Is Sacredness in the Eye of the Beholder? A Thought Experiment on the Sacredness of Space

When I visit a new city, I almost always visit one of its prominent churches. For this, I am no exception: A lot of people, non-Christians and Christians alike, like to visit churches, for instance while on vacation. Although most official church members are not regular churchgoers anymore, they nevertheless feel attracted to church buildings.This attraction often lies in the art-historical as well as architectural quality of the church building, and also in its specific atmosphere.1

On Defining the Sacred

Discussions on what can be defined as sacred are as old as the field of Religionswissenschaft/Religious Studies itself is. Almost every self-respecting scholar of religion occupies themselves with the endeavor to define what sacredness entails, and subsequently fails to a greater or lesser extent. Most definitions seem to function fine within specific contexts and for specific purposes, but may prove useless in other contexts. The pragmatic solution, defining what sacredness is in a working definition may be a workable solution, it is, however, in most cases unsatisfactory. What is satisfactory, is the fact that just the mere attempt to define what such an abstract concept as the sacred constitutes can be helpful in getting a more profound grasp on actual, concrete religious phenomena. To give an example: If one were to be asked what a sacred space is, most people would immediately get a mental picture in mind, probably influenced by the social and cultural context they were socialized in. This mental image could be a mosque, a roman-catholic church, a forest, and so on. But here the difficulty starts: Depending on whom you ask certain spaces and places may be ruled out or, contrary, every space is considered sacred and hence, there is no object of study anymore.

What is Sacred to Whom?

Protesting against the deconsecration and destruction of the church of St. Johann (image: kdw)

Another complicating factor is that general assumptions on what may be regarded as a sacred space in certain religious traditions, do not seem to uphold anymore. Specifically, the spatial turn has made us more aware that simple dichotomies such as domus dei and domus ecclesiae2: temple or meeting house; are categories that are in most cases not helpful anymore, since such a division is not intricate enough. Whereas historically, and even for most common people nowadays as well, a Lutheran church would be considered a space as any other, the fact of the matter is that at least during church services, such a space is indeed considered sacred by some of the worshippers. In contrast, it is often assumed that roman-catholic churches are sacred spaces to all adherents of this tradition. It is, however, an interesting fact that the act of deconsecration of a roman-catholic church building does not lead to the consequence that such a building is, in the eyes of those people that have a history with the building, not sacred anymore. After deconsecration, nevertheless, the church building may not be used for any means, but the new function still has to be an “appropriate” use of the building. If a new use is deemed inappropriate the preferred, yet ultimate “solution” is to demolish the church.3 The art historian Carola Jäggi speaks in the German context even of a “‘catholicization’ of the protestant church building conception, and a ‘protestantization’ of the catholic church building conception.”4 In other Christian confessions there are all kinds of variations within and between confessions on the sacrality of their respective liturgical spaces.

Protesting against the destruction of the church of St. Johann (image: kdw)

The Sacred Synagogue?

If we broaden the scope somewhat more to other religious traditions such as Judaism or Islam, two religions which also consist of manifold different traditions and theologies, which all have different perceptions on which spaces are considered sacred or not and to which extent, the situation becomes even more complicated. Besides constructed spaces for worship there are also natural sacred spaces such as mountains. Here I will restrict myself to Judaism and will only address those spaces that are specifically constructed for worship practices. The temple in Jerusalem is generally considered the sacred space par excellence for the Jewish people. Synagogues are often regarded as more or less multifunctional spaces that fulfil worship purposes as well as other purposes such as education. The meaning of the word “synagogue” is derived from Hebrew (beit ha-knesset) and means “assembly building”. It was by no means just a substitute for the loss of the temple or just an assembly building, but had a right on its own even during the existence of the temple.5 Certain liturgical temple functions such as the blowing of the shofar, the priestly blessing, or praying at certain times similar to those in the temple, are now performed in the synagogue. The Jewish philosopher Philo from the 1st century AD describes the early synagogues (Synagogai) as sacred places (hierous … topous). The reason for this sacredness is the presence of the Torah in the synagogue as well as the study of the Torah that takes place within the synagogue.6 This short description of the sacredness of the synagogue makes clear that even though, in contrast to the temple, usually synagogues are not considered sacred spaces, they may well be considered sacred for some people because of the objects they inhabit or the functions they fulfil.

Sacred or Not-Sacred: That is the Question

The institutional and textual self-definition and regulations of religious traditions may state which spaces under which circumstances may be considered sacred or not (anymore), the diverse people that make use of and/or have an appreciation for these spaces may have another take on the matter. If a church is deconsecrated this does not mean that the people who have worshipped there will accept it as a non-sacred space. Several reasons, such as having a biographical history with the space, may very well lead to a different view on what sacredness means. For scholars of religion it is necessary to be aware of the fact that one may on the one hand study the history, rules and regulations stipulated by religious institutions, or on the other hand empirically the way in which worshippers and others may define the object under study, a definite answer will not be likely to arise. Nevertheless, studying the question which space may be considered sacred in a comparative manner is one of the most time-consuming but rewarding questions a scholar of religion may ask.

KDW

  1. Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach. 2009. Reaktion der Bevölkerung auf die Umwidmung von Sakralbauten. https://www.ifdallensbach.de/uploads/tx_studies/7442_Sakralbauten.pdf (accessed: 18 November 2019); Martin Radermacher, „Atmosphäre“: Zum Potenzial eines Konzepts für die Religionswissenschaft: ein Forschungsüberblick. In: Zeitschrift für Religionswissenschaft (26/1), 2018, 142–194. []
  2. Harold W. Turner. From Temple to Meeting House. The Phenomenology and Theology of Places of Worship. The Hague 1979. []
  3. Kim de Wildt/Robert J.J.M. Plum, Kirchenumnutzung. In: Michael Klöcker/Udo Tworuschka (eds.). Handbuch der Religionen. Kirchen und andere Glaubensgemeinschaften in Deutschland und im deutschsprachigen Raum, Band 2. 60. Ergänzungslieferung. Hohenwarsleben: Westarp Science – Fachverlage 2019, 1-30, here: 11-13 []
  4. Carola Jäggi: „Heilige Räume“. Architektur und Sakralität – Geschichte einer Zuschreibung. In: Angelika Nollert/Matthias Volkenandt/ Rut-Maria Gollan/Eckhard Frick (eds.). Kirchenbauten in der Gegenwart. Architektur zwischen Sakralität und sozialer Wirklichkeit, Regensburg 2011, 23–30, here: 27. []
  5. Lawrence H. Schiffman. Foreword. The Ancient Synagogue and the History of Judaism. In: Steven Fine (ed.). Sacred Realm. The Emergence of the Synagogue in the Ancient World. Oxford 1996, xxvii–xxix, here: xxvii–xxviii. []
  6. Steven Fine. From Meeting House to Sacred Realm. Holiness and the Ancient Synagogue. In: ibid., 21–47, here: 23, 27. []

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