Beauty and Sacred Space

We need to value sacred space because of the impact it can have on our activities and on us, body and soul.

Christianity is a physical faith, one in which our bodies — the physical forms into which God breathed life and then proclaimed “very good” — play a starring role. God’s grand narrative of history past, present, and future centers on the person of Christ; as Christians we look backward to his bodily Resurrection and forward in anticipation of his bodily return. These foundational events are both made possible by the Incarnation, by Christ’s taking human form so he could truly be Immanuel, God with us. The centrality of Christ’s Incarnation, bodily Resurrection, and bodily return assures us that God places a great deal of value not only on humanity as an abstract entity, but on the body as a concrete and necessary part of human existence. The fact that Christ could not become man without assuming a physical body demonstrates that human beings are not body or soul, but body and soul, mysteriously woven together into an indivisible unit. In contrast to Gnosticism and other systems of belief that denigrate the physical world, Christianity affirms from the first chapter of Genesis to the final chapter of Revelation that the physical world — especially our bodies — matters.

But even with this appreciation for the physical in general and our bodies in particular, we often forget one critical but easy-to-overlook fact: bodies occupy space. And if our bodies matter, then the space they occupy matters as well. As embodied creatures, we have meaningful physical interactions with our environment; just as we are capable of shaping and influencing our surroundings, our surroundings also shape and influence us. In this sense, our humanity is profoundly entwined with our environment. Indeed, we interact with our surroundings via both our senses and our activities every moment of our conscious lives. As a result, we must pay careful attention to how we both construct and utilize the spaces we occupy.

These points provide the rationale for placing considerable importance on designing and constructing beautiful, aesthetically pleasing spaces. The significance of beauty in our environments is highlighted by the sense of awe and transcendence often evoked by walking into a grand cathedral with vaulted ceilings, intricate stained-glass windows, and ornate architectural features. Each of these elements, perceived by our sense of sight, awaken us to beauty and — if our mind is properly attuned — point us towards the source of that beauty. In doing so, these aesthetic features help to draw us into a state of worship. In this way, the design of our surroundings can have a powerful influence on us as human beings. Unfortunately, under the influence of larger cultural and economic forces, modern evangelicals have largely lost sight of the effectual power of aesthetics, particularly in church design, instead opting to construct utilitarian and multifunctional spaces. This latter approach neglects part of what makes us human — the fact that we are intimately connected with our environment — and thus does little to inspire worship as a church building should and as the great cathedrals do.

But the value of aesthetics does not apply only to church buildings or even to our sense of sight alone. Homes designed with aesthetics in mind can also awaken us to beauty and give great value to our human existence. Proper lighting inside a home, for instance, can provide a warming, welcoming ambience as perceived by our sense of sight. Decorations — whether paintings, photographs, plants, or some other form of embellishment — can similarly create a homely atmosphere that would be lacking in the absence of tasteful adornment. A candle, with its warmly flickering light, can fill a home with a pleasing aroma, awakening yet another sense to beauty. Even our senses of touch and hearing — think of sitting on a comfortable couch or hearing a melodious sonata playing in the background — can be affected by beauty in profound ways. These aesthetic elements may not be necessary for our survival, but because they have the power to impact us, body and soul, they do help to make life worth living.

Beyond aesthetics, we have grounds for constructing areas devoted to a single purpose or activity due to the power our environments have to shape us through our activities. Again, the example of a cathedral or church building is illustrative. While the aesthetic elements of such a building contribute to drawing occupants into a state of worship as I have already described, they are not the sole cause of this effect. Rather, the effect is also produced by the fact that we associate that particular physical place with the act of worship. Thus, when we enter such a space, the powerful visceral association we have between the physical building or room and the activity we perform there helps to draw us, body and soul, into that particular occupation. In this sense, such a space could be aptly termed sacred space, for as the word sacred implies, the area is set apart for a specific purpose, for a specific human activity.These sacred spaces influence us as they stimulate us to perform the activity for which the space is designed.

As with aesthetics, the concept of sacred space applies outside of church buildings and to activities other than worship as well. We have office spaces dedicated to the activity of work; we have classrooms dedicated to the activity of teaching and learning; we have dining rooms dedicated to communing over food; we have living rooms dedicated to leisure; and we have bedrooms dedicated to the activity of sleep. Each of these are sacred spaces, built for a specific human occupation. The office is not made for sleep, the classroom is not made for play, and the bedroom is not made for eating meals together.

However, while our culture still values aesthetics in many domains, it seems that we have greatly devalued the importance of sacred space. We often fail to realize that violating sacred spaces by using them for activities other than the ones for which they are intended has real effects on our lives. Within evangelicalism in particular, in our quest for efficient use of space, we’ve made many of our sanctuaries — which ought to be sacred spaces devoted to worship — into concert arenas and movie theaters (among other things). Should we be surprised, then, when congregants act as though they are in a concert hall rather than a church sanctuary? Similarly, as technological advances have enabled individuals to work away from the office, the line between office life and home life has become blurred for many. As a result, the kitchen table — which should be a hub of embodied community — becomes a poor proxy for an office, diminishing our ability both to work properly and to commune properly over food. While it is sometimes necessary to use a space dedicated to one activity for another, we should refrain from allowing this to be our modus operandi. We need to value sacred space because of the impact it can have on our activities and on us, body and soul.

Of course, this may seem easy to say from the position of affluence we occupy in America. But appreciation of aesthetics and sacred space is not a luxury reserved only for wealthy westerners. These are human issues, not western ones. The particulars may look different elsewhere, as they have through different stages of history, but the essence will remain the same. Highlighting these issues also should not be seen as a nostalgic longing for a bygone era when beauty and sacred space mattered more than they do today. Instead, let this be a call for us to attend to creating beautiful sacred spaces for the edification of human beings, body and soul. Remember that the value of aesthetics and sacred space is grounded in what it means to be human and substantiated by the physical nature of the Christian faith. Space — what it looks like and what we do with it — matters because our bodies matter.

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