Book Review: Where Mortals Dwell

The practice of reflection takes center stage at the end of every year. As a new year begins, looking back on what was and anticipating what will be has become another hallmark of the holiday season. With its connection to the holidays, the emphasis on reflection garners its own corner of the market as holiday extravagance gives way again to the routinized patterns of the next 11 months. One wonders if such reflection has really become a trivial matter over against the staid effort required for true and deep pondering. Such triviality is not present in Craig Bartholomew’s Where Mortals Dwell, a long and rich reflection on the nature of place within the theological tradition from its beginnings to the present. There is much to commend in this text, but our reviewer, Dru Johnson (PhD, St. Andrews), a professor at The King’s College in New York City, highlights some of Bartholomew’s reflections that are particularly relevant for churchandpomo readers.

Review – Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today, by Craig Bartholomew

Where Mortals Dwell is a refreshing plunge into a theology of place for the sake of the church. I  commend the fruit of the work for serious theological reflection. However, I want to spend most of this space exploring how Bartholomew collates his research pursuits to form a generalist theological methodology.

Bartholomew’s overall critique is that place has been reduced to ontological space in our theology and so the intelligibility of being an emplaced creature in society and before God is lost on us. “Place is not merely physical extension of simple location, but neither can it be understood apart from objective space.”[1] As it goes for place, so it goes for the possibility of realistic philosophy and theology (“realistic” as in being concerned to reflect the actual creaturely and communal experience). On the premise of the Hellenistic hold on Western philosophy, “Plato’s depreciation of the material [world] makes a rich philosophy of place impossible.”[2] Thus, place is not merely a lacuna in the West, but it is suppressed by a thorough-going focus on reality constitutive of ontological points in space.

It will come as no surprise then that Bartholomew finds a theological recovery of place in Calvin, where space is resacralized.[3] No less surprising to this readership, he argues that a philosophical recovery of place is largely in abeyance in the West until the phenomenological projects of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty.[4] Although this turn to the subject is neglected by Kant directly, Bartholomew suggests that it is Kant’s division of the phenomenal and noumenal that offers a phenomenological opening which is later explored. Despite his inevitable scan from the Greeks through Enlightenment, Modernism, and then Post-Modernism, Where Mortals Dwell is not just another effort to show why the Enlightenment suppressed one of the richest founts of philosophical discourse. Rather, he posits, alongside an interdisciplinary collection of scholars (Marcel, Polanyi, Buber, Merleau-Ponty, and E.S. Casey to name a few) that the lived world is interpreted and human emplacement is the basis of that ability to interpret.[5]

This leads him to the problem of abstraction in relation, i.e., that abstracting away from a contextual relation loses the very basis of rationale, the place, from which it sought to explain the abstraction. Bartholomew thus settles on the basis for a theology of place:

Place is thus to be understood as a complex of factors, subjective, intersubjective, and objective. Examinations of place will attend to dimensions such as the natural landscape, patterns of weather and sky, human ordering of space and resources, and the individual and communal narratives in which the place is imbued.[6]

Bartholomew’s Methodology

There are four methodological phases in Where Mortals Dwell: Biblical theology (chs. 1–8), historical philosophy (ch. 9), historical theology (chs. 10–14), and practical theology (chs. 15–18). A noticeable trend in philosophical theology is the inability to root those works in what the texts of Scripture are actually doing, philosophically and theologically. To this end, Bartholomew’s work ought to inspire this blog’s readership.

Instead of offering an end-to-end review of Bartholomew’s work, I’d like to focus on just two methodological in-roads that he employs and the fruit of those labors: 1) The sum of Bartholomew’s exegetical movements forms an abductive argument for emplacement as a lens for our theology. And, 2) the specific importance of emplacement as a central tenet that funds theology. To give us a sense of Bartholomew’s trajectory, he sharpens his focus with the question: “Did the Christian tradition simply follow the Western in subordinating place to space, or does it have resources for recovering a robust theology of place?”[7] An affirmative answer requires both the broad biblical-historical argument and the particular nature of emplacement as a necessary theological category for the church.

From Scripture to Ecclesia

First, Bartholomew’s rhetoric in toto is compelling, leaving the reader inspired and without excuse to reconsider everything in light of emplacement. While the book as a whole is a tour de force, spanning from biblical exegesis to planning the church’s architecture (i.e., the physical plant), it struck me that writing a book on place is a fundamentally difficult task. One reason is that place is such a deeply embedded concept that we have trouble even conceiving of it. In deference to Adam Miller’s recent call to “eat math”,[8] I too have imbibed in a bit of Cantourian infinities. While I follow Cantour’s lines of reason, I cannot say that I have a fundamental grasp of infinity/ies in the world. Place is a bit like that, but even worse, because I can conceive of an infinity external from myself (even if that is an artifice or heuristic). Still, writing on emplacement is akin to writing a book on thinking, everyone is constantly doing it and yet one cannot remove oneself from the act in order to inspect what thinking is in abstraction. I had to ask myself several times while reading, “What does this have to do with place?” The answer only came when I considered the presumption of place as a fundamental category through which we can consider the biblical narratives and rhetoric being discussed.

What is methodologically commendable here is that Bartholomew moves from biblical theology to philosophical implications and then looks for comrades in history from which he can impel the readership to think about place. Even more, he pushes the reader to consider the practice of emplacement as an activity of the individual and community. He demonstrates that not only do we bring our emplacement to our reading of Scripture, but it is also a palpable and persistent concern of Scripture itself. Although some scholars will undoubtedly need more persuading, I believe that Bartholomew effectively argues for the continuing sensitivity to emplacement in the Tanak, Gospels, Pauline theology, and the Epistles writ large.

Methodologically, a Christian theology of religion (Continental or otherwise) could stand to create manifold studies similar to Where Mortals Dwell that work exegetically from texts and canon to evince that these topics are present, palpable, and persistent in the rhetorical effect of Scripture. This prescription to work canonically will ultimately save philosophers from the embarrassing machinations where a philosophical construction is posited and then backwardly endorsed by citations of Scripture. This occurs through a contrived reading of a singular passage, or worse, a superficial gloss of a theological construct already abstracted from Scripture. Sadly, we don’t have to look far to find such crimes against canon in the contemporary philosophy of religion literature.

Emplacement as a Theological Category

Second, because place is a necessary created property of space, emplacement is a basic category that must be accounted for in subsequent conversations about spatiality and human embodiment. Bartholomew makes a compelling argument as to why thinking ontologically about “substance without position” does not give us an adequate basis for theology.

I was mildly disappointed on this front with Bartholomew’s account on this point. Renowned work exists that would enable Bartholomew to bolster his assertions on humanity’s emplacement as a necessary category of philosophy and theology. For instance, much has been written on analogical reasoning[9] which appears amenable to his project, not to mention the landmark text by Lakoff and Johnson regarding our conceptual indebtedness to embodied existence.[10] In these studies, metaphorical constructs such as location in a career path or argument as fighting derive from our embodiment and navigation in the world (akin to Gadamer’s notion that we are wirkungsgeschichtliche Bewußtsein). These are very natural and well-regarded supports for what Bartholomew claims against the problem of “substance without position”, even in our ways of conceiving the world and communicating our conceptions to others.

Despite his forgivable silence on these connections, when one considers the Scripture’s employment of place and the theological/philosophical recovery of place, we can no longer pretend like place is accidental or unnecessary to theology. It is no longer the case that a theology of place constitutes a theological program rife with possibilities.  Rather, a theological program devoid of place cannot pretend to be properly theological or philosophical.

For Bartholomew, because we are embodied in community on the earth, our emplacement must be attended to in all our human ventures: philosophical, theological, ecclesiological, artistic, political, etc. Where Mortals Dwell ends where all texts that value the phenomenon of human experience should end: teaching the reader how to practically think about placemaking as a value that permeates the home, the garden, the arts, church architecture, civic affairs, public memorials, pilgrimage, the planet, and even places where non-contrived encounters can occur (the so-called third place[11]).

Dru Johnson
The King’s College
New York, NY

[1]    Bartholomew, 187

[2]    Bartholomew, Where Mortals Dwell, 168.

[3]    Bartholomew, 216

[4]    Bartholomew, 179-180.

[5]    Bartholomew, 185.

[6]    Bartholomew, 187

[7]    Bartholomew, 187-8


[9]    See: Mark Johnson,”Some Constraints on Embodied Analogical Understanding” in Analogical Reasoning: Perspectives of Artificial Intelligence, Cognitive Science, and Philosophy. Synthese Library vol. 197. ed. D.H. Helman. 1st edition (New York, N.Y.: Springer, 1988), 28-33;

[10]  George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago, Ill.: University Of Chicago, 1980); Also, Polanyi deems the awareness to be ‘tacit awareness’ where the awareness process is inherently embodied. Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press: 1962), 69-124 passim.

[11]  Bartholomew, 279