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God, pilgrimage, and acknowledgement of place

  • MARK WYNN (a1)

The paper seeks to address three objections to pilgrimage practices – they are tied to superstitious beliefs (except where they are seen as simply an aid to the imagination), imply a crude experiential or emotional understanding of the nature of faith, and rest upon a primitive conception of divine localizability. In responding to these objections, I argue that the religious significance of places is not reducible to their contribution to religious imagination, experience or understanding. In this sense, relationship to God is not just a matter of thought, but of location.

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1. In recent years, there has however been a spate of theological literature dealing broadly with these questions. See, for example, John Inge A Christian Theology of Place (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003); David Brown God and Enchantment of Place: Reclaiming Christian Experience (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); and Philip Sheldrake Spaces for the Sacred: Place, Memory and Identity (London: SCM Press, 1991).

2. Compare Victor and Edith Turner's reference to pilgrimage's ‘importance in the actual functioning of [Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam], both quantitatively and qualitatively’; Victor & Edith Turner Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Anthropological Perspectives (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978), 1.

3. For instance, as David Brown notes, both the Buddha and Guru Nanak were critical of pilgrimage. Even so pilgrimage practices have emerged in the traditions which they founded; David Brown God and Enchantment of Place, 216–217.

4. These perspectives will be expounded more fully below.

5. I am grateful to Peter Byrne for encouraging me to think about the unifying theme of the paper in these terms.

6. Of course, there are other objections to pilgrimage in addition to those I shall consider. For a summary of such objections, see for example Brown God and Enchantment of Place, 154–163, and Inge A Christian Theology of Place, 98–101.

7. Recollection is assigned a central role in the account of pilgrimage given in the Vatican document ‘The shrine: memory, presence and prophecy of the living God’ (Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, 1999, available at councils/migrants/documents) (accessed 1 August 2005). The three fundamental dimensions of the significance of shrines distinguished here all point to a role for memory. The account I develop here, while compatible with the idea that shrines are important as a stimulus to memory, will be concerned with the possibility of other kinds of meaning which are not to be reduced to the shrine's role as an aid to recollection.

8. Thomas Hummel ‘The sacramentality of the Holy Land: two contrasting approaches’, in David Brown and Ann Loades (eds) The Sense of the Sacramental: Movement and Measure in Art and Music, Place and Time (London: SPCK, 1995), 79.

9. Ibid., 83.

10. Ibid., 82–83.

11. Although we are considering here the case of physical proximity to deceased persons, similar reflections are relevant, I suggest, to the tradition of visiting holy figures during their lifetime – compare for instance the starets tradition in Russian Orthodoxy. Often enough, these figures are sought out, it seems, not because of their theological learning, nor simply because of their capacity to dispense practical advice, but because of their recognized sanctity – and to this extent, the idea seems to be that the holy person's enacted witness to the Christian faith is in some fashion stored up in their body, and can be encountered by others when they place themselves in proximity to that body. See Kallistos Ware's comment that the wisdom of such men was typically associated with a period of withdrawal in silence, rather than formal education; Timothy Ware The Orthodox Church (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), 47–48.

12. See Hummel's description of the ceremony of the Sacred Fire in ‘The sacramentality of the Holy Land’, 89–90. This is a ceremony which continues to the present day, of course. A recent study of the self-understanding of Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem from various denominational backgrounds suggests that some of the differences of attitude that applied in the nineteenth century persist to this day; see Glenn Bowman ‘Christian ideology and the image of a Holy Land: the place of Jerusalem in the various Christianities’, in John Eade and Michael J. Sallnow (eds) Contesting the Sacred: The Anthropology of Christian Pilgrimage (London: Routledge, 1991), 98–121.

13. And conversely if, unknown to me, the body of my beloved is interred at a certain place, then my actions at that place may carry a significance that they would not otherwise have had (consider for example the case where I disturb the grave). I take it that if the significance of a person is to be ‘presented’ to me at a given site, then the person needs to be associated with the site in relevant ways, and I need to know of that association. But as this further example indicates, even if the significance of a person is not ‘presented’ to me (because I do not know of their connection with a site), it does not follow that the site has no bearing on the meaning which attaches to my activities.

14. The understanding of pilgrimage that I am sketching here seems to fit with early Christian pilgrimage practice. For instance, David Hunt rejects the idea that such practice can be understood simply as ‘travel helpful for making Scripture vivid’: David Hunt ‘Space and time transcended: the beginnings of Christian pilgrimage’, in Brown & Loades The Sense of the Sacramental, 64. Instead, Hunt prefers to characterize the practice of early Christian pilgrims in these terms: ‘It was an assertion of identity which transplanted them … temporally backwards into the history of their community – actually, so it was firmly held, into the presence of the sainted martyr’ (63). Compare also the comments of Gregory of Nyssa on the tradition of honouring the relics of the martyr Theodore: ‘those who behold them [i.e. the remains] embrace them as though the actual body … and bring forward their supplications to the martyr as though he were present’ (cited in Hunt ‘Space and time transcended’, 63).

15. Willem B. Drees Religion, Science and Naturalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 14.

16. Denys Turner Faith Seeking (London: SCM Press, 2002), 119.

17. For his apophaticism see for example idem The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). The same association of ideas appears in Philip Sheldrake's exposition of Gregory of Nyssa's comment that: ‘A change of place does not effect any drawing nearer to God.’ Sheldrake comments: St Gregory ‘was defending the apophatic pole of Eastern theology – that God is not only beyond human language but is essentially inaccessible’; Sheldrake Spaces for the Sacred, 49.

18. Compare Turner's comment on the eucharist: ‘For the Word made flesh in Jesus becomes the flesh made Word in us. That is our resurrection, a mystery of faith, beyond all experience’; Turner Faith Seeking, 120.

19. Compare the dramaturgical and narcissistic sources of emotional experience distinguished by David Pugmire in Rediscovering Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998), 119.

20. Both assumptions are endorsed, I think, by Drees in Religion, Science and Naturalism. And despite his suggestion that there are precedents for the divine nature in the created order, Peter Forrest wishes to uphold the idea of divine ineffability: Peter Forrest God Without the Supernatural: A Defense of Scientific Theism (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), 24.

21. See Saul Kripke Naming and Necessity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980), 96–97.

22. I am indebted here to Peter Byrne, who has applied this account of reference in science to the question of reference in religion. See his Prolegomena to Religious Pluralism: Reference and Realism in Religion (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1995), ch. 2.

23. Hunt ‘Space and time transcended’, 63.

24. Perhaps Hunt intends to attribute to these Christians a rather stronger belief – a matter to which I return on 159 below.

25. This way of putting the matter assumes that, in the case of the Christian God, the crucial event of naming occurs at the time of Jesus (or perhaps earlier). Another analysis would suppose that the saint themselves achieves some kind of direct reference to God, which can be mediated to the pilgrim in the ways we are considering – though perhaps this account would not sit so well with the assumptions of Turner and others that we are trying to accommodate.

26. I am grateful to Brian Leftow for encouraging me to address this issue.

27. And to this extent the account we have been considering should be of some interest to religious naturalists – because it sits comfortably with their supposition that God is not encountered directly, and that religious thought (and religious reference in particular) is broadly intelligible by analogy with the way in which our thinking operates in secular contexts.

28. Luco van den Brom helpfully articulates the concerns implied in this approach when he notes that ‘the localizability of a divine being poses a constant threat to his worthiness to receive worship’; Luco van den Brom Divine Presence in the World (Kampen: Kok Pharos, 1993), 83.

29. R. S. Thomas, ‘A grave unvisited’, in idem Collected Poems, 1945–1990 (London: J. M. Dent, 1993), 183.

30. Compare these remarks of Alexander Schmemann on the early Church: ‘Christians had no concern for any sacred geography, no temples, no cult that could be recognized as such by the generations fed with the solemnities of the mystery cults. There was no specific interest in the places where Jesus had lived. There were no pilgrimages. … There was no need for temples to be built of stone: Christ's Body, the Church itself, the new people gathered in Him, was the only real temple’; Alexander Schmemann For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (New York NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1973), 20.

31. Noting that Christians ‘have had an ambiguous relationship to place’, Michael Northcott comments: ‘Christians believe that … in the light of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ within creaturely space and time, all space, and all time, are … in continuous relationship with the Creator’; Michael Northcott ‘The Word in space: the body of Christ as the true urban form which overcomes exclusion’, in John Vincent (ed.) Faithfulness in the City (Hawarden: Monad Press, 2003), 247.

32. See Richard Swinburne's essay ‘What is so good about having a body?’, in T. W. Bartel (ed.) Comparative Theology: Essays for Keith Ward (London: SPCK, 2003), 141. I am grateful to Richard Swinburne for drawing my attention to these issues at a meeting of the Joseph Butler Society.

33. Compare David Brown's comment: ‘Speaking of a “cemetery” rather than of a “necropolis” indicates the new emphasis within Christianity. It was not a place for corpses of the “dead”, but for those who were “asleep”’; Brown God and Enchantment of Place, 216.

34. Hunt ‘Space and time transcended’, 63.

35. Of course, epistemic considerations will continue to be important here, to the extent that the revelatory quality of a person's life gives us reason to think that their body is part of the body of Christ. Nonetheless, the saint's body is to be venerated not just because of the revelatory quality of the saintly life (an epistemic truth), but for the further reason that this body is part of the body of Christ (a metaphysical truth).

36. See Douglas Davies ‘Christianity’, in Holm and Bowker Sacred Place, 45.

37. The programme was entitled: ‘The root of all evil?’ and shown on Monday 9 January and Monday 16 January 2006, on Channel 4 in the UK.

38. I am very grateful to Peter Byrne, Brian Leftow, and Richard Swinburne, as well as to members of the Joseph Butler Society, for various observations which have made for a number of significant improvements in the paper.

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Religious Studies
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