I have found it, the best way to talk about things in the world! Panel discussions! Okay maybe not the absolute best but definitely incredible and brilliant to be a witness to. The second encounter with the sacred spaces discussion that has impacted me took place tonight as Nancy and I attended aforementioned discussion. On the panel sat Matt Jenson of the Torrey Honors program, the theologian of the group, Kristen Irwin professor of the ways of philosophy, John Anderson a teacher in the realm of art and Brent Ridley A chemist from our illustrious science program.
The discussion begins with each panelist giving an ever so brief summary of their thoughts on the topic at hand: sacred spaces. Dr. Jenson starts us off by defining the subject saying that sacred space is “where God makes himself available to us.” Jenson also brings up the ideas of waiting in the means of grace, as presented by John Wesley and the local presence of God versus the Omnipresence of God. Jenson quotes Flannery O’connor who said “Somewhere is better than anywhere” In relation to the need for specific, set aside places in which we encounter God.
Kristen Irwin is the next speaker and she brings ideas to the subject which deal with our bodies as spaces. In worship we take particular postures that are associated with worship, we take communion in a necessarily physical action, we taste and see that the Lord is good. She also brings up the subject of our minds and attitudes and how they affect our experience of the world around us. In looking at the world of physical spaces the importance of our bodies cannot be undermined. She went on to relate that to the experience of the Other, bodies outside of ourselves that are also sacred spaces. She says, referencing Merleau-Ponty, that “if you are truly engaged with them you will see a glimpse of the infinite in them.” Our engagement with others necessarily brings us to a place where we see something in them that we cannot wrap our minds around and are obliged to admit is the infinite.
The discussion about our bodies here, stemming from phenomenology, strongly echoes Kantian ideas about physical experience and the idea of seeing the infinite reminds the listener of the poetry of Blake.
Next, Chemist Brent Ridley speaks. He Discusses two concepts of the experience of God. The first is that of experiencing the being of God, or experiencing him directly as Moses did in the burning bush and in his mountain top experiences. The other is the experience of the action, or residue of God. The second is by far more common among people. We experience the action of God through creation, through other people, and through the church.
Finally, John Anderson takes the floor and talks about what constitutes a sacred place. He says “places are considered sacred because of the story of the place or the history of that place.” Jacob’s renaming of the place where he encounter God imprints that place with the story of the encounter with God in that space. However, as Anderson points out, this raises the question, what if someone does not know the story of a place? Is the place then no longer sacred? Included in Anderson’s discussion were several picture which he used to illustrate his points. Two photographs were of the work of James Turrell who causes the viewer to readjust his view of what he already knows. Is this another way in which we use sacred spaces? as a readjustment of what we have some to see as common?
These things being laid out the discussion ensued in an ever so civil manner and many things were thrown around and connected. I will attempt to deliver a few of my own thoughts, stimulated by this delectable presentation.
One of the main thoughts which was not fleshed out, but which necessarily pervaded the conversation tonight was the idea of objectivity vs. subjectivity. In the discussion of sacred space we see a need for God to create the spaces. What is God’s role in sacred spaces? In the Old Testament God instructed his people to build a physical temple for him but the building of the temple could not cause God to come and dwell in that place, it was his will to come into that holy space, thereby making himself available to his people. Sacred spaces have been defined as those spaces where God makes himself available to man, therefore, we see a need for God to be active in this encounter which takes place. It can be seen from this that it is God’s way to sometimes force himself into the realization of an individual and cause them to have an encounter with God whether or not they intended to do so. However, man also plays a part in the interactions of God with him. It may be argued that all space is sacred, as Dr Lockett suggested in his chapel on this topic, but it is necessary for men to recognize that space as sacred. The panelists agree with professor Irwin as she says that a necessary step to take in cultivating sacred spaces is looking and seeing the gifts that God has given us in the world around us, in the mundane activities and surroundings that we engage with. Anything that we habituate puts us into a routine that is devoid of the shock and awe which we should be experiencing in the different forms of sacred spaces which God allows us. This means, according to Anderson, that we need to re-imagine and adjust our view in sacred spaces to renew our interactions with God. If God has made himself available to men in creation and is characterized by his omnipresence then we should be able to encounter God everywhere which seems to make sacred space objective, however, men encounter God in very subjective ways, depending on their mental state and orientation, where they are in space and time and the different reactions which each person has to the same stimulus.
There are many ways in which a sacred space can come about. It seems as though one key part of sacred spaces is the inability of man to completely define them or pin them down so to speak. This aspect of sacred space seems to be based on the nature of God. Man is no more capable of defining sacred space in all its forms than they are of defining the God who makes himself available in those places. God’s omnipresent nature is not within man’s grasp. However, we are definitely able to see God. He has specifically allowed men to interact with him. There is a reason why he names himself as the father of children and there is a clear purpose in him sending Christ, the tangible, physical interaction of God with man, to the earth. We are meant to interact with God even though we cannot encompass the whole of him. That being said, our encounters with God in sacred spaces are instances of the presences of God within the larger context of his omnipresence. We see God, but we do not see the whole of God, that is impossible.
This discussion also brings up the question of the beautiful and the sublime which is a very complicated topic that I am not qualified to treat of here and was not fully touched in the discussion. However the question was broached as to whether a lawn at Biola could or should produce the same sacred affect as half dome (which Jenson incidentally refferred to as “beauty with an edge”, unintentional pun?). The obvious answer would be no, these don’t produce the same effect in us, why is that? Both subjects are God’s creation. The reason seems to lie in the vastness, and power of half dome combined with the incredible orchestration of nature surrounding it that causes a reaction similar to fear in man. Burke treats this subject in his essay on beauty which discusses the sublime.
One more thought, if a tree was beautiful in the middle of a forrest and no one saw it would it still be beautiful?
These are some more thoughts on sacred spaces which is an ongoing discussion at the university this year and will continue to be a subject of thought with me throughout this school year and hopefully throughout my life. I hope this brief dusting off of the topic has sparked some thoughts in you, my reader and that you will discuss these things as well.