catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 20 :: 2013.11.01 — 2013.11.14


“Sacred” space, desecration and reconciliation

In this cold commodity culture
where you lay your money down
it’s hard to even notice
that all this earth is hallowed ground
harder still to feel it
basic as a breath
love is stronger than darkness
love is stronger than death

Bruce Cockburn, “The Gift” from Big Circumstance

I have come into this discussion of sacred space as an agnostic about the very notion of sacred space; hence the quotations around the word “sacred” in the title of this list of theses. My agnosticism moves towards total unbelief especially when the idea of sacred space further entrenches a dualism between the sacred and profane that I fundamentally reject. And my agnosticism can only move in the direction of belief in the legitimacy of the concept insofar as the notion of sacrality can be reinterpreted and transformed in more holistically biblical terms. I also come at these issues as a Christian theologian who insists that the vocabulary of faith, the imagination and the worldview within which any discussion of spatiality must occur — if it is to be Christian — needs to be self-consciously and explicitly rooted in the scriptures.

So then, as I continue to think through the issues of “sacred” space in the Christian tradition, I come up with the following theses:

1. A categorical sacred/profane distinction in space needs to be rejected. The categorical distinction between sacred and profane, with its corollaries of grace/nature, eternal/temporal, soul/body, faith/reason and sacred/secular, is rooted in a neo-Platonic dualism that is alien to biblical faith.

2. If we are to employ the category of sacrality at all, it must refer first and foremost to creation as a whole. All of creation — all creational space — can be described as sacred precisely because this creation exists as a response to the loving and life-engendering word of God who declares this creation to be good and delightful (Gen. 1). No distinction between spaces as sacred and profane can be discerned in the creation narrative. Therefore, from a biblical/theological perspective, the sacred/profane distinction can have no ontological legitimacy. An Eliadean essentialist approach to sacred space must therefore be rejected on theological grounds.

3. The story of the fall of Adam and Eve introduces the notion of cursed space and cursed relationships. The goodness of creation is rooted in the obedient relationship of love between the Creator and the creational stewards who were created in the image of God. Misplaced stewardship — that is, a tending of our creational home as autonomous agents rather than loving stewards subject to the Creative Gardener — breaks the covenantal harmony of creation, displaces the image of God with idolatry and desecrates the sacred goodness of creation.

4. All space is conflicted space. In the shadow of the fall, all of life becomes a site of contest and conflict. Therefore, space also is conflictual, even so-called “sacred” space. We must always ask, therefore, “sacred space for whom?” and who is alienated and marginalized by someone else’s “sacred” space? A good example of this would be the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

5. Reconciliation is “the reconsecration of desecrated space” (from Philip Sheldrake in Spaces for the Sacred).  Since all of creation has been desecrated, the scope of redemption encompasses all of creation. As Paul puts it, “all things” have been created “in, through, and for” Christ, “all things” cohere in Christ, and “all things are reconciled” in Christ (Col. 1.15-20). Further, Sheldrake is right when he says that “a place of reconciliation does not homogenize people or environments but creates space for the diversity of human voices to participate.” He goes on, “Most of all…a space of reconciliation invites all who inhabit it to make space for ‘the other’, to move over socially and spiritually, to make room for those who are unlike, and in that process for everyone to be transformed into something new.” Reconsecrated space is creational space suffused with hospitality.

6. “Sacred spaces” are storied places.  Particular places take on special meaning — either as home or sacred — because of significant events that have taken place there.

7. Storied places are communal places.  Stories are intersubjective and communal, and therefore storied places maintain their meaning (as home or sacred) in relation to the community that inhabits them and imbues them with that meaning.

8. Without incarnate sacrality, there is no sacred space. As homes are broken when families are torn apart through abuse, infidelity and enmity, so also does “sacred” space cease to function sacrally when the community fails to incarnate the sacrality of the space in the dynamics of their communal relations. So then, churches that are sites of sexual abuse, racial prejudice, economic injustice and other sins are no longer sacred spaces.

9. When a “sacred” space becomes alienated from the story that rendered it sacred, that space loses its claim to sacrality. For example, Bethel is deemed a sacred space because there Jacob had his dream of a ladder opening the door between heaven and earth. The place is named Bethel (House of God) because at that place the revelatory presence of God was experienced (Gen. 28). This is the gate of heaven. However, when Bethel becomes a site of idolatry manifest in economic oppression in which the poor are cursed, not blessed, then the story is no longer alive in that space and the space has lost any claim on sacrality. A place remembered as a place of promise, the very gate of heaven, which becomes a site of betrayal, duplicity and deceit is no longer sacred. The gate to heaven has been closed. This was the judgment that Amos pronounced over Bethel.

10. Sacred spaces are places of narrated ultimacy. Spaces are deemed “sacred” when they are sites that focus the life of the community on that which is deemed sacred in their life and communal narrative. Sacrality is here understood to refer to that dimension of ultimacy in human life commonly identified with myth, symbol, ritual and worldview. All human life and all human communities manifest such a dimension of ultimacy which can be described with some phenomenological generality. Therefore, even so-called “secular” people and communities have myths, symbols and rituals that embody a worldview. And, it also follows, that various spaces might well function as sacred in the life of such people or communities regardless of whether they identify them as such. It is possible, then, that places like public monuments (such as the Vietnam Memorial, the Holocaust Museum), cemeteries (including “non-religious” ones), shopping malls, sports facilities, centers for the performing arts and nature reserves can all function sacrally in a secular society.

11. The central site of contested space in the gospels is the Temple. Jesus’ action in the Temple (incorrectly interpreted as a “cleansing”) brought about both his own death and proclaimed an apocalyptic judgment on the Temple (Mt 21.12-17; Mk 11.15-19; Lk 19-45-48; Jn 1.13-22).

12. Sacred space is Jesus space. In his life, Jesus replaces the Temple as the site of revelation, authoritative teaching, forgiveness and healing. Therefore, if there is to be “sacred” space it will be space where reconciliation is happening — that is, where Jesus is. Sacrality, biblically reconceived, is a matter of restored relationships or redemption permeating all of life. Where Jesus heals a leper, a site of uncleanness is made clean. Where Jesus eats at table with sinners and tax collectors, a place of desecration is reconsecrated.

13. The body of Christ is sacred space. The shifting of the locus of sacred space from the Temple to Jesus is extended to encompass the body of believers as the body of Christ. Both the embodied personhood of Christian believers and the body of Christ which is the church are described in the language of temple (1 Cor. 3.16, 6.19; 2 Cor. 6.16; Eph. 2.19-21; 2 Peter 2.4-10). Therefore, if it is true that where Jesus is, there space is resacralized and redeemed, it is also true that where Jesus is embodied in a faithful community, there space is also redeemed.

14. Jesus followers are called to the reconsecration of all space. We could restate the classic formulation of “creation-fall-redemption” as:

All of creation is sacred space.

Sin is the desecration of all space.

The Kingdom of God is reclaiming all space as sacred.

15. Space is reconsecrated when holy things happen in that space. Such holy things could be a shared tear, a moment of wonder, an experience of worship, a tending of creation, an overthrow of oppressive structures, an expression of creativity, a cup of cold water. Therefore, when Christian people — individually and communally — are redemptively present on the shop floor, that space is reconsecrated. Where the body of Christ brings a redemptive voice and presence to the political arena, the arts, architecture, scholarship, medicine and other areas of cultural life, then those cultural spaces, those sites of cultural interaction, are at least partially made sacred. Neighborhoods are sacred spaces not because of episcopal edict or even because of supernatural events; rather they are made sacred when the body of Christ incarnates the redemptive love of God in those places through street parties, social services, ministries of hospitality, environmental clean-up and community-building.

16. The heart of Christian eschatological hope is the reconsecration of all creation. If all of creation is sacred, sin is the desecration of that good and delightful creation, and reconciliation is the reconsecration of desecrated space, then Christian eschatological hope is for the reconsecration of all of creation. This is what the book of Revelation refers to as the new heavens and the new earth. The new earth will not be sacred space because the so-called profane or secular dimensions of life will be erased, but because God will be at-home in that new earth and will dwell with his renewed image-bearers (Rev. 21). For Christians, it is this eschatological vision and hope that animates all of life and seeks the restoration of all space as space where God will be at home.

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