Windows On The Word
Geography of the Heart
- Church and Country in the Formation of Personal Spirituality*
Adventist scholars, like most of their Protestant peers, have focused on matters of time (and eternity), rather than of place. We have spilt much ink on the seventh day and the prophetic time-line. We often speak of salvation history but rarely of salvation geography. This paper seeks to offer some remedy by exploring the influences of church and nation - or rather country - in the formation of personal spiritual identity. I say ‘country’ because my concern here is with our rootedness in our country rather than with political or ethical issues, like military service or church-state relations, which border on the topic. But, as I have found, talking about roots can be difficult and controversial.
This paper is simply intended to start a conversation by sketching out the territory. It includes some autobiographical reference. I do not claim to be exposing universal truths here, yet I would be surprised if my experience were unique. And if there is something to what I say, it has implications for Adventist mission, nurture and retention in Europe.
When I was a child the small Adventist church I attended generously paid for my subscription to the weekly GC publications Our Little Friend and Primary Treasure. They were shipped from the USA and printed on glossy paper… I scarcely read a single word. The children called their mother ‘Mom’ not ‘Mum’ – a world of difference in a single letter. The cars pictured were far too big for British roads. There were no Dutch barns or verandas in my London suburb, no racoons in my country. Here were the seeds of a disconnect growing in my mind.
Later I also noticed that the mission stories normally were about South America or Africa, rarely Europe. Later still I remember one occasion as a student in London preparing a Sabbath School lesson on the signs of the times in the university library, feeling confused that no books there made any reference to the ‘Great Dark Day’ or the ‘falling of the stars’, important elements in Adventist prophetic understanding.
Something of this disconnect has persisted into my adult years as an Adventist believer in Europe. While I am vaguely glad that people are being brought to Jesus in Latin America, I am more preoccupied with the fact that the gospel as understood by Adventists has negligible appeal to inhabitants of my town, my country or any other in Europe.
It bothers me that, at Easter, the Sabbath School Lesson will focus on anything but the resurrection. It bothers me that church services all too often ignore the calendar year, and still more the liturgical year. I understand the reasons: fears about paganism, Catholicism, ecumenism, or consumerism – in a word ‘worldliness’. But it disconnects me and somehow inhibits my worship.
It bothers me that my church often fails to relate to what is going on in my country, my place – perhaps through fears of politicization. It bothers me that the primary historical reference in the Adventist narrative remains American with little awareness of other narratives. I understand about ‘the world church’ and its needs. But why would people in my place recognize the importance of my church when my church does not recognize the importance of my place?
All of this threatens to force a wedge between my spiritual identity and my national identity. And therein lie some dangers.
I realize that there are real objections to my comments, so I shall name the most obvious so that you do not spend the next few minutes resisting my suggestions.
It is a dangerous self-absorption to privilege your own place over others.
This could lapse into patriotism or even racism. Maybe something of British imperialism lingers here.
We cannot ignore the fact that we live in a globalized world where national boundaries matter less, and we have become parts of new communities, real and virtual. In a world where people travel so widely, the particularities of cultural landscape are less important. After all, even John Wesley, our forebear, himself famously said, ‘The world is my parish’.
Whether you like it or not, our world has been, and still is strongly under the influence of American or Americanized culture. So too our church.
What is important is that we are part of the global extended Adventist family.
The perspective that I offer will not resonate with rising generations. It may fade as my generation fades.
It verges on nostalgia, dangerous because it falsifies not only the past but also the present and the future.
Spiritually speaking, it is healthy to feel something of an alien. Being displaced is a central part of the Bible story.
Anyway, the nation state is a relatively modern concept, and spiritually unimportant.
The only important place for us is Calvary. The place of revelation is the biblical text and Jesus Christ, not any geographical place.
I anticipate these as possible objections and acknowledge the force of some. At the same time, I would argue that the rootlessness which is implied by several of them may be part of a serious problem for the European church.
Central to all of this is the importance of belonging. It underlies current conflicts within Adventism like women’s ordination, sexual identity issues, hermeneutics, unity. What kind of community do I wish to belong to? Who does the Church belong to? Members of voluntary communities need to have a sense that they belong. There must be things which bind them together as people. When people do not sense the bond, do not identify, they drift, they leave. So, some indigenous European church members have left feeling that local church culture no longer reflects national culture. Maybe native Europeans do not care to join because they see our church as belonging to incomers.
I am interested in this feeling of not quite belonging. I wonder whether the fact that I am Adventist means that I do not quite belong as an Englishman? Does the fact that I cherish many things about my country mean that I cannot quite belong as an Adventist? Does my Englishness, my European-ness, somehow fight with my Adventist-ness?
Kathleen Norris talks of “the place where I have wrestled my story out of the circumstances of landscape and inheritance”. (1) Somehow, I need to craft these various elements of my life into a coherent whole, to make meaning. I have sought the help of thinkers who have also struggled with the issue.
The Bible uses the word ‘home’ nearly 250 times. Walter Brueggemann in The Land tells how God promised His people a safe space. He says, “the yearning to belong somewhere, to have a home, to be in a safe place, is a deep and moving pursuit”. He believes, “our humanness is always about historical placement in the earth”. He adds that our wholeness, our joy, our personal ease as well as our social coherence all derive from ‘physical dirt freighted with social meanings derived from historical experience...There are no meanings apart from roots”. Place “has historical meanings where some things have happened which are now remembered, and which provide continuity and identity across generations…important words have been spoken which establish identity…vows have been exchanged…”(2).
He concludes that the central human problem which the Bible confronts is homelessness, rootlessness – ever since God asked Adam: ‘Where are you?’ The Bible frequently exhorts us to ‘Remember! Remember!’ Some leading biblical characters found their way back to Sinai, to the special place. It reminds us of our need for rootedness, belonging, location, placement in community – in short, our story. Without such rootedness, without a place to call home, an intolerable burden is placed on the individual’s private experience of God. Without such rootedness most cannot cope and give up. The title of Vance Packard’s A Nation of Strangers (1972), and that of Peter Berger’s The Homeless Mind (1973), reveal their worries about western rootlessness even at that time.
B.B.Taylor picks up the theme of Jacob at Bethel highlighted in Brueggemann’s book. ‘Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! And he was afraid and said: ‘This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’. Gen.28. 6-17 NRSV. God meets us in a place which becomes special to us.
Taylor identifies a problem, a restlessness, which bedevils Christian mission, and no doubt, Adventist mission: “They will travel halfway around the world…to take part in a mission trip to Belize. The last place most people look is under their feet”.(3) She cites a well-known saying of the fourth-century Desert Fathers: “Go to your cell and your cell will teach you everything”.
Christian mission too often involves a running away. It seems, she says, that there is some sort of deep-seated human wish to escape one’s place because we suspect that somehow our spiritual lives, our pursuit of mission will be easier, livelier, more authentic, away from our place. For our everyday place forces some uncomfortable realities upon us. It demands that we make personal connections and commitments. As a highly mobile Adventist community, we do well to give this some serious thought.
Andrew Rumsey, in his Parish: An Anglican theology of place (2017), notes that nineteenth-century radical, William Cobbett, confessed that he was committed to the Church of England partly ‘because it bears the name of my country’. (4) Rumsey goes on to argue that our own spirituality develops significantly in response to the geographical place where we find ourselves. In much of Europe, spirituality has for centuries been focused in the parish – a few square kilometres. We easily ignore this even though the local place, the altar, holy ground, the land, play such a large part in the biblical narrative.
I wish to say, with Rumsey, that there is such a thing as a ‘geography of the heart’, that God accesses us partly through local topography, and that the Adventist Church ignores this at its peril. I believe that where there is a gulf between our lived faith and our current physical experience of the world in Europe, our faith may be seriously diluted. As important, to other Europeans it may seem unattractive, even unintelligible. Attachment to place is important in mission.
The ‘Enchanted’ Place
It is David Brown’s book, God and Enchantment of Place, which perhaps comes closest to my subject here. He says that ‘enchantment of place’ means that place has a special potential for ‘engendering a sense of divine presence’. God may often be ‘mediated through nature and culture’.(5) Mountains may elicit very different responses to God from plains, forests from the sea. He cites Brueggemann’s view that all places are ‘storied’. Places are given value and significance for different reasons: family events, national landmarks, religious history, personal experiences and so on.
We have a deep attachment to place. Places become part of our identity, part of our own human story. These significant places may be natural or man-made. A significant encounter with God can take place anywhere. Our supermarket checkout or favourite walking place can become holy ground. This ‘enchanted’ place need not be a church. God’s grace is not uniquely dispensed through Christian community. Encounter with God need not be mediated by words – difficult for children of the Reformation to accept perhaps. When that encounter does happen, that place becomes significantly, divinely, ‘storied’. Brown laments the fact that the church has withdrawn from theological engagement with that wider world beyond words which may reveal the presence of God.
Brown uses the example of landscape painting, a particularly European genre, to press his central case. In the 18th century painters began using a physical, empty rectangle to frame their open-air painting. And from that we get our word ‘picturesque’ – what fits well within the frame to make a picture. We all seek to do the same with our experience of God. We experience God for the most part in context, in a familiar frame of meaning. Context is crucial. All the particularities of the Incarnation tell us that place is central to the Christian story. Place is crucial in our experience of God and in our witness to that experience. Our context is European.
Philip Sheldrake in Spaces for the Sacred (2001) and Spirituality and Theology (1998) summons various witnesses to press the case. Heidegger’s concept of ‘dasein’ is vital - to be a person is to be there, to be in a particular place. Sheldrake says place is interpreted space, citing Brueggemann again: “Place is space, has historical meanings where some things have happened which are now remembered and which provide continuity and identity across generations”.(6) Sheldrake adds that landscapes “carry us beyond ourselves and beyond the immediate. They are our first intimations of the sacred”.(7) “Place has also the capacity to reveal and evoke the sacred or the deepest meaning of existence…the timeless and the deep can be found and in this is both grace and revelation”.(8) ‘Without a sense of place there is no centring of the human spirit’.(9)
Without this grounding which place provides we are in spiritual danger. “‘Place is space that has the capacity to be remembered and to evoke our attention and care. We need this if life is to be conducted well. ‘We need to think about where we are and what is unique and special about our surroundings so that we can better understand ourselves and how we relate to others’ (10) citing Lyndon and Moore. “The skyscrapers, airports, freeways and other stereotypical components of modern landscapes - are they not the sacred symbols of a civilization that has deified reach and derided home?”(11) citing Anne Buttimer. In an increasingly placeless culture we have become “standardized, removable, replaceable, easily transported from one location to another”(12), citing Berleant. Sheldrake issues us with a serious warning: “If we are placeless people without roots we are not only insecure but also in danger of abusing the world and the people around us in a vain attempt to create artificial identity we do not naturally experience’. (13)
Our forced search for identity makes us insecure and more likely to abuse others. I can think of no more timely warning to the Adventist Church struggling for its identity, not least in Europe. Sinai, Bethel, Shiloh, the burning bush all confirm that the Infinite God is made known by ‘acts of self-placement’.(14)
Keith Clements in his A Patriotism for Today (1984) speaks about patriotism, devotion to country. Interestingly, he focuses his analysis through the lens of the life and death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, so fiercely German and deeply Christian that he was forced into the agonizing choice over the Nazi tyranny. Bonhoeffer said: “Now I stand before you not only as a Christian, but also as a German…who confesses gratefully that he received from his people all that he has and is”.(15) ‘We cannot escape our national identity any more than we can slough off our skin…we are in and of the country- we are our country’. (16)
Clements then asks a very uncomfortable question: “We feel a deep need to belong…but what happens if the suspicion arises of dishonourable action by the group to which we belong?”(17) It is a question faced by some Adventists in Europe over the years. It may concern the Church at the local or the highest level. At this very moment, the question of ‘dishonourable action’ seriously troubles many members, of various persuasions, in the Adventist Church. It requires a deeply thoughtful response.
Globalism and Rootlessness
Theresa May generated some hostile responses when she said in 2016 that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world then you are a citizen of nowhere”.(18) But there is a sense in which I think she is right. In all forms of globalism much local colour is eventually lost. There is a ‘dumbing down’ process. Everything is melded into some common, tasteless soup.
So the danger is that we may produce a kind of ‘globish Adventism’. As with ‘globish’ versions of the English language, active vocabulary is reduced from the 500,000 words in the language to a couple of thousand functional words. All possibility of nuance, elegance, restraint and mystery is lost. That is a disaster in the spiritual life where we struggle to ‘see in a mirror, dimly’ (I Cor 13.12 NRSV). The Christian faith is then all too easily turned into a mere product, a superficial message, a shallow experience – an import.
Beyond place– a tension
A number of these writers, however, are quick to identify a serious tension. “A God of freedom could never be comfortably contained in one place”. (19) While we must attend to the land, our place, but we must also transcend it too. Otherwise we become a local sect, as the early church sometimes was. Stagnation, complacency, a sense of entitlement set in. It is important to heed the warning, to recognize the dangers of settlement.
However, if anything, Adventists seek to transcend at the expense of attending – we may settle for a global ‘one-size-fits-all’ spirituality. Then we are deracinated. Lost. It is the danger of a disembodied spirituality at variance with the ‘scandalous’ particularity of the incarnation. We must understand and interpret our spiritual experience in the light of our being from Germany, Italy, Serbia, and all that implies, not as outposts of a multi-national corporate church.
Rumsey says: “We cannot know God by leaping beyond the limits of our place on earth, but only by encountering God and his saving work within space and time, within our actual physical existence”.(20) The NT writers addressed their writings to particular groups of believers in particular places, well aware of the particularities of the life of the city or region to which they wrote.
The Gospel needs to be understood, lived and communicated by us with the particularities of space and time if it is to be accessible and meaningful to other Europeans. Rumsey says: “many clergy today, [are] engrossed with global dynamics well beyond their influence”. (21) It is true of many who find the larger church political issues more engrossing than the business of everyday living as a Christian in our street, our place.
Importance of place and its significance for the Church in Europe
You may dismiss much of this paper as simply an account of the geography of my own English, ageing, nostalgic, Newbold-nurtured, anti-Brexit heart. And you would no doubt be partly right. But I believe it is more than that.
If we are to counter the problems of rootlessness, loss of Adventist identity, the consequent haemorrhaging of members, we must confront the causes.
So, I offer some concluding thoughts on causes and remedies:
In Adventism there was a coincidence in time of the formation of a nation (the USA) and the foundation of the Church. The two identities may have become somewhat conflated. Europeans may feel somewhat dispossessed by the fact that the formative events in Adventist history took place several thousand miles away - in Portland, Maine, Battle Creek, Elmshaven - and continue to do so – San Antonio, Silver Spring or Glacier View. So we need to explore further and cherish our European Adventist narrative. We need to re-assess our dependence on our host church in USA, and avoid an unhealthy co-dependency.
New World settlers fled both religious intolerance and complacency in the Old World. Might modern church leaders also see Europe as hopelessly secular and the church as irredeemably liberal? Pope Francis, a South American of course, in a speech to the European Parliament in 25 November 2014, controversially described Europe as, morally and spiritually speaking, a ‘barren grandmother’.(22) It was an unhelpful remark. And it would be unfortunate if senior Adventist leaders shared this sentiment. A pastor struggling to make Jesus known in secular Frankfurt needs all the encouragement and understanding she can get from her leaders in the world church.
In our case, who exactly is my European, Croatian, Danish, Italian neighbour? How can the gospel as understood by Adventists make compelling sense to them? In all our enthusiasm to reach people from ‘every kindred, tribe, tongue and people’ we may lose sight of our geographical neighbour. We lift our gaze into the distance and overlook what is at our feet. It demands that we ask again: Who exactly is my neighbour?
Place is neighbourhood. Many Adventists have to, or choose to, travel some considerable distance from home to their church, and then only once a week. This will often mean that the church easily becomes a commuter church not a community church. A commuter church has no opportunity to embed itself in the life of the community. Place therefore becomes unimportant in its thinking. A core of members living locally is thus vital to flourishing. Local churches need to set about the lengthy and difficult task of embedding themselves in the local community and earning its trust.
Pastors also often have little opportunity to form real attachment to place. It is difficult to see that the important relationships which underlie the kingdom of God can be formed. This highlights a deep structural problem. The more committed we are to a place, the more invested it becomes with personal meaning generated by routines, practices, shared values, mutual love by walking, talking, eating, shopping, playing together. It may then, for us, become ‘deep place’. A pastor’s commitment to place is central.
Multitudes of Europeans are also rootless. There is a deep need to belong. Swiss Christian psychologist, Paul Tournier, says “Deprivation of love and deprivation of place overlap”. There is opportunity for the local church to become a place of genuine welcome and resource – of belonging. We must learn hospitality as holiness.
Unless the Seventh-day Adventist Church has a sense of its place in Europe, it deserves no place in the hearts of Europeans. In short, the Adventist Church in Europe will have no rich history to tell unless it pays greater attention to hearts nurtured by Europe.
Cited in Sheldrake, Spirituality and Theology, p 168.
Brueggemann, The Land, pp 2-5.
Taylor, An Altar in the World, xiv.
Rumsey, Parish, p 6.
Brown, God and Enchantment of Place, pp 23-24.
The Land, p 5.
Spirituality and Theology, p 168.
Clements, A Patriotism for Today, p 85.
Spirituality and Theology, p 175.
Parish, pp 18-19.
Parish, p 164.
Financial Times, 25 November 2014,
Parish, p 75. See also A Place for You, p 27.
J.Berger, Ways of Seeing, London: BBC-Penguin, 1972.
D.Brown, God and Enchantment of Place, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.
W.Brueggemann, The Land, London: SPCK, 1978.
K.W.Clements, A Patriotism for Today, Bristol: Bristol Baptist College, 1984.
J.Inge, A Christian Theology of Place, Aldershot, Hants: Ashgate, 2003.
E.Kelly, Personhood and Presence, London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2012.
C.Moreton, Is God still an Englishman? London: Little, Brown, 2010.
P.Sheldrake, Spaces for the Sacred, London: SCM, 2001.
P.Sheldrake, Spirituality and Theology, London: DLT, 1998.
B.B.Taylor, An Altar in the World, London: Canterbury, 2009.
P.Tournier, A Place for You, London, SCM, 1968.
* A paper presented at the 2018 Symposium on The Contours of European Adventism, Friedensau Adventist University, 24-26th April 2018.