Does God (mostly) meet us in particular places?

One of the impacts of the lockdown in response to the coronavirus has been the abandonment of church buildings, and the move to broadcast services from the homes of clergy and other lay leaders involved in leading worship. The strong guidance from the Archbishops on this has been hotly debated, and the question raised as to whether they have authority to give such instruction. Last week the former bishop of Worcester, Peter Selby, argued that this has meant the Church of England in effect vacating the public square, and Giles Fraser weighed in in support, claiming that we have all retreated to the kitchen. There was an interesting response to this from Jonathan Clark, the (anglo-catholic) bishop of Croydon, who argued that we don’t need to rely on sacred buildings for our encounter with God—going against the view of many anglo-catholics within the Church of England.

But all of this raises the question about the importance of sacred places at all. Three years ago we made our third trip to New Zealand, and this time 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. 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.

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. 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 (see John 7:38; Ps. 1:3; Jer. 17:8) This is not accomplished by attaching priority to sacred locations.

In fact, by Jesus’ 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. IN his encounter with the woman at the well, Jesus says to 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)

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.

(The bulk of this article was previously published in 2017)

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42 thoughts on “Does God (mostly) meet us in particular places?”

  1. Very helpful and from a different trajectory reaching a similar conclusion to myself.
    One thing for sure John 4 was not a prophecy of temples being replaced by churches

  2. In this season of not being able to gather in churches and celebrate Holy Communion which brings life (John 6:51) Jesus’ teaching on receiving God’s life through word and Spirit John 6:63b seem particularly instructive.

  3. Interesting, in the light of the (I think theologically misguided, for the reasons you outline) letter in the Times today asking the bishops to re-open churches to clergy to have (essentially private) celebrations of services which can be broadcast.

    • Thanks Steve couldn’t quite understand/ believe seeing the statement today published by the C of E that the first step was to allow clergy back into the church for private prayer and for streaming of services. Why just clergy for private prayer? And surely for many parishes the WiFi is better in homes than the church building?

  4. The Practice of the Presence of God does not require a building.
    However, joint public worship in building is a witness to those outside Christianity even if the presence of God is not manifest. It can also draw together for support and encouragement those who do not cluster in one local neighbourhood.
    Being in Christ in Union with him has a spacial dimension but not only that: it is a oneness which, dare it be said, has a manifest presence of indwelling of Holy Spirit, what some may describe as “mystical”.
    On no account do we become divine, even those “divines” (theologians) of the Westminster Assembly, or those who come within that category today, and even as believers are “saints”.
    We remain merely human.

  5. Church buildings are places where the holy spirit is celebrated and felt. Not being able to access them is emotionally and spiritually arduous. Surely they should be made accessible even if for solitary prayer. BYO chair and sit in front of the sanctuary for prayer and reflection. I know I am really missing that sense of physically being in this sacred and familiar place.

    • Doesn’t this ritual go against the fact that Jesus left this earthly realm, to bring in the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, which is in all that believe. This is not what God’s eternal purpose wneas designed to be, look at the Garden of Eden for the example, God and man together, in the ‘land’ that he created and designed for the close relationship being side by side, walking thru the garden,talking,admiring the beauty of the garden. It is being with God that is important, not the people, the location, or the atmosphere. God is with us, God is all in all.

  6. Rejection of spiritual attachment to any place and the consequent denial that there can be anything sacred about it is purist logic detached from the evidence and witness of Christian life since the time of the apostles. Of course we worship God in Spirit and in Truth, but we rely on our human frame in order to do so, and we rely upon familiar words in order to do so, and from the first century we have relied upon meeting in familiar places in order to do so, including the catacombs at the height of persecution.

    Our church buildings are sacred because of their function as the family home of the body of Christ in a particular place, and our altars are sacred as the tables around which we gather at the Lord’s command to receive his Body and Blood in the sacrament of Holy Communion. These are places where, as T S Eliot remarks, prayer has been valid. They were built to serve God and consecrated to his service, and are continuously consecrated by the celebration of the sacraments within them. Canon B40 expects that as the norm, “No minister shall celebrate the Holy Communion elsewhere than in a consecrated building”. It would be difficult to exaggerate the significance of parish churches both as a witness in the landscape, and more importantly within the affections of church members. Indeed for the wider community, the Church of England IS the local parish church. To lose it, or wilfully to abandon it is to lose a principal connection with the local community and with the nation as a whole, which views sacred buildings as the presence in every community of which the Church of England website now unconvincingly boasts.

    Canon B40, like much of the corpus of canon law, represents wisdom and doctrine distilled over many centuries. Clergy may be given permission to celebrate the Eucharist elsewhere, as need requires, in the homes of the sick, on ships at sea and even on the battlefield. But to invert the canon, so that clergy may not even pray in their churches, and to require them to do so at home, means that at a stroke the Church of England is privatised, appearing as a hobby for the very religious, rather than as a public institution which continues to serve the nation even (and especially) in times of national distress. There is no logical reason for taking this step, setting apart the Church of England in 2020 from the courageous examples set by previous generations.

    Preventing clergy from going alone into locked buildings represents no health risk to anyone, despite the ingenious and laughable claims to the contrary made in certain quarters. Doing so disables the clergy from streaming services from the familiar surroundings of the Christian family home, and so sharing and continuing that essential link with the sacred rather than the secular. Our exclusion as clergy and laity from our sacred places, is completely arbitrary, and a worrying portent of an authoritarianism which we wrongly thought had long been discarded at the Reformation.

  7. Thanks for this Ian. I’m finding this time of no-buildings is revealing to me my lack of spiritual connection to a building, compared with encountering God in narrative, nature, and relationships. But also that for some other people the place is hugely significant – so this is a time of the possiblity of rediscovering God outside of the church buildings. One of my favourite books is “Altars in the world” – Barbara Brown Taylor – where she explores the practices of encountering God ‘in the world’.

  8. Thanks Ian – good post

    Some personal musings: my background is as low church as they come – and as someone who suffers claustrophobia, often church buildings can be very uncomfortable places if they are crowded. I do visit cathedrals regularly and love the sense of space in them as well as history of God’s people coming to meet God there. Years ago I was a street preacher regularly in Broadmead Bristol and would always pray inside Wesley’s chapel there – it seemed somehow fitting. In the lockdown my wife and I have been delighted to find an old church, which also has a Holy well. The church remains open to the public. We cycle there, sit by the well, go into the tiny church and pray – and it is very special. It’s off the beaten track, we have only once met someone else visiting, and whether its because of its historic pilgrimage site, or just cos I’ve had a brisk cycle n endorphins are flowing or am with the wife in a lovely spot, I do feel conscious of the Lord there.

  9. I tend to be pretty pragmatic, but I will admit to having a sense of awe in the presence of God when I was on Iona, especially when sitting in the abbey. It was probably because I had been reading a lot of Celtic spirituality stuff at the time in preparation for our trip to Scotland, but I haven’t forgotten it 19 years later.

    Nice piece. Thank you.

  10. Thanks, as ever, Ian for these words. An irenic engagement with the subject which is able to speak across the “no such thing as sacred space” vs “it’s all about that place” dynamic. And I think it is a really important thing to keep saying. I’ve heard an enormous amount in recent years about “theology of place” which just hasn’t sounded very Christian at all, at least as I read the NT. We worship in spirit and truth. In that sense place ‘doesn’t matter’. But *we* are flesh and blood and therefore must inhabit a particular place. So place does matter, because people occupy places. Thank you for serving the church.

  11. “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.”

    I agree with the sentiment expressed here – even if I don’t care for the sexist language.
    Our image of God – and of course that’s an odd thing to say if we are created in God’s image – leads to our theology. If God is everywhere, then we don’t in theory need special places. But we do find that certain places help us to focus. And focus on what? I think Karen Armstrong has that quite clear:

    “The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience, or devotional practice was that it must lead directly to practical compassion. If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express this sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness, this was good theology. But if your notion of God made you unkind, belligerent, cruel, or self-righteous, or if it led you to kill in God’s name, it was bad theology. Compassion was the litmus test for the prophets of Israel, for the rabbis of the Talmud, for Jesus, for Paul, and for Muhammad, not to mention Confucius, Lao-tsu, the Buddha, or the sages of the Upanishads.”

  12. I’ve tried on several devices, other browsers, and others have commented too. Your home page shows No comments on this thread.
    It showed no comments when I went to the post. Then I posted a comment and 10 others suddenly showed above mine.

    On this thread
    Home page says 147 comments. When you go to the post and then scroll down it says 149 comments. Sometimes the extra two show – other times they don’t.

    It has been behaving weirdly since about last Thursday….

    • And now..all of a sudden……a lot more comments have shown up and the home page is reporting the numbers correctly. Over the weekend this would happen for a while and then suddenly stop again, and no comments would be shown.

      • The problem is with computer caches (if you know what these are). We have tweaked the settings a little to help—but your computer is reloading the cache from an earlier version of the page, and so not updating.

        You can simply reload the page a couple of times, which should solve it, or delete your caches on the computer you are using.

        • I had thought of that. Hence I have tried several different devices, have tried different browsers, and have cleared the cache each time. It isn’t a caching issue. And others have commented. See this comment on this thread:

          May 2, 2020 at 2:29 pm
          Has the comments section been deleted? Or being blocked, redacted? Or some of them? Some hidden from view of others? Is it a conundrum? Or is, “Where is God…?” the conundrum?
          First, the comments were there, then they weren’t, then they were (including one from the author of the article in response to a comment), now they are not.

        • Ian,
          Andrew describes the issue as experienced by me. It doesn’t seem to be only down to caches as I delete mine regularly. Even doing a new search in your name in various search engines brought no remedy.
          There were no comments visible earlier today and I’ve not emptied the cache since then.
          This has not happened until recently; it is new.
          I thought that maybe you had decided to moderate once a day, but at differing times.

        • More comments appeared and then disappeared. This is not a cache problem, unless it’s on the server where your website is hosted.

          • I posted that last message and then the comments re-appeared. Thank you Geoff for your comment. This is not an issue with our caches.

        • Geoff, no, I don’t moderate comments, as you should be able to tell as they appear instantly.

          I only moderate people, in that, once someone has been approved for posting, then (assuming they input their email address correctly) then they post without moderation.

          I never edit or delete any messages, other than the occasional typo.

        • Once again this morning Ian odd behaviour by your website on two different devices and two different browers – all with cleared caches.
          I opened the site. The front page reported this thread has 19 comments. When I go into the thread it says it has 31 comments. I looked at another thread. None of yesterday’s comments show up. Came back to this one and it now reports 19 comments – as the home page. Other threads also reporting different numbers on the home page.
          I’ve cleared cache again and no difference.

  13. There are no ‘thin’ places, only ‘thin’ people – our barriers to sensing God’s presence can, in principle, become thinner anywhere.

  14. Can I flip this and ask: are there places where God’s absence is more palpably felt?
    or where we might say ‘evil’ or the demonic is more present?

    • I had some Malaysian Christian friends who said that they felt a spiritual change (for the worse) when they entered Thailand. As a bear of little brain, I felt nothing, but was looking forward to the first plate of delicious food….

    • Many places, at least at certain times. For example, in Rwanda when the genocide took place. It lasted 100 days.


      • Thanks PC – that’s right – I was thinking of similar places where darkness reigned for a time – like Bosnia – Nazi Germany – etc and it seems to me that if a very present darkness is there which somehow diminishes the sense of God’s omnipresence – then might it not also be that there are places where manifest or hidden evils have been diminished or exorcised by prayer and long obedience in the same direction etc and so these become ‘thin’ places as the Celtic Christians I think termed them?

        The people who dwelt in darkness have seen a great light…. I think many people in many places dwell in darkness and the light has yet to dawn but equally in other places the light shines bright

  15. Such encouraging reflections – thank you all of you for such gracious interesting conversations… really helpful

  16. Completely off the subject but I’d not noticed before that Jacob doesn’t make a pillar of stones this time like others eg Ebenezer but he erects a standing stone all be it unlikely to be a huge one, but still a monolith. I think the timing would be right for it to be in a similar tradition of standing stones and henges with British, French and other places around the world eg the Congo.


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