Research on Theories of Space and Religion

I’m going to post some of my favourite passages and quotations, with the intent of coming back later and commenting on them.

 

Philip Sheldrake

  • “The concept of place refers not simply to geographical location but to a dialectical relationship between environment and human narrative. Place is space that has the capacity to be remembered and to evoke what is most precious” (Philip Sheldrake, Spaces for the Sacred: Place, Memory, and Identity, Baltimore ML: Johns Hopkins UP, 2001, p 1)
  •  Because “place” has a determining influence on the way people behave, think, or organize their lives and relationships, few other cultural categories express its world picture so clearly.7 Physical places are vital sources of metaphors for social constructions of reality. Metaphors are not mere options or embellishments to our normal ways of thinking and speaking. Metaphors define our perceptions of reality.8 (Sheldrake art, Human Identity and the Particularity of Place”

Gorringe, Theology of the Built Environment

  • “I would say, rather, that all space is potentially sacred, waiting for the moment of encounter in which it mediates God. We can understand it through the same analogy by which Barth understands Scripture. Scripture is not per se the Word of God, he said, but it becomes it, as the water of the pool of Bethesda healed when the angel stirred it. If that is the case, then sacred space is bound up with event, with community, and with memory. What we conventionally understand as sacred spaces have a sacramental significance with regard to all other space: they are a reminder of the potential for epiphany of all other spaces.” Gorringe, Theology of the Built Environment, Ch2 , p 52
  • In Scripture ‘there is no timeless space but there also is no spaceless time. There is rather storied place, that is a place which has meaning because of the history lodged there. There are stories which have authority because they are located in a place.’40 It is not a profane world which is a contradiction in terms but a world which has lost its memory. Without memory, ‘chaos is come again’.
  • Quite independently, Christian Norberg-Schultz mounted a similar argument, appealing to Heidegger. For him the purpose of architecture is to create ‘dwelling’. Human beings ‘dwell’ when they experience the environment as meaningful, and this happens when spaces become places. A place is a space which has a distinct character. Sacred places orientate us and help us find identity. ‘In man’s understanding of nature we thus recognize the origin of a concept of space as a system of places. Only a system of meaningful places makes a truly human life possible. ’41 (Gorringe, p 38)

Notes from my paper on Catherine of Siena and Theories of Space, presented in 2014 for the Society for Philosophy and Culture, McMaster University

  • Phillip Sheldrake has argued in Spaces for the Sacred that “Mystics, especially but not exclusively women, were (indeed are) often confined in tightly enclosed or policed places. Contemplation often becomes a way of transcending such boundaries and of accessing a way of knowing that is beyond the power of authority to control.” (Philip Sheldrake, Spaces for the Sacred, 2001, p 131) He explains that mystics create intermediary spaces where oppositions such as sacred and secular are placed in dialogue and can be transformed. I quote from him again: “In the language of Michel Foucault, the discourse of female mystics may be thought of as a kind of heterological space. In terms of de Certeau’s analytical framework, such ‘places’ were a kind of segregated ‘refuge’, a circumscribed space for a practice of meaning that represented a rupture with the public, clericalized space of the Church” (125). A “heterological space” holds multiple meanings or ways of interpretation, and can do more than one thing at once. Catherine’s contemplative space—both in accounts of her life and in her representation of the cell in the heart—is a heterological space as it exists in the earthly realm but comes from the divine realm; moreover, it can only be seen by the visionary. And it is within this contemplative space that she manipulates secular and sacred symbols in order to create her own theology.

 

  • Chidester and Linenthal, in their Introduction to American Sacred Space, argue that sacred space can be contested if there are scarce spatial resources, but that this conflict can lead to a multiplication of meanings with the contested space:

When space or place becomes sacred, spatially scarce resources are transformed into a surplus of signification. As an arena of signs and symbols, a sacred place is not a fixed point in space, but a point of departure for an endless multiplication of meaning. Since a sacred place could signify almost anything, its meaningful contours can become almost infinitely extended through the work of interpretation. In this respect, a sacred place is not defined by spatial limits; it is open to unlimited claims and counter-claims on its significance. As a result, conflict in the production of sacred space is not only over scarce resources but also over symbolic surpluses that are abundantly available for appropriation. (18-19)

Our visionaries found themselves in secular places that could also have sacred meaning through their spiritual work. With limited access to the sacred places of church and monastery and a strong commitment to living in the community, these women multiplied the meanings of their spaces by combining the secular with the sacred.

  • Chidester and Linenthal’s Introduction describes the “strategy of hybridization” as one that mixes, fuses, or transgresses traditional concepts of space. They argue that “Such reversals and mixtures of dominant spatial relations produce new places, or reclaim old places, as a type of space that Foucault called a heterotopia, ‘a kind of effectively acted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted’”(19-20). Contemplative space is by its very nature a hybridized space, one that mixes and transgresses sacred and secular space, creating something that is both old and new. The medieval female mystics recognized the potential for transformative power in this contemplative space—a space that is both within and outside of ecclesiastic control.

 

  • Longer passage from Chidester and Lidenthal:

Why should sacred space be inherently contested? Although the chapters of this book examine specific cases of conflict over sacred space, two general reasons might be suggested. First, sacred space is contested for the simple reason that it is spatial. The academic discipline of human geography has advanced several attempts to account for the inevitable conflict that occurs over space and place in human relations. Adopting a geometrical mode of analysis, geographer John Urry has suggested that the spatial dynamics of conflict can be explained by the fact that no two objects can occupy the same point in space. “Hence,” Urry has concluded, “space is necessarily limited and there has to be competition and conflict over its organization and control.”52 Whether explained as competition over scarce resources in a human ecology, or as relations of domination and resistance in class struggle, conflict has been analyzed by geographers as a necessary feature of spatiality. Therefore, we should not be surprised that sacred space is entangled in competition over scarce spatial resources, including conflicts over the hypothetical resource of spatiality itself. However, sacred space is inevitably contested for a second, and perhaps, at first glance, contradictory reason. When space or place becomes sacred, spatially scarce resources are transformed into a surplus of signification. As an arena of signs and symbols, a sacred place is not a fixed point in space, but a point of departure for an endless multiplication of meaning. Since a sacred place could signify almost anything, its meaningful contours can become almost infinitely extended through the work of interpretation. In this respect, a sacred place is not defined by spatial limits; it is open to unlimited claims and counter-claims on its significance. As a result, conflict in the production of sacred space is not only over scarce re- sources but also over symbolic surpluses that are abundantly available for appropriation. Although “the sacred” might be regarded as an empty signifier, a sign that by virtue of its emptiness could mean anything or nothing, its emptiness is filled with meaningful content as a result of specific strategies of symbolic engagement. Not merely interpretive, these symbolic strategies are powerful, practical maneuvers in the field of sacred symbols. Arguably, as already suggested, these symbolic maneuvers are what make something sacred. Characteristic modes of symbolic engagement in the production of sacred space include strategies of appropriation, exclusion, inversion, and hybridization.

The other two strategies, inversion and hybridization, are particularly suited for resistance to domination. They lend themselves to projects of reversal, or innovation, or even to the kinds of “desecration” that symbolize alternative relationships to sacred space. Strategies of inversion reverse a prevailing spatial orientation-the high becomes low, the inside becomes outside, the peripheral becomes central-but they may subtly retain its basic oppositional structure. Spatial inversions are often found in millenarian movements that promise an imminent reversal of the prevailing social order. By contrast, the strategy of hybridization, found in practices of mixing, fusing, or transgressing conventional spatial relations, presents “the possibility of shifting the very terms of the system itself.”53 Appearing most dramatically in carnival, festival, or street theater, but also in any spatial practice that mixes up conventional distinctions, the strategy of hybridization, as Homi Bhabha has noted, “terrorizes authority with the ruse of recognition, its mimicry, its mockery.”54 Such reversals and mixtures of dominant spatial relations produce new places, or reclaim old places, as a type of space that Foucault called a heterotopia, “a kind of effectively acted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.”~~ A utopia might have no real place in the world. But a heterotopia, in Foucault’s sense, can be located as a real site for altering spatial relations. At Pu’uhonua o H’naunau, for example, Hunter S. Thompson produced a hybrid sacred site by mixing up the spatial distinctions of Hawaiian tradition and the National Park Service, producing a surrealistic heterotopia for gonzo journalism. At Pearl Harbor, some commentators argued that the inclusion of Japanese perspectives, which blurred the spatial distinction between allies and enemies, threatened to turn that sacred site into a hybrid space. Frequently, the counter- strategies of inversion or hybridization are resisted by dominant cultural interests. The specific contours of dominant spatial orientations might even be defined or reinforced by repressing illicit inversions or mixtures. However, it might be argued that all sacred sites are produced through mixing and manipulating cultural and material relations. After all, Pearl Harbor itself is a hybrid of national park, patriotic monument, and military cemetery. In spite of the efforts of religious actors to sanctify space, there are no pure places in the world. Through appropriation and exclusion, inversion and hybridization, sacred space is produced and reproduced. Relational, situational, and contested, sacred places are necessarily located within these conflictual strategies of symbolic engagement.” (Intro, pp 18-20)

 

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