Sunday, April 26, 2015

Place-based theology

On Friday I sat listening to a PhD thesis being read. I was outdoors. The sky was cloudless and I was 8 hours drive away from the Uniting College classrooms at 34 Lipsett Terrace.

outdoors I was part of Walking on Country, an experience we offer at Uniting College, in order to ensure our candidates have an immersion experience in indigenous cultures.

But this year we worked to ensure the experience could also double as Towards Reconciliation, a unit in the Bachelors programmes we offer (as part of either the Flinders Bachelor of Theology or Adelaide College of Divinity Bachelor of Ministry). Hence a PhD thesis being read in the outdoors, under blue sky, rather than in the classroom, seated around desks and screens.

The research we were hearing was work done by Tracey Spencer on the history of Christian mission in South Australia. It is brilliant work – exhaustive, incisive and original in offering a post-colonial perspective on mission today. I’ve used it in my own work on indigenous communion practices (in Colonial Contexts and Postcolonial Theologies: Storyweaving in the Asia-Pacific (Postcolonialism and Religions)). And it was being engaged at the exact spot were the mission was enacted. .

It struck me as an example of place-based education. The term developed in the 1990’s and is used to describe learning that is rooted in what is local—the unique history, environment, culture, economy, literature, and art of a particular place.

Place-based is not context-based. Context based seeks to learn within a student’s existing work context. The focus is delivery in situ, which is meant to enhance application and integration. Place-based affirms the local, not the local of the learner, but the local around particular place.

Walking on country from steve taylor on Vimeo.

Place-based theology meant that over the four days we visited place after place. We heard the stories. We walked the land in which the actions had happened. We discussed. We imagined we were one of the people we were hearing about, and then considered the implications for Gospel and culture, for tradition and innovation. Surrounded by reading and assessment, by being place-based, a very different education experience emerged.

As I drove home, I wonder what else in Christian theology could be place based?

Posted by steve at 10:25 PM


  1. Thanks for sharing your weekend – a memorable Anzac Day weekend

    Comment by Jenny Brisbane — April 26, 2015 @ 11:25 pm

  2. Hi Steve, this sounds great, got me thinking about worshipping on the weekend at a little country church Greendale just outside Dalton (Gunning). 12 or so of us gathered in the afternoon at the church building in the middle of a paddock with a house or two in the distance to worship. Along side 50/60 graves of the people over the last 150 years with connections to this area. Having grown up in such a worshipping community I have some affinity for such people but sometimes I wonder if such places turn to sentimentality and worship of history and family rather than gathering and sending?
    I wonder too what your reading from the weekend “walking on country” says to the UCA and its basis of union that makes the claim of not having a place? Not sure the church understands really about “place” yet and its significance

    Comment by Geoff — April 27, 2015 @ 9:45 am

  3. Thanks Geoff. Thoughtful as ever. I think your lens re nostalgia is helpful. In our case, the presence of PhD research worked against that – it folded a quality into the conversations that is important. So is the critical thinking. Also the types of stories – are there stories that unsettle the dominant order.

    In terms of pilgrimage and Uniting Church and place, I agree with you that the pilgrim people encourages a placelessness and it’s one of the downsides of the pilgrim image, made worse by the history of colonisation. I’ve drafted some thoughts about this here – – just a beginning, and needing more work.


    Comment by steve — April 27, 2015 @ 10:39 am

  4. Geoff, I also suspect that whitefellas sit with tradition in uniquely cultural ways – hence your experience of sentimentality.

    This is what I wrote in my review of Aunty Denise’s book, Yarta Wandatha – (due out in Uniting Studies any day).

    “Tradition is present, although in ways perhaps not immediately evident to a Western reader. Denise tells the story of how her father drew on memory as part of his learning (28). She tells of hearing her mother ask Wanangha nai, (Where are you going?) to which her father would reply Anhangha idla ngukanandhakai (I’m going back to this place. As a result, learning from tradition, in the form of memories linked to places, occurs. Land and people are speaking, past to present, as people practise living in their memories. It is an innovative approach to notions of tradition.
    It suggests a way by which indigenous theologies can engage with other indigenous theologies. In making this argument, it is important to note that all theologies, whether Western, liberationist or indigenous, are contextual, emerging from a particular time and place. However, Duncan Forrester challenges all theologies with the reminder that while “locating us firmly in space and time, bodies also take us beyond mere flesh and blood to confront and reveal deeper threads.” In other words, every move toward particularity – Western, liberationist or indigenous – comes with the invitation to connect universally.

    Reading Yarta Wandatha, I wondered if a way to approach any tradition could be Anhangha idla ngukanandhakai (28). In other words, could acts of “living in the memories”, of going back to the particular places from which the traditions speaks, be applied not only by Denise’s father to access the wisdom of his elders, but by anyone reading Augustine or Aquinas? Theological reflection on tradition would thus become a “living in the memories”, contextually located, place based, a learning from stories from other places and all spaces. Such an approach could allow the memories from other traditions to be woven into indigenous theological work, whether Western, liberationist or indigenous.

    Together, Champion’s use of reason and tradition allow her to work fluently between past, present and future, between theory and ethics. To be a person “living in the memories” is also be a person considering how to live and act into the future. This is most clearly seen in the story of Awi-irtanha, the Rain Bird (40-42). Champion uses the story to critique how indigenous cultures from the past are presented today and to consider how she might live in conflict situations into the future.”

    Comment by steve — April 27, 2015 @ 10:54 am

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