A Place for Place in Spiritual Formation: Douglas Harding

Place copy

This weekend I have the privilege of attending the Biola Center for Christian Thought’s 3rd annual conference. This year’s theme is Psychology and Spiritual Formation. I’ll be posting blogs over the next few days and weeks about the ideas and lectures discussed at the conference.

A Place of “Place” in Spiritual Formation Presented by Douglas Hardy

A few years ago, Biola’s chapel theme was “Sacred Spaces” in which we learned about sacred spaces both in scripture and in our personal lives. I enjoyed the theme and thought there was something worth investigating beyond the normal chapel discussion. So when I saw this paper topic being discussed, I naturally gravitated towards it.

Ironically, the lecture was held in the bottom of Talbot in a room without windows. As I began to think about the idea of place, I began to feel more and more claustrophobic in a place isolated from the presence of other places.

Hardy opened up his lecture with a helpful insight.

Space is such a part of our lives that we often don’t think of it because of its ubiquity.

We are usually at least aware of where we are. I am painfully aware of the times I am in the library on a sunny day. I am also pleasantly aware of when I am outside or in a hipster coffee shop. I notice not only the people I am with, but the place itself. However, thinking about the place around us is different than being merely aware of it. Why do I feel more comfortable in my room than I do in a common area? Why did rearranging my room make me feel different? Spaces are not just containers, but part of the ordered creation that affects us. There is something significant in the place we occupy.

The Bible speaks about the importance of spaces and places as well. Hardy brought up several passages such as Matthew 26:36.

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.

Not only are they in a place with a name, but Jesus distinguishes between the place the disciples are to wait in (here) and where he must go (over there). On a bigger scale, Paul, whenever he references his traveling partners or who he’s with, always mentions the city they are from. Their place is part of their identity. Books of the Bible are named after both people and places. The Church did not develop in the vacuum of a mind, but in specific physical places. It was shaped and reacted to its place, as its members experienced travelling, dwelling, and exile.

Found on myfotolog.tumblr.com

Found on myfotolog.tumblr.com

Christ himself dwelt among us, denoting a relationship between God, man, and place. Harding, in his research, found that our relationship with God and others is formed by the physical places we identify with and how we interact with them. I am shaped by being from Seattle. Rain and being indoors has shaped part of my being. I enjoy being inside, safe and sound from the rain outside. This has formed my relationship with God. I watch the outside world (the rain) from the comfort of being inside (within God). It is not a disconnect from the world, but a natural mode of being and relation that my specific place has formed in me. Place has significance bearing to our belonging, commitment, memory, narrative, conflicts, and particularities.

Harding also talked about the different kinds of places we need. He discovered in Rizzuto’s writings on Sacred Spaces that we need places to ‘be’ not just ‘do’. She identified in one of her patients that these places of being included a relative’s home, a church, and an analyst’s office. While these may not be the same for everyone, we all need places where we can just be, not just spaces in time. Do you have a friend’s house where you can just be? One of my professors talked about being ‘refrigerator friends’ with others. They would go over to each other’s houses and have each other’s favorite drinks in their fridges for them to enjoy at any time. They could just ‘be’, not just together, but in a specific place.


Harding’s paper is important for several reasons, which he talked about at the end of his lecture.

First, if we don’t think about place, we’ll neglect it. Often times the things we don’t consider are the things that fall to the wayside. If we don’t think about places, we won’t interact with them in a way that forms us well. A negative of me not being aware of place in Washington is that while I can enjoy watching the world from my perspective with God, I don’t go outside and enjoy the world. I’ve created a division between my spiritual encounters and my everyday interactions.

Second, we need to think outside ourselves, and our phones. We are in a constant state of looking down, unaware of the world around us.

Third, our digital interactions have flattened out our idea of place. We can communicate with people around the world in an instant. We can become so absorbed in our devices that we can enter into a different place in the world, completely separating ourselves from the physical world around us. That’s Gnosticism. It is always dangerous to remove ourselves from the physical realities, which leads to the next points.

Fourth, Christians have an ambivalence towards space because, fifth, Christians try to transcend space. The danger of removing the physical is thinking that the physical is evil, or a lesser good. We equate the ‘fleshly’ nature to come from our physical body alone and think a separation from it will rid us of this evil. However, that’s very Platonic thinking, not Christian. Instead, we should remember that Christ sits in heaven in a physical body. In a paper presented in a class this week, a student noted that the only man-made thing that will be in heaven will be the scars we gave Christ. We lose that when we think that the physical, the place, is not important.

Sixth, and finally, we base our discipleship primarily on internal ideas and actions, not on place. The gospels are full of movement, of Jesus telling the disciples to go to specific places. Why have we lost this significance of place?

Final Thoughts

We are in a crisis for space. We have high mobility, an increase in global displacement, the destruction of natural spaces, and the displacing phenomena of the virtual world (notice how we use ‘world’ to describe it?). We need to reclaim the rich theology of place and understand its psychological and spiritual applications. The church has lost its sense of place, evident in the kinds of places we place our churches without much thought. We don’t consider that reading scripture in different places affects us. Places like church buildings, cathedrals, camp grounds, and retreat centers have significant bearings on our spiritual formation. Be present.

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