Reimagining a Sense of Place
The Role of Church-Related Colleges and Universities
James R. Skillen

The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset is often quoted as saying, “Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are.” Whether we like it or not, we are shaped by our relationships within physical and cultural landscapes. We are undoubtedly acted upon, but we also engage in place making, an effort to find our identity within a landscape (Lopez 1996, xxii). Many geographers and anthropologists explain place making as a process of remembering the history and relationships of a place and imagining its future (Basso 1996, 5). This, in turn, directs how we impact those landscapes, how we remake places according to imagined possibilities. Sometimes we do this in a way that nurtures and sustains God’s creation; sometimes, as a number of serious environmental and social problems attest, we do this in a way that threatens God’s creation.

Some people develop a strong sense of place, that is, a sense of attachment and belonging to a landscape that is central to their identity, while some feel what the writer David James Duncan calls a “non sense” of place, a feeling of displacement from those landscapes. When it comes to physical landscapes, I resonate with Duncan. Having lived in nine different states, I don’t feel a strong connection to any of the urban and suburban landscapes where I have studied and worked. Instead, I feel a strong attachment to the mountains in California, Oregon, and Washington, where I have never lived or worked for any significant period of time. This is the sense of attachment that drove my academic interest in the history of federal lands and resources in the American West.

It turns out that I reflect a common tendency among American environmentalists: ambivalent toward the built environment, enraptured by the wilderness. In recent years, though, I have come to see the danger of this non sense of place, namely that I am less intentional about place making where I live in Grand Rapids, Michigan, than I am about place making in distant landscapes. I am not condemning the interest in wild landscapes nor renouncing my research program, but I now work on reimagining place making in ways that overcome this common, dualistic tendency to see nature as something “out there” and culture as something concentrated in the built environment.

Reimagining place making within physical landscapes requires remembering and imagining within our cultural landscapes as well. Here, I feel slightly less of Duncan’s non sense, because I do have a strong sense of place and belonging within Christian faith and practice. The privilege of teaching at Calvin College is that I have an unusual number of opportunities to draw on the strength of my Christian sense of place to rethink my place in physical landscapes. While other church-related colleges and schools differ considerably in their Christian tradition as well as in their relationship to that tradition, this connection is one of the greatest contributions that church-related schools can make. They can become places where the Christian tradition helps students re-imagine their place making in a way that nurtures and sustains God’s whole creation.

The Physical Landscape

My own thinking on the sense of place began in 1986, when my family traveled through several western national parks. Having grown up in landscapes dominated by human control, I found the immense open spaces of the West captivating. Here was freedom from traffic, from school and work, from constraint. This landscape, I felt immediately, was my home, and I decided to become either a national park ranger or a National Geographic photographer so that I could live and work in the West. Returning to the Washington, DC area, I mustered a sixth grader’s most profound contempt for the artificiality of city life. I had seen God’s country, pure and unspoiled, and I wasn’t going to settle for the brokenness and decay of the built environment.


My sixth-grade plans to work for the National Park Service or National Geographic never worked out, but my sense of attachment to the mountain landscapes of the American West has only deepened. I continue to travel West, usually to Oregon, every summer for research, teaching, volunteer work, and recreation. At the same time, the binary view I had as a sixth grader—mountain wilderness, good; city, bad—has softened considerably because I realize the danger of investing all of my energy in distant landscapes rather than the one where I now live and work. The fact that western Michigan doesn’t feel like home, that I don’t feel a strong sense of place there, doesn’t change the fact that western Michigan is where I do most of my place making.

I don’t know whether it has been a comfort or not to learn that I am not alone in my struggle to reconcile a deep feeling of attachment to wild landscapes with the real attachments I have to the built environment. The American Studies professor Leo Marx argues that this struggle is a dominant theme in some of the greatest pieces of American fiction, following a common pattern of retreat from society, exploration of a wild landscape, and an inevitable, if ambivalent, return to society. First, the lead character retreats toward nature because he or she finds life in the city “dominated by an oppressively mechanistic system of value, a preoccupation with the routine means of existence and an obliviousness of its meaning or purpose” (Marx 1968, 122–123).  In retreat, the character explores a simpler way of life; she enjoys “an idyllic interlude when the beauty of the visible world inspires [her] with a sense of relatedness to the invisible order of the universe” (123). At some point, however, the character discovers that “an unchecked recoil from civilization may destroy [her]—either in the sense of extinguishing her uniquely human traits or in the quite literal sense of killing [her],” so she returns to civilization (123). (One has only to think of the book and film Into the Wild.) What has the character learned in all of this? Marx suggests that she finds herself caught between two hostile forces that threaten her existence: “the expanding power of civilization, and the... menacing anarchy of wild nature” (123).  Unfortunately, the character can never reconcile this tension: “Though [s]he apparently acknowledges that society is inescapable, [s]he usually remains a forlorn and lonely figure. Our most admired American fables seldom, if ever, depict a satisfying, wholehearted return” (124). 

These fictional heroes, along with historical figures such as Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, may be exceptional cases, but environmental historian William Cronon argues that Americans more generally have developed a remarkably dualistic view of nature and culture, wild landscapes and built landscapes. For many Americans, he writes, cities have “represented all that [is] most unnatural about human life. Crowded and artificial, [they are] a cancer on an otherwise beautiful landscape.” This thinking about city and wilderness has produced a serious dilemma: “however we may feel about the urban world which is the most visible symbol of our human power—whether we celebrate the city or revile it, whether we wish to ‘control’ nature or ‘preserve’ it—we unconsciously affirm our belief that we ourselves are unnatural. Nature is the place where we are not” (Cronon 1991, 7, 17–18).

This dualistic view of nonhuman nature and culture, I hasten to add, has led to important landmarks in preservation. It is reasonable to argue, for example, that Americans created the national park and the national wilderness ideas (Nash 1970), and keeping these areas largely free from physical development provides enormous benefits for scientific research, for recreation, for environmental education, and even, I think, for the cultivation of virtues such as humility and restraint. What is more, I think that we haven’t done nearly enough of this kind of preservation throughout the country.


 The problem, author Michael Pollan argues, is that “we’ve ended up with a landscape in America that conforms to that [dualistic view] remarkably well. Thanks to exactly this kind of either/or thinking, Americans have done an admirable job of drawing lines around certain sacred areas... and a terrible job of managing the rest of the land.... Once a landscape is no longer ‘virgin’ it is typically written off as fallen, lost to nature, irredeemable. We hand it over to the jurisdiction of that other sacrosanct American ethic: laissez-faire economics” (Pollan 1991, 223). In other words, we have learned to protect some areas exceptionally well by excluding most human development, but we have not learned to live in nonhuman nature nearly as well.

My current book project is a political history of ecosystem management, an approach to land and resource management that aims at a more holistic approach. Advocates of this approach argue that we need to coordinate the management of wilderness areas, commercial forests, and residential areas to protect the ecological relationships and processes that make all three possible. Ecosystem management begins with the recognition that protecting islands of land along established political boundaries may save beautiful scenery, but it is rarely sufficient to preserve endangered species or larger-scale ecological processes. Thus, proponents of ecosystem management insist that meaningful planning and management has to follow ecological rather than political boundaries, and this means tackling challenging issues of legal jurisdiction and property rights, because it will most likely involve multiple federal and state agencies as well as non-governmental organizations and private property owners. As law professor Joseph Sax argues, “A fundamental purpose of the traditional system of property law has been to destroy the functioning of [ecosystems].... Under our legal system we cut up the land into arbitrary pieces... and then endow the owner with the right, indeed with every encouragement, to enclose the land and make it exclusive” (Sax 1991, 77). We have, in other words, a system of law that encourages property owners to remember and re-imagine their place in a particular landscape without regard to the fundamental interconnections that define ecological systems.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of ecosystem management, though, is the notion that management must be adaptive. In other words, land-use planners and managers should never expect to craft final solutions. Rather, planning and management themselves should be iterative, learning processes. Place making, in this framework, involves more than careful design and precise implementation; it requires a careful attentiveness and openness to the dynamic character of land and the people who use it. Ecosystem management thus calls for something extraordinary: humility.

The Theological and Moral Landscape

This leads naturally to the second half of my argument about the importance of our cultural landscapes in shaping how we treat the creation. The cultural geographer Yi-Fu Tuan writes, “A human being is an animal who is congenitally indisposed to accept reality as it is. Humans not only submit and adapt, as all animals do; they transform in accordance with a preconceived plan. That is, before transforming, they do something extraordinary, namely, ‘see’ what is not there. Seeing what is not there lies at the foundation of all human culture” (Tuan 2006, 6). Said another way, the human place in nonhuman nature is not something we simply find; it is something we make with unique foresight, intentionality, and power. It is something we first must envision and then construct.

The challenge, from a moral point of view, is that human vision is a spurious guide: “By opening our eyes,” the philosopher Iris Murdoch writes, “we do not necessarily see what confronts us. We are anxiety-ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals the world. Our states of consciousness differ in quality, our fantasies and reveries are not trivial and unimportant, they are profoundly connected with our energies and our ability to choose and act” (Murdoch 1998, 368–369). Murdoch argues that humility, that is, a “selfless respect for reality and one of the most difficult and central of all virtues,” is a key to our success (378).

It is here that church-related colleges and universities can play a unique role. These institutions, in different ways and to varying degrees, encourage a particular kind of humility: a selfless respect for the world as God’s creation. There is a deep need at church-related colleges and universities, then, to remember and imagine Christian theology in ways that can respond to our contemporary place making challenges. For me, the focus is on environmental challenges.

Without time to develop a systematic environmental theology, I will use just one element of the doctrine of creation—biblical anthropology—to illustrate how Christian theology can serve as corrective lenses in our place making. Homo sapiens, the Genesis account of creation asserts, is a species among species, fully embedded in the natural world, yet it is a unique species that is set apart by its relationship to God.

The text provides a rather humbling account of human creatureliness. We are made from the adama, the ground, we are given the same spirit of life as the other animals, and we are given the same blessing as the other animals to multiply and flourish. We are, the theologian Jürgen Moltman argues, created imago mundi, in the image of the earth. This vision of human beings suggests that we have a kinship with the rest of God’s creation.

Yet human beings are not, in the Genesis account, just a species among species because we alone among all of the creatures are made imago Dei, in the image of God. At times this idea has been used by the Christian church and secularized to support an entirely unbiblical notion of human domination of nature, but the current environmental problems we face, what St. Paul calls the groaning of creation, expose this as a dangerous guide to place making.

One of the main problems with the traditional western notion of imago Dei is the extremely individualistic form that it has taken, when, in fact, the imago Dei must be interpreted not individualistically but relationally. The theologian Bret Stephenson puts it this way: we must “reinterpret the image, not as an individually held static quality of the mind, but as a relational achievement which is constituted between others-in-relation” (Stephenson 2005, 7). Indeed, both ecology and Trinitarian theology insist on this fundamental insight: identity is relational. Making this relational turn means that my place making cannot be an entirely self-referential affair but must reflect care for my relationships to God and to God’s creation (Gunton 1998).

I have used imago Dei and imago mundi so far to reflect on who we are, but the other important aspect of identity is teleological. What, after all, did God create humans to do? The Genesis account of creation addresses this question as well. Certainly Genesis 1:28 provides insight: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” But in order to interpret dominion we need to read on into Genesis chapter two: “on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation” (Genesis 2:2–3). This is an image of God’s enthronement over the whole creation. It is the event in which the whole creation, including humans and human dominion, finds its meaning and purpose. Therefore human dominion, the six-days work to which we are called, must find its beginning and end in God’s grace and rest. The earth not only belongs to God, it is a gift from God, and our more destructive patterns of domination reveal that we often treat the earth as our possession rather than as a gift.

Understanding our work of dominion, of place making as seventh day, or Sabbath, creatures is no simple task. It requires a full six days of labor and a seventh day to confess our failings, to seek God’s wisdom, and to rest. In Living the Sabbath, philosopher Norman Wirzba writes,

Our role as stewards or servants of creation is to actively seek to promote creation’s ability to enjoy the [rest] of God, and to enable creatures to attain their potential. In saying this, however, we need to be careful, for it would be a mistake to think that we can enable all of creation in this way. We simply do not understand fully how ecosystems work, and so we cannot possibly predict all the effects of even well-meant efforts.... In pulling back we will give habitats and organisms the freedom and the space to be healed and restored. As we do this we will approach the Sabbath command to “provide for the redemption of the land” (Lev. 25:24). (Wirzba 2006, 151)

One of the most important aspects of Sabbath place making, then, is respecting regular rhythms of work and rest, and that is harder than it sounds. Most of us do not rest well in general, despite the amount of time we spend recreating. Sabbath rest involves more than sitting down or going to the beach, it is a rest that is directed toward God’s grace and providence. It is a rest, then, filled with doxology, and it is a rest that cultivates humility. It is a rest that illuminates the reality that life, both human and nonhuman, is a gift. This sense of gift is a fundamentally different way of remembering our landscapes, and it encourages a very different imagination for their future.


 “Tell me the landscape in which you live,” Ortega y Gasset says, “and I will tell you who you are.” The first time I read that statement, I assumed he was referring to the ways that physical and cultural landscapes shape who we are. I still think that that is his primary meaning, but I have begun to think about his statement in the other direction as well. How we make and shape landscapes reveals a great deal about who we are, about our character. Our failures at place making, both ecological failures and social failures, reveal our inability to see the world clearly. They reveal, theologian Steven Bouma-Prediger writes, our ecological ignorance as well as our vicious tendencies (Bouma-Prediger, 2001). Seeing the world as God’s creation requires both deepening our knowledge about the biophysical world that sustains us and cultivating virtues such as humility, self-restraint, and frugality through which we will see and respect our relationships within God’s creation.

I have a great deal to learn about place making, namely how to do it in a more sustainable way. I will continue thinking about place making in the American West. At the same time, I realize that I need to spend more time thinking about how to connect my sense of place in Christian faith and practice, my sense of belonging to God, with the land, resources, and people in my home town. With enough time and energy I may even develop a strong sense of place in west Michigan.


James R. Skillen is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Calvin College. This essay is based on a presentation to the 2010 Reunion Conference of Lilly Postdoctoral and Senior Fellows, held October 14–17 at Valparaiso University.


Works Cited

Basso,  Keith H. Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

Bouma-Prediger, Steven. For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.

Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West.  New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.

Gunton, Colin E. The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

Lopez, Barry.  Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape. New York: Bantam Books, 1996.

Marx, Leo. The Fitness of Man’s Environment. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.

Murdoch, Iris. Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature. Peter Conradi, ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Nash, Roderick. “The American Invention of National Parks,” American Quarterly. Vol.  22, No. 3 (1970), 726–735.

Pollan, Michael. Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. New York: Dell, 1991.

Sax, Joseph L. “Ecosystems and Property Rights in Greater Yellowstone: The Legal System in Transition.” In The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: Redefining America’s Wilderness Heritage, Robert B. Keiter and Mark S. Boyce, eds. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.

Stephenson, Bret. “Nature, Technology and Imago Dei: Mediating the Nonhuman through the Practice of Science.” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. Vol. 57, No. 1 (2005): 6–12.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Escapism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Wirzba, Norman. Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006.

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