The Trouble with Those S Words

Volume 46, Issue 1

Several months ago Michael J. Crosbie wrote an editorial in these pages (Vol. 45, No. 1, p. 4) describing his thoughts on a panel discussion that Karla Britton and I had organized, titled “Space, the Sacred and the Imagination.” Crosbie noted the fact that among the panelists several seemed “…uncomfortable with the very word sacred, freighted as it is with requirements of belief….” He also accurately noted that instead of a discussion of the sacred per se, the discussants veered toward a less precise–and perhaps a more comfortable–arena using such words as immeasurable, ineffable, or void, among others.

Crosbie speculated, “…the discomfort of many architects, artists, and academics in using the former S word could be a symptom of their own disbelief or uncertainty.” In so doing they are kept distant from the very why of such places and distant also from the sense of awe that lies both behind belief and behind a more profound engagement of that same forementioned immeasurability, ineffability, and the mysteries they imply.

This is where I might take some issue.

The hesitance to use the word sacred is not entirely–or in my view, even mostly–a symptom of disbelief or doubt. I believe it is, in fact, an acknowledgment of the inadequacies of our language–our symbols, our rituals, and our words–to embrace the sacred in a way that is unburdened by, in the words of Mircea Eliade, “…conventional religious language.¹” We must admit here that much of what we know as sacred architecture is imbued with conventional religious language.

For Eliade, a truly modern religious art or architecture would be iconoclastic toward traditional religious expression and would neces- sarily be “unrecognizable.” He believed that this was as true for the work of artists of faith in the normative sense of the word, like Chagall or Rouault, as for those of faith in some other less specific sense–a kind of paradoxical, areligious faith. In either regard, Eliade held that a new language of religious expression was necessitated by modern circumstances for religious engagement to have deep contemporary relevance–not withstanding the tenacity of religious tradition.

Just as religious expression must evolve, so must the way that we speak or write about it evolve. Words can be just as burdened with tradition, and they can encapsulate just as much of a lack of imagination around their subject, as the most calcified artistic forms. In this light, resisting the use of the word sacred to speak about the complex structure of religious engagement–spatial, material, liturgical, theological, political–is in the service of the sacred and a doorway to engagement rather than an obstacle to it; it can also be as much a denial and a retreat from its subject as it can be a means of access.

Eliade defended a religious art of some difficulty, an art not immediately open to common language. The word sublime and its catch phrases are becoming equally problematic forms of shorthand–as imprecise as the word sacred might be. The panelists certainly revealed this problem. But I defend their deliberate obliqueness. To speak more directly of reli gious experience in our modern culture would seem important toward arriving at a greater understanding of contemporary religious space and its possibilities. We might even say that to do otherwise might be, well… slightly sacrilegious.

Jim Williamson teaches architecture at Cornell University. He is the co-editor and contributor, with Renata Hejduk, of The Religious Imagination in Modern and Contemporary Architecture: A Reader.
1 . Eliade, Mircea: “The Sacred and the Modern Artist .” Art, Creativity and the Sacred; ed . Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, New York, NY, Crossroad, 1984 .