One of the impacts of the lockdown in response to the coronavirus has been the abandonment of church buildings, and the move to broadcast services from the homes of clergy and other lay leaders involved in leading worship. The strong guidance from the Archbishops on this has been hotly debated, and the question raised as to whether they have authority to give such instruction. Last week the former bishop of Worcester, Peter Selby, argued that this has meant the Church of England in effect vacating the public square, and Giles Fraser weighed in in support, claiming that we have all retreated to the kitchen. There was an interesting response to this from Jonathan Clark, the (anglo-catholic) bishop of Croydon, who argued that we don’t need to rely on sacred buildings for our encounter with God—going against the view of many anglo-catholics within the Church of England.
But all of this raises the question about the importance of sacred places at all. Three years ago we made our third trip to New Zealand, and this time I was struck by the traditional Maori emphasis on the sacredness of particular places. In being introduced to Maori culture and religious belief, we were asked to respect this rock as of being of sacred significance, or that mountain, or this other place. In some ways this practice is not much different from the respect given to sacred spaces in a Western, Christian tradition. But the sacred space of a building (rather than the natural world) means that the emphasis is on separation: the sacred space is one separate and distinct from everyday life, and to some extent cut off from it. When the sacred space is found in the natural world, there is a much greater sense of integration, and I might encounter the sacred at any moment in my everyday life.
My favourite story during our travels relates to the origins of Hahei on the beautiful Coromandel Peninsula. (It include the place, Cathedral Cove, where the opening scene of the second Narnia film, Prince Caspian, was shot.) It is named after the tribal leader Hei, who led his tribe to a new area until he came across an island (Mahurangi Island) that he believed look like his nose. This was a sign from the gods that this land should be theirs, and not only that island but everything that could be seen from it. The name of the place, Hahei, means ‘breath of Hei’; Hei now revered as a divine ancestor, whose breath from his island nostrils creates the onshore and offshore winds in the area.
Recognition of the importance of these sacred sites is a major issue now for all aboriginal peoples—in North America for native Americans and in Australia for the aboriginal peoples there, and in parallel in New Zealand for the Maori (though the Moari are not strictly aboriginal, but an earlier phase of migration to a previously uninhabited islands.). The integrative spirituality represented by such places is very often connect to stories about the origins of the people or their first encounters with the sacred. These stories are frequently presented as ‘ancient wisdom’ which the modern world, with all its problems, needs to hear—though I find it fascinating that the same status is not accorded to the Judea-Christian tradition, which also offers an ancient wisdom. These sacred spaces represent the presence of the divine as infusing the natural, physical world, creating what the Celtic tradition calls (in a rather over-used phrase) a ‘thin place.’
Such an approach to place can be found in specific episodes the Christian Scriptures, though particularly in the Old Testament. Perhaps the best-known of these is the story of Jacob and his dream of angels ascending a ladder to heaven in Genesis 28:10–19. He stops for the night and (to the puzzlement of modern readers) takes a stone for a pillow. In his dream he sees angels on a ladder (or stairway) to heaven, and hears the promise of God to give his descendants the land.
When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, [meaning ‘House of God’] though the city used to be called Luz.
Particular places accrue meaning in other key stories, such as Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush, and then in the giving of the law on Mount Sinai. Later, Sinai (Horeb) because the place of encounter with God for Elijah. The supreme example of sacred space is, of course, the city of Jerusalem and within it Mount Zion, where the temple was built as a distinct physical space of the dwelling on earth of the heavenly ‘shekinah’ glory of God.
Two distinctive things are worth noting here. First is that places are accorded spiritual significance not according to the particular geographic features. In fact, sometimes the places are rather embarrassing in their ordinariness! Ps 48.2 appears to claim that Mt Zion is the highest mountain in the world:
Beautiful in its loftiness, the joy of the whole earth, like the heights of Zaphon is Mount Zion, the city of the Great King. (Ps 48.2)
In fact, it is not even the highest point in the land, and doesn’t particularly stand out as a high peak in its area. Its ‘loftiness’ comes from its spiritual, and not its physical, importance. This offers an interesting critique of other approaches to perceiving the sacred in the natural world. After all, seeing the shape of a place as a signification of divine presence might symbolise is not logically any different from seeing Jesus in the shape of the burn mark on a piece of toast. We now recognise this as a function of the human impulse to pattern recognition, seeing faces or shapes in the clouds or other natural phenomena, an impulse which led Hei to see his own nose in the profile of Mahurangi Island. In the end, this is an arbitrary decision. By contrast, in the biblical narrative places are accorded significance not according to their exterior shape or significance, but in line with affective spiritual encounter—the believer’s experience of the presence of God in some tangible way.
The second thing to note is that the significance attributed to place is a more a function of the account of the place in the narrative than the physical space itself. Where specific places are marked for remembrance, it is more to memorialise the moment of promise, or encounter so that it would never be forgotten. For a formerly nomadic people, like the Hebrews, marking the significance of these moments along their journeys must have been tremendously important.
It is striking that few of these places (with the exception of the Temple) have become places of pilgrimage. You do not need to go to the places themselves to encounter the same God; rather, you need to read the narratives about the places. It has often been observed that, in the narrative of Scripture, ‘mountains mean meeting’, in that mountains are often the place of encounter with God, quite literally, ‘mountain-top experiences’. This is not because there is something particularly distinctive about mountains as such, but because they have significance in the story of the people of God. And the importance of these stories means that the significance of such encounters can be redeployed to the new contexts in which the reader is located.
Even within the Old Testament, the manifestation of God in particular places stands in tension with the manifestation of God within the whole of creation. This is articulated in the creations psalms, especially Psalms 8 and 19.
Yahweh, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. (Ps 8.1)
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. (Ps 19.1–4)
This tension between universal manifestation and particular manifestation even finds expression at the moment of the dedication of the Temple.
But will God indeed dwell with people on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You. How much less this temple which I have built! (2 Chron 6.18)
And this vision of the universal manifestation of God in creation has shaped Christian thinking. In words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God’.
Ultimately, in the New Testament narrative, the distinctive importance of all sacred spaces is deconstructed by the person of Jesus. Whatever happened in the past, Jesus is now the place where God is met. He is the new temple of God’s tabernacled presence (John 1.14), and it is in him that the final sacrifice is offered for the atoning of sins. The promises of the gift of the land to God’s people are fulfilled in him, which is why all the blessings and obligations of being ‘in the land’ now carry over to those who are ‘in Christ’—a metaphor whose spacial significance we mostly overlook. And, we are told, God’s people themselves become that temple as they are incorporated into him—they become the body of Christ and the presence of God in the world. The NT presents this indwelling by God in those humbled by him as an active, palpable and inexhaustible connection to our invincible hope in Christ by which we are perpetually strengthened and encouraged (see John 7:38; Ps. 1:3; Jer. 17:8) This is not accomplished by attaching priority to sacred locations.
In fact, by Jesus’ own words, it is clear that, in the gospel era, the significance diminishes about where we might encounter God by comparison with how we should encounter him. IN his encounter with the woman at the well, Jesus says to her:
Woman, believe me, the hour comes, when you shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship you know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour comes, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeks such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.’ (John 4.21-23)
There is no doubt that certain places have a sense of peace, and there are places where we have met with God. But this is a reflection of our story, or perhaps the story of those who have gone before us, not of the objectively distinct nature of the place itself. God is lord of all creation, and can make his presence felt in any place he chooses, in the valleys just as much as in the mountains.
(The bulk of this article was previously published in 2017)
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