What's Tony Thinking

“Spaces” And Other Hot Words


I am returning from the Association of Theological Schools Biennial meeting in Pittsburgh and that portion of the meeting focused on schools who are Pathways to Tomorrow grantees. One of those is Vancouver School of Theology, my employer. It was a good meeting, mixing large group, small group and one-to-one interactions. Eighty-four theological schools are grantees.

Some, but not many, of the schools are old and established. Quite a number are newer and some variety of experimental or innovative. These were aimed at previously “under-represented constituencies,” or at ways of doing theological education that are “non-traditional,” usually entirely on-line and non-residential — in contrast to the older, established in-person and in-residence models. These changes, driven by the economics of higher education, were put into higher gear by the pandemic.

Since I have been away from events like this for a while, I noticed language and words that are now au courant. Some are jargon, some useful.

One word I heard a lot, and about which I am curious about is “spaces.” As in, “All are welcome in these spaces,” or “We create safe spaces,” or “The spaces in which we work are between the present and future.”

The word does not refer to a physical space alone or even primarily, although its usage may arise from computerized work spaces, open office systems and the like that are fluid. In those spaces people come and go, interact or not, and move on.

“Spaces” as it was used at this conference (as well as other places) seems to refer more to psychological or social space in which people are free to enter, engage and participate. Or it means, human gatherings/ associations — spaces — that have been less in the mainstream. In this sense it seems to reflect an impulse toward “spaciousness,” with room for diversity, as well space that is not owned or controlled by one group, class, gender, etc. These are positives.

In line with some of my writing and that of others, “spaces” may also relate to the performative element of public and work life these days. These are “spaces” in which we perform our identity, in which we (see recent blog) “Be You!” “Do You!”

“Space(s)” might be contrasted with “place.” Space is open, fluid, transitory, accessible but without that which defines place, which is sense of history, culture, tradition. Space is empty and awaits filling. Place is more dense, complex and multi-layered. A place has a history. Space not so much.

So it feels to me, listening in a bit like the proverbial visitor from another planet, that space/ spaces fits with what philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, calls “liquid modernity.” We live in a world that is fluid, shape-shifting, constantly being formed and reformed, and sometimes, deformed. The sense of instability and rootlessness is characteristic of modernity.

Something, then, is gained — as the word “spaciousness” suggests — but something too is lost. Stability, roots, a sense of place — all lose out in the move from place to space.

Another constellation of words that I noticed being invoked often at these meetings were “body,” “bodies” and “embodied.” We kept being reminded by conference speakers that we are embodied beings, which was usually a prelude to asking us to get to our feet and find someone we didn’t know to have a conversation with about a particular question.

Sometimes the speakers seemed as if they had made a wondrous discovery. “We are embodied beings!” Men my age tend to be pretty aware of this for reasons that are not always convenient. But the body/ embodied emphasis also arises in a world where we are increasingly disembodied, looking at screens big (in the front of the meeting space) or medium — laptops — or small — phones. We interact with one another without our bodies being proximate and usually no more than partially visible.

This would confirm my theory that certain words arise to popularity in an inverse relationship to their actual existence. An example of that is the ubiquity of “community,” even as the actual thing became more elusive and even under assault.

“Pivot” was another word that spiced presentations and conversations at the ATS. I get that one from basketball, but not quite sure why it’s a thing all of sudden. Perhaps one of you can tell me?

Having dipped back into “spaces” I used to frequent more — academic and church conferences — I shall now happily pivot to northeastern Oregon, and take my body up some mountain trails, or I guess, it will take me. Wait a minute . . .



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