That mythical Scottish village makes for a great segue to an idea that we encounter in Celtic Christianity: the notion that on the earth there are “thin places”—spots where heaven and earth are unusually close, suggesting the possibility of free movement from one to the other or at least the idea that in such sacred places one might get closer to the divine.
First, a disclaimer. There is no direct and only disputable indirect biblical support for such a notion. The metaphor of thin place does not appear in Scripture. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the concept is unhelpful or theologically suspect, but as a people who base their understanding of God on biblical revelation, it should give us pause to carefully consider the implications of such a belief.
Experience teaches us the emotional power of place. In 1954 Perry Como first recorded There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays, a sentimental reflection on how memory and emotions are tied to the place we grew up—especially at Christmas. Likewise, some places have historical connections that stir the emotions. The Gettysburg and Custer Battlefields were such places for me. So was the Vietnam Wall. Sometimes the emotions stirred by place are negative. I once stood outside a Macumba temple deep in the Amazon. Macumba is a religion that mixes African and South American spiritism and includes practices associated with black magic. I felt like the very building exuded evil. Those who have visited the remains of Nazi concentration camps report similar feelings.
And I think we have all visited spots where the sense God’s presence was unusually strong. Naturally enough a church building can have that effect. So can a Christian camp or retreat center, particularly if it is a place that you have visited repeatedly over the years and have come to associate with powerful teaching, and spiritual refreshment and renewal.
Wild places of spectacular natural beauty can also have that effect. Such places are usually what the Celtic Christians had in mind when they spoke of thin places. Mountains have always tended to affect me in this way, a response common to many.
And if we can find support for thin places anywhere in the Bible, a couple mountains immediately come to mind. The first is Mt. Sinai. If there is a biblical thin place surely this is it. It was a place where Moses went to meet God not once but repeatedly. Mt Zion—the site of the temple—was another. Clearly these mountains had special significance as places where Israel encountered God.
But in other important respects they differ significantly from the typical Celtic thin place. For one thing these mountains were not, at least in biblical times, places of pilgrimage. After the exodus there is only one account of an Israelite journeying back to Sinai; that of Elijah’s trip to “Horeb, the mount of God” in 1 Kings 19:8. And the most sacred quarter of the temple mount was forbidden to all but the high priest and he was able to enter it only one day in the year—the Day of Atonement.
Nor is there evidence that the earliest Christians showed any special deference to those physical spaces closely associated with the life and ministry of Christ. The stable in Bethlehem, his boyhood home in Nazareth, the Upper Room in Jerusalem—none of these spots were made into shrines or their locations even noted. Only centuries later did Christians attempt to find these sites and make them places of pilgrimage. There exists no equivalent to Mt. Vernon or Monticello in Nazareth.
So what are we to do with the metaphor of thin place? What lessons can we Baptists learn from Celtic Christianity?
First, there is no question in my mind that places of natural beauty, particular places that are physically removed from the rush of modern life, can often help us to spiritually reconnect. They help us pause and quiet our hearts and minds. The windswept grassy slopes of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area is one such place for me. Even Jesus would draw aside, either with his closest followers or by himself, seeking some lonely place for a time of prayer. These are not places with special spiritual properties. We’re not talking magic here. Whatever power they have is power we give them.
Second, we must remember that God desires constant intimacy with his people. We ought not require physical retreat to connect with the Divine. Rather we ought to work to make all of life on earth a thin place—a place where mortal flesh can reach out and touch God. If we draw near to God He draws near to us.
Third, and finally, we would do well to reflect upon the importance of recognizing and protecting sacred spaces. Roman Catholics and other Christians who come from the more liturgical traditions have often been scandalized by the lack of reverence that they see in Baptist churches. We seem more willing to ascribe to purely secular monuments the kind of reverence that other believers have historically reserved for places of worship. We would object, and rightly so, to some plan to run hogs on the Custer Battlefield or to build condominiums along Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg. We wouldn’t tolerate a hotdog stand operating under the dome of the Jefferson Memorial. Such things would border on sacrilege. There are some corners of this planet that we deem worthy of protecting. We set them aside—just as we set aside Muir Woods and Yosemite—as shrines if you would, to the beauty and wonder of nature.
I contend that the Celtic Christians were right, that there are places that ought to be regarded as sacred ground, places set aside for loftier purposes. Places that we ought not to profane because we have met God in those places—our own personal burning bush. While Baptists would not genuflect before a crucifix or an altar, we would do well to bow our heads and lower our voices when entering a sanctuary. And it ought to go without saying that we would do everything in our power to preserve and protect such places. And that is why I am so opposed to the decision to sell Golden Gate’s Mill Valley campus to a real estate developer.
For half a century generations of young ministers met God at Golden Gate. In the late 70s and early 80s I was one of them. Kenneth Eakins, Robert Cate, William Hendricks, Clayton Harrop…the list goes on and on. These were men who opened God’s Word to me and demanded that I deal with it, not like some child in a VBS class but as a man who would spend his life entrusted with the sacred task of teaching that Holy Word to hundreds of others. They made me chew on the tough passages. They made me face my own questions and doubts. They made me grow. They made me spiritually “man-up”. So many afternoons I would make that long walk from class back to our apartment on Rice Lane, my head reeling from the profound insights that had been revealed to me. So many late nights I would be typing away on some paper or pouring over some text, trying to pull those new insights together in a coherent form that I might prove to my teachers that I had been worthy of the time they invest in me.
And because of the unique setting of that magnificent campus I could delight in the happy convergence of the beauty of God’s Word with the beauty of God’s world—the same concept captured in the image of the Celtic cross, where the Cross of Christ is superimposed on the orb that represents His Creation. When after hours of study when my soul needed a moment’s refreshing, I need only look up from my desk and watch, mesmerized by the slow dance each afternoon of long fingers of fog sliding over the top of the coastal hills, trying but never quite succeeding in their quest to reach the valley floor below. Or I might step outside at night to stretch my legs, sometimes walking across the campus to that hilltop where one can stand and on a clear night see the lights of the city across the bay. Sometimes I would pray that the Light we learned about in class would shine back in return upon that beautiful but sin-sick city.
The history of California tells us that at the time when John Muir was trying to preserve the giant sequoia groves north of Yosemite, there was a plan to cut the trees down and split them up into grape stakes. As I think about seeing the sacred ground of my beloved seminary campus turned into homes for multimillionaire hedge fund managers, or movie stars, or oil moguls, I think I understand how old John must have felt.
GGBTS Class of ‘81