‘From one man he (the creator God) made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.’ (Acts 17:26-27 NIV).
In Singapore I met a young Thai theological student, who told me he prayed for the soil of Thailand. He was greatly troubled by the extent of soil degradation in his native land – a problem that is now being seen in many parts of the world.
The Athenians whom Paul addressed boasted that they sprang from the soil of Attica, but in fact all peoples are ‘families of the land/soil’ (literal translation of Genesis 12:3). Paul asserted that we all have a common ancestor, and are therefore intrinsically equal; and that God provides distinct times and places in which every people can live. He has done this for Adam and Eve, for the people of Israel and for all peoples.
Surprisingly, Paul explains this provision as one way in which God encourages all people to seek him. He refers to an inscription on an Athenian altar: ‘to an (or ‘the’?) unknown god’. Even the Athenians, with their many ‘gods’, were still seeking another god; and Paul introduced him to them as the ‘God who made the world, the Lord of heaven and earth’. Somehow, emplacement is a means by which God draws all peoples to himself, including the Athenians. His desire is that ‘all the families of the nations shall worship (him)’ (Psalm 22:27 ESV).
Of course Paul was not advocating a political approach to land tenure, or a defensive separation between peoples. Throughout his ministry he encouraged believers from different places to see themselves as part of the one body of Christ, caring and praying for each other. So it seems to me that Paul’s focus here was on a different way of belonging in a place: receiving it as a gift that has been entrusted to a people. Such a place is to be cherished and cared for as an inheritance to be passed on to others. There seems to be deep wisdom in the words a Welshman addressed to King Henry II of England in 1163: ‘I am persuaded that no other race than this and no other tongue than this of Wales, happen what may, will answer in the great day of judgment for this little corner of the earth.’ (M Powicke, Oxford History of England – The Thirteenth Century).
How does Paul’s connection between emplacement and seeking God work in practice? If only we could ask him! In Romans 1:20 he tells us that ‘God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.’ This is a general statement, resonating with the passages in Psalms, Isaiah etc. which celebrate the ways in which different aspects of creation give glory to God. But what is it about each ‘space’, separate in time and place, that draws each people to God?
The places that God provides for each people are not just separate from each other, but have distinct characteristics and ecologies. So we speak of a ‘desert’ or ’mountain’ people, and so on. We can imagine that these distinct ecologies will inform the worship of God by the people from every nation, tribe and tongue, just as they informed the worship of Isaiah and the psalmists. But do they also shape the ways in which people seek God? And how should they inform the way we share ‘the good news about Jesus and the resurrection’ (Acts 17:18 NIV)?
I hope these questions will encourage further exploration of the connection between emplacement and God’s revelation of himself. Do respond with your own experiences and thoughts about this. In future blogs I’d like to look at what this connection might mean for our discipleship and witness to Christ: How should we care for the whole earth, and for the land and ‘gardens’ which God has entrusted to us? And, for instance, how can such care help us connect with a community in SE Asia who are deeply concerned about the future of their mangrove forest?
David Gould is OMF International Facilitator for Creation Care. He is tasked with exploring the growing ecological challenges, their impacts on the peoples of East Asia, and appropriate missional responses. He worked as an architect in the UK before he and his wife Ruth joined OMF in 2002.
(the featured image used on the JRI homepage is by Moses Ceaser/CIFOR)