Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 9, Number 33, August 12 to August 18, 2007

Impossible Neutrality

An Analogy from Humanistic Geography

Jimmy Li


It is often assumed naively by many Christians and non-Christians that there is an actual position of neutrality that could be the beginning point by both parties in the discussion of the truthfulness of the Gospel and Christianity. It is assumed therefore, that because there can be such a philosophical position of religious neutrality when it comes to the claim of the truthfulness of the Christianity, thus, it is also possible to have neutral facts and neutral description of the world. This article would seek to further enlighten on the impossibility of religious neutrality by drawing from the analogy of humanistic geography in order to show how there can not be any description of this world (anything and anywhere) that is somehow religiously neutral.

Humanistic Geography

As the philosopher Edward S. Casey noted, "There has been a remarkable convergence between geography and philosophy in the past two decades." 1 Previously, "the traditional disciplinary training of geographers did not put philosophy and geography together", but that was changed with the introduction of humanistic geography. 2 As identified by UCLA geographer J. Nicholas Entrikin, "the humanist tradition in geography has had many important contributors, but its principal contemporary architect has been Yi-Fu Tuan". 3

Definition Of "Place"

The main focus of humanistic geography is the idea of place. "Places" for the humanistic geographer then, "are experienced". 4 In some sense, "a place is socially constructed". 5 To spell out what place means, place is the meaning given to a location. However, to adequately define place, one must also define space and note the distinction between the two. As Yi-Fu Tuan stated in his famous work titled Space and Place, "The ideas ‘space' and ‘place' require each other for definition." 6

Difference Between Space And Place

Tim Creswell described space as "a more abstract concept than place. When we speak of space, we tend to think of outer space or the spaces of geometry. Spaces have areas and volumes" although of course "places have spaces between them". 7 Tuan wrote that "what begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value". 8 A year before Tuan published this statement, Edward Relph wrote about how "Space is amorphous and intangible…yet, however we feel or explain space, there is nearly always some associated sense or concept of place." 9 So whenever and wherever men have some sort of experience in a certain space, it becomes place because someone has interacted with, attached meaning to, and place some sort of value to it.

How Place Is All Encompassing

From the last statement above, it is important to note how place is all encompassing. For instance, "we live in one place, work in another, play football in another." 10 Humanistic geographers have been "arguing that humans cannot construct anything without first being first in place—that place is primary to the construction of meaning and society" (Emphasis in original). 11 The mere fact that humans are involved in some geographical or space makes it a place and ‘place' is thus unavoidable. Even the thought of a geographical area makes it a place, though man has not ‘touched' it yet. 12

Every Place Has A Meaning

Since place is about meaning, it is more philosophical than pure geography. "Perhaps the most lasting contribution of humanistic geography to the idea of place, Tim Cresswell has argued, has been the reminder that we do not live in an abstract framework of geometric spatial relationships: ‘we live in a world of meaning. We exist in and are surrounded by places.'" 13 The question that follows from this would be what then, is the meaning of any particular place?

This Meaning Is Contested

The question of the meaning and values of a place brings us into conflicts and disputes because competing groups and claims could be given to any particular places. Initial examples that come to mind are the battles between environmentalists and businesses over the environment, 14 nations at war over territory, etc. There are other less visible contests going on that take place which humanistic geographers have described and written about, such as the feminists critique of the home as patriarchic "places of drudgery, abuse and neglect" 15 , Marxist critique of place in the narrative of haves and haves-not and the homosexual attack of the fact that "heterosexuality occurs everywhere", 16 etc. When the feminist, homosexual and the Marxist critique geography and place, they interpret it and give value to it comprehensively according to their respective worldview. Furthermore since a vacuum of meaning and value is impossible, they also attempt to make places become pro-feminist, homosexual and Marxist since there really can not be any real neutral state of place without value and meaning. Wherever there is place then, there is a contest of competing meaning, values and interpretation of place.

Van Til, And A Christian View Of Place And Space

In the Christian worldview, the Bible teaches that everything that exists was bought about by God. Nehemiah 9:6 actually praises God for this: "You alone are the LORD. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you." Thus, given the biblical doctrine of Creation, every space that exists whether on heaven or on earth have some kind of meaning or value and is therefore also a place since it exists to glorify God. Moreover, the Bible also declares that everything that exists is own by the Lord, such as in Pslams 24:1: "The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it". 17

This of course is heavily antithetical to the various strands of humanistic geographers because the Bible claim that along with everything else, even the nonbeliever is God's creature. Cornelius Van Til in his famous booklet Why I Believe in God wrote the following lines, "If you really do not believe in God, then you naturally do not believe that you are his creature. I, on the other hand, who do believe in God, also believe, naturally, that whatever you yourself may think, you really are his creature." The Christian view in it very essence concerning place is not something that can be passed over without a value judgment (neutrality) but is sharply in dispute with the nonbeliever's alternative meaning and interpretation of place.

No Place Is Religiously Neutral

What does it mean when we are to be somehow ‘religiously neutral' towards God when we construct or interpret places? Would ruling out God for the sake of being neutral really be neutral when He states in the Bible that one can not and should not rule out God when we look at the world around us? 18

A lengthy quote from Van Til's Why I Believe in God again should serve the point: "He says the whole world belongs to Him, and that you are His creature, and as such are to own up to that fact by honoring Him whether you eat or drink or do anything else. God says that you live, as it were, on His estate. And His estate has large ownership signs placed everywhere, so that he who goes by even at seventy miles an hour cannot but read them. Every fact in this world, the God of the Bible claims, has His stamp indelibly engraved upon it. How then could you be neutral with respect to such a God? " It must also be pointed out that to disagree with what Van Til stated about this world having "His stamp" on it one automatically is no longer neutral towards God when it comes to places but disagrees with Him.

In the same fashion of how Feminists and homosexuals argues that the absence of their perspective and the silence of a place from allowing their meaning to be proscribed is actually discrimination against them (and not neutral, to say the least), likewise by excluding God and His perspective of places is to be discriminating against Him. Yet the offense is even greater, since everything belongs to God, it becomes even more morally offensive to exclude God from places.


If every place is contested by the perspective of the feminist, the homosexual, the Marxist, etc this demonstrates that places can not be value-neutral. In light of that, places also can not be viewed as value neutral towards God in light of the fact that He is the creator of this very world itself and everything in it as well.


1. Casey, Edward S. "Body, Self, and Landscape" in Textures of Place. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2001: Pages 403.

2. Entrikin, J. Nicholas. "Geographer as Humanist" in Textures of Place. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2001: Pages 426.

3. Ibid.

4. Cresswell, Tim. Textures of Place. United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing, 2004: Page 21.

5. Ibid, pg. 30.

6. Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space And Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1977: Page 6.

7. Cresswell, Tim. Textures of Place. United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing, 2004: Page 8.

8. Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space And Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1977: Page 6.

9. Relph, Edward. Place and Placelessness. London: Pion, 1976: Page 8.

10. Cresswell, Tim. Textures of Place. United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing, 2004: Page 21.

11. Cresswell, Tim. Textures of Place. United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing, 2004: Page 32.

12. Cronon, William. "The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature" in Uncommon Ground. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1996: Pages 69-90.

13. "Place in Context" in Textures of Place. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2001: Page xxi.

14. For example, see White, Richard. "Are You an Enviornmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?" in Uncommon Ground. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1996: Pages 171-185.

15. Cresswell, Tim. Textures of Place. United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing, 2004: Page 25.

16. Ibid, Page 104.

17. See also 1Chronicles 29:11 for comparison.

18. See Romans 1:18-22

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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