There Are No Thin Places

There Are No Thin Places June 8, 2012

Thin Places – Chapter 2: Submerging from The House Studio on Vimeo.

So, I said something at a conference a few weeks ago, and Steve Knight captured it in his notes and blogged about it. For years, I’ve been talking about the fallacy of the “sacred-secular” divide. It’s made up. It doesn’t actually exist.

I say this because God is ever-present, everywhere. God isn’t more some places and less in other places. God is, in the classic sense, omnipresent.

Now, I’m being a bit hyperbolic. Traditionally speaking, a “thin place” is what Celtic Christianity calls a spot where heaven and earth seem to touch, a spot where this world and the next seem to have next to nothing separating them. So, it’s not really about where God is, but where we sense God.

A quick Amazon search shows that “Thin Places” has become a hot title of late. With the rise of interest in Celtic Christianity has come the inevitable co-option of the term by evangelicals and mainliners, and it looks like there have been about a dozen books with this title in the last decade.

The latest, as Steve points out, is an entry by a couple guys from Nieu Communities. They’ve written a book that, according to the video above, advocates bar-b-ques as thin places. I’m all for that. I love BBQ.

At first blush, one might look and say, “Ugh. There’s another group of hipster missional Christians appropriating a classic Christian concept and bending it to their own purpose.” That’s what I first thought.

But then I reconsidered. If they’re advocating for deep spiritual attention to the presence of God, not just on Iona, but in a neighborhood BBQ, then that’s exactly what I’m advocating as well.

In other words, pay attention. God is already where you are.

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  • Thanks for these thoughts, Tony!

  • JoeyS

    I’m there. My spiritual journey has brought me to a place where I’m a little skeptical of spirituality apart from the profane, as if there is a divide. Thin Places is a good way to describe it.

    Also, I was just hanging out with a Nieu Communities guy last night.

  • Hawk

    I think you are right. Thin places are where we are most attuned to the God that is omnipresent. The challenge is to recognize God in the “thick” places.

  • Evelyn

    I’d call eating BBQ a good ecstatic experience. There are also experiences of intense anxiety, like realizing you’ve been betrayed by a lover, that are ecstatic as well.

  • Agree about the destructive myth of the sacred/secular divide. It’s really about a hightened awareness of an unchanging reality. Some places, practices etc. do help trigger that awareness. But better to focus on becoming thin *people* who not only dwell more and more in that awareness, but by our presence increasingly trigger it in others. We should work to become portable thin places ourselves, so to speak. It’s the presence of such PTPs that will make a BBQ into something more than a wonderful feast.

  • Every place is sacred and not sacred.

    I think of great artists who are able to draw our attention to seemingly mundane, ordinary and “ugly” things and show us how they are beautiful – that’s what spiritual leaders should be doing in regards to identifying the presence of God. It’s easy to feel spiritual at the beach, or in a quiet space with candles, but what about in a noisy dirty slum.

  • So in a bit of trivia in seminary I took an odd research class that was a Colloquium of Missions and Church History on Celtic Spirituality. Our final projects were on obscure remnants of Celtic Christianity like the Stowe Missal and the Muiredach High Cross. Anyway, the point is that in Celtic languages (of which, to my surprise Gaelic is just one of several!) there is no expression of “thin places”. That’s not to say there isn’t some idea of it, but the phrase has no direct etymology or even idiomatic history–which seems odd, since it always gets the ubiquitous quotes, as if attributing it to some ancient store of wisdom. Not that that’s bad, but the Celtic Christians seemed to believe God imbued everything, so the notion as most Westerners use it is, I think, a bit untrue to the genuine theological roots of Celtici Christianity–but who knows? Scholarship is nothing if not a long, protracted argument 🙂

    • Awesome, Trey. Thanks!

    • Evelyn

      The impression I got from reading the introduction to the book “Celtic Spirituality” (part of “The Classics of Western Spirituality” series) by Davies, O’Loughlin, and Mackey was that “Celtic” Christianity resulted from the attempt to convert the natives of Gaul and other Celtic-speaking peoples (who were spread across a pretty large area of Europe, not just in the UK) to the Christian religion. In much the same way that Paul attempts to alter Christianity to make it more palatable to the Gentiles that he was trying to convert, Christianity had to take on a different “flavor” to make it appeal to the Celtic speakers.

      One passage in the introduction of the aforementioned book says: “While recognizing the importance of Celtic primal religion at the earliest and most formative state of the evangelization of the Celtic-speaking cultures, it must be recognized that the surviving evidence for Celtic religion is sparse, and often comes from widely differing places and times. But something of its general character does emerge. In the first place, early Celtic religion appears to have been in the main local, with a particular focus on place. Early Gaulish religion was cultic, centering on specific sacred sites such as woodland glades, lakes, springs, or mountains. The many ancient deposits of weapons and treasure that have been discovered in lakes, rivers, and springs almost certainly reflect a desire to placate or reward a divinity of place. Indeed the liminality of such water sources may indicate that they were seen as points of access to another world. … The ancient dindsenchas or “place-lore” tradition of early Christian Ireland is also testimony to the enduring sense of locality …”

      So, there’s your word for “thin places” in Celtic language – “dindsenchas”. It has a Wikipedia entry if you want to read more about it there.

  • Larry Barber

    If a BBQ is a thin spot, I guess this means that Kansas City is almost heaven!

  • ME

    “In other words, pay attention. God is already where you are.”

    that cannot be said enough!

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  • “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.” Safer to keep him separated; how else could we do the things we “must” do?

    • Evelyn

      Only if you think he’s vengeful …

  • EricG

    Tony – you’ve commented on the book When God Talks Back. In it, these Vineyard folks seem to see God in everything, pray for the trivial (heck, every little thing is a thin place), etc, and the way they do it seems bizzarre (based on your prior comments, I suspect you agree). How do you see thin places everywhere without becoming like the Vineyard types in this book?

    I’m actually not trying to challenge you – I think it is an important question.

  • Jeremy

    Terrence Malick knows this.
    Edward Burtynsky might too…

  • Evelyn

    The mention of BBQ as a thin place brought to mind a passage from D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. In some way, I think it explains the ancient’s propensity to offer burnt sacrifice and perhaps our reaction to BBQ can help us understand why they felt that way (although I think the whole sacrificial system got out of hand …) Anyway, here’s what happened after Prometheus stole fire from Olympus and gave it to the humans:

    “A strange thing happened: as men lifted their eyes from the ground and watched the smoke from their fires spiraling upward, their thoughts rose with it up to the heavens. They began to wonder and think, and were no longer earth-bound clods. They build temples to honor the gods and, wanting to share what they had with them, they burned the best pieces of meat on their altars. Zeus was furious when he first saw the fires flickering on earth, but he was appeased when the savory scent of roast meat reached his nostrils. All the gods loved the smell of the burnt offerings; it spiced their daily food of ambrosia and nectar.”

  • I appreciate these words Tony. And while we love BBQs too, you can be sure that our communities attempt a discipleship that touches every part of our lives and hopefully our neighborhood too. (And BTW, I’m way too old to be a hipster).

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  • Agla

    I’m reminded of a Peter Gabriel song-

    Looking down on empty streets, all she can see
    Is the dreams all made solid, the dreams made real
    All of the buildings, all of the cars
    Were once just a dream in somebody’s head
    She pictures the broken glass, pictures the steam
    She pictures a soul with no leak at the seams.

  • jerry lynch

    It does seem apparent that everything in this world, including Barbeques and sacrifice, hold the potential for both good and evil. Where we can “gang aft aglay” is over-emphasing the light, yet such over-emphasis can be a soul-welcome to an individual who has been bereft of such an invitation, thus allowing this person to enter the Dark Night of their soul. God only knows.
    “Thin places” are anywhere the heart is open by grace to change. No place or group has a monopoly on this. There is no franchise for redemption.
    Always something new and innovative seems to offer hope: nothing else has seemed to make a significant difference in the sad state of affairs of this world so maybe we overlooked this (whatever it may be).
    A number of friends have sojourned to India as a spacious “thin place.” It might work. “The wind blows where it will.”
    Christ is an alchemist of the highest order: he can turn anything to gold, if we let him. But usually that means he firsts turns all of our gold into lead. If we are lovers of the light alone, this seemingly necessary step could very well elude us.