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It’s Just a Building, Right? Why Space Means More than You Might Think

While it is certainly appropriate to understand space as a physical concept, the symbolic aspect of space is also significant. Physical space does have an impact on the manner in which we view the world. It creates and/or constrains the options we have before us by structuring the world and defining the options that we have before us. The spaces we occupy are not neutral. They have an impact on the way in which we see and experience the world. They alert us of some issues while blinding us to others.

Physical space is almost always interacting with symbolic space (one’s position in relation to others). Part of the reason that physical space is so impactful is because of its connection to symbolic space, which establishes the boundaries and rules of space, what matters in that space, and what sort of skills we must develop to thrive within a given space. Physical space and symbolic space are connected, but neither is logically prior to the other. Symbolic space and the values inherent within one’s position in relation to other, for example, may condition the manner in which a particular community develops. This conditioning need not be intentional for it to be impactful. In other words, there is no necessary reason to assign pernicious motives to those who plan spaces. Instead, it may be that inherent biases and/or blind spots influence those who plan spaces, which only serves to reinforce underlying, unstated values in space planning.

In reality, symbolic space does not have to involve physical space at all. Organizational charts would be a good, formal example of symbolic space configurations that reflect one’s position in relation to others. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu theorized a set of relations in which individuals interact within a relatively autonomous field. Individuals compete in specific ways (using certain rules) within those fields for different sorts of capital.

For example, Academic fields may privilege engagement in original research, which means that those competing in academic fields must develop strong analytical skills and expertise in specific academic areas. Those who wish to compete and earn “capital” (e.g. recognition or peers, prestigious academic posts, research grants, etc.) have to develop a specific set of skills. Other fields, business for example, my have different capital (e.g. high paying positions with Fortune 500 companies, speaking engagements, etc.) and require the development of different skills (e.g. the ability to lead teams, the creation and implementation of business strategy).

Bourdieu‘ s theory offers a helpful way to think about symbolic space. His concept of field allows individuals to occupy multiple spaces at different times. His concept of field-based capital recognizes that people don’t just compete for money, but for different sorts of rewards that correspond to a given field. Finally, his concept of “habitus” underscores the manner in which a given field shapes individual action and preparation. There is no “physical” space in mind. Rather, the “spaces” are more symbolic and are defined by explicit or implicit boundaries that define a field. Fields, thus, condition one’s relation to others and influence the power dynamics between individuals who have a particular amount of capital within a given field.

The point of the discussion is to underscore that, while physical space is important, physical space is not the only (or perhaps the most significant) space that impacts the manner in which we relate to one another. We do occupy other, non-physical spaces that condition what we do, how we prepare, what we pursue, who we identify as leaders, and how we relate to one another. These non-physical spaces condition…they do not determine. We always have the ability to act in ways counter to a given field and to act to change the field. In doing so, we recognize our own agency.

The church exists, potentially, within multiple different fields. It would be rather simple for the body of Christ to adopt field-based capital drawn from non-religious or non-theological fields. We might, for instance, adopt volume- or popularity-based number of attendees, reach via broadcasting, subscribers to a podcast, or even dollars given to a particular ministry as capital for the church so that bigger ministries are viewed as more powerful within the religious field than small ministries. It is surely true that there is nothing inherently wrong with a large ministry…but there is nothing inherently right about it either. Volume and popularity are not central forms of capital within the church. Instead, faithfulness to the gospel, willingness to serve the marginalized of society, and commitment to love one another are the capital of the church. Remaining committed to that sort of capital is possible because we have a God who provides for our needs. We compete for capital not to gain power, but to honor God (the most prominent member of our community). The church as a corporate body and its individual members demonstrates to a watching world what it looks like to occupy space in an economy that runs on God’s capital.

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