Thursday, April 2, 2009

Sacred Place

The central location in modern life is the self. This is true not just for philosophers such as Descartes who discovered the Thinking I (ego cogito) as the source of all certainty, but it is true also in many other respects. To be sure, our selfperception as moral agents may be inflated and illusory, as Marxist critics of Western spirituality have it, but this does not make the notion of a centrality of the self less powerful and a less widely accepted presupposition.

Rousseau, Goethe, and others have taught us that the modern preoccupation with the self is a double-edged sword, one that is all the more potentially self-destructive for its powerfully seductive and self-flattering qualities. In the following, I consider the modern self’s infatuation with itself in light of two competing metaphors, that of sacred place and that of sacred space. Sacred place is a common notion in the study of religion and usually applies to the phenomenon of the location of the sacred or divine in space. Sacred place signals an immediately accessible and hence quite atavistic experience of the divine. The identity of a place is purely extraneous and hence more easily remembered and less abstract than the identity of a time. “It was here, that …” or “Here is where …” can be pointed to and it impresses itself on those who did not themselves witness the theophany but who are taught to associate its telling with the place, associating the ephemeral word with the immovable object, the outcropping in the rock, the towering terebinth, the mountain peak. The sacred may linger in any place that arouses our curiosity, attracts our attention, or frightens us.

Sacred place may interact with sacred time when rituals are involved but this is not necessary for the experience of a place as sacred. Sacred place precedes sacred time. The difference between here and there is prior to the difference between now and then, although they may also simply reside in, or preside over, different spheres of consciousness. The primal discovery that here is unlike there and that this here is different from all others (to the extent that a conception of “all” is at all necessary to form the impression of difference), may live on in our sense of home, of being housed instead of homeless, oriented rather than disoriented, rooted rather than rootless. Place and home, i.e., the sense of a special place, correlate with the circularity of the seasons, with the repetition and sameness of time. But here we seem to transition to something that is better named sacred space. Sacred space, in contrast to sacred place, indicates freedom, empowerment, domination, and room to move. It is not limited to experiences associated with a sedentary lifestyle. One can imagine hunters and gatherers returning to the same cave again and again for ritual purposes or shelter. But space can also describe the boundaries and range required by the migration of herds for pasture. The ancient city represents both, sacred space and sacred place, namely, protected space and divine presence, in that it is understood as the residence of the deity on whose power depends the regularity of the seasons and hence the fertility of the land and the fecundity of the herd.

To be sure, with the exception of certain rugged individuals and the stars ruling the heavens of politics and commercial entertainment, most of us don’t show any trace of similarity with extraordinary places that might qualify as theophantic loci. But the sacred place represents the source of sustenance and the ability to represent it depends on the expectations held by those who approach it and the efficacy with which it is able to fulfill these expectations. What if the self has turned into a place that is approached by others with expectations that are analogous in some important ways to those with which one traditionally approached a shrine, an altar, or a holy city?

In the Middle Ages, geocentric cosmology, neo-Platonic ontology, and belief in divine providence contributed to a richly symbolic and largely unified view of life. God was at the top of a hierarchy of beings; the heavenly bodies mediated the divine influence to the sublunar sphere; just as God ruled the eternal motion of the stars, king and pope ruled society, and all were held accountable. The charme of this worldview consisted in the notion that the earth as a whole was the center of the universe (and hence of divine attention), that the Holy City (Jerusalem) was the center of the habitable earth, and that the shadowy material world was more than just the often dismal conditions of life, namely, the microcosmic mirror of the underlying imperturbable and eternal order of things. The dignity of human life was grounded in its relation to the transcendent source of life rather than immanent in nature. This changed with the shift from a geocentric to a Copernican view of the universe. Modern science initially retained many of the intuitions and assumptions of neo-Platonic ontology, most importantly the notion of the unity of the cosmic order, the uniformity of laws of nature governing all natural phenomena. The only exception to this rule that science had to allow for, at least from a Kantian perspective, was the lawgiving capacity of reason itself. This allowed Kant to retain a sufficient foothold for the idea of freedom. The divine spark did not need to be abandoned or denied altogether but it had to be relocated from the place assigned to it by the worldview of myth to the place assigned to it by the worldview of critical philosophy. Without a physical center, the location of the divine source of life was compelled to move to the only place that remained open to the idea of freedom, i.e., the human spirit. But even from a non-Kantian and more utilitarian perspective, the source of life shifts from divine providence to the enterprising spirit of man. Thus, perhaps inevitably due to the collapse and displacement of the medieval worldview, the enterprising or entrepreneurial individual, the modern Faustian man or homo faber, moves to the center.

It is this centrality of the self in modern life that suggests that the self may have come to stand in for functions formerly exerted by sacred place. The new “Cloverleaf-Map,” one might argue, would be something like a “Google-Earth,” with “my maps” linked to the place of the self as its central location. Personal computing, flextime, and connectivity have dismantled the traditional notion of a work place, and the separation between between home and work (and even the commute that used to separate them temporally and spatially) has been replaced by the unified home-office. Where commute still happens, it has become just another purely extraneous and tangential element in the ubiquitous performance of work by means of wireless phones and blackberries. With the conditions of work being available anytime and everywhere, the self has become the mobile location and pure source of productivity. The only remaining location that truly matters is the self in its presence to itself that is now challenged to transform itself into a readily available presence to its others. The expectation of others is that the self be available to their demands, just like the deity is available at a sacred place either from far away (through prayer) or up close (through pilgrimage). The arrows pointing to the self as a hub of productivity and communication threaten to eradicate all privacy not just because of the expectations of others but also and perhaps primarily because the attention and constant demand exerted by potentially profound bits of information (e.g., emails or sms from family, friends, and colleagues, market updates) constitute a potent source of a radically individualized form of entertainment and the perpetual sustenance of a feeling of self-importance and meaning (“you’ve got mail!”). The intensity of productivity or its simulacrum, the availability and technologically stimulated activity, is the measure of selfhood and hence of one’s actuality. The virtual character of this type of actualization has, of course, long since been noticed, just as the increasing difficulty to distinguish between the virtual and the actual has been widely exploited not just in the entertainment but also in the service industry (think offshore call centers).

The self as the locus of freedom turns into the self as the focus of productivity. This comes with the loss of privacy and hence, paradoxically, with the destruction of the freedom on which productivity depends. It is as if the Faustian bargain of perpetual engagement has subverted freedom into its opposite: a complete sell-out of the room to move that is implicit in the modern notion of the self. What suggests itself as an antidote and a representation of an alternative is what above appeared as the correlate of the nomadic conditions of life, namely, attention to space rather than place. The self is drowned and extinguished when it is forced to function as a sacred place but it may be liberated and restored when construed in the sense of a sacred space. The irony of this reversal is that it suggests the substitution of an image of emptiness and abstraction for an image of engagement and fulfillment. Sacred space, somewhat reminiscent of Rousseau’s notion of nature in its opposition to the business and traffic of civil society, suggests a limit or boundary: up to here and no further! To be sure, the modern self will still be haunted by the paradox that the self remains at its center: hic Rhodus, hic salta! but it cannot fulfill the role assigned to it in the post-Copernican world unless it regains a sense of space that allows the self to reconstitute itself.

Traditional sacred place, the obligation to turn in a certain direction for prayer, the commandment of pilgrimage—although excentric from the perspective of modern assumptions about freedom and autonomy, these forms of theocentric spatial orientation remain available to us and have become a source of fascination for those in need of restoring a sense of sacred space. The most attractive destiny of pilgrimage for the alienated modern Western self has been the East, esp. the ashram. The ashram is attractive because it provides relief from the pressures of self-determination. The very goal of Buddhist meditation is the overcoming of the self and hence of the sickness of post-medieval Western man. While pilgrimage to Jerusalem may serve to some as a welcome source of spiritual reorientation, it seems to me that meditation, prayer, and yoga, as the more readily available sources of spirituality and of making space for the individual, have eclipsed the Holy City as a destiny of pilgrimage. The centrality of the self to modern man remains unchallenged. Can this modern self, this location of productivity that considers itself the location of divine freedom and creativity and that is in dire need of space to recover its anonymity in order to regain a sense of the preposterousness of the burden it carries, can this modern self be aided by a visit to the Holy City or will it be condemned to remain—a mere tourist? Even if one were willing to accept the hardships and self-deprivation required by a traditional pilgrimage, the modern city hardly requires it. It is also highly doubtful whether, to its modern visitors, the spiritual meanings of Jerusalem are able to penetrate the thick fog of political meanings the city has acquired over the past ninety years. Most importantly, however, not even as charming and complex a city as Jerusalem can disrupt the sense that the sacred is either in ourselves, or it is nowhere.

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