Locating Religion: On "Faith and Place"

Mark Wynn's Faith & Place: An Essay in Embodied Religious Epistemology (Oxford, 2009) is one of the most interesting books in philosophy of religion I've read this year. As he notes in the opening, philosophical theologians tend to be concerned with place only to transcend it, focusing on God's omni-presence which relativizes differences in place. And yet religious practice is always placed, local, often in very intentional spaces--what he calls "the place-relative character of religious belief and practice." So Wynn sets for himself the task of articulating "the differentiated religous significance of place."

Wynn is primarily interested in knowledge of place as an analogue for knowledge of God. Drawing on figures such as Bachelard [an old favorite of mine], LeFebvre, and Bourdieu, he contests the paradigms of “knowing” in contemporary philosophy of religion (Swinburne and Alston are recurring examples throughout the book). The way we “know” a place, Wynn argues, points to a kind of embodied, affective, tacit knowing which gets little attention in philosophy of religion because of the regnant epistemology assumed in the field. So knowledge “of” place is a kind of limit case, pointing to a different kind of knowing, which then primes us to consider knowledge of God in similar terms. This alternative account of knowing is most fully developed in chapter 8, on the “aesthetic” dimension of knowing. (Throughout the book Wynn regularly builds bridges to poetry by autobiographically exploring his friendship with poet Edmund Cusick--and the way their friendship was tied to places.)

However, while this is the core argument of the book, Wynn is also attentive to the religious significance of place—how places are charged “sites” of knowledge (e.g., in a chapter on pilgrimage). Thus he is concerned both with knowledge of place and the “placed” nature of knowledge. An excellent book and an encouraging sign of alternative trajectories in philosophy of religion.