O'Donovan on "the loss of a sense of place"

Oliver O’Donovan is a contemporary Anglican moral, political and pastoral theologian who has written much on moral psychology, social and political theology, ethics, and Augustinian doctrine. I know a little bit about him because I did my honours thesis comparing him to the famous Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder.

In one of the books he has co-authored with his wife, Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, entitled Bonds of Imperfection: Christian Politics, Past and Present, Oliver O’Donovan has a chapter called “The Loss of a Sense of Place” which relates nicely to Keith’s recent post discussing Wendel Berry’s theology of place.

While the chapter discusses more than this, I though I would relay his comments on what he calls the three sources of the loss of sense of place in the modern world.

According to O’Donovan, the three sources for our loss of sense of place are:

1) The Platonic philosophical tradition: by teaching that the spirit/intellect transcended place (and was all the better for it), this tradition taught that relations to place and locality were to be left behind.

2) The theological universalism of Christianity: the coming of Christ brought a seismic shift into the conception of holy in the world: no longer is the sacred found in one place, but wherever people “worship in Spirit and truth”. All places can be consecrated to God.

3) According to O’Donovan, these two traditions, entering into the modern era, (at least) helped to support a third: the economic doctrine as developed by Adam Smith, that views land as a privately owned resource for industrial production. Because Smith saw that rent was a factor in the price of any commodity, the conception arose that land was part of capital. But this was ultimately illusory. As O’Donovan says:

“This city is built on coal!” the nineteenth-century industrialist could boast, with a satisfied assurance that with such a resource no city could ever lack wealth. But the very rhetorical pungency with which he expressed himself warns us of a difficulty: what a city needs to be built on is something that will hold up its buildings. Its land has prior meaning of it, before it can be seen as an industrial resource… . This is a parable for the general problem: to view land as a convertible resource is to ignore the primordial relationship which any human community has to its physical environment. By focusing exclusively on the productive relationship, the economic analysis carries political thought to a dangerous level of abstraction. [p. 304]

O’Donovan goes on to discuss the Christian theological universalism in more detail, but I’ll end my summary here.

I thought this might be relevant to Keith’s post in at least an oblique way: perhaps part of the solution to this loss of a sense of place is to regain an understanding that any place can be a holy place, a place where God can work. And because of this, we can work and worship in the particular place we are. We don’t need to reach literally everyone, or save everyone, and thus we don’t need to scramble for power, influence, and fame; we simply need to not pass on the other side when we meet those whom God sends our way.