In Defense of Substantive Sacred Space

the digital cathedralBy Matthew White, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

In The Digital Cathedral, Keith Anderson employs the cathedral concept as a metaphor for a more expansive understanding of church and sacred space – both real and digital – in the twenty-first century.  While Anderson is right to lament the fact that the church “has, in many ways, closed in on itself” (4) and to argue for a broader vision, his program for the future of Christianity ignores the importance of maintaining unique sacred spaces in a physical sense – what I call “Sabbath places.”  If these vanish, aspects of Christian fellowship, community, or ethics might continue in a fragmented way, but something essential to Christianity will be permanently lost.  After all, Canterbury Cathedral, a central part of the historical grounding for his book, relied on a self-contained and intensive monastic community to enable and maintain its extensive mission (as he himself notes – 19).  We would do well to remember this paradox as we work to revitalize the contemporary church.

Anderson’s text could be critiqued on a number of grounds relating to ecclesiology, but here I will focus on the question of sacred space.  Anderson explicitly embraces an idea of “situational” rather than “substantive” sacred spaces (like traditional churches).  Without disputing many of Anderson’s undoubtedly insightful perspectives about expanding our understanding of church, I cannot embrace his overall project of the digital cathedral, especially the idea that almost any secular space can be repurposed at will to serve as a “third place” for most human beings – and most centrally his apparent feeling that transformed secular spaces are more valuable and meaningful than substantive sacred spaces.

As I am sure Anderson would agree, human experience of the sacred, like every other experience, is an embodied one, touching on geography as well as the human and cultural context.  This is why people make pilgrimages to specific buildings and geographical sites.  I can pray, theologize, and even worship in a retail establishment, and I quite possibly should, but that doesn’t turn a pub or coffeehouse into a place of pilgrimage, because they are too overladen with other cultural associations – not to mention that this would turn Christianity purely into an adjunct of the marketplace, fully realizing Marx’s worst fears about religion.

The power of the market in the postmodern age is so intense that a project of “sacralization” can easily turn into one of accommodation.  My experience of the secular world of advanced capitalism is largely an experience of being instrumentalized, being turned into a thing to produce and consume, being alienated from myself.  I don’t reject the notion that Christianity should challenge that in its own arena, but it also should provide places of refuge, where we can refresh for the struggle, even for a time: a Sabbath place, in other words, though not necessarily having anything to do with Sunday in particular.

The human tendency toward pilgrimage indicates that we look for something profoundly other to the secular spaces we inhabit, even as we engage in practices that do try to sacralize that secular world as well.  Perhaps a problem with church is the opposite of what Anderson seems to think; perhaps the problem is that we have made it too domesticated, too comfortable, too similar to the surrounding cultural milieu.  Perhaps people are “spiritual and not religious” because the “spiritual” seems to retain some mystery that “religion” has given up.

Jesus was by no means indifferent to the profundity of geography and sacred space.  Certainly he never spoke about church buildings, but if substantive sacred spaces were not important to him, how do we explain the rage reflected in the “cleansing of the temple” found in all four Gospel accounts?  In Luke 4, Jesus chose a different kind of “substantive” sacred space – a local synagogue – to proclaim his message of good news to the poor and freedom to prisoners.  Immediately before this he had been wandering in the wilderness, and he moved directly to preaching “in their synagogues” (4:15), which were substantive (if alternative) sacred loci in his time and culture – showing just how much respect he had for such sacred space.  Indeed, it is only the Gospel of John that seems dissonant with this message, with a kind of docetic, superhuman Jesus promising that people will no longer worship in or around sacred spaces but rather “in spirit and in truth.”

Docetism, disembodiment – these have always been dangers in the proclamation of the Christian message, and the loss of substantive sacred space is just one more manifestation of such dangers. I agree with Anderson that we need to bring the sacred into the city and into the countryside.  But, like Jesus, we need to have respect for the role of the temple as well.  I hope my future ministry can embrace a both/and approach to Christian life and experience.

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