top of page

Place: A Way of Being in the World

Written May 2016

The coordinates (22° 57′ 8.7″ S 43° 12′ 42” W) have no meaning in and of themselves yet society has constructed a system of order so they orient us to a geographical location in space. Space exists as a "realm without meaning" as Tim Creswell eloquently articulates, and is fundamental to our understanding of the Universe. Space is simply a three-dimensional dominion until human beings appropriate it by giving it substance. For space to become place we must value it, at which point we invest ourselves and it becomes a part of us. (Creswell 2006, 10) This essay will explore how the historical narrative of a location attributed to the significance of it as place within a larger global concept. Furthermore, I will consider how place can be discerned as an instrument of beholding something as well as being a metamorphic phenomenon. Finally, I will explore how places unknowingly provoke us even though we may not have experienced them in person.

Creswell, a human geographer, explores his predecessor, Yi-Fu Tuan work on ‘place’ and shares in his book, Place: a short introduction, Tuan's thoughts on 'space' and 'place':

"What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value .... The ideas 'space' and 'place' require each other for definition. From the security and stability of place we are aware of the openness, freedom, and threat of space, and vice versa. Furthermore, if we think of space as that which allows movement, then place is pause; each pause in movement makes it possible for location to be transformed into place." (Creswell 2006, 8)

The example Creswell uses of native canoeists is quintessential to conceiving the relationship between space and place. “Rather than taking a direct line from point A to point B the natives would take complicated routes that had no apparent logic. To the native canoeists their movements made perfect sense as they read the sea as a set of places associated with particular spirits and particular dangers.” (Creswell 2006, 9) Therefore, place is how we make meaning of the world around us and the way in which we experience it. While one group of people might look at the sea and see a blank space, the natives saw place.

(22° 57′ 8.7″ S 43° 12′ 42” W) are the coordinates for the apex of a mountain in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Widely known as “the” party city in South America and the carnival capital of the world, Rio has evoked such attention in film with ‘Blame It on Rio’ and music like ‘The Copacabana’. However, Rio is, first and foremost, a city with deep religious roots dating back to the sixteenth century when the first Portuguese settlers arrived. (Bruneau 1974, 11) These roots are not only evident in the abundance of the city's religious sites, but also in their prominence in terms of tourism for religious and non-religious travelers alike. (Christ the Redeemer, 2014)

High atop the peak of Mount Corcovado and deep within the Tijuca Forest National Park, stands a pious symbol recognizable throughout the world. The Christ the Redeemer statue, Cristo Redentor in Portuguese, stands 98 feet tall mounted atop a 26 foot pedestal. (Murray, 2014) The 2,300 foot view from the mountain top has been home to this shrine of reinforced concrete and soapstone since 1931. The towering replica of Christ, a symbol of Christianity to some, and Catholicism to others, has become cultural icon. Its popularity has earned, by popular vote through the internet, one of the New Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

The way in which the Catholic Church established itself early on in Brazil would have far reaching implications in terms of their approach to influence and the level of influence they would eventually attain. The original proposal for a monument by a Catholic Priest, Pedro Maria Boss, presented in the 1850's was quickly dismissed. At this time, the state controlled the church and for all intense purposes, the King was the church. However, four decades later, prompted by the overthrow of the monarchy in 1889, the Catholic Church was forced out into the public sphere to develop its own identity separate from the state. Though the creation of the republic certainly changed the landscape for the Catholic Church, they were initially slower to earn the notoriety they would later come to know. It was not until a restructuring of the organization within Brazil and the influence of Rome that its prominence grew. (Bruneau 1982, 13) Power, in this particular narrative, would come from the weight of Rome in a way it had never come before.

In 1920, a second proposal for a landmark monument was made by the emerging Catholic Circle of Rio. In a world that was fundamentally changing, it was not uncommon that chaos took hold resulting in a defiant eruption from the past. What seemed to unify this influential group was the lens with which they perceived society, at that point in time, as "Godless". Markus, a distinguished medieval and ecclesiastical historian, tells us that a sense of sacred space, and of a sacred Christian topography, was in large measure produced by the enhanced sense of the past, and the need to experience it as present. (Markus 1994, 271)

It was during the early 1900's that Rio observed a notable transformation in the separation of the church and state. The community hungered for a sense of belonging which I speculate is the primary reason to resurrect this this enormous venerable structure. The enshrined image embodies a place of worship, evangelism, charity, culture, ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue, pilgrimage, and ecology. Even though portions of the world were non-religious, the structure would attract people from all over world because of the beauty of its locale and its values of Christianity. "When places are attached to God or God's actions in the world they become accepted as sacred." (Markus 1994, 271)

The Christ the Redeemer figure has stood for more than eight decades as a symbol of Christ on earth, embracing all who come to him. The statue's left arm points to the north zone of Rio and right arm to the south zone, welcoming those arriving into port with open arms, quite literally. This majestic sculpture towers over the Guanabara Bay much like the Statue of Liberty masts the New York Harbor, both created with the intentionality of welcome but also tasked with the confrontation of how to live out that invitation without being exclusionary. Like New York in North America, Rio may well be the largest religious melting pot in South America. For many immigrants it was chosen because it represented religious freedom, racial acceptance, and cultural diversity. However, some aspects of Rio, like New York City, push people to the margins where they are subject to abuse and exploitation, 'othering' them. It's irony that the statute looks out over all who have been marginalized with its arm's wide open, a poetic gesture.

I believe the concept of place-memory may have been a significant driving force behind the erection of the statue. If memories are constructed through the production of places, it is likely that the intention of the monument was to serve as a daily reminder, that love and salvation can be found in Christ and specifically, in the Catholic Church. Edward Casey discusses that place has the ability to bring the past back to life in the present contributing to the production and reproduction of social memory.

“It is the stabilizing persistence of place as a container of experiences that contributes so powerfully to its intrinsic memorability. An alert and alive memory connects s spontaneously with place, finding in it features that favor and parallel its own activities. We might even say that memory is naturally place-oriented or at least place-supported.” (Creswell 2006, 86)

The construction of the statue provided both religious unification from a complicated past and eventually a substantial economic boost to the local economy. The tribute is reminiscent of Christ’s message of love and his welcome of all people, creating a field where every day people, with nothing in common, are connected to one another. In some instances the global reach of the message of the monument supports Tuan's idea that "place connects the favorite armchair to the globe." (Creswell 2006, 99) In this sanctuary all people are able to communicate, despite their differences in language, because here they speak the language of love.

Naming is another way we can give space meaning. Naming is an important characteristic in other fields of study as well. By naming something we assign it value. To be named is to be known; to name is to claim power. Valuing is central to the Christian faith. Naming and being named are sacred activities in Judeo-Christian tradition. (Leslie 2002, 1170) Naming also connects a place to other places in the world or to a historical context. The name, Christ the Redeemer Sanctuary, draws attention to its location on Mount Corcovado in Rio de Janerio, Brazil, while connecting it to a wider cultural narrative. (Creswell 2006, 98)

I have been fortunate enough to travel to New Zealand twice and immerse myself in the indigenous culture of the Maori. These were transforming experiences. While the beautiful landscape of New Zealand afforded me tangible memories, it was interaction with the culture that molded my perspective. Imbedded within me is a bond so deep that I have memorialized a tattoo to their culture and my experience of it. For me, this action was a rite of passage. Though I have never been to Brazil, the image of this beautiful monument became a sacred place I have only imagined in my dreams. I imagine a pilgrimage: the long plane ride to Rio; ascending the mountain path by foot; breathing in the view of Rio from the base of the shrine; then resting for hours in meditation. Ten years ago an acquaintance from church went on a trip to Brazil. I was excited about his journey and asked if he could take a photo of the Christ the Redeemer monument. He returned with a photograph he had enlarged to 11x15 and it has hung at the head of the bed in my guest room ever since, as a reminder of the physical and spiritual pilgrimage I hope for some day.

Relph tells us: "The basic meaning of place, its essence, does not therefore come from locations, nor from the trivial functions that places serve, nor from the community that occupies it, nor from superficial or mundane experiences … The essence of place lies in the largely unselfconscious intentionality that defines places as profound centers of human existence.” (Creswell 2006, 23)

The study of place is a complicated and contested one. How each person perceives place is derivative of how they experience it with all of their senses. The natives teach us that place is not just a location but of way of being in the world. Places are never complete and thus always evolving. As generations pass away, the meanings that define place may also pass but places will always be “produced by people that constitute ‘society’ and at the same time they are key to the production of relations between people.” (Creswell 2006, 123) In other words, place are intrinsic to human existence.


Bruneau, Christ the Redeemer. 2014. Accessed April 1, 2016.

Creswell, Tim. 2006. Place: a short introduction. United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Leslie, Kristen J. 2003. When Violence Is No Stranger: Pastoral Counseling with Survivors of Acquaintance Rape. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Markus, R.A. How on Earth Could Places Become Holy? Origins of the Christian Idea of Holy Places., Journal of Early Christian Studies, 2 (1994).

Murray, Lorraine. 2014. “Christ the Redeemer.” Last modified January 13, 2014. Accessed April 1, 2016.

25 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

January 2008 : A story by Rev. Rebecca Kemper Poos, Associate Pastor of Congregational Life at Columbine United Church in Littleton, Colorado. It was the Thursday before Christmas.  The secretary g

bottom of page