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Where is "here," if here is where God is?
About the author: Ed Watson is a PhD candidate at Yale University, focusing on questions of theology and conceptualization. He is currently working on a dissertation exploring the relationships between Christian talk of grace and racial difference.
Where is “here,” if here is where God is? It is easy to not ask this question. In Christian reflection on God, attention is more likely drawn to questions of what it means for God to be present or absent. It is less likely drawn to what God’s presence or absence means for where one is. Where one is is usually something one already knows. I am writing in my favorite coffee shop in New Haven, CT; you are reading somewhere, and whether your “here” is familiar or unfamiliar, you can probably name and describe it in great detail. What it means for God to be “here” is a mystery. What does it mean to say that God is here with me and my tobacco pipe and my peppermint tea? What does it mean to say that God is present in New Haven, here with the city’s many communities and its histories of de facto segregation? These are questions with less-ready answers.
If God is the axis around which Christian understanding is formed, however, then God’s presence should shift Christian understanding of where “here” is. A place is not just a matter of names on a map or street sign, after all. If you are in a place you call home, this is a place that has been made by how stories of shared life suffuse all things—your “here” has been made meaningful through relationships with family and friends, through how stories of time together have been told and retold together.
Where “here” is is a matter of what places have been made to mean.
If awareness of God’s presence changes the meaning of creaturely things, meanwhile, then “here” is not the same when inhabited in God’s light as it is inhabited apart from this light. This is not a simple matter of giving an account of God’s presence, and then showing how this presence transforms where we are. Understanding God and place cannot be teased apart in a neat logical sequence. How we think God’s being here is bound up in how we think where here is. These things are thought of in the same breath, the inflection of one by the other is a matter of presence, not intrusion.
Where is “here,” if here is where God is?
I do not answer this question here. I offer three accounts of how a “here” is made by being made to mean (one of which is harrowing, I should warn the reader). I then ask the question again, in light of these different makings of “here.” Thinking the question further is a matter of reflection for where you are.
In his account of Western Apache senses of history and place, Keith Basso brings sharp focus to practices of “place-making.” Where a place is is for all peoples a matter of the stories woven through more sensible matters. The Western Apache, along with other Indigenous peoples, make this fact the center of their history and their belonging.
While conducting his fieldwork in the company of Charles Henry and Morley Cromwell, Keith struggles with the name for where they are. He mispronounces “the Apache name of the boggy swale before us, and Charles, who is wearing of repeating it, has a guarded look in his eyes.” After several attempts, Keith apologizes to Charles saying that he’ll work on it later: “it doesn’t matter.”
After correcting Keith, Charles turns to Morley and says “what he’s doing isn’t right ... Why is he in a hurry? It’s disrespectful. Our ancestors made this name. They made it just as it is. They made it for a reason. They spoke it first, a long time ago! He’s repeating the speech of our ancestors. He doesn’t know that.”
Keith hears the admonition, and slowing down, he listens closely: “Goshtł’ish Tú Bił Sikáͅné,” or Water Lies With Mud in An Open Container.
Charles nods in approval, then “keeping to his own language ... he fashions a place-world in which the making and naming occurred.” Charles speaks here into being: “they came to this country long ago, our ancestors did ... Now they are saying, ‘This is a good place for hunting. Deer and turkey come here to eat and drink’ ... So they named it Goshtł’ish Tú Bił Sikáͅné. They made a picture with words ... You can see for yourself. It looks like its name.”
Here is made with story. Place is made with story, much as Jacob “called this place Peniel ... ‘for I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’” (Gen 32:31)
In October 1944, Primo Levi is a prisoner in Monowitz, a camp in Auschwitz. In the spring, the Germans had constructed tents housing a thousand men. Those tents have been torn down and there is now an excess of two thousand men crowding the barracks. The Germans “do not like such irregularities, and ... soon something will happen to reduce our numbers.”
The word selekckja, or “selection,” permeates the camp. One day after labor the men are confined to barracks. All are crowded naked into the quartermaster’s office, with cards they have filled out, listing number, name, profession, age, and nationality.
One by one the men are led out past an SS officer who takes their cards, glances at their bodies for a fraction of a second, and gives the card to a man on his right or on his left. “Even before the selection is over, we all know that the left was ... the bad side.”
Double rations are given to the selected. In the silence that later slowly prevails, Levi hears “old Kuhn praying aloud ... his torso swaying violently. Kuhn is thanking God that he was not chosen.” Kuhn’s life has been preserved. Writing in the years of his own survival, Levi states:
Kuhn is out of his mind. Does he not see, in the bunk next to him, Beppo the Greek, who is twenty years old and is going to the gas chamber ... and knows it, and lies there staring at the light without saying anything and without even thinking anymore? Does Kuhn not know that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty—nothing at all in the power of man to do—can ever heal?
If I were God, I would spit Kuhn’s prayer out upon the ground.
Here is made with power and killing.
When Levi returns in 1965, his camp no longer exists. “The rubber factory it was attached to is now in Polish hands and has expanded to occupy the area completely.”
John Jea is an itinerant African minister who eventually settles in Portsmouth, England. Born into freedom in 1773 and enslaved at two and a half, Jea is manumitted in New York as a young man when the Angel of God teaches him to read the Gospel of John.
Across a sometimes tragic, sometimes joyous life of ministry he travels by ship across the 19th-century Atlantic, preaching throughout the expanse. He composes a hymn book, including four hymns of meeting and parting.
In meeting, these hymns express a sense of what it is to join in place with God. In one, “through thee we now together come / In singleness of heart; / We meet, O Jesus, in thy name / We do not wish to part.” In another, “we meet, thy grace to take / Which thou hast freely giv’n; / We meet on earth for thy dear sake / That we may meet in heaven.”
In parting, these hymns express a bond of body through God and spirit. In one, “We bless the Lord that we must part / In body for a while, / We still continue one in heart / Our spirits are all join’d.” In another, “if Jesus be with us below, / We still are one in heart, / We part in body, not in mind / Our minds continue one.”
Here is made in communion; and in communion, here remains. Life together is preserved.
Where is “here,” if here is where God is? Reflecting as Christians, this is a question we think through our sense of who God is—often Triune and Incarnate, often otherwise than this. How is “here” changed, for example, if one thinks of God’s abiding reality in the flesh of Christ? If the flesh of God is our flesh too, what difference does this make to how places are made through story, power, and communion? A strange question, perhaps. But ask it when you find yourself in moments of communion. See if anything happens to your sense not just of where you are, but how that place has been made.
Where is “here,” if here is where God is? This is also a question we ask with consciousness that claims of God’s universality can occlude the specificity of Indigenous knowledge of the divine and Jewish knowledge of who God is. Along with other Indigenous Americans, the Western Apache have been and are being dispossessed as part of a history of genocide and forced displacement often framed in Christian terms. Jewish people have been vilified and murdered on the basis of Christian anti-Semitism. Many Black people were abducted and enslaved by Christians; many saw their countries colonized then subordinated to international debt in the name of capitalist Christian civilization. The question of “here” must be asked in light of how those who spoke Christian words of God have shattered places and peoples. It must be asked in light of the fact that Christians should learn the fullness of “here” in light of other stories of divinity and place-making.
Where is “here,” if here is where God is? As we gaze across and inhabit the “heres” where we are—the sounds, smells, textures, buildings, movements, and stillnesses—this is a question to be asked with the “here” of Charles, Levi, and Jea echoing in our reflection. I have no answer to this question for you. The work of theological writing is ultimately made real in the work of the reader. I do have my own reflections on how these three stories illuminate the significance of God’s presence for my “here” in New Haven, CT. But my reflections in this regard cannot be yours. I invite you to sit with these stories, and then sit with how the places where you sit have been made meaningful.
What do these stories make visible? How does God appear in relation to how story, power, and communion have made the places where you are?
Where is here, if here is where God is?
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