“Brian, Shahla would like to see where we pray.”1
The request wasn’t totally out of the blue. Shahla had been moved to tears a week earlier upon hearing from her friend Janice that our little group of Christians at the University of Toronto had been praying for her.
An Iranian woman who had escaped the violent repression of the Islamic Revolution, Shahla had, like so many Iranian émigrés, abandoned religion. Prayer was a tool of oppression and violence in Iran, and she had found a place of safety in a decidedly secular vision of life.
Nevertheless, she arrived on campus that day, and we walked down the long hallway to the chapel where the Wine Before Breakfast community gathered to worship every Tuesday morning.2 We looked around the space, and she noted how beautiful it was. After a few minutes, I could tell that she was ready to move on.
But before Shahla and Janice left, I asked if they would come down to the chaplain’s office for a moment. I had something to give to Janice. The time in the office was also short, and the two women went on their way.
An hour after they had left, Janice called. “Brian,” she said, “This is pretty amazing. When Shahla and I left the office, she immediately told me of a dream that she had. Shahla takes dreams very seriously and often calls her sister in Iran to help her interpret them.”
Janice told me that the evening before, Shahla had dreamed of visiting our worship space and my office. In the dream, she somehow knew that she was in a sacred space. And more specifically, she knew it was a sacred space that was connected to Jesus. She explained to Janice that she had come to find that space.
But when she arrived, it wasn’t the chapel that resonated with Shahla. As they walked home, she told Janice that when they came into the office that’s when she knew that she’d found the sacred space. This was that place in her dream.
When I share this story with people who have inhabited this campus ministry office over the years, they are astonished by the dream, but not by the sense that that office was sacred space. Even if they have never really thought of the office in those terms, such language immediately resonates.
This was not your ordinary professor’s office. It was a large space with couches and chairs, coffee makers, a fridge and enough plates, mugs, and cutlery to feed a crowd. This was a place of deep conversation, learning, prayer, and Bible study, a place of tears and laughter, lament and celebration, hospitality and safety. It was a place where countless folks have met God, where they were allowed to argue with God and to give voice to their deepest doubts and fears. This had been a place of profound moments of knowing and being known, a place of memory making and storytelling, rooted in the deepest and widest story of all. And from that sacred space, people have gone out to reclaim all space—all places as sacred.
Toward a Liberated Imagination of Sacred Space
I believe that my office at the University of Toronto has been appropriately discerned to be sacred. And yet, I must confess that I am somewhat ambivalent about the very notion of sacred space or the way in which we talk about sacred space or creating sacred space.
If we follow James K. A. Smith and “heuristically employ ‘imagination’ to name a kind of faculty by which we navigate and make sense of our world,” then it is undoubtedly the case that such “making sense” will entail an understanding and manner of relating and distinguishing space.3 For example, if one’s imagination is shaped by the dominant kind of Neoplatonic spirituality that dualistically draws sharp divisions between sacred and secular, holy and profane, heaven and earth, soul and body, the eternal and the temporal, then it wouldn’t be at all surprising that one would experience such a dualistic division between so-called sacred and secular spaces. By these terms, we would have expected Shahla to have experienced the chapel as sacred rather than the office. Indeed, when most of us think of sacred spaces, I am fairly confident that we first think of some sort of church or temple. It is this constriction of the imagination to such dualism that has occasioned my discomfort with much of the language of sacred space.
I come to these issues as a Christian theologian who insists that any discussion of spatiality, if it is to be Christian, needs to be self-consciously and explicitly rooted in a biblical imagination. Furthermore, if I am to affirm the legitimacy of the concept of sacred space, I will be able to do so only by reinterpreting and transforming the notion of sacrality in more holistically biblical terms.
So then, as I continue to think through the issues of sacred space in the Christian tradition, I offer the following series of theses.4
1. A categorical distinction in space between the sacred and profane needs to be rejected. Such a distinction, with its corollaries of grace and nature, eternal and temporal, soul and body, faith and reason, and sacred and secular, is rooted in a Neoplatonic dualism that is alien to biblical faith.5
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—that is, 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.6 Therefore, from the perspective of biblical theology, the distinction between sacred and profane can have no ontological legitimacy. Although I will offer some examples of how some places can function as sacred in human life, we must reject the notion that there is some sort of essential difference between places wherein one kind of space is inherently and essentially sacred while others are inherently profane.
3. Within a biblical cosmology, all of creation is sacred because creation is conceived as nothing less than the temple of God. In his stunning reclamation of a biblical eschatology of creation-centered hope (in contrast to heaven-centric hope), J. Richard Middleton unpacks a biblical “picture of the entire created order . . . as a cosmic temple—a sacred realm for God’s dwelling and rule in which all creatures (human and nonhuman) are called to worship their creator.” This sense of creation as temple is why there is divine resistance to the notion of David building a temple, an earthly house, for God. As Middleton asks, “Why would anyone need to construct a sacred space—a place to worship God—when all space is already sacred?”7
4. 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. Within a temple cosmology, human stewardship is a priestly calling. 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. So rather than projecting an ontological dualism of sacred and secular, a nuanced reading of the creation account in Scripture yields a dynamism of blessing and cursing in the unfolding story of God’s ongoing relationship with fallen humanity, as we are to be redeemed in a new creation.8
5. All space is conflicted space. In the shadow of the fall, all of life becomes a site of contest and conflict. Thus, all space is also a site of conflict, even so-called sacred space. We must always ask, therefore, whomay find a space sacred and who may be alienated and marginalized by someone else’s sacred space? A good example of this would be the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. There, an Islamic shrine is situated on the site of Israel’s Second Temple. By force of history and architecture, it is an Islamic holy place that remains deeply contested within both contemporary Israel and in certain sects of Christianity.
6. The more essentialist the view of sacred space in any given instance, the more intense the conflict. If any particular space is essentially and eternally sacred, then any alteration or threat to that space will appear like nothing less than desecration, occasioning (both literally and metaphorically) holy war. It could be argued, for example, that the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11 consciously targeted the sacred heart of American ideology (economism and imperial militarism) as a direct retaliation for the desecration of holy Islamic lands in the Middle East. Moreover, essentialist understandings of sacred and profane space always have their anthropological corollary. In other words, just as there are sacred and profane spaces, so too are there sacred and profane people. And when those individuals who are deemed to be profane enter into so-called sacred spaces, they are perceived as if they have engaged in an act of desecration.
7. Essentialist understandings of sacred and profane space (and people) necessarily spell the death of hospitality. The unclean, profane other can never be welcomed into a sacred space, as they function as a threat to that very sacrality. One need think only of Jesus at dinner in the house of Simon the Pharisee (see Luke 7:36–49). Simon has hosted a holy meal, prepared with ritually clean hands, modeling the holiness of the sacred practices in the temple and anticipating the very restoration of Israel, and that meal is desecrated by an unclean sinner who could never have been offered hospitality in this house. Jesus, however, recognizes holiness not in space, but in the practice of hospitality that this interloper extends to him through her tears, ointment, and intimacy.9
8. Reconciliation is “the reconsecration of desecrated space.”10 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 NRSV). Furthermore, Philip 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.”11 Reconsecrated space is creational space suffused with hospitality. Indeed, redeemed space always makes room for sinners.
9. Sacred spaces are storied places. Particular places take on special meaning because of the significant events that have taken place there. The campus ministry office in my story was experienced as sacred not because of anything inherent to that basement space but because of the stories that space carried, the deep and welcoming hospitality that was offered there.
10. Storied places are communal places. Stories are intersubjective and communal, and therefore, storied places maintain their meaning in relation to the community that inhabits them and imbues them with that meaning. A space is sacred because it is experienced as such within the shared stories of a community. If a community disbands, or if it is forced to leave that space, the sacrality of that space in that time comes to an end. The best hope, then, is that the space will be opened to new reconsecration by another community, but it is always possible that only deeper desecration will follow.
11. Without embodied 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 as sacred when the community fails to incarnate the sacrality of the space by the dynamics of their communal relations. So then, churches that are sites of sexual abuse, racial prejudice, economic injustice, and other systemic and habitual sins are no longer sacred spaces. But when a community gathers to practice justice and hospitality, to grieve and lament together, to rejoice and delight in each other, all of creation, and their Creator, then the sacred takes flesh and space becomes sacred.
12. When a sacred space becomes alienated from the story that rendered it sacred, that space loses its claim to sacrality. For example, in Genesis 28 Bethel is deemed a sacred space because that is where Jacob has his dream of a ladder opening the door between heaven and earth. The place is named Bethel (“House of God”) because it is a place in which the revelatory presence of God was experienced. However, when Bethel becomes a place of 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, becomes a site of betrayal, duplicity, and deceit; thus, it is no longer sacred. The gate to heaven has been closed. This was the judgment that Amos pronounced over Bethel (see Amos 3:14, 4:4, and 5:5).
13. 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 the life and narrative of the community. 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 that 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.12 It is possible, then, that public monuments (such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial or the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), cemeteries (including nonreligious ones), shopping malls, sports facilities, centers for the performing arts, and nature reserves can all function as sacred in a secular society. Likewise, recalling my sixth thesis, all of these spaces are also contested and can be sites of conflict.
14. The central site of contested space in the Gospels is the temple. Jesus’s action in the temple, often incorrectly interpreted as a cleansing, both brought about his own death and proclaimed an apocalyptic judgment on the temple (see Matt. 21:12–17; Mark 11:15–19; Luke 19:45–48; John 1:13–22). Indeed, there is a tragic irony in the role of the temple in the biblical narrative. While all of creation is the temple of God, when a particular site becomes the focus of worship, the location of the sacred, this so-called sacred space becomes not only the site of the deepest conflict but also a haunt of devils that serves to legitimate imperial repression and violence.
15. 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, it will be space 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.
16. 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 (see 1 Cor. 3:16 and 6:19; 2 Cor. 6.16; Eph. 2:19–21; and 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.
17. Jesus followers are called to the reconsecration of all space. We could restate the classic formulation of creation-fall-redemption as the following:
All of creation is sacred space.
Sin is the desecration of all space.
The kingdom of God is reclaiming all space as sacred.
18. Space is reconsecrated when holy things happen in that space. Such holy things could include a shared tear, a moment of wonder, an experience of worship, a tending of creation, an overthrow of oppressive structures, an expression of creativity, or 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, 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.
19. 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 are 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 God’s renewed image-bearers (see 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.
- The encounter with Shahla is adapted with permission from “A Prayer, A Dream, A Sacred Space,” which was published by Brian Walsh on his blog at Empire Remixed on November 16, 2020, https://empireremixed.com/2020/11/16/a-prayer-a-dream-a-sacred-space/.
- I pastored the Wine Before Breakfast community from 2001 to 2020, within the context of the Christian Reformed campus ministry to the University of Toronto. For more information on this ministry, see http://crc.sa.utoronto.ca/.
- Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013), 19.
- Why theses? Perhaps because I am still exploring the ideas that I present here. I offer this as an initial exploration rather than a fully observed emersion.
- Admittedly, this is a bald and bold statement. J. Richard Middleton and I diagnosed the debilitating impact of such dualism in the history of Christian thought, practice, and spirituality in our first book, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1984). A similar critique of such Platonism is eloquently offered by N. T. Wright in Surprised by Hope (New York, NY: Harper One, 2008). See also Wright’s History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2019), especially chapter 6.
- Likewise, William Cavanaugh writes: “Christian liturgy knows no distinction between sacred and secular, spiritual and material. . . . For the Bible does not know the material as some sort of self-sufficient substrate upon which is overlaid the spiritual” (Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011], 119–20).
- Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 48. For further reflection on this important book see my essay, “Repenting of Heaven,” Empire Remixed, June 4, 2015, https://empireremixed.com/2015/06/04/repenting-of-heaven/.
- Thanks to The Other Journal editor Preston Hill for this formulation.
- I discuss this passage at greater length in “An Ethos of Compassion and the Integrity of Creation: Setting the Table,” in An Ethos of Compassion and the Integrity of Creation, ed. Brian J. Walsh, Hendrik Hart, and Robert VanderVennen (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1995), 17–32.
- Philip Sheldrake, Spaces for the Sacred: Place, Memory and Identity (London: SCM, 2001), 168.
- Sheldrake, Spaces for the Sacred, 168.
- See James K. A. Smith’s analysis of cultural liturgies in Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009).