All theology is local: Sense of place

Note from 2021: Not sure I agree with this any longer. But I’ll leave it here anyway.

For me, theology is profoundly influenced by where I live. I tend to generalize that feeling, and state that all theology is local, and all theology is rooted in a sense of place. With that in mind, here are the places which have affected my theology as I write this blog:

Geneva, Illinois

At the beginning of this blog, my partner Carol and I lived in Geneva, Illinois, about an hour west of Chicago. Geneva was settled by people from New England and elsewhere on the East Coast in the 1830’s, after the native Americans were driven out of the area by the Blackhawk War. The predominant ecosystems were oak savannah and prairie; beginning in the 1830’s it became farmland; now the city is mostly built up in suburban tract houses and shopping malls. I served at a historically Unitarian church, the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva, a staunchly egalitarian church (as only midwestern churches can really be) which called Rev. Celia Parker Woolley as its first woman minister in 1893, and which began moving towards post-Christian, post-theist theology in the 1880’s.

The most significant thing about the Geneva church, however, is that they are still using the first paragraph of the covenant they wrote in 1842. Then, Geneva was still the raw frontier. There was no other church in town, and so religious tolerance had to become their watchword, as can be seen in the present covenant:

Being desirous of promoting practical goodness in the world, and aiding each other in our moral and religious improvement, we have associated ourselves together: — not as agreeing in opinion, — not as having attained universal truth in belief or perfection in character, but as seekers after Truth & Goodness.

The frontier, the harsh winters, the prairie and oak savannah shaped the theology of that church in 1842, and continues to shape it, even now when suburban sprawl has overtaken the entire area.

New Bedford

From August, 2005, to July, 2009, we lived in downtown New Bedford, Massachusetts. Whaling capital of the world in the mid-19th C., center for textile manufacturing in late-19th and early-20th C., New Bedford is currently the biggest U.S. fishing port in terms of the dollar value of the annual crop. New Bedford harbor is an estuary that is also a Superfund site, and clean-up of PCBs is going on right now. The New Bedford side of the harbor is a special marine industrial area under Massachusetts law. There is almost no open land within the city and not much wildlife; yet the city and surrounding area remains beautiful, even breath-taking at times. There is a great diversity of human inhabitants: New England Yankee WASPs, Irish, Italians; Portuguese, Azoreans, Cape Verdeans; Mayans from Guatemala; African Americans; Wampanoag; various people from South and Central America; Puerto Ricans; and many other ethnic communities. People of great wealth still live around New Bedford, yet the unemployment rate is higher here than anywhere else in the state. To do theology in this area meant having to accept a city of contrasts.

While in New Bedford, I serve at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. It was founded as the established Puritan church in a town of heretics: Quakers, Baptists, and others who would not pay taxes for the maintenance of an Established minister. By the 19th C., First Unitarian had become a church of wealth and liberality. The congregation absorbed an influx of liberal Quakers in the 1820’s. Ralph Waldo Emerson served as interim minister for six months, and was well-liked. The church built a magnificent (and expensive) granite building in 1838, when New Bedford had the highest per captia income of any city in the U.S. In the 1890’s, it was still a wealthy church, though now the money came from textile manufacturing; and Rev. William J. Potter, then minister at First Unitarian, led First Unitarian out of the American Unitarian Association into the Free Religious Association over the issue of creedalism.

For more on the history of liberal religion in New Bedford, see my collection of sermons and essays, Liberal Pilgrims.

Elsewhere in eastern Massachusetts

Up until 2008, Carol often worked (and sometimes lives for days or weeks) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and thus we were frequent visitors there — and Boston and Cambridge for me are still the “Hub of the Solar System”; it’s the cultural center that has shaped me, and shaped my family for generations. I grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, the town of Transcendentalists like Thoreau and Emerson, which I guess is why I’m a Transcendentalist. My father still lives in Concord and one sister lives in an adjoining town, so I visit regularly.

San Francisco Bay area, California

In August, 2009, we moved back to the Bay area, where we had previously lived from 2004-2005. Unlike Geneva and New Bedford, the Bay area is not strongly connected with North Atlantic intellectual culture; it is a Pacific Rim city. There has long been a Buddhist influence in the Bay area, and the religious diversity keeps increasing year by year. Some Christian and post-Christian communities still tend to look to North Atlantic theology, but the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley has its own intellectual gravitational pull, too.

The climate is moderate and delightful, but everyone is aware of the constant threat of earthquakes, and I think that threat has some kind of psychological effect on people who live here. Ethnically, the Bay area is very diverse, with many East Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, etc.), South Asian (Indian, Burmese, Afghan, etc.), Latino/a (Mexican, Salvadoran, Peruvian, etc.), Pacific Islander, European American, African American, and other communities.

Road trips

Trips across the country, train trips, day trips, city hiking, etc.

Updated 26 December 2009; go to the new blog if you want to know how California has affected my theology.

One thought on “All theology is local: Sense of place

  1. Mary Scriver

    My career in UU ministry began as a four-point charge, all fellowships, in Montana. The two college towns (Missoula, the humanities university, and Bozeman, the “cow college”), plus Helena (the state capital where I was ordained on the stage of the Grand Street Theatre which was built as the First Unitarian Church with copper money) and Great Falls, built by Paris Gibson — a Universalist from Maine. The four fellowships could not have been more different. I delivered each sermon four times and in each place the “feel” and impact and even the meaning seemed entirely different.

    I badly needed to be back in Montana. It was just before the big influx of people with megabucks. It was before the Blackfeet Reservation suddenly began to be a political force. The long horizon, the ragged mountains in different configurations on every hand, the severe weather — I knew them all and welcomed them.

    But I remember Concord as a town I knew from books, magically actual. The Transcendentalists are close to my heart.

    Prairie Mary

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