takes on and transfigures what it means to be “truly human.”

    A brief note on the idea of “dwelling.” It is interesting that etymologically the Old English word dwellan was taken originaly to mean, “to lead into error” or “to mislead.” This is to say that “to dwell” carried with it connotations not first of all of “stability” but rather of a certain kind of “de-stabilization.” Thus, one might very well say that dwell in a “place” as such is precisely to de-stabilize the claims to that place that the powers and principalities of this world have staked upon it. It is rather to “de-stabilize” place in such a way as to render undo “place” as a given (a datum of incarnational reality, if you will), and to render it anew as gift (a dandum). In other words, one way to affirm the kind of dwelling that you are speaking of is to say that we only truly “dwell” in a place as we are given to live relative to that place, as we are “relativized” by that place-as-gift.

    To be relativized by a place in this way is to say that we are to relate to place according to a certain logic of “excess.” On these terms, the place in which we are given to live and to dwell as always only what it is as “more than” a “place” as such, in the sense of a “given” realm to be inhabitated and enculturated. So, “place” as such is never what we make of it, so much as it is what is given to us ever-anew in the inter-subjective movements of self-giving that occur ever-anew at the interstices of space and time that make up this particular place. I have not read Jennings’ book, but I think this might resonate in some ways with the point Dave is making above regarding the way in which the notion of “place” is perverted within the colonialist logic, as also with your concerns for thinking “place” relative to the concerns of the marginalized, the oppressed, and dis-placed of society. As an example, we might say that the “land” is given to the people of Israel as “place” in which to dwell insofar as it is always-already related to by Israel as more than a place, viz., as that “space” within which this people is given to welcome the stranger, to care for the sick, the widowed, the orphan, to feed the hungry, etc. “Place” is transfigured and given to them anew in this mode of action, and it is in this way that the land “possesses” them in a relativizing way. Thus, we might say that even diaspora is a mode of “dwelling” in this place (even as they “inhabit” the various other “places” to which they are sent) that is to be determined by this understanding of the land of Israel as gift, such that the exigence of exile is a mode of action whereby given to receive this “place” anew, even while being in possession of it.

    Tuesday, June 7, 2011 at 12:45 pm | Permalink
  5. CCP wrote:

    Geoff, this is somewhat unrelated to the post above, but why do you understand “incarnation” as secondarily treating of Christ’s divine and human nature? The patristic and medieval theologians would have thought of the ‘totus Christus’ as having the broader meaning, whereas incarnation would have specifically to do with hypostatic union in a fairly strict Chalcedonian manner. Again, I’m not sure if this is helpful to the general discussion at hand, but perhaps how one understands the referent of “incarnation” would influence how one was thinking about “place” in relation.

    Tuesday, June 7, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Permalink
  6. Nate Kerr wrote:

    That last clause of my previous post should read, “even while not being in possession of it.”

    Tuesday, June 7, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Permalink
  7. Tim McGee wrote:

    I’m going to press you on a couple points here that are related: the displaced wandering Israelites also resisted God; and God really was present in the Temple and not just the Tabernacle. As Dave points out (through Jennings), the logic of dislocation and diaspora can equally as well be articulations of colonial power (now global capital). Any talk of “diaspora” needs to think through the divergent social locations on the slave ship (the same ship being the instrument of various displacements and diverse configurations of power). As such, “place”–or “place as such”–is too bare a signifier, as is “diaspora” or “unrootedness.” I don’t think “place as gift” will help either, not even as gift to welcome the oppressed, for the reordering of land and bodies that gave rise to the racial world (which the Jennings quote references) was often done for precisely these reasons (benevolent imperialism). Building from that Jennings quote again, we could say that any attempt to navigate the question of “place” without attending to the divergent ways “race” intervenes and dominates the “experience” of a place will end up being ideological. White people moving into the nonwhite ghettos (another kind of diaspora) have to attend to the way that their whiteness not only mediates their experience of this place but impacts and alters it (and not necessarily according to their intentions).

    Obviously, this doesn’t give us answers but I think it points to what you have rightly picked up with Dave’s original post that began these conversations: the discussion of “place” is so abstract as to bypass considerations of power, race, etc, which just means that we are blind to their work at the very moment–or place–we say we have found freedom from them.

    Tuesday, June 7, 2011 at 7:20 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Tim, yeah you’re exactly right. I think what you and Dave have brought up charts the course for exactly where this sort of discussion needs to go. It also exposes me need to read further from folks like Jennings, Mondzain, Balabar, and others.

    Tuesday, June 7, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Permalink
  9. Bobby Grow wrote:


    I have a question, more personal than theological in nature (but related to this post). In the past I remember you really pressing your locatedness at both your church and your city as theologically important. In other words it seemed to me that you had almost absolutized your “place” at your particular church and city in a way, in lieu of this post, that would make me think that your view on this has developed from the past. Am I reading too much into my recollection of what you said about your sense of “place” in the past?

    Tuesday, June 7, 2011 at 11:28 pm | Permalink
  10. roger flyer wrote:

    Halden, your originality of thought continues to challenge and bless me. I am grateful.

    Sunday, June 12, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Permalink
  11. Bert Stabler wrote:

    Hello! I am so grateful to have found this blog. I was wondering if you all knew the passage in C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, in which the Greek philosopher mentor’s doctrines are secribed as “thin and clear as water,” in oppostion to which he speaks of all religion as inevitably caught up with the weight and substance of blood and earth. Which seems pretty sinister when you think of, say, Nazi Germany or jingoistic nationalism anywhere. But it seems a lot less unambiguously evil in light of any number of local struggles– including anti-colonialist ones, as mentioned above.

    Monday, June 13, 2011 at 7:58 am | Permalink
  12. Phil Wood wrote:

    Sometimes is an archived post that attracts attention. I’ve just come across Rowan Williams’ comments about Mennonites from last year. I knew about the meeting but hadn’t read the whole transcript. Thanks for drawing my attention to them. As a UK Mennonite it’s good to know our Welsh Anglican bishop has Anabaptist sympathies to go with his thoroughly Anabapist beard. Shalom, phil

    Thursday, June 16, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Permalink
  13. Matthew Cooper wrote:

    I do have my reservations, Halden, but this piece is certainly well-written. Indeed, I think it’s a fine line you’re attempting to walk. I support and celebrate the movement to think of the Church as an association of pilgrims, standing radically over-against a violence which orients ‘place’ exclusively to the service of people with power.

    At the same time, though, the nature of power and violence has changed. The new manifestations of the Temple – financial markets, multinational corporations, Swiss bank accounts, high-powered meetings of economists, politicians and diplomats – even though they have the same power to define ‘place’, increasingly belong to no real ‘place’. It is no wonder to me, at least, that radical Christianity wishes to respond to the growing ‘uprooted-ness’ of power in a globalised economy, and that this sometimes takes the form of celebrating ‘place’; and we should come up with an alternative vision of Church-as-pilgrimage that doesn’t fall prey to a neo-liberal global-nomadism.

    EDIT: Okay, this point was made earlier – now I’ve certainly got more on my reading list. :P


    Thursday, June 23, 2011 at 11:32 pm | Permalink
  14. Steven wrote:

    Thanks for these posts on place and for citing that wonderfully harrowing passage from Hebrews. On this side of the industrial revolution and its severing of ties between identity and place (and perhaps even more so with the virtual age), I wonder if we have to think harder about what that passage means, however. Could it be that a recovery of a commitment to a particular place might lead a church to offer hospitality to those left outside the gate? How different might our inner cities look if churches had not forsaken them for the greener (safer) pastures of the suburbs in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. It was precisely the quest for security and prosperity–instead of a commitment to place–that paved the way for those moves. They weren’t prioritizing redemption over incarnation. Rather, they were pursuing success defined as church growth through a more-often-than-not homogenous community. Ironically, it was Donald MacGavran’s church growth ideology that was indebted to the German Folkskirche theology of the interwar period, not a commitment to incarnational ministry.

    Todd Billings published an essay in Missiology several years ago that criticized the tendency for urban ministries to emphasize the Incarnation along the lines you do here. But I think he misunderstood how those proponents use the language of Incarnation. Unlike liberal Protestants in the mid 20th century, such folks were/are not inserting a wedge between the doctrines of Incarnation and Redemption (i.e., crucifixion-resurrection). They were rather using the Incarnation to resist the sort of disembodied and borderline gnostic accounts of the gospel that dominate many conservative theological circles. Moreover, insofar as the church is the body of Christ in the world, as the Scriptures claim, then appropriating incarnational language with regard to the witness of Christian congregations seems proper not problematic.

    Tuesday, June 28, 2011 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

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