Patriotism and Attachment to Place: A Commentary on Joseph Sittler’s “The Grace Note,” April 1951

[1] The year 1950 has been described as the “crossroads of American religious life.”[1] It was a paradoxical time of oppressive anxiety and intoxicating prosperity. Anxiety was fed by events and situations that had thrust Post-World War II America into a frightening new world: the Cold War and threats of Communist espionage and subversion; atomic weapons and the development of the hydrogen bomb; the Chinese Revolution, and the Korean War. What the place and role of the U.S. could and should be in that world was a topic of intense concern. Postwar prosperity manifested itself in the profusion of new consumer goods and household gadgetry and in unprecedented mobility and the suburban building boom. With this prosperity came a new wave of environmental concern, expressed in books like William Vogt’s Road to Survival and Fairfield Osborne’s Our Plundered Planet.[2]

[2] Against this backdrop, the essay by Joseph Sittler (1904-1987) reprinted in this issue of JLE appeared in April 1951, one of a series of “Grace Notes” that he wrote for the quarterly bulletin of the Chicago Lutheran Theological Seminary in Maywood, Illinois. In it, Sittler ruminates on the perplexities engendered by the contrast between America’s “promise and hope” and its more ambiguous actuality. At the time, Sittler was professor of systematic theology at the seminary; in a few years, he would join the faculty of the University of Chicago Divinity School. The essay introduces what would become a major theme in Sittler’s later writing: The idea that the world of nature is a theater of God’s grace, and that our response to that grace ought to be to deal graciously with the whole creation. He developed these themes in numerous articles and sermons, and most fully in Essays in Nature and Grace, earning a reputation as a pioneer in relating theology to environmental problems.

[3] But apart from this minor interest as a footnote in the recent history of ecological theology, what interest does this essay have for us today? I will argue that this essay intersects with present day concerns: care of creation, the meaning of patriotism, and the significance of the experience of place. More than that, it suggests that these themes are interwoven in crucially important ways, and in so doing, can help us to reflect on our present situation.

Attachment to Place

[4] Sittler approaches subject of “patriotism” by focusing on the “given,” general human experience of attachment to place. As described by Sittler, the feeling of attachment to place has several facets. It is love and affection for a place; a deep and enduring connectedness, “a sense of belonging to place and pattern of life,” “rootedness;” “loving, personal identification” and a “sense of identity” with one’s land; a sense of continuity with the past through stories that are kept in memory and “written and anecdotal history.” Strikingly, Sittler also includes “pathos” as an aspect of attachment, though he does not elaborate.

[5] But what of the object of this attachment – what is meant by a “place,” and to what sorts of places do people become attached? Sittler is emphatic that one’s love of a place is not grounded in its conformity to an ideal standard of value. It arises out of the concrete, particular, organic relation to the “plain, loveable geography” of a place, its unique constellation of persons and things, not “abstract esthetic factors.” The emblematic features that Sittler uses to evoke the variety and concreteness of loved places (e.g., trees, rivers, streets, railroad yards, dumps) makes it clear that “places” include both “natural” and “artificial” environments, people as well as “things.” This is an important corrective to our tendency to define the “environment” or “nature” in ways that omit humans and their works.

[6] Although Sittler evidently regards attachment to one’s place as a given, universal human trait, he recognizes that the conditions required for this affection to deepen and flourish have been severely strained and even violated by the character of modern life. In particular, he points to the effects of mobility, the tendency of Americans not to stay put. (In 1955, a few years after this essay appeared, 21 moves to a new home were made each year per 100 Americans, including people who moved more than once a year.)[3]

[7] Sittler also refers to physical separation from nature through the image of pavement as a barrier between ourselves and the earth: “. . . our feet seldom touch the earth save at its concrete or asphalt surfaces . . . .” Sittler regarded this uprooting from home places and detatchment from nature as a form of spiritual impoverishment. Because of such alienation, “something has happened to man’s spirit which constitutes an actual barrier to God’s common grace.” What does attachment to place have to do with grace?

Nature and Grace

[8] Sittler’s theology of place is grounded in his broader understanding of the relationship between nature and grace, which became a leitmotif of his theology, but which is only foreshadowed here. As he developed it in later writings, that theology of grace is based, in turn, on three key Christian doctrines.[4]

[9] The first is the Incarnation of the Word of God in Jesus Christ as the “fusion” of nature and grace in a particular historical person in a particular time and place, the crucial point at which grace has “invaded” nature. Nature is a notoriously multivocal term, and difficult if not impossible to pin down to a single definition. For present purposes, suffice it to say that it is roughly equivalent to the creation – human and nonhuman reality in all its dimensions and aspects as the object of God’s gracious action.

[10] The second is the symbol of the Cosmic Christ, the one through whom all things were made and in whom all things hold together (Colossians 1:15-17). We encounter God’s grace – the same grace as manifest in Christ – throughout creation. Sittler often illustrated this assertion, as he does here, by quoting Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “God’s Grandeur” As he later put it, the gift of the forgiveness of sins in Christ remains the center of the Christian understanding of grace, but its circumference can be nothing less than the whole creation.[5]

[11]The third doctrine is that of cosmic redemption: the purpose of the incarnation is the restoration of the relationship between God, humanity, and nature. A few years after this “Grace Note,” Sittler wrote,

It is of the heart of the Christian faith that this mighty, living, acting, restoring Word actually identified himself with his cloven and frustrated creation which groans in travail. . . . To what end? That the whole cosmos in its brokenness . . . might be restored to wholeness, joy, and lost love. . .God — man — nature! These three are meant for each other, and restlessness will stalk our hearts and ambiguity our world until their cleavage is redeemed.[6]
[12] The understanding of the relationship of nature and grace in creation that follows from these doctrines is dialectical. Nature is not grace, and grace is not nature, but they are inseparable. The church cannot ignore or repudiate the world. Nor can the world be adequately understood or rightly valued apart from its relationship to grace.

[13] But this dialectical relationship is not a static tension; it is dynamic and transformative, but in a way that never finally or fully resolves the paradox. As Sittler put it in a commencement address some years later, “By grace is meant all that God does to crack nature [including human nature] open to its God, to restore it to his love and to its intended destiny.” He speaks to the seminary graduates of their being sent “from the Church, through the Church — but to the world, God’s tormented creation, that it may know all things natural to be transformable and redeemable by grace, and all things gracious restless and yearning until they find natural embodiment.”[7] Our role is “to tend the creation, to relate ourselves to nature in such a way that it may become an open and proper theater for the manifestation and the fulfillment of grace.”[8] This is not a theology of inevitable and continuing progress but one of perpetual conversion and metanoia.[9]

[14] This paradoxical and transformative relationship of grace and nature determines the Christian relationship to the world – including his or her relationship to particular places. Sittler (following G. K. Chesterton) summed up the Christian relationship to the world as a paradox of “love and hate.” In a 1958 essay he wrote,

Because we are creatures of grace, we are not and never can identify our being with our existence, we cannot be at final rest within nature. But because we are creatures of nature, too, we must incarnate, actualize, in the solid stuff of concrete decisions and actions the powerful but unpredictable movements of God’s relentless grace. This means that God’s people in the earth must learn so to relate grace and nature as to love the world without idolatry and hate the world without despair. One must hate the world enough to wish to change it; but he must love it enough to think it worth changing.[10]

[15] It would perhaps be better to follow Douglas John Hall and speak of “love and judgement.”[11] In any case, Sittler also quotes Chesterton on the transformative potential of such love (using a run-down area of London as an example):

Take Pimlico, for instance, it’s not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico. In that case, he can merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico, for then it will remain Pimlico which would be awful. The only way out of this situation is for somebody to love Pimlico, to love it with a transcendental pride and without any earthly reason . . . If men loved Pimlico as mothers loved children, arbitrarily, simply because they are theirs, Pimlico might be fairer than Florence.[12]
Nature and Humankind

[16] In “The Grace Note,” Sittler further claims that the mutual responsiveness of humanity and nature is a gift of grace. Attachment to place is one aspect of this human responsiveness to the earth. To love a place is to be open to God’s grace as it is manifest in that “particular corner of creation.” To love a place is also to be motivated to care for that piece of creation, to deal with it with respect for its given “integrity and need.” At times, that will mean protecting or preserving it in its “natural” state. In other cases, it will mean transforming it through human creativity in a way that respects its integrity.

[17] But what of nature’s loving response to humanity? The “response” of nature may be its own flourishing which in turn sustains and graces human life. Many have argued that the further application of utilitarian calculus and scientific rationality will not be enough to resolve our environmental problems. We must learn how to respond to nature with love, sensitivity, respect, and awe; and we must learn how to embody those dispositions in our technologies and social institutions. And those who bestow love, patience, respect and understanding on the land and its creatures in turn receive from them gifts that make for a healthier, more sustainable, and more richly satisfying life.

[18] Any place that we experience can be seen as a particular example of a working out of this mutual responsiveness, in a kind of dialogue between humans and nature, persons and place. By speaking of our interaction with the natural world as a “dialogue,” I mean something like this: The structures human beings build and the changes we make in the landscape express, for good or ill, the shape and state of our values, knowledge, and beliefs. They express our interpretation of the values and possibilities that the landscape itself expresses. And nature responds, according to how well or badly those creations and interventions fit into their ecological contexts, and how well we have “read” the landscape. It flourishes or it deteriorates; it continues to sustain and enrich human life, or it withdraws its beneficence, as when homes built below deforested hillsides or in floodplains are destroyed, or when aquifers beneath too-densely settled communities are overdrawn, or when human life is diminished by cities that allow no meaningful contact with the natural world.[13]

Imagination, Patriotism and the Paradox of Nature and Grace

[19] Why does Sittler develop these thoughts on place under the rubric of “patriotism”? America is one of the “places” that we belong to and love, but “America” is too vast for us to experience as a whole. Thus, Sittler vividly describes America as mosaic of places – from New England through the South, the Midwest and the West, to the Pacific Coast.

[20] While love of place is a response to what is experienced as present and actual, it also involves a response to what is not immediately given to perception. Imagination, as well as love, is integral to patriotism — not simply as a feeling or disposition, but as a basis for thought and action. “Before the word America can set a man thinking or planning or resolving or defending, it ought to set him dreaming and remembering!” Dreaming and remembering reach beyond the immediately present to envision the whole, the past, the future, the possible. Imagination as perception informs our understanding and evaluation of the realities with which we are involved, their qualities and relationships to one another. The failure or corruption of the imagination thus can have dire consequences. The practical import of imagination is well captured in landscape architect Anne Whiston Spirn’s phrase, “We dwell in what began as dreams.”[14]

[21] Patriotism is the application of the dialectical Christian stance toward the world to one’s own country. In fact Sittler quotes G. K. Chesterton in saying, “My acceptance of the world is not optimism and it is not pessimism. It is much more like patriotism . . . . A man belongs to this world before he asks if it is nice to belong to it . . . It is a matter of primary loyalty.”[15]

[22] Patriotism is not devotion to America as an abstract principle or ideal, but as a concrete reality. Nor is patriotism uncritical loyalty to America “as it is.” Imagination presents to us America as an ambiguous reality, a problem and an object of anxiety. It discloses America as potentiality, and poses the question of the relation of its future to its destiny and promise. When that relation of actuality to promise is problematic, imagination elicits the sense of falling short, of having lost one’s way: the “directionless vitality” of the American city; the “blight of error, broken promise, lost dream, unachieved desire” of which Thomas Wolfe speaks. The pathos of our attachment is that we identify with and belong to both the reality and dream of America. Our pathos is that we long for the yet-unrealized fusion of the “given” nature of America as it is and the gracious promise of its vocation and destiny. Our pathos is that our patriotism must be compounded of love and judgement, affirmation and critique, as critical love and loving criticism. But out of the pathos of that dialectic of nature and grace is born the patriotism that bestows both the “passion to preserve” and the “power to change.”

Place, Patriotism, and the Care of the Earth

[23] Issues of place, patriotism, and the care of the earth are even more urgent today than they were a half century ago, but they are not often connected. The rhetoric of patriotism usually expresses attachment or loyalty to national identity, values, symbols, leaders, and policies rather than a sense of identification with a particular community or landscape. But the values of patriotism can only be enacted in, and for the sake of, particular communities and places. National leadership and policies must be judged in terms of their impacts on particular places, both within and beyond the nation’s borders. Over against the temptation to contract one’s sympathy and vision that might arise from a focus on a particular place, one must set a theology that both affirms the potential of every place to be a bearer of grace, and judges the actuality of every place as falling short of what God intends for it.

[24] “Patriotic” concerns over national security in post-September 11 America have often eclipsed or been used as rationales for weakening environmental protection and regulation, but care for the earth must be seen as an integral part of patriotism. As conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac (1948):

. . . Do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter downriver. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, or carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communities without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species.[16]
[25] Our “patriotisms,” our loyalties and attachments to homelands and familiar, special places, are particular instantiations of the human calling to care for the earth and of the ongoing dialogue between God, humanity, and nature. Recognizing our place within this dialogue as individuals, communities, nations, and a species requires humility and an acceptance of limits. Recognition of the diversity and scope of grace ought to disabuse us of any pretensions to “exceptionalism” as a nation or a species. Our species is not the sole center of value on earth. Nor is any nation the sole repository of virtue, or the sole object of divine calling and blessing. A dialogical view of our nation as one among the community of nations, and of our species as one among the community of life on earth, stands in sharp contrast to a “monological” approach that seeks to unilaterally impose its will on nature or the rest of the world.

[26] To care for the earth, in turn, means to care for particular places, including those where people live and work. Many people may feel that exotic endangered species or threatened wildernesses are too remote from their daily experience to be relevant to their lives, or to distant to be affected by their own actions. But it may be possible to engage such people in knowing about and caring about the creatures and landscapes in their own neighborhood or back yard, and in doing so, to awaken them to the patterns and movements of grace that surround them every day.


[27] What ethical imperatives follow from such an understanding of attachment to place as a gift of grace? Pay attention to your surroundings, and how they shape your sense of meaning and identity. Nurture a sense of place. Learn to read the landscape. Cultivate, too, a “tough and true” patriotism that includes a recognition of limits, a sense of responsibility for the care of the earth, and an appreciation of the love and loyalty that people in other parts of the world feel for their homelands.

[28] As we do these things, we may become more aware of how grace is woven into the very texture of the places we inhabit, and how our human dialogues with those places are affirmations or repudiations of the gifts of nature, community, and culture that are offered there, frustrations or fragmentary and ambiguous realizations of the potentialities for grace peculiar to those corners of creation. And we may also come to see how those dialogues with place are also dialogues with the God who is revealed to us in the incarnate Word who came and dwelt among us, and in whom all things cohere.

[1] Robert S. Ellwood, 1950: Crossroads of American Religious Life (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000).

[2] William Vogt, Road to Survival (New York: Sloan and Associates, 1948); Fairfield Osborn, Our Plundered Planet (Boston: Little, Brown, 1948).

[3] Hal Kane, Triumph of the Mundane: The Unseen Trends That Shape Our Lives and Environment (Washington DC: Island Press, 2001), 57.

[4] For overviews of Sittler’s theology, see: Peter W. Bakken, “Introduction: Nature as a Theater of Grace: The Ecological Theology of Joseph Sittler” and Steven Bouma-Prediger, “Conclusion: Sittler the Pioneering Ecological Theologian” in Joseph Sittler, Evocations of Grace: Writings on Ecology, Theology and Ethics, ed. Steven Bouma-Prediger and Peter Bakken (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 1-19, 223-233.

[5] “Excerpts from Essays in Nature and Grace,” in Evocations of Grace, 153-154.

[6] “A Theology for Earth,” in Evocations of Grace, 29, 30.

[7] “Commencement Address,” in Evocations of Grace, 37.

[8] “Commencement Address,” 35.

[9] In an essay from 1958, Sittler critiques religious and secular forms of the theology of progress. The Calvinist drive to order society, he says, “is the reality under our general assumption that America, in a peculiar way, is the land and we are the people most amenable to and obedient to God’s moral purposes. This identification of the American experiment and our religious faith is appealed to as the guarantor of our success, the holy ground of our indestructibility. . . . The line from Puritanism to the secular theology of progress is a direct one . . . .” “The Wood’s In Trouble,” Discourse: A Review of the Liberal Arts 1 (July 1958), 141-142. For perpetual metanoia in history as an alternative to “progress,” see Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God Talk (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983), 252-256.

[10] “The Wood’s In Trouble,” 145. Applied to human beings and societies, “judgement” clearly implies a moral critique. But moral judgement would be inappropriate if applied to nature: There is no indication Sittler believed in a “cosmic fall.” In relation to nonhuman nature, “judgement” would best be seen as an awareness of limits, of unrealized values and unfulfilled possibilities. It is not that nature is judged “bad,” but that it was created “good” rather than “perfect.” It is subject to the “pathos of passingness,” and now has been degraded by human carelessness. Most places we experience are the products of both human agency and natural processes, so the dialectic of love and judgment would especially be part of a Christian evaluation of nature as we normally encounter it, partially reshaped by human hands.

[11] Douglas John Hall, Imaging God: Dominion as Stewardship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 36-37.

[12] Sittler, “The Wood’s In Trouble,” 146. No source for the quote is given, but it is found in G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1924), 122.

[13] Landscape architect Anne Whiston Spirn develops this dialogical metaphor at length in The Language of Landscape (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

[14] Spirn, 267.

[15] Sittler, “The Wood’s In Trouble,” 145. Again, no source is given but it is found in Chesterton, 120-121.

[16] Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (New York: Oxford University Press, 1948), 204.