Recently, I read a little selection from the work of the great American scholar of religion Mircia Eliade. Essentially, Eliade points out that all religions create a vast dichotomy in the world, one of the sacred and the profane. Essentially, the sacred is the really real, the true and powerful manifestation of the other in our mundane world and the profane is the mundane world itself, the everyday happenings of human existence that are marked by nothing spectacular, nothing transcendent (I say all this to differentiate Eliade from Emile Durkheim, who also postulates this dichotomy, but with different definitions). Whether or not Eliade has produced an honest, accurate definition of religion has been a source of constant debate since he first arrived in America, but one section of his theory got me thinking, and that’s the idea of a sacred space.
In the beginning, sacred spaces are limited to what Eliade calls ‘hierophanies’ or appearances of the sacred. Wherever the divine breaks violently into human life, that place then becomes a place of power, a place where one can commune with the really real. A few prominent examples of these: the Dome of the Rock, where Muhammad ascended into heaven, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where Jesus arose from the grave or the Mahabodhi Temple where the Buddha obtained enlightenment. In these spaces, the sacred broke into the profane and we go to them to encounter the radical power of the sacred
But once a religion becomes globalized (or even just widespread), sacred space becomes a different concept. Not all religious people can make the trek to the original sacred space, or the sacred space is lost, or held by enemies. So local places of worship become sacred. Sometimes, the divine is said to actually have intervened in these places as well (as is this case with local shrines), or sometimes they contain relics of the divine, but often, these churches, synagogues, mosques or temples are sacred not because the divine appeared there, but because there people can encounter the divine through ritual and ceremony, because here the divine is gracious enough to reveal itself when we ask.
Somewhere along the way, however, we Protestants have lost the concept of sacred space. Maybe the Catholics have too, but I don’t see my pastor genuflecting before the altar or kissing the gospels before he reads them. There’s just something about Protestant culture that so desperately wants to reject ritual at the expense of true understanding. And so we removed the artwork from our churches, took away the ornate columns and replaced them with gyms and coffee shops. We sip lattes during the service in our movie theater style chairs while the pastor addresses us from a bar stool. We have so desperately run from ritual that we’ve landed smack dab in the middle of complacency
My pastor once told me a story about a time when he lived in a parsonage next door to the church and one night found himself in his pajamas traipsing through the sanctuary with a gallon of milk borrowed from the fellowship hall’s fridge. He told me that in that moment, he became terrified. This church building, this sacred space, had become his home; he had become comfortable enough that here he was in the sanctuary of God in his pajamas, concerned only with the milk in his hand. He no longer considered this place sacred. It was an extension of his home, a place where he was okay with wearing slippers and a bath robe instead of a place to commune with Almighty God.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t feel like you belong at church. There’s no doubt in my mind that we must feel like the church is our home, but the second we start treating it like a Starbucks, I think we need to reevaluate our church lives. Have we, in reducing church to a coffee shop, perhaps reduced God to our barista? Is he someone who does what we want and serves us sweet things instead of the sovereign God of the universe? When we go to church, are we just having a casual chat with a friend or are we actively engaged in the worship of the divine, of the really real? In lessening the sacred aspects of our church life, we have lessened the sacred nature of God. In turning his temple into something less, into something far more mundane and profane, we have said that God is not our ultimate reality. We have, in effect, removed the sacred from our sacred spaces.
I’m not saying we need a total change in church architecture and worship style and all that, but check your attitudes as you enter the sanctuary. Are you carrying a cup of coffee? Throw it away. (Need the caffeine to stay awake? Get a few more hours of sleep the night before.) Tempted to slouch back pretty far and maybe even nap? Sit up, sit on the edge of your seat. Engage yourself. Does reading the bible on your iPhone tempt you to check the scores or text a friend about lunch plans? Turn it off when you come inside, bring a print bible instead (and take some notes).
Change your attitudes about church, and you’ll totally revolutionize your experience there. When we’re focused on the dramatic reality of the divine, the fact that Christ himself will meet with us in this space, we don’t want to be comfortable. We don’t care that we don’t have a latte next to our chairs. We don’t care about ourselves. What we do care about is encountering the risen Christ and allowing his reality to dominate ours. When our churches become sacred spaces instead of glorifies coffee shops, then and only then will we encounter the sacred there. Then and only then will we be shaped and transformed by the really real, by the hierophany of Christ Jesus himself, made manifest in us and in our community, which prizes the sacred over and above the simply profane.