Holy or Secular Space?

January 28, 2013

NPR recently had a story about young people moving away from religion in which they included an interesting claim. In the setup to the piece, NPR noted the location of some interviews with young people who grew up religious but now are not. Here is how it was explained:

NPR's David Greene wanted to understand why, so he gathered a roundtable of young people at a synagogue in Washington, D.C. The 6th & I Historic Synagogue seemed like the right venue: It's both a holy and secular place that has everything from religious services to rock concerts.
The place is described as both "holy and secular." But can it be? Is holiness something that can be turned on and off at a location? Can a place be sacred at times and profane at others? We are talking, after all, about a synagogue, a house of worship. The event being held there might change from holy (worship) or secular (rock concert, although this could also be holy). But does the space really change? Could it be that a secular event is held in a holy space? What about a church hosting a meeting for a civic club or serving as a location for voting booths? Does this mean the church would shift to being a secular place during the meeting or during the election? If so, perhaps churches should think more carefully about hosting such events. Do churches really wish to morph into secular public spheres? Which brings us back to the 6th & I Historic Synagogue. I have been there. The event I attended even included a time of worship. But it was not Jewish. I participated in a Bread for the World (a Christian organization) event at the synagogue. Does that mean the synagogue suddenly became a Christian holy space during that time? Or was it always a Jewish holy space, irregardless of whether or not it hosted a Jewish holy service, a Christian holy service and event, or a secular event? The mirror-image issue of that raised by the NPR piece is the idea of holding a religious service in a secular space (for some perspectives on this trend among U.S. churches, see a Daily Beast post here). For instance, some churches hold their services in a school, theater, or elsewhere instead of owning a building. Is that space holy or secular, sacred or profane? Or does it shift? I do not have full answers to these questions, but find them fascinating and important. And it seems NPR too quickly glossed over these issues as they announced with such finality that a space can seamlessly shift between the holy to the secular. Perhaps poet Wendell Berry has it right:
There are no unsacred places;
There are only sacred places
And desecrated places.

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