If you have lived in different regions of the country, or nations of the world, you have likely observed, even at an unconscious level, that geography – or location, some might say “land” – often impacts spirituality. In other words, we are often shaped and formed, even spiritually, by where we live. The landscape becomes an influence on how we perceive life, interpret the Creator, and participate in our own spiritual identity.
We hear about this influence of land or region with respect to other aspects of life. For example, who among us Americans is not familiar with the political moniker of “red” states and “blue” states? This way of describing political affiliation with a more conservative (red) or progressive (blue) political identity has been in vogue for decades now. Today we are even hearing about “purple” states! If pressed, we could most likely color in our own map – a simplified paint by numbers exercise – of where these states are located.
Another influence of geographic location might be correlated to one’s pace of life. Those who inhabit a more urban landscape with its busy streets, bustling congestion and condensed population are typically more likely to associate with a faster pace to living. Interpersonal greetings between unfamiliar “strangers” can be rare in these locales. “Keep your eyes down and go!”, seems the norm. Whereas those in a more rural part of the country may find affinity with a less hectic pace. And to not return a “hello” or “good morning” would simply be considered rude.
But what of our spirituality? How does location, geography, and land impact how we think, feel and relate to God? How do different regions of the country espouse differences in theological and spiritual verbiage? Have you ever noticed this?
When the psalmist writes “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come from?” (Ps 121:1) he must be writing from an experience with mountains, or hills, that have become spiritual metaphor in his life. When Ezekiel dreams and later speaks of “dry bones” might this image have been influenced by his own dessert experiences?
Paul, a first century traveler of trade routes and urban centers, uses different language and metaphors in his writing than Jesus, an itinerant traveler of a more rural or agrarian landscape, did in his teachings. This use of reference points was practical in reaching an audience equally familiar with such things; but its origin must have been as personal as “where is home?”.
I have had opportunity to live in different parts of the United States. I spent a few years in the metropolitan area of Chicago, a few years in the Pacific Northwest, and a few months in the Dakotas. Each of these regions was different from my own primary spiritual homeland of Indiana. I became aware that preaching illustrations that worked in a rural context of northeast Indiana did not hit home in the same way in the more maritime and forested land of the Pacific Northwest. Similarly colloquial phrases or ways of speaking about faith from the heartland of my upbringing, missed the mark in the northern or western suburbs of Chicago.
One who lives in a region where winter is long, dark and sometimes harsh may understand a sense of spiritual isolation (the dark night of the soul) in a way one who lives in sunshine and year-round warmth does not. And one who’s been blessed to watch the dessert bloom has a reference point to new life others of us have not seen or known.
When and if we travel, we can appreciate some of these differences. But true appreciation comes only through immersion. One has to live in a place to begin to understand and experience it’s impact on the spiritual lives of the natives. This was brought home to me one time during late September, when the rain had returned to the Pacific Northwest. A short but beautiful summer had yielded to the more familiar forecast of daily showers. In small talk at church I, a transplant, mentioned something of this change in the weather to a native of that region. Her reply was, “Aren’t you glad to see the rain return?”. I wasn’t. She genuinely was. It was part of her identify and experience, and I would dare say, her spirituality.
In her book “Dakota: A Spiritual Geography” Kathleen Norris writes about the impact of that stark landscape on those who dwell there. The “Great American Outback” as it was once called, is full of its own beauty. Everything from open range, to the Missouri River valley, the Badlands and Black Hills gives this region its own unique flavor. Sparsely populated, in comparison to much of the country, the Dakotas can yield a spiritual formation one might characterize as a blend of independence, contemplation, and earned community (can you prove you are one of us?). I don’t know that this is too different from some other regions, or small towns, but it does seem a formation the land reinforces.
As I write I’m looking out my home office window onto the neighborhood we call home. It’s a suburban-like neighborhood where homes are marked off from one another by backyard fences, and neighbors walk cul-de-sacs and streets, offering “hellos” and sometimes more lengthy conversation. Once, years ago, as we hosted a missionary who’s land of origin was the American west, he asked why everyone had fences. What, he pondered, were they trying to keep out? Or hold in?
This neighborhood was once farmland, absorbed into the city as it grew north. In reality it is two distinct subdivisions that blend together – The Woods, to the south, over which my window looks, is marked by more mature trees and slightly older homes. It was once a more wooded plot. Breakaway Trails, in which our home resides, abuts The Woods and has streets marked by native American names like “Iroquois” and “Cheyenne”. Was this once their land, or is this a shtick the developer used in nomenclature?
Land, in the Native American tradition, was never something one owned. This was the struggle in the conflicts over westward expansion, and the injustices afflicted on our native peoples. How could one own land? Wasn’t the land here first? Doesn’t the land form and shape the people? Isn’t it the land that gives life? Won’t the land point us to God?
I’m grateful for the preservation of land in our National Parks, Monuments and Forests. In my visits to places like Mount Rainier, Mt. St. Helen’s, the Grand Canyon, the Great Smokey Mountains, the Everglades, and more I have felt connection and appreciation for God in ways an Indiana hermitage cannot foster. To look at the height of a Redwood, ponder the mystery of Yellowstone’s geysers, or fathom the darkness of Mammoth Cave; or to stand beneath the Big Sky of a North Dakota or Montana night is to appreciate Psalm 8 in a deeper way.
Just outside our small city, and this immediate neighborhood, one encounters the open fields of corn and soybeans in season. It is a rich and fertile farmland. I have often ridden my bike through these lands of plenty, part of the breadbasket that feeds so many. This too can be a spiritual experience. Farm ponds filled with bluegill. Hawks circling their prey. Deer jolting from the wooded ravines. Dogs trying to chase down the guy on the bicycle.
Part of knowing who you are is knowing where you are from. Part of knowing how God is shaping and claiming you, is to see, hear and know God in the surroundings of where you live.
How has land shaped your own spirituality? What land is it that has held the most sway? Why?
9 responses to “A Spirituality of Geography”
Wonderful insights of the land and the writer. Thanks
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My spiritual spot as a child was sitting under an oak tree on a hill in the middle of a pasture. From there I could see the house where my great-grandparents had lived. The place spoke of love and security of my family. I loved to watch the sun sink toward the horizon and be amazed by God’s beautiful creation. It was also there I wondered what the future would hold for me.
That’s a beautiful image of landscape and it’s impact on one’s life and faith.
Hmmmm! That’s a lot to consider…makes me wonder how u have made so many “changes” in your life (profession). Maybe you were born to wander…at the very least.. curious. Guess I am a home body….enjoy visiting other locales…but always good to b home. Always appreciate your writing and sharing ur thoughts.
Thanks Donna. I think one does have a “home” land and that it’s impact on one’s faith is significant. That’s what I’ve learned from others in listening to them speak of “home” & faith.
I enjoyed reading this post and as always appreciate your giftedness in sharing the written word.
This post made me think of my travel nurse experiences in AZ and OR. Having lived in IN all my life, it was an adventure to live in areas so diverse from my home state. It was a different work experience especially in AZ because I often had Native American patients. I also became much more knowledgeable about the Mormon faith. I worked with several Mormon physicians and nurses. One of the nurses was very open in telling me about her faith. I really liked her and appreciated her willingness to share without trying to convert me.
Bob and I had the opportunity to see both states thoroughly during the three months we spent in each state. It was so much different than a short vacation.
We are both so thankful for the opportunity to travel to many places and experience different cultures. We will probably be making our final trip to Chile in February to attend the wedding of our exchange daughter’s son , Mario, who helped us in Santiago when we went on the mission trip. More importantly, we will spend time with “daughter Anie” who is still receiving treatment for Multiple Myeloma.
Thinking of you and Lori.
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Thanks for sharing Judy. I’m glad you’ve had those experiences and insights. I pray your trip to and time in Chile with family is blessed. Grateful for your thoughts.
Dan I hit the wrong button, We’re glad to have you back in Columbus.
Bill & Carolyn
Thanks. It is good to be home.