Wohnen (review)
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Wohnen. Edited by Ulrich Dickmann and Wolfgang Christian Schneider. Felderkundungen Laienspiritualität 3. Schwerte, Germany: Katholische Akademie Schwerte, 2011. 150 pp. 10,50 €

The series “Field Explorations in Lay Spirituality” is not concerned exclusively with observable data, empirical or anecdotal, nor are its explorations confined to the laity. Two Catholic institutes, the Katholische Akademie Schwerte in the German town of the same name and the Titus Brandsma Instituut in Nijmengen, the Netherlands, jointly publish the series, which explores the theory and praxis of Christian spirituality in daily life. This is a relatively new and underworked field in German scholarship. As few as five books have been published since 1958 with the word “Laienspiritualität” in the title; three of them are in this series. (For comparison, a comparable Google Book search for the English equivalent yields twenty-eight titles.) One of the goals of this series is to establish lay spirituality as [End Page 314] a technical term and a sub-field of study in its own right. The first volume focuses on relationship (Beziehung) and the second on birth (Geburt). The third volume, reviewed here, analyzes the spiritual dimensions of making a home.

The concept of dwelling, making a home for oneself, or living in a particular place (wohnen) is distinct from the concept of simply living, in a general sense (leben). Although only one of the authors in this volume explores the explicit difference between these two words for living, the distinction is the first linguistic nuance with which non-native German readers must reckon. The volume is well edited, with ample cross-references between the different chapters; but like virtually all edited volumes, Wohnen contains chapters that are unlikely to be equally useful to all readers.

In the first chapter, one of the volume’s editors, Wolfgang Christian Schneider, applies a history of religions methodology to the concept of dwelling, exploring its role in Greco-Roman antiquity. Schneider convincingly makes the case that encountering the divine in a household setting is not a uniquely Christian phenomenon; for the family home in antiquity was the locus for the transformative moments of marriage, birth, and death.

The volume’s other editor, Ulrich Dickmann, offers a chapter on the primal impulse to dwell in a given place in light of Emmanuel Levinas’s understanding of human nature. Dickmann argues that one is only oneself when one has a home, even if that home is on the road; and the more at home one is with oneself, the less the sacredness of any particular place matters. This process occurs through the dynamic tension of feminine life inside the house and masculine life out in the world, with those two dimensions existing in the life of every individual, regardless of gender. Dickmann does nothing to anticipate the concerns of readers who take issue with such polarities.

In the strongest of the chapters emphasizing theory, Inigo Bocken situates the concept of dwelling in Michel de Certeau’s history of mysticism, noting that this particular element in de Certeau’s thought has dominated discussions of his work in French and German scholarship. Bocken critiques the traditional emphasis on pilgrimage, mobility, and “placelessness” (Ortlosigkeit) in Christian spirituality, positing that dwelling in a given place and community offers to yield rich fruit, particularly in modern, urbanized society (35). This chapter will be of particular interest to scholars of the role of space and place in spirituality.

By contrast, theory is absent from Rianne Jongstra’s account. She reflects on how one might make a home in a nursing home, sharing the stories of three particular individuals. More than any other in the volume, this chapter stresses the complexities in human relationships and attendant practicalities. By exploring the spiritualities of those either at the end of life or with disabilities, Jongstra offers a helpful corrective to the other praxis-oriented chapters, with their bias toward the nuclear family.

Burkhard Knipping’s chapter is the most successful in the volume in blending theory and praxis, with the caveat that his theoretical concerns are biblical and theological, rather than grounded in critical theory per se. The lay theologian and journalist make a sharp distinction...