Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

The First Thin Place

Part 2 of series: Thin Places
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First, I want to thank those of you who have given feedback on this series, either through your comments or through emails to me. Your theological and experiential input has been very helpful. As always, I am terribly grateful for the content and spirit of your contributions.
Today I want to begin some theological reflection on the idea of thin places. As usual, I will get into the theological issues by examining relevant biblical passages. My question, at this point, is “How does Scripture lead us to think about the idea of thin places?”
In case you missed my first post in this series, let me explain once again that thin place is a metaphor with Celtic Christian origins. A thin place, in this tradition, is a place where human beings experience God more directly. The metaphor assumes a worldview in which heaven and earth are, in general, separated by a considerable distance. But some places on earth seem to be thin in the sense that the separation between heaven and earth is narrowed. Thus people sense God’s presence more readily in so-called thin places.
The metaphor of thin places does not appear in Scripture. That does not mean it’s unhelpful or theologically suspect. But those of us who base our theology on the Bible will want to consider this metaphor in light of biblical revelation.
As we begin to consider what Scripture has to say about thin places, we might well start at the beginning, in Genesis 1-3. There, we learn that God created heaven and earth, and that all of creation is good. We do not get the idea from these chapters that the world is divided up into godly places and ungodly places. There is no sanctifying of special spaces in the creation story. (There is, however, the setting aside of a special time, namely the seventh day. More on this later, I expect.)
From the opening chapters of Genesis we don’t learn much about the interaction of the first humans with God. In chapter 3, we do see how God comes to look for Adam and Eve after they disobeyed him, and how they communicate directly with him. But, because of their disobedience, they are cast out of the Garden of Eden. This suggests that their access to God is not what it once was. To use the metaphor of this series, we might say that Eden was the first thin place, and that human beings were expelled from this place because of their sin. (Photo: A detail from a painting by Masaccio, “The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden,” 1426-1427.)
It would be mistaken, I believe, to think of Eden as the only thin place in the larger world. In fact, the Garden represents all of the created world. God’s purpose, it seems, was for all the world to be a thin place, a place where human beings experienced intimate and immediate fellowship with him. Eden represents the world before it was corrupted by sin, not a special place within the world where God is present.
Notice, however, what was to have happened in the Garden of Eden according to God’s plan. Here, human beings were to be fruitful and multiply, to take care of the earth and manage it well. Here, human beings were to till the Garden that God had planted. In a phrase, the first thin place was a place of work as well as rest. The man and the woman would experience God as they did what God created them to do.
I think this point is worth our attention because, for the most part, we tend to associate thin places with rest and retreat. Most thin places are far away from the noisy, busy, relentless demands of daily life. People call Laity Lodge a thin place, for example, because they experience God in a powerful way while on retreat there. Ditto for other sanctuaries throughout the world. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone refer to his or her workplace as a thin place (not counting those of us who work at retreat centers!). Our thin places tend to be places of rest, quiet, prayer, worship, reflection, and peace . . . not places filled with colleagues, to-do lists, emails, fax machines, computers, cell phones, etc. etc. This doesn’t surprise me, but it does make me wonder about thin places and their relationship to our ordinary, workaday lives. If the first thin place, arguably the thinnest place of all, was a place where people worked, what difference might this make in the way we think about work, God, and even thin places, for that matter?

  • Rodney Reeves

    Great way to start the discussion–with the beginning. I’m looking forward to your insights.
    Work as a thin place. It reminds me of Brother Lawrence, “The Practice of the Presence of God,” who noticed that when he prayed (or did other obviously pious things) he didn’t sense God’s presence as greatly as when he washed dishes.

  • slarrow

    I’ll be interested when you come to the tabernacle and the temple. It seems to me that the Holy of Holies will be a great example of this concept.

  • Jennie

    As a young mother, I definitely would have called work a “thin place.” Removed from the lack of structure called “home with small child,” I so appreciated the desk to sit in where I would actually see things getting done, the calendar that would have organized meetings and project deadlines and water cooler moments that provided both conversations with grown-ups and rest from the work day. It was also at work where I could reflect on my family waiting for me at home, appreciate God’s gifts of them and my whole life. I would often return home refreshed and excited to continue on the journey. (disclaimer: I LIKED my work and it was generally part-time). I often encourage moms to find something that they enjoy to do out of the house, if only part-time, so they can find this “thin place.” Personally, I believe I’ve done my best parenting, have felt the closest to God and have been the most content when I have had other things to care about in my life.

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