Cities are places of concentration, of swimming in a great river of humanity, of chance meetings and sometimes of discomforting jumbles. As more of us in the world live in cities, we are spending more time with “strangers,” people we don’t quite know … yet. Mark Twain once pointed out that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness… ” but he could have been writing about living in a city. In such urban places the sacred is compressed, and we often find the “strangely spiritual,” as we might call it, right next to us. These are the beliefs, faiths, and passions that we might not share, or even recognize. How do we occupy the same space, believers and non-believers alike?
The question came up in a slightly different context in a recent article by Ken Gallinger, who writes a column on ethics for the Toronto Star. A reader wrote to Gallinger asking how you should behave in a sacred place that is not sacred to you (http://bit.ly/gallinger). Must you remove your hat, for instance, if that is the custom in this religious culture? Gallinger counseled that you should, out of respect for the community of believers, not necessarily because you share their beliefs. He went on to describe the often queasy feeling he has in religious monuments such as St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, “gilt-encrusted” and “guilt-encrusted,” where lavish decoration seems an attempt to cover over the sins of those who built these holy palaces, sometimes using questionable means, such as slave labor or ill-gotten gains. Do the sins of the clients, architects, and builders make a place less holy?
I put such questions to the Faith & Form LinkedIn group (http://bit.ly/ff-linkedin) for comment. Carl Trimble, a glass artist, replied that visitors need to recognize that it is the community of believers that makes a place holy, not necessarily the art and architecture, and that the place of gathering should be respected for the community’s beliefs. Writer Ken Caldwell added, however, that when any religious institution is guilty of a sin against humanity, it should be protested—loudly—even in the sacred space. Reverend Christopher Smith further addressed the very nature of what makes a place sacred—our actions, its history, God’s actions, a relationship? “Can these be perfect?” he questioned.
Andrew Gingerich, a planner and designer, considered the question from his Mennonite background. The settings for worship that he grew up in were often not only paid for but physically built by the congregation—investing them with a sacredness through generosity, human action, and love. These were not ornate structures, especially when compared to cathedrals, the fine materials and craft of which can make them seem alien today.
“For me,” Gingerich wrote, “the problem is that for many, these structures are seen as coming from another world, as if they descended from heaven and landed on the ground, not to be violated or questioned. In truth, they are human structures, with human histories. They need redeeming in the same way all of our built places need redeeming. Have they been redeemed? If no, what would redeem them? Not a question I can answer.”
Human structures with human histories, and to them we bring our own experiences, questions, and prejudices. The world’s growing urban condition brings us closer to those with different spiritual lives, often lived within institutions with clouded histories, beneath roofs sometimes raised under dubious circumstances. How do we respond?Michael J. Crosbie is the Editor-in-Chief of Faith & Form and can be reached by email at [email protected]