Time to Deterritorialise?

by Tim Baker.

There are some ideas that, because of when or how you were introduced to them, have a lasting impact on how you see the world. For me, one of those is the writings of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Always opaque, often impenetrable and regularly overlooked, Deleuze is not much appreciated beyond a small cultish following, but his thinking has had much wider impact and his collaborations with the psychotherapist and political activist Felix Guttari have left us with some incredibly useful ideas for grappling with post-modern life (and faith).

Amongst these gifts is the concept of de- (and re-) territorialisation. Deleuze was fascinated by Nietzsche but also interested in making some of the German’s complex ideas more material and more grounded (literally). Thus, in Deleuze, Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals becomes a Geology of Morals – he is constantly mapping some of the big ideas of structuralist and post-structuralist thought into the material world, drawing on examples from the biology, botany and a range of natural processes to corroborate his thought. For example, Deleuze talked a lot about the rhizome – what he called an “image of thought”, which was based on the botanical rhizome and which he used as an invitation into thinking about non-hierarchical structures and multiple ways of interpreting the world.[1] The rhizome in your garden is a plant that pops out of the ground over an expanding area – one big plant that appears to be lots of different plants appearing in lots of different places. It is these connections and the movement from one-into-many that Deleuze was so interested in.

This is true of deterritorialisation too: theoretically speaking this is nothing more than the idea of ‘moving on’ or disconnecting an idea from unnecessary baggage. For example, finding ways to talk of God without all the baggage that two millennia of Christian thought has put on that word. If we can do the mental and imaginative work to deterritorialise God from that baggage, the idea of God might then be reterritorialised in more useful and radical ways. However, in Deleuze’s usage, deterritorialisation always involves some kind of physical, material move too. He describes it as “the movement by which one leaves a territory”.[2]

Thus, to return to the issue of God (which is my example, not his), Deleuze might suggest that it is the Christian God’s physical ‘location’ (or at least the location of the-idea-of-God) in church buildings, in the heads and hearts of theologians and church leaders, and in the institution of religion that makes God seem dated, or old-fashioned, or out of touch. Perhaps the challenge for the church of the twenty-first century is to literally deterritorialise these assumptions that people make about God? Can we remove the restrictions and baggage that we have heaped onto God over the last two, or indeed the last eight, millennia?

This is not a new idea – as Fred Pratt Green writes, “The church of Christ in every age / must claim and test its heritage […] and keep on rising from the dead”.[3] However, I wonder if Deleuze’s very real, very literal deterritorialising gives us some clues about how we might go about it. I wonder if Deleuze has something to say about our buildings, our property committees and the way we as church often use our physical assets as a crutch to lean on in hard times. In my experience, many people’s perceptions of God – whether or not they call themselves Christians – is associated with ancient buildings, grand (but old) Cathedrals, outdated social attitudes and feudal power structures. These associations don’t particularly excite me, nor do they reflect my own encounter with the divine – where the energy of Spirit seems to be much more about newness, simplicity, justice and liberation. Perhaps the Spirit of God, and the metaphor of deterritorialisation is inviting us outside of our church buildings and into a future we are not quite able to see. Can we get rid of some of the things that are holding us back?

Perhaps this is the philosophical and theoretical challenge that can enable us to grasp the concept of ‘church without walls’ and become a more fluid, rhizomatic church – popping up in lots of new places, always connected but always fresh, different, liberated from the baggage of ages past. Shall we deterritorialise the church?

[1] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guttari, Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Thousand Plateaus, p. 7 ff

[2] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guttari, Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Anti-Oedipus, p. 79

[3] Fred Pratt Green, The Church of Christ in Every Age

2 thoughts on “Time to Deterritorialise?”

  1. This is really helpful, Tim, thank you. I’d not heard of Deleuze, but your thoughts arising from his writings I find very helpful and align with some of my developing thinking…. thank you!


  2. As a member of a tiny congregation which is soon about to ‘deterritorialise’ I found this timely and challenging.

    In faith, with a membership of more than seventy at the time, we gave our architect a brief to design a flexible building, at an important road junction and in a shopping precinct, for our use and for the benefit of the community which had no place to meet. We felt especial responsibility for children and their families, for University students through the Chaplaincy, including overseas ones and their partners who are often lonely in a foreign country, and for elderly people. It was opened 21 years ago – with its associated social housing which we insisted on – since when times have changed in ways we could not have envisaged and which were outside our control. It has been, and will continue to be, widely used by a number of groups, but the congregation is now too small even to form a church council and members will join other Societies or other denominations, and we hope that the Circuit, whose responsibility it now is, will use the building imaginatively.

    But the ‘rhizome’ will continue to pop up (former members are living dedicated lives all over the world as presbyters or as lay people) and God will continue to be worshipped. There is a meeting this week at a member’s house to plan worship for a Local Arrangements service – can’t our homes be places of worship, service and hospitality?

    And yet – step inside e.g. Wells Cathedral, Chartres, York Minster, Iona Abbey or even a ruined Cistercian monastery, and there is something there which tells you that ‘here prayer has been valid’…….


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