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Does God meet us in particular places?

On our recent trip to New Zealand, I was struck by the traditional Maori emphasis on the sacredness of particular places. In being introduced to Maori culture and religious belief, we were asked to respect this rock as of being of sacred significance, or that mountain, or this other place. In some ways this practice is not much different from the respect given to sacred spaces in a Western, Christian tradition. But the sacred space of a building (rather than the natural world) means that the emphasis is on separation: the sacred space is one separate and distinct from everyday life, and to some extent cut off from it. When the sacred space is found in the natural world, there is a much greater sense of integration, and I might encounter the sacred at any moment in my everyday life.

My favourite story during our travels relates to the origins of Hahei on the beautiful Coromandel Peninsula. (It include the place, Cathedral Cove, where the opening scene of the second Narnia film, Prince Caspian, was shot.) It is named after the tribal leader Hei, who led his tribe to a new area until he came across an island (Mahurangi Island) that he believed look like his nose. This was a sign from the gods that this land should be theirs, and not only that island but everything that could be seen from it. The name of the place, Hahei, means ‘breath of Hei’; Hei now revered as a divine ancestor, whose breath from his island nostrils creates the onshore and offshore winds in the area.

Recognition of the importance of these sacred sites is a major issue now for all aboriginal peoples—in North America for native Americans and in Australia for the aboriginal peoples there, and in parallel in New Zealand for the Maori (though the Moari are not strictly aboriginal, but an earlier phase of migration to a previously uninhabited islands.). The integrative spirituality represented by such places is very often connect to stories about the origins of the people or their first encounters with the sacred. These stories are frequently presented as ‘ancient wisdom’ which the modern world, with all its problems, needs to hear—though I find it fascinating that the same status is not accorded to the Judea-Christian tradition, which also offers an ancient wisdom. These sacred spaces represent the presence of the divine as infusing the natural, physical world, creating what the Celtic tradition calls (in a rather over-used phrase) a ‘thin place.’


Such an approach to place can be found in specific episodes the Christian Scriptures, though particularly in the Old Testament. Perhaps the best-known of these is the story of Jacob and his dream of angels ascending a ladder to heaven in Genesis 28:10–19. He stops for the night and (to the puzzlement of modern readers) takes a stone for a pillow. In his dream he sees angels on a ladder (or stairway) to heaven, and hears the promise of God to give his descendants the land.

When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, [meaning ‘House of God’] though the city used to be called Luz.

Particular places accrue meaning in other key stories, such as Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush, and then in the giving of the law on Mount Sinai. Later, Sinai (Horeb) because the place of encounter with God for Elijah. The supreme example of sacred space is, of course, the city of Jerusalem and within it Mount Zion, where the temple was built as a distinct physical space of the dwelling on earth of the heavenly ‘shekinah’ glory of God.


Two distinctive things are worth noting here. First is that places are accorded spiritual significance not according to the particular geographic features. In fact, sometimes the places are rather embarrassing in their ordinariness! Ps 48.2 appears to claim that Mt Zion is the highest mountain in the world:

Beautiful in its loftiness, the joy of the whole earth, like the heights of Zaphon is Mount Zion, the city of the Great King. (Ps 48.2)

In fact, it is not even the highest point in the land, and doesn’t particularly stand out as a high peak in its area. Its ‘loftiness’ comes from its spiritual, and not its physical, importance. This offers an interesting critique of other approaches to perceiving the sacred in the natural world. After all, seeing the shape of a place as a signification of divine presence might symbolise is not logically any different from seeing Jesus in the shape of the burn mark on a piece of toast. We now recognise this as a function of the human impulse to pattern recognition, seeing faces or shapes in the clouds or other natural phenomena, an impulse which led Hei to see his own nose in the profile of Mahurangi Island. In the end, this is an arbitrary decision. By contrast, in the biblical narrative places are accorded significance not according to their exterior shape or significance, but in line with affective spiritual encounter—the believer’s experience of the presence of God in some tangible way.

The second thing to note is that the significance attributed to place is a more a function of the account of the place in the narrative than the physical space itself. It is striking that few of these places (with the exception of the Temple) have become places of pilgrimage. You do not need to go to the places themselves to encounter the same God; rather, you need to read the narratives about the places. It has often been observed that, in the narrative of Scripture, ‘mountains mean meeting’, in that mountains are often the place of encounter with God, quite literally, ‘mountain-top experiences’. This is not because there is something particularly distinctive about mountains as such, but because they have significance in the story of the people of God. And the importance of these stories means that the significance of such encounters can be redeployed to the new contexts in which the reader is located.


Even within the Old Testament, the manifestation of God in particular places stands in tension with the manifestation of God within the whole of creation. This is articulated in the creations psalms, especially Psalms 8 and 19.

Yahweh, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. (Ps 8.1)

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. (Ps 19.1–4)

This tension between universal manifestation and particular manifestation even finds expression at the moment of the dedication of the Temple.

But will God indeed dwell with people on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You. How much less this temple which I have built! (2 Chron 6.18)

And this vision of the universal manifestation of God in creation has shaped Christian thinking. In words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God’.

Ultimately, in the New Testament narrative, the distinctive importance of all sacred spaces is deconstructed by the person of Jesus. Whatever happened in the past, Jesus is now the place where God is met. He is the new temple of God’s tabernacled presence (John 1.14), and it is in him that the final sacrifice is offered for the atoning of sins. The promises of the gift of the land to God’s people are fulfilled in him, which is why all the blessings and obligations of being ‘in the land’ now carry over to those who are ‘in Christ’—a metaphor whose spacial significance we mostly overlook. And, we are told, God’s people themselves become that temple as they are incorporated into him—they become the body of Christ and the presence of God in the world.

There is no doubt that certain places have a sense of peace, and there are places where we have met with God. But this is a reflection of our story, or perhaps the story of those who have gone before us, not of the objectively distinct nature of the place itself. God is lord of all creation, and can make his presence felt in any place he chooses, in the valleys just as much as in the mountains.


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7 Responses to Does God meet us in particular places?

  1. Will Jones March 24, 2017 at 10:31 am #

    We know that God can grace certain places with a greater abiding sense of his presence, and thereby make them sacred, and that he has in the past. The question is whether he still does. We know that the church has always/almost always acted as though he does (consecrating churches and burial grounds etc.), and that people feel that he does. But does he? To counter this experience and practice we would need a clear teaching in scripture to explain that this former practice of God has been abrogated because of Christ. But does the NT say this? I can’t see that it does. So why should we cease to believe that God is honouring the places we consecrate, and those which he himself consecrates, with his abiding presence? I think a stronger argument and scriptural basis is needed to abandon this practice and belief, which can claim scriptural warrant (albeit in the OT).

  2. Don Benson March 24, 2017 at 8:48 pm #

    Thank you for these thoughts, Ian. I do think each of us experiences the sense of God’s presence to a greater or lesser extent depending on the location, and that location may be deeply personal or shared with other people (such as our local church building). But it has to be more about us and our personality or disposition than it is about God because everything that we know about him from the Bible tells us that the whole of creation is his and that he may be encountered anywhere in it. Perhaps he knows for each one of us where he can speak most effectively?

    I do wonder if we Christians sometimes fail fully to appreciate God’s interest (love even) in the physical world he has created. Perhaps we feel more comfortable talking about the spiritual dimension and a bit awkward about relating God to physical things and geographic places. Yet the life of Jesus in the gospels comes across as conducted very much in a physical setting, and very often outdoors. We might simply assume this is because of the time and place in which he lived (rural and not industrialised), yet he clearly chose on plenty of occasions to retreat into isolated outdoor places (the desert, the hills, on the sea, to a garden at night) where he wanted to be alone with his Father.

    It’s certainly the case that we should not worship a place but the God whom we encounter in that place. But there seems to me no harm in loving places where we find God and, in the case of our church buildings, treating them with a particular care and respect if only to remind ourselves and our fellow worshippers that this is somewhere set aside especially for him – to whom we owe everything.

  3. Cathy March 25, 2017 at 6:41 am #

    Kia ora Ian

    How wonderful you have visited Aotearoa!

    I enjoyed your post especially your reflections around the encounters with God making the place sacred as opposed to the material place. In respect to other comments I do think Jesus does deconstruct if not the sacred definitely the holiness of place. This is not to say places can not be consecrated or dedicated to and for Gods purposes. Rather, Jesus who told the Samaritan woman that there would come a time where the place of worship would no longer matter, saw a time when we ourselves would be Gods temple, the residing place of His spirit on earth.

    As a kiwi I have a strong sense of place, it signifies belonging. You are more likely to be asked where you come from than what you do in this corner of the world. Association to a place is often the first point of connection. It is not so different from an identity in Christ being formed by knowing to whom you belong.

    As for seeing or experiencing God in his Creation is this not to be accepted without debate? In Him who is above all and in all and through all, and will be the all in all.

    Arohanui

  4. Clive Burrows March 25, 2017 at 4:28 pm #

    I have some intellectual problems with the idea that particular places can be associated with God’s presence more than others; other than by personal association, which is understandable. And yet I am also aware that the Christian faith is not just spiritual but physical too (e.g. resurrection of the body).

    How could we test the idea that we feel God’s presence in certain places? If people consistently felt the presence of God in a certain place, that had no obvious outward signs of being a place of God, that might be proof. Is there any evidence of this taking place?

    What about the opposite manifestation? Are there physical places when we feel the presence of evil, or of Satan? Many people speak of this experience but I mostly put that down to internal issues projected on to a place to avoid dealing with the real problem. However, Daniel chapter 10 talks of an angel helped by Michael to resist the Prince of Persia, who seems to be an evil spiritual entity that has some particular evil influence over a certain territory. That said, we need to be careful when interpreting apocalyptic texts.

  5. Karen Watson March 26, 2017 at 8:03 am #

    God does not need a building, but we do – in a strange town it is (thanks be!) the work of minutes to find a group of Christians with whom to worship: with a peripatetic house group, only the Spirit’s guidance might direct us to the local Body.
    And how else could we so easily join with “all generations” in His praise and service, rather than being tempted to think we are the first to find Him? To sit in a place where people were worshipping barely six centuries after the Events and repeat their very words (albeit in translation) is something very special and humbling.
    Even in a modern Church it is our privilege to start that ball rolling, and pray for the Body to grow rather than let it go for a mosque or a pub.
    Churches are not something He needs, but His gift to our weakness in His lovely generosity.

  6. David Shepherd March 26, 2017 at 11:52 am #

    Despite the fact that God has chosen specific locations and moments for us to encounter the divine, we need to be careful not to attach excessive spiritual significance to them.

    In the OT, where specific places are marked for remembrance, it is more to memorialise the moment of promise, or encounter so that it would never be forgotten. For a formerly nomadic people, like the Hebrews, marking the significance of these moments along their journeys must have been tremendously important.

    Yet, the writer of Hebrews describes these immensely varied revelations as provisional to God’s ultimate and comprehensive revelation of Himself through His Son: ‘God, who at many times and in various manners spoke in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he has appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds;’ (Heb. 1:1-2)

    As much now as back in the OT, people invest more in the magic of specific moments, which are conjured up by tradition, authority figures, nostalgia and ‘bells and smells’ than to the abiding presence of God Himself in all locations and situations.

    We would do well to remember that, at the time of the Temple’s dedication, Solomon clearly explained God’s purpose for it: ‘My father David had it in his heart to build a temple for the Name of the Lord, the God of Israel. But the Lord said to my father David, ‘You did well to have it in your heart to build a temple for my Name. (2 Chron. 6:6)

    The meaning of that distinctive expression, for my Name, becomes even clearer, when we read Solomon’s ensuing petition: “But will God really dwell on earth with humans? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!

    Yet, Lord my God, give attention to your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence. May your eyes be open toward this temple day and night, this place of which you said you would put your Name there. May you hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place. Hear the supplications of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place; and when you hear, forgive. (2 Chron. 6:18-21)

    In fact, by Christ’s own words, it is clear that, in the gospel era, the significance diminishes about where we might encounter God by comparison with how we should encounter Him: ‘Jesus said unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour comes, when you shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship you know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour comes, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeks such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.’ (John 4:21-23)

    The prophet Isaiah also foretold this: ‘For this is what the high and exalted One says– he who lives forever, whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite. (Isaiah 57:15)

    The NT presents this indwelling by God in those humbled by Him as an active, palpable and inexhaustible connection to our invincible hope in Christ by which we are perpetually strengthened and encouraged (cf. John 7:38; Ps. 1:3; Jer. 17:8) This is not accomplished by latching fervour to sacred locations.

    In the book of Acts, we see the effectual outworking of this divine indwelling as St. Stephen’s faith in Christ contrasts sharply with the moribund Jewish deference towards the Temple: ‘Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”

    So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” (Acts. 6:12-14)

    In his defence before the Sanhedrin, Stephen exposed the danger for those who accord an enduring sacred significance to specific places to descend into idolatry. He cited Amos in condemning their false religious devotion: ‘Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel? You have lifted up the shrine of your king, the pedestal of your idols, the star of your god—which you made for yourselves.Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the Lord, whose name is God Almighty. (Amos 5:25-27)

    Considering this, it’s surprising that there is so little teaching among Anglicans about the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. Why are so many still in thrall to ‘temples made with hands’?

  7. Nigel Feilden March 30, 2017 at 8:28 pm #

    I wonder what you think of what Roy Godwin reports in “Grace Outpouring” about Ffald y Brenin, a Retreat Centre in Pembrokeshire. He tells us that he and his wife and team prayed through the buildings and grounds in a particular way which had been given to them by God, as one step in it becoming a ‘house of prayer’. After that, he tells us that complete strangers, many of them not Christians, had remarkable experiences when they crossed the boundary of the property. In many cases they were converted, some were healed. And what about localised revivals in Wales, Azusa Street LA, the Hebrides ?
    In the other direction, there are accounts by Preb John Woolmer and the late Rev Peter Lawrence of their experiences in and around their parishes of cleaning up buildings which had been oppressed by unclean influences and causing problems for the people living in them. Francis MacNutt tells us that he and his team had to regularly delouse rooms in which deliverance ministry had taken place.
    I am also not convinced that particular places are not significant in the NT: Jesus was born in Bethlehem – as prophecied; he seemed surprised that Mary and Joseph did not look for him early in their search in “his father’s house”; he was transfigured on a particular mountain; he directed his disciples to wait, after his Ascension, in Jerusalem for the “promise of the Father”.
    So I think there is quite a lot more to this subject than meets the eye.

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