Christian Geography


Many a different adjective and prepositional phrase added to the word ‘geography’ has become common currency to identify and parcel out geography’s distinctive fields, topics, regions, paradigms, approaches, research groups, national traditions, and historical periods. Christian is almost never one of them. There is Berkeley geography, Classical geography, the geography of aging, Japanese geography, idealist geography, the geography of the Northern Netherlands, applied geography, sport geography, and the mountain geography specialty group. International and national synopses, dictionaries, and encyclopedias of geography survey reflect and police the current ontic and explanatory/interpretative organization of the discipline. Christian geography has not been an entry in such reference works. Yet there is a field or tradition or approach of Christian geography that can be identified and appraised, as in the 1998 survey edited by Henk Aay and Sander Griffioen and also in a special 2002 theme issue of the Christian Scholar’s Review, ‘Geography in Christian perspective’, edited by Janel Curry.

In spite of later vigorous dismissals by those committed to scientific naturalism and positivism, geographic scholarship in the West from the beginning of the Middle Ages well into the eighteenth century may be classified as Christian geography because natural theology and Christian teleological frames were so prevalent. While a pervasive secularization of science and scholarship, including geography, prevailed until recently, nevertheless, a small Christian scholarly geographic thread remained visible, carried by some individual scholars at public universities together with geographers at a small number of Christian colleges and universities. More commonly, geographers who were Christians accepted a disconnect between personal piety and professional scholarship; except for Christian virtues such as honesty, charity, empathy, and diligence, Christian confessions did not enter the work floor of geographic research and teaching. When scientific rationalism came under fire from a renewed humanistic scholarly tradition in the early 1970s, Christian geographers such as David Ley and Ian Wallace, working from explicitly biblical views of humanity and world, were first taken seriously and regarded as contributing to the development of modern humanism in geography. In today’s multi paradigmatic and postmodern climate, especially in human geography, there is much more ready acceptance of control beliefs and worldviews for informing geographic scholarship. Even against the background of postmodernism’s pervasive relativism and skepticism, there is today more of an open window for Christian geography and a greater likelihood that it is taken seriously by academic communities and the general public. This is the case more in the United States than elsewhere. If there is a place for positivist, Marxist, and realist geographies, there is room for Christian geography, provided it is an open scholarly and not a closed, predetermined, and prescriptive enterprise. Moreover, Christian geography must be open to dialog with other approaches; to date, this has been lacking.

Faith Precedes Science, Faith Precedes Geography

Central to the project of Christian scholarship and, by extension, Christian geography, is the biblically based confession that there is no part of the world, no arena of life, and no human enterprise that is autonomous from the Creator and stands apart from the service of God. Like all other realms of life and world, science and scholarship in general, and the field of geography in particular, need always point to their origin and to their engagement with the purpose and meaning of human life. This strong position is certainly not shared equally by all traditions within Christendom; it is associated most clearly with a Reformed, neo Calvinist position, and somewhat less with, for example, Anabaptist, Lutheran, and Catholic positions. These circumscribe the relevance of the Christian faith more to certain arenas of human life and culture, such as evangelism, church, personal piety, and conduct and less, or not at all, for example, to science and scholarship, en vironmental issues, and globalization.

If the relevance of the Christian faith to world and culture is fully comprehensive and holistic, then it must include theoretical thought and with this the entire institutionalized and culture bound system of universities, science, disciplines, scholarship, and research is pulled into its orbit. It is one thing, however, to declare that geographic thought and research are not autonomous and not unrelated to religious starting points and calling, it is quite something else to give such a declaration a more case specific form. Fortunately, there is now a well established and accepted tradition in the philosophy of science that empirical research is always shaped by a priori beliefs and theories, by philosophical presuppositions and conceptual categories. Some of these are methodological and epistemological but other even more prior, fundamental control beliefs involve the nature of humanity, the origin of the cosmos, the unity, and coherence of reality as well as the essence of different aspects of the world studied by the sciences (by geography). Such beliefs and presuppositions are determined by or are part of faith; they cannot be given as answers by science itself.

Such presuppositions and basic beliefs are always elements in more comprehensive and integrated frameworks often designated as worldviews. Hinduism, consumerism, pantheism, humanism, and materialism are examples. Worldviews are prescientific systems of values about things; they are guides for living carried by all human beings; they provide a way of understanding all of reality. Some may be scientifically and formally organized and carried forward into philosophies and ethics, such as postmodernism, Marxism, and idealism and pragmatism. Worldviews serve as implicit guides and steering mechanisms for daily life in a culture; together with the philosophies based on them, they also guide and shape the scientific enterprise. A still excellent and telling example of a Christian analysis of presuppositions is geographer Rowland Moss’ 1985 survey of the underpinnings of the metaphysical systems in environmental management, scholarship and practice. Evolutionary humanist, technological pragmatist, Marxist, mystical holist, magical, as well as several variants of a Christian worldview are here considered and interpreted.

Types of Christian Geography (and Types of Christian Geographers)

There are many geographers who intentionally or unintentionally keep their Christian faith and their geography profession very much apart. Faith is private or confined to church, so they might argue, and has no place in the university, scholarship, or scientific research. Science is an autonomous undertaking with its own modus operandi. Faith may shape the interaction with and treatment of fellow researchers, colleagues, and students; chapel and campus fellowship thus belong to its claims but not academic geography itself. Such a stance, itself grounded in belief, makes the phrase ‘Christian geography’ a contradiction. This position – Christian faith and geography have nothing to do with each other – represents one end of a spectrum along which a variety of ways exist to bring the two together. The five ways or types described below do overlap and the order in which they are presented does not necessarily represent an increasing integration of Christian faith and geography. It is also necessary to underline that the classes of scholarly approaches portrayed here are in no way the exclusive province of a Christian geography. The same subject matter may be investigated from diverse cosmological, ontological, and epistemological presuppositions, which together lead to different results and explanations.

‘God’s Fingerprints’: Geography and Natural Theology

During the more than 2000 year history of geography in the West, natural theology has been the main type of Christian geography. Natural theology looks to the creation as a second source of revelation about the nature and attributes of God. From the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century, geographical writings were very commonly cast into a natural theology frame. The configuration of continents, the adaptability of human culture to environmental conditions, the alluvium deposited by rivers, the distribution of the human population, the commercial uses of particular rivers – all geographical patterns and human–environmental relationships – reveal divine design and specific attributes of God. Under attack from modern science, philosophy, and even theology, such teleological geographic interpretation receded in the nineteenth-century and largely disappeared in the twentieth century. Yet, some professional academic geographers continued to refine the natural theology tradition in geography well into the twentieth century. A notable example is the neo Calvinist Dutch scholar Arie van Deursen (1891–1963), a pioneer Christian academic geographer for whom natural theology together with the scriptures provided the necessary additional Christian content of meaning for the observable geographic facts.

As the cultural force of Christianity waned, natural theology disappeared from geographic scholarship, replaced by a much more secular science. A formidable weakness of this approach to Christian geography throughout has been that theology or worldview had little or no impact on empirical research itself; this is left mostly untouched or unquestioned; only the results are read as evidence and proof for divine design and divine attributes. Such associations do not really belong to the research cycle and its published results. They are confessional exclamations. Just as a Christian astronomer comes away in awe of the Creator’s design for a galaxy or a Christian ecologist for energy cycling in an ecosystem, so the Christian geographer’s love for and knowledge of God is made more real, for instance, by the involved mechanics of snow avalanches. These are present day echoes of natural theology in geography and as confessional exclamations they have a place but not in formal geographic scholarship. It is not that Christian content is added to neutral research by attention to theological implications; these belong to theology not to geography. Christian metaphysics needs to help shape geographic study itself.

Christian Geography by Subject Matter

One very common, straightforward yet restrictive route to bring Christianity and geography together is for scholars very deliberately to choose research topics related to churches, worship, congregations, Christian organizations, and institutions, Christian education, evangelism, missions, neighborhood outreach, activities of clergy and laity, and so on. While others study the journey to work, Christian geographers study journey to church; while others study the spatial dynamics of firms, Christian geographers study the spatial dynamics of churches. The spatial, place, landscape, and human ecological dimensions of Christianity related subjects offer much scope for research, although only a few geographers such as Roger Stump follow this trail. Topics such as these are appropriate to the (social) sciences; the supernatural and otherworldly aspects of the Christian religion are not. In somewhat the same vein, in the context of applied geography, Christian geographers with specific skills, knowledge, and understanding would partner with churches other para church and Christian agencies to improve their effectiveness and ministry.

One can argue that because Christian scholars have a love for, dedication to, and special interest in subjects related to the Christian life, experience, and thought, they would want to direct their research energies to such topics. The research agendas at Christian colleges and universities are replete with such selectivity. The precise proportion of Christian to non Christian scholars pursuing Christian topics of all kinds is not known but it is safe to say that Christians are in the majority. One can also argue that without a cadre of Christian scholars many of these kinds of topics would lie fallow; others would show little inclination to undertake such research. It is therefore necessary and beneficial ‘in house’ academic work that records, interprets, and evaluates the Christian experience and affairs and holds up a mirror for thoughtful Christians everywhere.

The scholarly pursuit by Christians of such topics brings into especially sharp relief again the worldviews and presuppositions that undergird research. Some would maintain that a Christian worldview engaged in the scientific investigation of such Christianity related subjects would lead to a loss of critical distance and an inclination to concentrate on certain aspects and overlook others. Indeed, many scholars who are Christians, but who strictly separate religion and science, may for that reason follow a more positivist research paradigm for the study of such topics. Conversely, the possession of a Christian confessional vision and the knowledge and experience of a believer is regarded by others as necessary to fully and truly explain and interpret a religiously motivated and laden activity, event, or phenomenon. Some would still argue that only outsiders (non Christians) are able to conduct valid, balanced, and meaningful research on Christian institutions, behavior, and ministries, but such outsiders’ own metaphysics and experiences would also shape the research and the interpretation of its results.

In this regard, it is helpful to remember that a Christian worldview based on the scriptures includes norms and rules for life and world; such general principles may be further differentiated and developed by Christian philosophy and ethics. These are then used to shape, interpret, and evaluate the empirical research conducted on topics related to Christian practice and observance. The love and respect that Christian geographers would naturally have for the empirical study of Christianity related subjects listed above would be restricted and policed by a prior and greater commitment to the norms and metric of an integral Christian worldview, ethics, and philosophy. These empirical states of affairs, like all others, may be found lacking, conforming to, falling short of, enhancing, distorting, and negating a Christian worldview. With such research safeguards in effect, Christian geographers in general as ‘insiders’ are arguably better placed to produce meaningful and discriminating scholarship on Christianity related geographic subjects. That is not at all to say that scholarship about such subjects by non Christians is without worth.

Christian geography by subject matter is much too restrictive. It creates a subfield rather than a legitimate scholarly passage into every topic of the entire discipline. Moreover, just choosing Christianity related subject material, of course, lacks any assurance of a Christian worldview interpretation. Marxist, postmodern, liberalcapitalist, feminist, positivist, and Christian geographic research on, for example, the camp revival meetings on the American frontier during the Great Revival at the beginning of the nineteenth-century would look quite different from each other. A topic, worldview and philosophy must, it can be contended, be considered together.

Geography of the Bible and the Holy Land

The geography of the Bible and Holy Land is a distinctive subset of Christian geography by subject matter. Geographers who make the scriptures and ancient Palestine their specialization are not all Christians, but many are. To the question: ‘‘how can I be both a Christian and a geographer?’’ some have answered: with research on the geography of the Bible and ancient Palestine. If the Bible is God’s authoritative word for salvation and a canon for human life and understanding our world, then what better way to integrate Christianity and geography than by deepening and enriching the power and meaning of scriptures through geographic inquiry. If there is a geographical side to every part of reality, then surely the geographical aspect of this God inspired book and this very special place deserve a very high research priority. In this, such scholars join a more than thousand year tradition of geographical writings about the Bible and Palestine by theologians, biblical scholars, archaeologists, geographers, historians, and Near East experts. Some looked upon the Bible itself as a source of geographical knowledge. Throughout the West, this work produced atlases, toponymic surveys, physical and human geographies of Bible lands, as well as more detailed accounts of the environmental and spatial settings of Bible stories and writings. These Bible geography writings were more synoptic and especially served the needs of Bible education in churches, schools, colleges, seminaries, and universities.

Today, religiously conservative and fundamentalist Protestant Christians scholars are especially busy with this kind of Christian geography, more than those from other traditions within Christianity and from Jewish and other non Christian backgrounds. The geography of the Bible research community is especially active in the United States where for more than 30 years academic meetings have been held to share and discuss research results. Jonathon Lu and William Dando are among the leaders of this research community.

This type of Christian geography welcomes research by scholars from every kind of religious or worldview persuasion. One does not need to be a Christian to engage in geographic scholarship about the Bible or ancient Israel. All kinds of scholarship are welcome to contribute to this body of geographic knowledge. Every geographic topic, method, interpretive framework, and technique further develops the geography of the Bible and ancient Israel whether Biblical site identification, water conflicts in ancient Israel, satellite images of Bible lands, or the geography of the wilderness wanderings. While there are links to the larger subfields of cultural geography and the geography of religion, the geography of the Bible and Bible lands is a specialty rather closed off from the rest of the field. It has little to no impact on the philosophical and methodological directions of geography as a whole. It does not offer another way forward for geography. Integrating Christian faith with scholarship through this specialty makes the project of Christian geography rather restrictive.

The Difference that Religion Makes to Human Geographies

The legacy and practice of scientific rationalism and positivism in geography and in science in general includes strong opposition to all religion viewed as ignorant superstitions and myths from which science will deliver humankind. Against such a scientistic outlook, a Christian worldview stresses the centrality of religion in human life, points out that life is the living of religion (not just by the openly religious), and emphasizes that human beings are by nature religious creatures. Religion is belief that something or some things are divine and how human beings should relate to the divine. The divine may have as its focal point something out of this world (the God of the scriptures) or something in the world (reason). Religion is constituted by ultimate commitments, ground motives, presuppositions, and worldviews. It shapes and directs all human undertakings, including theoretical thought and scholarship. With this, religion includes much more than a traditional theistic or polytheistic metaphysics of, for example, Christianity and Hinduism. Materialist metaphysics, including Marxism and consumerism, and idealist metaphysics such as rationalism and positivism are in every way religions as defined here, even though some may be more philosophically developed and articulated than others.

With religion as the concentration point of human existence in a Christian worldview, it makes sense that geographers who are Christians would be interested to trace the effect and extent of the impact of religion so defined on human landscapes, spatial organization, land use, environmental management, environmental perception, and other familiar subjects of geographic investigation. Such a research focus is part of the field of the geography of religion although underplayed because of its focus on formal worship, formal religious observances, and the supernatural.

Rather than assigning and compartmentalizing worldviews in the geography of religion and belief systems, it would be much more strategic to assign religion a more central and robust methodological place and role in human geography in general. A fine example of this approach is Christian geographer Janel Curry’s research in the late 1990s on worldview and agriculture and rural communities. She constructed the worldviews of five different Iowa farming communities and found that these were responsible for creating different places, different perceptions of and relations to the natural world, different ethics, and different agricultural systems.

Of course, as with the geography of the Bible, a focus on worldviews and their geographical effects is not the special province of Christian geography, although it is an approach that it should champion. Rather, it is an explanatory perspective and interpretive framework recommended for consideration for all topical specialties and for geographers of every stripe. It is significant that the overall conceptual organization and research output of geography and its history are commonly thought of and organized in terms of worldviews or metaphysical paradigms; in this case, this approach is accepted, valued, and effective. Evaluating such worldviews along with their geographical imprints and proposing alternate geographies, however, is very much dependent on the metaphysical frameworks of a research community or individual scholars.

Christian Ethics and Geography

Geographers who wish to make their Christian convictions count in their profession may especially want to focus on ethics and activism. After all, God’s call to love and serve the creation and ‘neighbors’ draws Christians in general and Christian geographers in particular to know, analyze, and confront conditions of injustice, oppression, homelessness, exploitation, hunger, poverty, violence, inequality, and other expressions of a broken world. The gospel is not something supplementary or contrary to culture; rather, it directs itself to healing and restoring all things in the world. The geographical dimensions of such pressing issues set the agenda for research and the published results include remedies: economic, social, and political restructuring. Geography is just one piece; multidisciplinary, analytical, and policy frames prevail in this kind of scholarship. Geography itself fades somewhat into the background. Moreover, often there is a strong participant observation, a personal identification with the afflicted, and a social activist stance in such moral geographies. The focal points of a Christian worldview in this case are sin and redemption.

Of course, many other geographers with different ideological persuasions share such professional priorities and research interests, including Marxists, those with liberal political commitments and deep ecologists. Christian geographers for whom such issues come to the very front personally and professionally because of their Biblically based values and sensitivities may directly adopt and engage any one of a number of suitable theories for ethical evaluation and action. Or, more consistently, and more from the ground up, Christian geography would work with and from Christian schools of ethics, different from the foundations of other moral theories such as utilitarianism, virtue ethics, human rights, care theory, Kantian duty ethics. On such a basis, Christian geography would analyze and suggest ethically appropriate solutions for specific cases of locational decision making, environmental conflict and place based and global inequalities and welfare issues.

Geographers who represent this kind of Christian geography, among others, include Paul Cloke, Johnathan Bascom, and Gerard Hoekveld. Cloke is a rural geographer who has devoted much of his career and life in research and engagement with issues of rural homelessness, marginalization, deprivation, and poverty in Great Britain. He grounds his research in a (post structuralist) Christian ethic, and is prepared to name as ultimately ‘evil’ – and through committed practice he urges us to counter – the many banalities of human life that ‘thoughtlessly’ or ‘carelessly’ intersect with one another across space to create multiple miseries and oppressions for some in some places (but not for others in other places). Similarly, Bascom, a specialist in East Africa, has made the geography of refugees (their migration, protection, and assistance) a large part of his life’s work; again, Christian convictions, ethics, and worldview anchor his scholarship and personal involvement. Hoekveld, as well, during the past decade, has written extensively about relationships between applied human geography and ethics as seen in locational decision making about infrastructure and urban renewal in the Netherlands. Christian ethics is a dynamic and rapidly developing scholarly field; as such, it can effectively and consistently bridge, translate, and mediate Christian convictions, values, and worldview with Christian geographic scholarship.

Christian Worldview and Christian Philosophy: A Paradigm for All of Academic Geography

There is another more comprehensive, complete, and perhaps fitting alternative for Christian geography. It takes its identity from the above mentioned premises about worldviews and geography. Accordingly, Christian geography is not a pre scientific leftover from its long history, not a topical specialty, and not a branch of the geography of religion. Rather, it is a worthy and authentic scholarly and scientific approach to the entire field of geography based on a scripturally directed, comprehensive, and integral worldview. It rejects the view that geographic science is autonomous, religiously neutral, or the only approach to valid geographic knowledge. David Ley hinted at such a Christian paradigm for human geography in his provocative 1974 paper, expressly offering a different understanding of the city to that provided by Marxists. David N. Livingstone, John L. Paterson, and Ab van Langevelde have at times also represented this approach; it constitutes the smallest wing of Christian geography but offers, the author believes, the greatest relevance, integrity and scope for bringing Christianity into geography. Where it is institutionalized, this approach is especially found in colleges and universities affiliated with the Reformed branch of Christianity.

Many would agree that the Reformed Christian tradition, in particular, has made particularly important contributions to advance the project of Christian scholarship. From within this tradition for the past hundred years the contours of a Christian worldview have been built and translated into Christian philosophy that is intensely relevant and serviceable for the special sciences such as geography. ‘Creation fall redemption’ is a wellknown shorthand description for this worldview. All of reality (humanity, society, ecology, the physical Earth, and universe) is God’s creation and there is a good ordered creational structure for everything (laws and norms). A commitment to such a fundamental Christian creationism has nothing to do with other very different and programmatic types of creationist positions such as creation science, young Earth creationism, or intelligent design. The entire creation has been deformed and misdirected by the working of human sin, and cultural life consists of better or worse responses to creational norms. The gospel/Jesus Christ makes such norms visible and operative in culture again; and the entire creation may be redeemed and restored; the original goodness and intent of creation is regained.

The creational structure and order displays a diversity of irreducible kinds of functioning – physical, economic, aesthetic, spatial, to name just a few – and there exists a great pluriformity of things (glaciers, firms, congregations, regional economic development) that bundle and combine these functions in distinct ways. Such qualitative pluralism and multidimensionality are hallmarks of a Christian ontology that seeks to avoid reductionism. When any one aspect becomes an ultimate explanatory principle (spatialism, economic determinism, and environmentalism) or is consistently explained in terms of another, something in the creation is made absolute and idolized. This is a crucial ontological consideration for geography as for any other science. A geographic analysis and understanding of any issue, process, or entity is always partial and restricted and has to take its place alongside the scholarship of other sciences and, as has been repeatedly asserted, depends on a metaphysical paradigm to account for coherence, unity, origin, and destination. During the last half century the philosophy and canons for Christian scholarship have seen a great deal of discussion and development. Christian geographers therefore have the opportunity to seize upon that elaboration and refinement and make their worldview count and be meaningful in their scholarship.