Displacement as a Condition of Faith

Volume 51, Issue 2, Michael J. Crosbie

The recent annual symposium of the Architecture, Culture, and Spirituality Forum (acsforum.org) in Coral Gables, Florida, focused on the topic of “Displacement and Architecture.” For me, this theme called into question the assumption that people of faith find solace from a profane word in sacred places where believers can find a spiritual home. In fact, many have argued that the condition of genuine religious belief is one of “displacement,” that spiritually the believer is not of this world, focused ultimately beyond earthly concerns. And if this so, how might religious architecture reflect this displacement?

The rabbi and Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel did not view space as sacred; rather, time is sacred. He made the distinction that space is in the realm of human “things” that can be created and destroyed. But time is a divine dimension, controlled only by the deity. In his landmark book, The Sabbath, Heschel wrote: “Monuments of stone are destined to disappear; days of spirit never pass away.” In other writings, Heschel cautions 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…”

Another perspective on this spiritual displacement is offered by the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan (one of the founders of “humanistic geography”) who articulates a distinction between human place making (which concerns geography) and religion (not of a place, in his view). Tuan writes 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.”

The idea of a church building not necessarily being a “sacred place,” but instead a secular realm of displacement for people of belief, is most vividly seen in the writings and architecture of Edward Anders Sövik (who Mark Torgerson profiles in this issue). Sövik designed mostly Protestant churches and wrote extensively about church design and its liturgical underpinnings. His view was that 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 secular places, not imbued with “holiness”; they should be open to the community in which they are built, serving their needs.

Sövik argued that early Christianity lost its way under Emperor Constantine, when the idea of “sacred place” became more important. In his seminal book, Architecture for Worship, Sövik writes that in the 3rd century, the Roman Empire had a variety of religions with a multitude of deities, each with their own shrines, temples, altars, and holy places. But Christians, says Sövik, “saw themselves uniquely as a community of faith unattached to any place,” because followers of Christ are not of this world. Their spiritual home lies elsewhere.

For Sövik, religious buildings should not be considered “sacred” but rather fully secular in character, offered to our communities for purposes other than worship. Today, the nature of sacred space is changing as more people choose secular settings in which to share fellowship and live out their religious beliefs. The “displacement” of their faith propels them to create way stations of compassion on their spiritual journeys “home.”

Michael J. Crosbie is the Editor-in-Chief of Faith & Form and can be reached by email at mcrosbie@faithandform.com

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