Art for God's Sake

Why Is There Space?

AirIn one of comedian Bill Cosby's humorous monologues, he pokes fun at the air-headed girlfriend who walk around his friend's San Francisco house all day pondering questions like "why is there air?"  We laugh because "normal" people don't generally consider such topics, at least not publicly; we dismiss such talk as nonsense.  But theologian T.J Gorringe doesn't do that and he's very serious when he asks the question, "Why is there space?"

You know I've been slogging through Gorringe's very academic book entitled A Theology of the Built Environment: Justice, Empowerment, Redemption, trying to better myself, I suppose, being reminded all the time of some of the sociologists I was required to read in college, like Lewis Mumford.  It's tough going, and yet it is effective in allowing you to peel back the veneer of lived life, in this case, the built environment we live and move in, and see both how it is shaped by our prevailing assumptions about life as well as glimpse, perhaps, how God would have it be shaped.  It is true that for most of us all the time and some of us most of the time we simply move through our days in a fairly unexamined way.  I know I do.  And yet, on occasion, that question pops in your brain, like "why is there air?" or, for me, "why do things look like they do?"  And yet such questions are forgotten in the midst of busy schedules or dismissed as not worth pursuing.  Gorringe simply asks the questions we seldom ask, and then unlike most of us, he pursues them.  The results seem rewarding and have provoked my own thoughts.

ManOne of the points Gorringe makes is that space is constructed, that is, it doesn't just happen but is a product of a society's particular vision of the world.  Pull up the sidewalks, the buildings, and streetscape, and you find that "[t]he ideology of space is inescapable: we encounter it the moment we emerge from our front door, drive to the out of town shopping centre, or visit the local post office."  Quoting Henri Lefebvre, he notes that "[a]ll ideologies 'project themselves into space, becoming inscribed there, and in the process producing that space itself.'"  This itself is worth thinking about, albeit it is difficult to think this way about something we take so for granted.  I walk out my door in the morning, and in the quiet I walk around the streets of my neighborhood, and it all represents something of what we believe is the good life.  The shape of things, as he says, rests on what we think human beings are, and that, of course, has much to do with what God says in Scripture. 

GorringeMore on this another day, perhaps.  But just one thought before I go --- this culture now, more than in my 1960s childhood, is oriented toward pleasure.  For example, growing up in my medium-sized city, we had perhaps two movie theaters, each with only one or two screens.  You just didn't go out that often.  We also had a lot less restaurants, because we seemed less focused on food as a sensory delight or as recreation and more on eating together as a family, at home, that is, more on food as the lubricant of social intercourse (sorry, I couldn't help myself).  Obviously these assumptions effect what is built.  Shopping and eating then were more functional; you need something, you go buy it.  Now shopping and eating are experiences.  The very landscape has changed as a result.

Gorringe goes on to articulate a theological grounding for space in the Trinity.  Why?  Because unless we have a basis in revelation for what space ought be, we cannot say "ought" about anything built, whether structure, streetscape, or landscape.  He notes that for much of history John's claim that "God is Spirit" has been understood "to mean that whilst God may have created space God in Godself must be above it --- spaceless [or a-spatial] --- in the same way God is 'above' time."  Relying on Karl Barth, he points out that unless God has space, there is no theological ground for space and its importance is greatly diminished.  After all, it'll all be annihilated eventually, right?  Wrong.  Space has intrinsic ground with God.  It will be a part of eternal life with God, much as we will be embodied and enjoy a material, recreated world.  You might say we will be en-spaced (though I don't know if that's a word.)

Three_in_one_1Moving on, he points out that space is pre-existent and eternal, being found in the Trinity.  This is how he says it: "God is present to Godself, [where] there is a divine proximity and remoteness, [and this] is the basis and presupposition of created proximity and remoteness."  My, my, my.  This sounds so difficult, but really he is just saying that in the Trinity there is distinctiveness (God is not the Son is not the Spirit) and yet sameness (God is the same substance as the Son is the same substance as the Spirit).  And in this apartness, there is love, and fellowship, and real community.  Oneness, and yet threeness.  Proximity, and yet remoteness.

So what's this got to do with anything?  Well, as we talk about how we should build, how we should shape communities, why certain things should be built here, or there, we can think about it from the standpoint of the grounding of space in God.  It belongs to Him.  He's gifted it to us.  We are compelled, indeed, enjoined, to consider how we use space.  I don't know what applications Gorringe will draw in the following chapters about what this Trinitarian grounding for space means in real life, but maybe it's something like this: 

  • Healthy communities invite both intimacy (proximity) and privacy (remoteness).  While you can't compel people to know and care for one another, our building patterns and structures can provide conditions where the growth of community is encouraged and a right privacy is preserved.
  • Healthy communities are differentiated.  Not all is the same, from the experience of buildings to the cultural life.  Sameness is a bane, and while it may satisfy some urban planner's idea of what is "nice", it's ultimately deadening to the human spirit.  I think this is rooted both in the Trinity and in the differentiation in Creation.
  • In healthy communities, there is concern for others.  In the Trinity there is love.  This side if Eden we may not have love, but we should seek civility and civic concern.  These are difficult things to encourage, but it seems to me we can build places and shape communities in such a way to encourage decent behavior.

HousesLet's face it.  Many of us live in suburbia because we are ambivalent about the proximity/remoteness thing.  We want intimacy, so we live around people, sort of, and not way out in the country.  And yet, at the same time we want people on our own terms and, sometimes, we want to be left alone.  We're the ones who made the suburbs, and I'm not bashing them too much, because they reflect a human reality that is unlikely to change.  But maybe, just maybe we can live Trinitarian lives in the midst of this tension.  You think?

If you made it this far in this longish post, you either felt sorry for me that this is all I have to spend my time on, this practically useless nonsense.  Or maybe you're a rarity and are really enthralled.  But if you're the prior, just tell me one thing before you go: "Why is there air?"  err, I mean, "why is there space?"  Think about it, will you?