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Building God in Estranged Spaces: The Practice of Sacred Spaces in Contemporary Society

I write this reflection as an urban wanderer. My favorite activity is to get lost in a city and find my way home. In the past, I daily walked the streets of Taipei and Beijing. In this season of life, I find myself wandering the streets of Los Angeles. As I walk, my soul is particularly attentive to the sacred spaces of a city. Whenever I discover a traditional sacred space, I often check the doors to see if I can sneak in and explore. Unfortunately, in the US most doors I pull on are locked. Outside of the US, however, it is more common to find cathedrals and temples that keep rhythm with the city. They serve as daily pilgrimage sites for encountering divine attributes in physical space. I define sacred spaces as the places that mediate encounters between the human and the divine. Traditional sacred spaces are those built to gather communities and congregations to pursue the sacred together. In this article I reflect on the role of sacred spaces in our towns and cities today.

Building God

God is a wholly infinite being unconfined by any building and unrestricted by time or place. The human body, on the contrary, is completely finite. We can only be right here, right now. There seems to be a deep human longing, however, to extend beyond our limitations. We want to reach the heavens. We want to touch God. Perhaps at the core, we just want to hear the quiet whispers of God. Cathedrals, temples, mosques, and altars reflect this human endeavor to construct the properties of divine mystery with our limited earthly materials and human ingenuity. All cultures in all times make this attempt to form, mold, and build godlike qualities.

At the same time, sacred spaces reflect divine inspiration in the human spirit. Historical sacred spaces represent the best of human invention, skills, creativity, and art. Through sacred space we expand beyond just verbal confessions of God. We attempt, rather, to define God through design, building, art, and aesthetics.1 Traditional sacred spaces reflect humanity’s potential and power just as much as they reflect supernatural attributes.

Multisensory God

Even before we attach meaning and memories to place, we experience place first through the body.2 We move back and forth, left and right. We respond to light and dark. We look up and around. We visualize and access God through practices that allow our souls to hear, see, smell, taste, and touch God. Sacred spaces are containers of our spiritualities. They facilitate an attending to the inner life through embodied spiritual practices.

Since we cannot physically sense the divine, we try to construct multisensory experiences of God. We build not just grand cathedrals but also small altars in the home and shrines on the sidewalk. In sacred space God somehow becomes more tangible and physical in real time and real place. Lofty ceilings and the daily ringing of bells reflect the transcendence of God, while candles, incense, bread, and wine can reflect the immanence of God. Through sacred space an estranged God becomes tactile.

Thomas Tweed proposes that religions are spatial practices.3 Our practices of faith happen in place. We share meals and worship together in place. Momentous life events from baptisms to marriage to death are acknowledged in place. Tweed categorizes these spatial practices of religion as a series of dwellings and crossings.4 Through the routine of sacred spaces we try to root ourselves, find identity, and create a home. At the same time, our religious practices are a series of continual crossings—from crossing sacred thresholds to pilgrimages to migrations. Even more, sacred spaces can facilitate crossings beyond self and body. In sacred space we experience the mysterious in our reality while we enter into otherworldly realities. Tweed writes of religions, “They bring the gods to earth and transport the faithful to the heavens and they move horizontally, back and forth in social space.”5 In sacred space the lines of this worldly reality and the supernatural reality are blurred.

Estranged Spaces

Any discussion of sacred space today, however, must acknowledge the rapidly shifting place of sacred spaces in contemporary society. In this century we are seeing a swift decline of traditional congregations and the closures of historic buildings. In modern cities traditional sacred spaces are no longer at the center of city life. They are less seen, heard, and felt. Congregations are no longer the hubs of social life. They are insular communities rather than facilitators of third-space connections. The change we see in traditional sacred spaces is a direct reflection of the dramatic shift in the place of religion for contemporary society.

The estrangement of traditional sacred spaces forces us to ask questions about the future of religion. Will religion have space in the city? Will the holy be visible? Is there room for mystery and the supernatural in the places of our community?

Our bodies have become desensitized to place. Richard Sennett explains that cities were created out of a fear of exposure to the harsh wilderness and to social ills. Thus, we created cities to intentionally sterilize our experience of place.6 Cars allow us to speed through places without ever having to acknowledge their existence. We can see place through large high-rise windows without having to hear, smell, or touch what we see. Technology allows us to detach from physical places and find identity without location. Cities value speed, efficiency, and density over the still and thoughtful atmosphere of traditional sacred spaces.

Evangelical congregations have particularly adopted the values of neutral space that we see in suburbs and cities alike. The rhythms of existing sacred spaces do not often match the rhythms of the neighborhood around them. Our sacred spaces today are event-based spaces built for attendance, as opposed to open spaces built for reflection. We have made religion private and conceptual rather than public and experienced.

Finding God in Foreign Lands

Walking the streets of Los Angeles, however, I am discovering that sacred spaces are taking on new forms. As traditional Anglo congregations continue to age and close, new non-white congregations are just beginning. They do not look as we expect. They are hidden behind storefronts, office buildings, and theaters. Of these urban expressions of religion Robert Orsi writes, “. . . immigrants and migrants dramatically re-placed themselves on the cityscapes that had been explicitly designed to exclude them or to render them invisible or docile.” 7

Immigration and migration are creating global shifts as entire populations are losing their own places and adapting to new places. Finding themselves in unfamiliar environments, immigrant communities modify foreign structures and spaces to work for their needs and their own practices of faith. They continue the spiritual rhythms of crossing and dwelling even as they navigate new jobs and social systems. The architecture of Los Angeles predetermines how immigrant communities can find and make space for themselves, but at the same time these immigrant communities find creative uses for preexisting structures. Isaac Weiner writes, “. . . we find that religious pluralism has never been solely a matter of competing values, truth claims, or moral doctrines, but of different styles of public practice, of fundamentally different ways of using body and space.”8

Lived religion in Los Angeles looks like Sikh parades and Spanish posadas through downtown streets. It looks like a women’s mosque that meets inside a Jewish synagogue. It sounds like charismatic preachers and dynamic worship coming out of open storefront windows on a hot summer night. Sacred spaces in LA are created through bright colorful murals of Our Lady of Guadalupe and small sidewalk memorials. Many of the historic church buildings in the city are sustaining because several congregations of different languages
learn to share the space. The only newly built sacred spaces in downtown

Los Angeles are Buddhist temples supported by members of new Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Chinese communities. Pluralism and multiculturalism become concrete when they change the way a city looks. Religion in Los Angeles is multicultural, interreligious, colorful, and fervent. The great diversity of LA is clearly represented in its sacred spaces, which create a hospitable home to welcome other religious nomads in the city.

The Practice of Sacred Space

I believe there is a new hunger for sacred spaces in contemporary society. Our bodies long to see and experience place with a full and resounding spirituality. We see this desire in the repurposing of old sacred spaces into popular restaurants, bars, and event spaces. I propose here two ways for the faith community to practice sacred space.

First, we need open spaces rather than event-based spaces. Open spaces fit into the rhythms of the city with a flow of people in and out on their daily commutes. Open spaces invite people to stay and dwell. In LA these open spaces are found in Catholic cathedrals, Buddhist temples, and city parks. From my observations, these spaces have a constant rhythm of people moving in and out of the space. They serve as pilgrimage sites in the city for people commuting to and from their daily routines. These spaces feel alive, and they often carry more sense-based rituals such as incense and altars. How will congregations steward their spaces to create meaningful and spiritual places for their community?

Second, we need to see sacred spaces not as spaces just for religious services, but as liturgical spaces that facilitate interactions between people and mystery. Sacred spaces invite you to stop, to attend to your soul, and to let your body encounter God here and now. Sacred spaces can be a corner in your home, a bench in the park, or an old cathedral. We need personal nooks and corners as well as communal places of meaning. The places we inhabit today do not often speak to the inner life. Liturgical spaces allow our souls and bodies alike to experience God in place.

Written By

Cindy S. Lee is the DMin doctoral projects administrator with Fuller’s School of Theology. She is an urban explorer and spiritual director. Her interests and research focus on Christian mysticism, urban spirituality, and de-Westernizing spiritual formation. She completed her PhD in practical theology/spiritual formation at Claremont School of Theology.

I write this reflection as an urban wanderer. My favorite activity is to get lost in a city and find my way home. In the past, I daily walked the streets of Taipei and Beijing. In this season of life, I find myself wandering the streets of Los Angeles. As I walk, my soul is particularly attentive to the sacred spaces of a city. Whenever I discover a traditional sacred space, I often check the doors to see if I can sneak in and explore. Unfortunately, in the US most doors I pull on are locked. Outside of the US, however, it is more common to find cathedrals and temples that keep rhythm with the city. They serve as daily pilgrimage sites for encountering divine attributes in physical space. I define sacred spaces as the places that mediate encounters between the human and the divine. Traditional sacred spaces are those built to gather communities and congregations to pursue the sacred together. In this article I reflect on the role of sacred spaces in our towns and cities today.

Building God

God is a wholly infinite being unconfined by any building and unrestricted by time or place. The human body, on the contrary, is completely finite. We can only be right here, right now. There seems to be a deep human longing, however, to extend beyond our limitations. We want to reach the heavens. We want to touch God. Perhaps at the core, we just want to hear the quiet whispers of God. Cathedrals, temples, mosques, and altars reflect this human endeavor to construct the properties of divine mystery with our limited earthly materials and human ingenuity. All cultures in all times make this attempt to form, mold, and build godlike qualities.

At the same time, sacred spaces reflect divine inspiration in the human spirit. Historical sacred spaces represent the best of human invention, skills, creativity, and art. Through sacred space we expand beyond just verbal confessions of God. We attempt, rather, to define God through design, building, art, and aesthetics.1 Traditional sacred spaces reflect humanity’s potential and power just as much as they reflect supernatural attributes.

Multisensory God

Even before we attach meaning and memories to place, we experience place first through the body.2 We move back and forth, left and right. We respond to light and dark. We look up and around. We visualize and access God through practices that allow our souls to hear, see, smell, taste, and touch God. Sacred spaces are containers of our spiritualities. They facilitate an attending to the inner life through embodied spiritual practices.

Since we cannot physically sense the divine, we try to construct multisensory experiences of God. We build not just grand cathedrals but also small altars in the home and shrines on the sidewalk. In sacred space God somehow becomes more tangible and physical in real time and real place. Lofty ceilings and the daily ringing of bells reflect the transcendence of God, while candles, incense, bread, and wine can reflect the immanence of God. Through sacred space an estranged God becomes tactile.

Thomas Tweed proposes that religions are spatial practices.3 Our practices of faith happen in place. We share meals and worship together in place. Momentous life events from baptisms to marriage to death are acknowledged in place. Tweed categorizes these spatial practices of religion as a series of dwellings and crossings.4 Through the routine of sacred spaces we try to root ourselves, find identity, and create a home. At the same time, our religious practices are a series of continual crossings—from crossing sacred thresholds to pilgrimages to migrations. Even more, sacred spaces can facilitate crossings beyond self and body. In sacred space we experience the mysterious in our reality while we enter into otherworldly realities. Tweed writes of religions, “They bring the gods to earth and transport the faithful to the heavens and they move horizontally, back and forth in social space.”5 In sacred space the lines of this worldly reality and the supernatural reality are blurred.

Estranged Spaces

Any discussion of sacred space today, however, must acknowledge the rapidly shifting place of sacred spaces in contemporary society. In this century we are seeing a swift decline of traditional congregations and the closures of historic buildings. In modern cities traditional sacred spaces are no longer at the center of city life. They are less seen, heard, and felt. Congregations are no longer the hubs of social life. They are insular communities rather than facilitators of third-space connections. The change we see in traditional sacred spaces is a direct reflection of the dramatic shift in the place of religion for contemporary society.

The estrangement of traditional sacred spaces forces us to ask questions about the future of religion. Will religion have space in the city? Will the holy be visible? Is there room for mystery and the supernatural in the places of our community?

Our bodies have become desensitized to place. Richard Sennett explains that cities were created out of a fear of exposure to the harsh wilderness and to social ills. Thus, we created cities to intentionally sterilize our experience of place.6 Cars allow us to speed through places without ever having to acknowledge their existence. We can see place through large high-rise windows without having to hear, smell, or touch what we see. Technology allows us to detach from physical places and find identity without location. Cities value speed, efficiency, and density over the still and thoughtful atmosphere of traditional sacred spaces.

Evangelical congregations have particularly adopted the values of neutral space that we see in suburbs and cities alike. The rhythms of existing sacred spaces do not often match the rhythms of the neighborhood around them. Our sacred spaces today are event-based spaces built for attendance, as opposed to open spaces built for reflection. We have made religion private and conceptual rather than public and experienced.

Finding God in Foreign Lands

Walking the streets of Los Angeles, however, I am discovering that sacred spaces are taking on new forms. As traditional Anglo congregations continue to age and close, new non-white congregations are just beginning. They do not look as we expect. They are hidden behind storefronts, office buildings, and theaters. Of these urban expressions of religion Robert Orsi writes, “. . . immigrants and migrants dramatically re-placed themselves on the cityscapes that had been explicitly designed to exclude them or to render them invisible or docile.” 7

Immigration and migration are creating global shifts as entire populations are losing their own places and adapting to new places. Finding themselves in unfamiliar environments, immigrant communities modify foreign structures and spaces to work for their needs and their own practices of faith. They continue the spiritual rhythms of crossing and dwelling even as they navigate new jobs and social systems. The architecture of Los Angeles predetermines how immigrant communities can find and make space for themselves, but at the same time these immigrant communities find creative uses for preexisting structures. Isaac Weiner writes, “. . . we find that religious pluralism has never been solely a matter of competing values, truth claims, or moral doctrines, but of different styles of public practice, of fundamentally different ways of using body and space.”8

Lived religion in Los Angeles looks like Sikh parades and Spanish posadas through downtown streets. It looks like a women’s mosque that meets inside a Jewish synagogue. It sounds like charismatic preachers and dynamic worship coming out of open storefront windows on a hot summer night. Sacred spaces in LA are created through bright colorful murals of Our Lady of Guadalupe and small sidewalk memorials. Many of the historic church buildings in the city are sustaining because several congregations of different languages
learn to share the space. The only newly built sacred spaces in downtown

Los Angeles are Buddhist temples supported by members of new Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Chinese communities. Pluralism and multiculturalism become concrete when they change the way a city looks. Religion in Los Angeles is multicultural, interreligious, colorful, and fervent. The great diversity of LA is clearly represented in its sacred spaces, which create a hospitable home to welcome other religious nomads in the city.

The Practice of Sacred Space

I believe there is a new hunger for sacred spaces in contemporary society. Our bodies long to see and experience place with a full and resounding spirituality. We see this desire in the repurposing of old sacred spaces into popular restaurants, bars, and event spaces. I propose here two ways for the faith community to practice sacred space.

First, we need open spaces rather than event-based spaces. Open spaces fit into the rhythms of the city with a flow of people in and out on their daily commutes. Open spaces invite people to stay and dwell. In LA these open spaces are found in Catholic cathedrals, Buddhist temples, and city parks. From my observations, these spaces have a constant rhythm of people moving in and out of the space. They serve as pilgrimage sites in the city for people commuting to and from their daily routines. These spaces feel alive, and they often carry more sense-based rituals such as incense and altars. How will congregations steward their spaces to create meaningful and spiritual places for their community?

Second, we need to see sacred spaces not as spaces just for religious services, but as liturgical spaces that facilitate interactions between people and mystery. Sacred spaces invite you to stop, to attend to your soul, and to let your body encounter God here and now. Sacred spaces can be a corner in your home, a bench in the park, or an old cathedral. We need personal nooks and corners as well as communal places of meaning. The places we inhabit today do not often speak to the inner life. Liturgical spaces allow our souls and bodies alike to experience God in place.

Cindy Lee

Cindy S. Lee is the DMin doctoral projects administrator with Fuller’s School of Theology. She is an urban explorer and spiritual director. Her interests and research focus on Christian mysticism, urban spirituality, and de-Westernizing spiritual formation. She completed her PhD in practical theology/spiritual formation at Claremont School of Theology.

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