Prelude: Reader, my intention is to “return” to my original idea of discussing the intersection of “the city” and religion. This is the first in a series of articles addressing that topic and, accordingly, is written as an introduction to some of my subsequent thoughts. Unlike the words of Christ, I cannot claim “it is finished” but instead “it is beginning.” Bear with me, please?
In college, I thought of becoming an architect. Does that surprise you, I wonder? As I have noted elsewhere, my mother raised me with an appreciation for art and though she and I have not always agreed on our tastes (ex: I like VanGogh, she likes Picasso) or expressions (ex: I “geek out” over experimental design and architecture while she, to my mind, prefers the Tudor) she continued to encourage my pursuits.
But, Reader, with a heavy sigh I remind you that I did not become an architect. My spatial abilities are expressed in other, less lucrative ways via ideas and systematic thinking. The skill is noteworthy among Futurists and is noted, to an extent among those with the ability to recall sports stats. In other words, the merits are dubious as they are neither productively tangible nor possessed by extroverts (exceptions: Steve Jobs was a futurist and Marvel Comics has positioned Tony Stark/ Iron Man as something between human and “mutant” for possessing these qualities, though I remind you Tony Stark/ Iron Man is fictional). Nevertheless, here I am, a man with a penchant for noting good, sound architecture and the the psycho-spiritual elements intrinsic to space design. A “nerd” perhaps but here we are.
Lately, I have been ruminating over the absence of attention regarding how architecture & environment create spiritual space or “space that is spiritual.” How is it that I can walk into a voodoo shop in the French Quarter and feel… something is different without knowing what or why? How can I hike one of the mountains in Los Angeles County and feel refreshed? Feel antsy but calm in a doctor’s waiting area? Or impatient and anything but spiritual in a humid sanctuary? All of these are examples of what I am getting at with space design. We take on qualities and emotions from our contextual setting and those who are of a religious persuasion would do well to understand how environment can invite the holy and how the holy is always inviting space.
Lest anyone think, namely my Evangelical neighbors, that I am far afield here, I would recall for you that the Torah (that is, from the outset of the triumvirate faiths) great pains are taken to commemorate the sacredness of first the tabernacle of Moses, then later the temple of David, and still later affirm the holiness held by the Maccabbees in the books of their name. Further, there are the visions of both Ezekiel and John the Revelator which lend hyper-spiritual tones to understanding the transcendent and ineffable palace of G-d, describing what it would (approximately) look like. Not only are these examples manifest, but Jesus will draw a parallel between the temple of his time (the Herodian temple) and his own body as part of an ongoing discussion among Jews and Christians alike from the First through Third centuries of where “holy places” could be if not within the walls of the temple (i.e. the synagogue, catacombs, the body, etcetera).
This genre of biblical studies, sacred space, took up a significant part of my masters thesis in literature and so if religious literature isn’t your bag, it is nothing more than a twitch of the eye for me to turn to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and point you to Hogwarts “awakening” or even the forests of Forks, WA in the Twilight series. Pop culture is laced with these ideas, whether we recognize them or not, and our culture is predisposed (thank God!) to subliminally indoctrinate a new generation to pay attention to where they are standing and sitting.
Space, my dears, is always alive and predates us. I cannot say this strongly enough. The Earth predates civilization by several ages, and we would do well to respect our “elder.”
Dr. Ron Boyce, retired prof. of Geography at Seattle Pacific Univ. puts forward six “layers” or ways of understanding cities and cityscape. A seventh is added here, which may initially seem to fall under the second lens (the “sacred”) but I will tease these out in my next article:
- Temporal Perspective – Changing nature of cities and empires over time; diffusion over time and space; model cities in history.
- Relevant discipline: History.
- Sacred Perspective – Temples, churches, mosques, sacred monuments; symbols of centrality and ethnocentricity; sacred nature of city sites.
- Relevant disciplines: Religion, and
- Security Perspective – Walls, gates, fortification, soldiers; strategically protected locations; law and order; empires, institutions, etc.; emphasis on “progress”-invention.
- Relevant disciplines: Political Science,
- Military Science,
- Urban Planning, and
- Economic Perspective – Markets, money, banks, exchange features; commerce, trade, and transportation; manufacturing; promotion of tourism to gain money.
- Relevant disciplines: Economics,
- Geography, and
- Political Science.
- Spatial Perspective – Pattern of cities; Intra-urban spatial display; sites of cities; vertical vs. horizontal dimension balance.
- Relevant disciplines: Geography,
- Urban Planning, and
- Social Perspective – Classes of people; community and governance-laws; monumental works of society; institutions-education, social, etc.; inter-personal and anonymous relationships.
- Relevant disciplines: Sociology,
- Political Science, and
- Theological Perspective – Theological understanding of cities based upon Scripture; understanding God’s intent and plan for the city; a biblical rationale for the city and engagement within.
- Relevant discipline: Theology.
These “layers” help us better understand the cityscape we find ourselves inhabiting. Most religious conversation of location, when it is had at all, focuses on the Sacred, Social, and Theological elements instead of how these seven points intersect. I would counter those conversations, reasoning that holistic understanding is always best.
The Sacred and Social most of us “get” or understand, but the reality is that the third, the Theological, is one of the most underdeveloped lenses. Many people of faith go through life and are connected to a local congregation yet do not possess a theological understanding of the city. Or even their sanctuaries. These spaces are taken for granted, really, as a cosmopolis of leisure. Like a whore, she is “already ready” and we need not pay her much mind until we have use of her by way of where such-and-such a place is located or which route to take for our personal satisfaction and convenience of pleasure. Even those of us in religious education have little exposure to the Theological Perspective. We are caught, choosing between polarities where “the city” is either tantamount to Babylon (and thus evil/ always wrong) or Heaven (and thus good / always right). Instead of a challenge or threat, I see possibility for adventure. What the tension reveals to me is the need for those of a religious persuasion to engage in all layers of understanding. To engage with their landscape and terrain, their buildings and highways, to fully enjoy the “dominion” we are said to have.
I propose, instead of a forced polarity, that we are in-between the Babylon of Genesis and the Heaven of Revelation. We find ourselves in the middle of the story, perhaps against our will but ah! here we are anyway.
In saying this, I am also saying that the divine is at work in all layers of life and we must pause to wonder if (and where) we are in agreement.