A Theology of Space


When I began working for the D. L. Moody Center, I listened to a lot of people describe Northfield … but I didn’t get it. I couldn’t quite grasp how this place was different from any other. Sure, it has historic buildings and a compelling story (D.L. Moody did much of his ministry there), but it’s still just a place, right? It wasn’t until my second trip to Northfield in October of 2018 that I really began to understand what was different about the space.

It isn’t just about historic character or legacy; it is about what the space cultivates within the people who visit. Those who come to Northfield, MA, are genuinely challenged to consider who God is and what that means for the way they live their lives. It is a place uniquely capable of inspiring prayerful, thoughtful reflection. It is a space that brings people together in the worship of God.

While we often think of space as physical, “where we are” entails far more than our physical location. Space is also symbolic. It refers to our social relationships as well as our physical environment.

While some may find it difficult to see space as an important missional or theological category, I would suggest that the problem is not with space itself, but with our perception of it. Spaces are not neutral. They have an impact on how we view the world.

For instance, commenting on Gaston Bachalard’s notion of space, Jeff Malpas notes the following in Place and Experience: A Philosophical Topography:

“… the life of the mind is given form in the places and spaces in which human beings dwell, and those places are taken themselves to shape and influence human memories, feelings, and thoughts.”

Another individual who understands the importance of space is Willie James Jennings. Commenting on the significance of space in The Christian Imagination, Jennings notes,

“The deepest theological distortion taking place is that the earth, the ground, spaces, and places are being removed as living organizers of identity and as facilitators of identity.”

While Jennings’ insight is made in the context of an extended analysis of race, his insight regarding space is no less relevant. Spaces have an impact.

We may not have the ability to change every space that we occupy. Some we have the ability to control. Others we might need to escape (or visit). Regardless, we need to develop an appreciation, if not a healthy respect, for the manner in which “spaces” influence us. We need to seek out spaces where we can tap into the unique influences that a given space can provide. Space isn’t just the location in which events happen. Different spaces shape our experience in different ways, so we need to be mindful of the spaces we create and occupy.

Having visited Northfield several times now, watched the sun set over Witness Grove, walked along the Idyllwood Trails, and listened to worship in the historic 2,300 seat auditorium, I’m beginning to think differently about the value of space. The way we order our various “spaces” speaks to our priorities and conveys our understanding of who God is. Spaces structure and order our interactions with God and the world. The spaces we create and support are theological expressions testifying to the God we serve and underscoring who we are as individuals and communities. In the end, spaces matter. We can’t ignore them.

JAMES SPENCER, PHD is Vice President and COO of the D.L. Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization based in Northfield, MA, and author of Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind. He also writes a regular blog at nextgenchristians.com.

This article was originally published at https://crazydifferent.org/space-more-than-the-final-frontier/.

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