Displacement As A Condition Of Spiritual Faith:
Four Perspectives Michael J. Crosbie
Published in 2A Magazine Issue #45 – Summer 2020
Works of sacred architecture across millennia have often been described as “Houses of God”-“sacred” or “holy places in the context of a profane world, and within which the adherents of a faith can find spiritual respite in a heaven-sent home. However, others argue that the idea of a welcoming place for faith runs counter to the actual experience of people who view themselves living in a world that rejects the spiritual life or seeks to corrupt it. This perspective suggests that the human condition of genuine spirituality is actually one of “displacement”: that the believer is in this world but not of it, and that the focus of spiritual faith is ultimately outside this world, disassociated with earthly concerns. Aligning this condition with the creation of places for the sacred, how might religious architecture reflect the spiritual experiences of displacement? This article explores the idea of displacement or “placelessness” as a condition of authentic spiritual belief, and argues that space conceived as “holy” or “sacred” in and of this world is perhaps a chimera. Four perspectives on the idea of “spiritual displacement” are explored through the work of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, religious historian Mircea Eliade, cultural geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, and architect Edward Anders Sövik.
As a rabbi and Jewish theologian, Abraham Heschel does not view space as sacred; rather, time is sacred. He makes the critical observation that space is in the realm of human “things,” it can be created and destroyed. But time is a divine dimension controlled only by the deity. In his landmark work, The Sabbath, Heschel observes that, “Monuments of stone are destined to disappear; days of spirit never pass away.” He also notes the historical displacement of Jews in the world: “We do not feel at home in the world,” he comments. “With the psalmist we pray, ‘I am a stranger on earth, hide not Thy commandments from me.’ Heschel borrows an architectural metaphor in describing this sense of displacement. He quotes Rabbi Jacob from the Pirke Aboth: “The world is like a vestibule before the world to come; prepare yourself in the vestibule, so that you may enter the banquet hall.” In other writings, Heschel observes that space is alien to human spirituality, while time offers its own sanctity: “Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events rather than to sacred places, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals …”
An historian of religion, Mircea Eliade in his landmark book, The Sacred and Profane, describes the creation of the world as the result of the gods making order out of chaos, people with religious beliefs replicate the work of the gods when they create sacred places. However, Eliade also considers the sacredness of time, not only space, as a portal through which humans can share in the work of the gods and make themselves anew. Eliade explains that “religious man” engages in a form of time travel back to the moment when the world was first made, and that this recall of the moment of creation is the basis of all sacred calendars. “The festival is not merely the commemoration of a mythical (and hence, religious) event,” writes Eliade, “it reactualizes the event.” For Eliade, this reactualization achieved through commemorations in time allows human beings to get closer to God, occupying a moment at the beginning of the world. This essentially displaces religious people outside the everyday world, which ultimately is not their spiritual home. One of the founders of “humanistic geography,” geographer Yi-Fu Tuan articulates a distinction between human place making (geography) and religion (which, in his view, is not of a place). He argues that, for the “true followers” of Buddha, Moses, and Christ, “the shift from place to placelessness is not a cause for regret; for them the true home for human beings is never a geographical place-a holy city or mountain-somewhere on Earth. It is always elsewhere.” Tuan explains that early Christians were people of the way or people of the road’; that is, drifters.” Roman patriarchs referred to Christians derogatorily as peregrinus or pilgrims, a word by which was meant “‘wayfarer, bird of passage, foreigner, or resident alien.” But to the early Christians, Tuan writes, the word “pilgrim” was interpreted differently: “They were ‘strangers and pilgrims on the earth’ (Hebrews 11:13] who willingly took on the label ‘wayfarer’ or ‘resident alien’ because, to them, their true home was in heaven (Philippians 3:20].” The idea of a church building not necessarily being a
sacred place” is most vividly seen in the writing and architecture of Edward Anders Sövik, an architect whose practice was based in the Midwest United States, but who gained national stature. Active from the mid-20th-century up through the 1970s, Sövik designed mostly Protestant churches and wrote extensively about church design and its liturgical underpinnings. He observed that churches are not “sacred”; to believe so undermines the true mission of the Church, as he sees it. Sovik’s view, based in Protestant belief, is that religious faith is not expressed through ecclesiastical architecture, but rather by how one lives out his or her religious beliefs. To Sövik, church buildings should be properly considered “secular places, not imbued with “holiness”, they should serve the needs of the community in which they are built and should be viewed as secular in nature.
Sövik argued that early Christianity lost its way under Emperor Constantine, when the idea of a “sacred place” became more important. In his seminal book, Architecture for Worship, Sövik writes that in the Third Century, CE, “In a Roman Empire where a great variety of religions existed and a multitude of deities, each with its shrines, temples, altars, and holy places, the Christians saw themselves uniquely as a community of faith unattached to any place italics in the original). Sövik viewed Christians as a faith community displaced in this world, because followers of Christ are not of this world. Their spiritual home lies elsewhere. Sövik advanced his concept of the “Non-Church,” his term for a new kind of “religious” architecture that should not be considered “sacred” and should freely serve secular community needs. Sövik writes: “… our places of Worship must not be conceived of as distinctive ‘holy places as are most of those we know and have been building, but should be fully secular in character. They should not be seen exclusively or specifically as places of Worship but should be offered to our communities for purposes other than worship. They should be so designed as to be very flexible … because the commitment of these spaces to events other than worship requires it.” Sövik strongly expressed his belief that even the architectural expression of the Non-Church be secular: “A church building should not look like a church.” Each of these four men-Heschel, Eliade, Tuan, Sövik-see the concept of “sacred place as counter to the spiritual condition of genuine religious belief. They contend (each from his own perspective) how people of the spirit are ultimately displaced, refugees in this world of earthly concerns, faithfully awaiting their true spiritual home in the next.