GREENING GOD’S HOUSE Connections between Theology, Ecology, and Architecture 

By Michael J. Crosbie, Ph.D., AIA

Michael J. Crosbie, Ph.D., AIA, is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Architecture at the University of Hartford. He is the editor-in-chief of Faith & Form: The Interfaith Journal on Religion, Art, and Architecture. The author of more than 15 books and hundreds of articles on architecture, design, and practice, Dr. Crosbie is a frequent contributor to international print and internet publications. He is also a registered architect.

Among architects, planners, designers, artists, and others with a hand in shaping the built environment, sustainability has become a rallying cry. In academia, the profession, and the critical commons, the environmental impact of our design decisions is now a focus and a passion. There are many reasons to be green: you can reduce your carbon footprint, save money at the gas pump, spare a tree, preserve an endangered species. All of these are good reasons, but these and many more are reactionary. All are attempts to mend the mess we’ve made of the planet.
However, the impetus for sustainability in communities of faith is not reactionary. For faith communities around the world, the green impulse is a direct expression of their embrace of God’s creation. The decision to be green is simply not a matter of choice for many, but rather an integral part of their religious beliefs. Pope John Paul II posited that our environmental crisis is also a spiritual crisis: two sides of the same coin, recognition that we are stewards of this creation, that sustainability is a form of praise.
Architecture that is spiritual does not necessarily need to be devoted to religious purposes. In fact, many of our contemporary religious buildings lack spirituality. They do not invite us to a higher plane. Evidence of architectural spirituality can be found in a museum, a retreat in the woods, or in the depths of a library. A spiritual dimension is often found in architecture that has a sense of timelessness—natural materials and natural light: these are just two of the most important tools used by architects to create buildings that invite us to leave our daily lives behind and to reside (if only for a short time) in the realm of the ethereal. Spiritual architecture is the architecture of the sublime.
Spirituality and sustainability appear to be mutually supportive elements in architecture today. In fact, sustainability is nurtured by spiritual architecture’s very fabric. Natural materials promote sustainability by lessening the amount of energy expended to produce and finish them. In the grain of wood, in the swirling patterns of stone heaved up from the earth, in these and other products of God’s own creation, we see the evidence of the maker. Natural light saves energy—which makes it a sustainable choice. But it also gives architecture something else. The sun’s changing pattern on walls and floors, the evidence of the passage of the day that plays upon architecture’s surface, or a room bathed in the light of the moon, all locate us on the face of the earth, imparting a cosmology in which architecture plays a part. Most importantly, spirituality in architecture conveys a sense of “place” that is more than just “space.” Space is location. Place is location with meaning.

Thus, it is not surprising that many religious communities are finding ways to express their spirituality through sustainability. Renewal, a documentary film produced by Marty Ostrow and Terry Kay Rockefeller, tells the story of religious communities all across the U.S. that are supporting sustainability by living their faith. A Christian congregation in New Jersey discovers that by working with GreenFaith, an environmental coalition, for very little cost they can install a photovoltaic system on the roof of their church to generate their own electricity. This same congregation spent an afternoon sorting through a week’s worth of trash to understand how better to recycle, and how, by making sustainable choices, to reduce their waste footprint.
A community of Buddhists in San Francisco, Green Sangha (which means community in Sanskrit) strives to save trees by promoting the use of recycled paper. One of their projects is to convince magazines to use it (less than 1 percent of the nation’s 18,000 magazines do so). Members of the group meditate together to hone their interactions with those they wish to persuade through non-confrontational techniques.
Interfaith Power and Light is active in 20 states across the U.S. to help congregations reduce their use of nonrenewabl fuels and increase the use of renewable energy sources. A segment of Renewal profiles this national and shows how it works to lobby Congress for reforms that promote energy conservation to lessen pollution and address climate change.
One of the most surprising profiles in the film is of a wide-ranging group of Evangelical Christians who are now working together in Kentucky and West Virginia to stop mountain top removal, which literally takes off the heads of Appalachian Mountains to extract coal for power plants. The result is nothing less than the rape of the land, devastation of the mountains, erosion, and the pollution of rivers and streams. Though Evangelicals may be among the last to engage in the environmental debate, many now see the connections between faith and environmentalism.
In Illinois, a Muslim organization, Taqwa, works with local farmers to create a market for organically grown vegetables, meat, and poultry. Taqwa supplies mosques and Muslim communities with food raised in accordance with religious guidelines on the humane treatment of animals. This food is also nutritionally superior.
At the Dar al Islam Abiquiu in New Mexico, the late Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy worked with that community to harmoniously nestle its new educational campus into the desert landscape and to use traditional adobe construction to build the walls and domes of this environmentally well adapted place. Today, this project is imbued with a very modest sense of genuine sustainability and spirituality.1

There are scriptural precedents as well for communities of faith choosing to practice a green theology. Ellen Davis, a Biblical scholar at Duke University Divinity School, has written about the connection between the sacred places we building within the larger context of God’s creation. Davis notes that the Bible offers detailed descriptions of only two construction projects, both of which are for worship: the portable Tabernacle erected during the years of wandering in the wilderness and Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Davis posits that if these Old Testament writers were interested in the creation of sacred space, “beyond all other forms of material or cultural production,” it is because “they understood that a place for worship is not like other things that people design and create. In a very real way, a sanctuary has a kind of creative capacity of its own. Specifically, it has the capacity to shape the people who spend time there, to form us as believers.”2 The sanctuary itself, notes Davis, “deepens religious experience and insight. The physical space we inhabit as worshippers may itself contribute to our awareness of new possibilities for living in the presence and to the glory of God.”3
Drawing from the works of religious philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Davis notes that “sacred art depends upon sacred science.”4 What does this mean for people of faith?

Davis observes that, “when religious architecture is actually practiced as a sacred art, it elevates our hearts and minds toward God and at the same time roots us in the created order. Through stone, brick, wood, glass, and space, religious architecture articulates a holy knowledge of the world that is, properly speaking, ecological.”5
Congregations across all denominations in North America are now planning and building religious environments that reflect their beliefs in earth stewardship as an expression of their faith. This article considers three projects: St. Gabriel’s Church in Toronto, Ontario, Canada; The Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation synagogue in Evanston, Illinois, USA; and the Ecumenical Campus planning project in Seattle, Washington, USA.

Church of St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin
The eco-theology of Father Thomas Berry and his belief that people of faith must work towards establishing a mutually enhancing, human-earth relationship is the inspiration for the design of St. Gabriel’s Church in Toronto, which earned a LEED Gold certification shortly after its completion. The church was designed by Roberto Chiotti of Larkin Architect Limited, and it responds to the ecological imperative in a tangible, realistic, and meaningful way that defines a new typology for Christian worship.6 According to Father Paul Cusack, C.P., Pastor at St. Gabriel’s, “our primary motivation was to establish a link between the sacredness of the gathered community of faith and the sacredness of the Earth.”7 According to the architect, “St. Gabriel’s is designed to emphasize that when we gather to worship, we do so within the greater context of creation.”8