18 February. Sacred spaces / places

What are sacred spaces? Sacred places? How do they correspond with geography, politics, mapping, history, myth, distance, materiality, origin, ephemera? How is a sacred space constituted in the transit or translation of a self, a subject, an individual, into a community? What role does community play in the material part of the sacred? What role does belief play in the constitution of rituals and, with it, of the hierophanic?

In composing your reflection, make sure you note how the chapter you read intertwines with premises established by MacDonald’s “Introduction” and Nancy’s chapter.   To keep this from putting undue pressure on your reading and writing for this coming week, this post does not have a regular deadline; you can post it the last day of Spring Break, March 11.

5 replies on “18 February. Sacred spaces / places”

“Place is not just a spatial, or even a spatial and temporal, notion; it is also a poetic and aesthetic conception and a political strategy…Places are human constructions that come into being when people act on space” (MacDonald 3).

“The sacred center defines and delineated ‘the quality of space and its opposition to the profane’ — that which is outside the boundary of the sacred center. While the boundary is centralized in geographical terms, ultimately it is a cognitive boundary, providing a psychological and intellectual diagram of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ in relation to a sacred center” (MacDonald 107).

MacDonald’s declaration that space “a poetic and aesthetic conception and a political strategy” brings me to Nancy’s articulation of the political as a series of power relations which either controls the systematic order and administration of a society (the Right) or is (in the case of the Left) centrally concerned with the needs and desires of the community. Thinking about the connection between the concept of the political and the reality of the community/communal, I am interested in the ways that sacred geographical spaces become a material site of both unity and division, each of which is often fueled by political desire. For Olúpònà, the sacred city of Ile-Ife designates its own modern political consciousness within the Yoruba culture insomuch as it stands in for a unified homeland that coalesces the Yoruba people both culturally and spiritually through various rituals. Furthermore, Olúpònà, as quoted above, highlights how the “cognitive” boundary between what is spiritual and profane also tends to organize/categorize one’s intellectual and spiritual connection to a specific (possibly sacred) space/place. Once again I am drawn back to Clooney’s notion of a religious other, and how our experiences of place, whether sacred or not, is so closely tied to our political and social identities. It would seem that a Comparativist approach to understanding sacred geography might allow us to see the expansive nature of our critical relationship to place, however, the desire to protect the cultural specificities of specific religious and cultural traditions, as righteous as it may be, does require firm boundaries between what is sacred and profane as well as who is allowed and disinvited in/from any sacred/political space. However, if MacDonald’s observation of place as a “human construction” is correct, then it is possible that what makes a space sacred is not simply that it is a space in contrast to the profane, but what makes a space sacred it its capacity to speak to a multiplicities of spiritual connections which exceed the political restraints of religion proper.

My essay by Michael Barkun, “Myths of the Underworld in Contemporary Millennialism,” appears to share more in common with Nancy’s premises/theses than those in MacDonald’s introduction. First and foremost, Barkun’s essay seems to speak to the dispersion and displacement (or “spacing”) of the sacred from any particular place (or dogma), exemplified by the postmodern practice of pastiche and its postmodern infrastructure in the internet. The hollow-earth, reptilian-species conspiracy theories, in their millennial form, are virtually stripped of any relation to the sacred, other than remnants of an end-of-days discourse in which the underworld-reptillians are purely malevolent and will make themselves apparent upon the final battle with the human race. I suppose the one point of contact with MacDonald’s introduction would be how the millennial underworld is an “aesthetic conception and a political strategy” (3). The narratological infrastructure for these conspiracy emerged our of pulp-fiction from the 40s/50s/60s and have been mobilized in order to account for hidden power brokers manipulating the strings of media and government. Given that there is almost always more than meets the eye when it concerns political systems, these conspiracy theories, however empirically and theoretically inadequate, arise in order to provide an account of that which is occluded. And by focalizing the invisible in an other-/under-worldly political space/place (MacDonald), these millennial conspiracy theories attempt to provide an account for the contemporary exposure to the divine (or divine justice) as the basis of their (online) communal gathering (Nancy).

Apologies for the delay on this. I didn’t see it go up on Saturday and then forgot to come back to it.

In the introduction to her work, MacDonald challenges the idea that “place” is simply a physical/spatial location. While certainly it encompasses this, she writes that “Place is not just a spatial, or even a spatial and temporal notion; it is also a poetic and aesthetic conception and a political strategy” (3). That is to say, when we think about “place,” we need to move beyond simply thinking of a given place in a given time, but also think about the communal processes that have taken place to assign meaning to this place, that have given a reason why this place is what it is, and why it’s important to people. The sense of belonging and significance that place evokes is owed to these human constructions.
This concept is quite adeptly demonstrated by Nili Wazana’s article on the Promised Land. Wazana illustrates that there are two incompatible descriptions of the Promised Land in the Old Testament, and details the way some scholars have tried to resolve this conundrum (54-56). She challenges, however, the idea that the more expansive description was ever meant to be a precise physical map, stretching the Promised Land from one geographic location to another. Rather it “is a promise of world dominion” that should be understood “as a literary idiom and not literally as a border description” (71).
What Wazana illustrates then is that place descriptions in the Hebrew Bible cannot always be assumed to simply put something on a map. Descriptions of the Promised Land may be more than a “spatial” description of its boundaries in a certain “temporal” period. The descriptions are poetic and aesthetic inasmuch as they reflect faith in the power of God and his promise to Israel. They are political in pushing the boundaries of Israel’s power further than the boundaries of the kingdom. In this more expansive vision, place is less about where the boundaries of the kingdom’s power lie, and more about the whole world as God’s footstool (Is. 66:1). The creative power and authority of the God of Israel feature more prominently than the sovereignty and authority of the king of Israel.

Where lies God? Where is the sacred in our midst? In my own reading of Jean-Luc Nancy’s “Divine Places,” the quest for God, particularly the desire to know the places in which the sacred exists was one of the main questions. Yet, as Nancy sought to (dis)prove the death of God, he also stressed that it is not that divinity is hidden like a secret; it is more likely that we do not have the eyes to see it.

As Mary MacDonald explains, the distinction between the sacred and the profane is not always clear. However, quoting the historian of religion Mircea Eliade, MacDonald emphasizes that there are times “’when the sacred manifests itself in any hierophany [manifestation of the sacred]’” and cause “’a break in the homogeneity of places’” (MacDonald, 8). Put simply, Eliade’s understanding of the sacred and the profane might be considered as a project of Western dualisms. Nonetheless, Eliade’s argument might still be helpful when thinking of the significance of particular places—places that are constructed to facilitate interactions with the divine.

Ile Ife might be such a place. Stressing that the Yoruba people does not make such a sharp delineation between the sacred and the profane, African-heritage religions scholar Olupona also states that Eliade’s understanding of sacred places/spaces as center of the world still “provide[s] a basis with which to begin interpreting African religious experiences” (89). Thus, building on Eliade’s idea of sacred place, Olupona explains that for the Yoruba people, Ile-Ife is a center. As a center, in addition to being a place of memory and nostalgia of the past, Ile Ife is also place where creation begins. Still, it is important to emphasize that this place is not constantly shifting. It is not dynamic or tied to a sacred people. Rather, Ile Ife offers a static centralized model of place; that is, this place is “associated with a historical and mythological experience of the divine” (90).

Toward the beginning of his essay, Olupona paused the question: how does place impact the religious experience and imagination of a people? It is a different, yet similar in essence to what I paused of Jean-Luc Nancy: why do we care to find the places where the divine exists? Perhaps, I did find a response in Olupona’s reflection on Ile Ife as a center of the world. Because sacred places are also political, sacred places are used to foster nationalism, as a way of political mobilization, and creates boundaries. Furthermore, using religious imaginary, sacred places are imagined/remembered to improve the welfare of people. As a result, I argue that religious imaginary and place create a faith that is political!

This week, I am reflecting on the connections between Mary Gerhart’s chapter on Hildegard and Jean-Luc Nancy’s discussion of community/communion. In her exploration of the life of Hildegard of Bingen, Gerhart realizes she must ask not just, “Who was Hildegard?” but, “Where was/is Hildegard?”

“What began for me as a fascination with a major theologian, composer, prophet, visionary, and possibly artists of the twelfth century turned into a wrestling match with a huge bin of gnarled and knotted twine. However much I read, I had a sense that mere information was not enough. Neither Hildegard’s biography nor her cosmology lends itself to a straightforward textual analysis: In order to retrieve pre-critical beliefs of nine hundred years ago—beliefs vastly different from ours today—I found that I needed a sense of place in order to reconstruct information within my own mind-space” (Experiences of Place, 119.)

I see Gerhart making an immensely important claim about historical research: it can never be purely empirical, textual, or neutral. In order to most authentically engage with a historical subject, we must have an understanding of place that is imaginative and theological.

Jean-Luc Nancy’s work is also helpful here. He illuminates the concept of place itself as extremely mobile and malleable, with both ontological and epistemological dimensions. When Nancy asks, “Is there a place for God?” he invokes an ontological understanding of place—i.e. God is above, God is in heaven, God dwells with us—as well as a litany of epistemological concerns—i.e. is there a place for God in certain discourses? What are the political dimensions of God? With this expansive understanding of place in mind, Gerhart’s visit to the monasteries where Hildegard lived, worked, and worshipped gave her more than just a sense of the physical spaces Hildegard inhabited. Seeing what Hildegard saw—the woods, the morning fog, the light of a candle—allowed Gerhart to see Hildegard’s cosmology with greater depth. Despite the fact that Hildegard wrote extensively about Heaven, for example, Gerhart is only able to access Hildegard’s beliefs about Heaven through a communion with Hildegard in place and space, not just in the archive of her writing.

This is the greatest lesson I take from engaging comparatively with religious space/place: Historical research—both personal and academic—cannot just be done at arm’s length through documents and data; it must involve communion with those who have come before us, communion through place that stretches beyond the ontological.

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