The First Thin Place

The First Thin Place March 7, 2012

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 physical 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. Is the notion of a thin place something that can be derived from Scripture? Is it consistent with biblical teaching on how God reveals himself?

As we begin considering 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.)

A detail from a painting by Masaccio, “The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden,” 1426-1427.

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.

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 supposed 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? Or does the notion of thin places somehow lead us to expect that we’ll encounter God only when we’re away from the world of work and ordinary life?

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  • Rodney

    I think if my work drew me outside I would experience a “thin place” more often.

  • Anonymous

    Yes. Roofs add to thickness.

  • Dorothy

    Lovely.  When you think of the seventh day, think about time being our thin place.  Or that we can, in time, make places thin when the Spirit joins us.

  • Jon Biggar

    Just to be a devil’s advocate:

    Could one argue that the special reverence shown in the Psalms to Jerusalem and to the Temple might qualify as scriptural support for “thin places”?

  • Anonymous

    No question about it. The Temple is one of the strongest thin places in Scripture. I’ll get to that down the road a piece. Thanks for your comment.

  • Ray

    The thinnest place I know is defined by both time and space.  It’s the grand piano in our sanctuary when I sneak in sometimes before daylight and play it.  I literally feel like I’m praying with my fingers.  After the sun comes up, or when other people are around it’s as thick as any other piano.

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  • Rob Newton

    I find my thin space at sunrise or sunset. I love to be at the waters edge watching the sun come up. The only activity in front of me is the sea birds and an occasional dolphin feeding. It’s very quite and the day the Lord has created is just beginning. I find it a great time to have a conversation with God.

  • Alec

    A great series for Lent, Mark.  One quibble, though:  You said: “The metaphor assumes a worldview in which heaven and earth are, in general, separated by a considerable distance.”  That would not be consistent with a Celtic view of the relation between the spiritual and the earthy.  I have always heard the “thin places” descriptor in the context that the Celts would say heaven and earth are never more than three feet apart, but in the thin places the separation is tissue paper thin.  The point is not so much that we are closer to God in the thin places, but that the thin places make as more aware of the closeness of God everywhere.

  • Phil Ewing

     Love this and yes i do believe that time can make us more permeable to the Holy Spirit. The great and varied religious feasts are examples.

  • markdroberts

    Good point. Thanks, Phil.