So I realized something last week, something quite dramatic. Indeed, it was as if I’d been walking along confidently, admiring the scenic vistas around, and suddenly looked down and realized there was nothing under me, and I was standing over a great chasm, Wile E. Coyote style. Thankfully, I think I have a little bit more time than he usually does to try to scramble to either side or else find something underneath me to support me, but I don’t feel like I have much time.
What on earth am I talking about? What is this chasm? It is the great unanswered question of: what is the holy? What is the sacred? And here is the rest of it. (note that, while in many ways, it might be important to distinguish the senses of these two words, I shall be using them, at least for starters, rather interchangeably). Strangely, it seems to me (though I may be wrong) that this question had never been clearly posed to me, and my mind had never cross-examined itself sufficiently to pose it clearly. But I ran smack up against it in one of my church architecture books a couple weeks ago, and as I thought about it, it dawned on me that for at least the last two years, my theological development (which has been rather dramatic…progressing from Reformed Presbyterian to Presbypalian (an unhappy mix of Presbyterian and Episcopalian) to full-blown Anglo-Catholic) had been proceeding on the basis of a certain clearly felt, but never clearly articulated or carefully examined concept of what the holy was. This concept, I realized as soon I looked it in the face, was quite distant from the traditional Protestant understanding. I realized that I would need to either find the justification for my concept of the holy or else, presumably, trot back over to the safe ground of Protestantism (or, I suppose, fling myself toward the other side and cling to the magisterium). I asked Dr. Leithart if I were just imagining things, or if my realization was accurate (and was an accurate description of why we’ve been talking past each other on a number of issues for a couple years), and he thought it hit the nail on the head. So I resolved—for the next couple months, I would be on a quest, a quest to discover the meaning of the holy. And sure enough, as often happens in such situations, every book I read over the next week (which I had to read anyway—I hadn’t picked them out) ended up explicitly discussing this issue.
What issue? What are the two concepts of the holy? Ok, I’m finally getting there…you know how I like very long prologues. Basically, the way it was put in the church architecture book where I first came across it was this: churches have always been basically understood as either the domus Dei, the “house of God,” that is, a place where God is pleased to make Himself present, a space that becomes sacred by His presence; or as the domus ecclesiae, that is, the “house of the assembly,” in which God is present because we, the people of God, rather than any building, are his temple, in which he dwells and whom he makes sacred. This is perhaps too sharp of a disjunction, because the domus Dei conception is often inclusive of the domus ecclesiae, saying, “Yes, God dwells in his people, and they are a holy assembly, but the place in which they worship can become a sacred space in another, fuller, more objective sense, so that the place itself becomes filled with God’s holy presence.” The domus ecclesiae understanding, however, is exclusive—because the Church as the people of God is God’s holy dwelling place, in no sense can that presence be associated with places and objects. This, they will say, is simply to return to the Old Testament, or rather, perhaps indeed to paganism (since some, e.g., James Jordan, would deny that a sacralized view of objects can be found even in the Old Covenant, which is frankly incomprehensible to me, but oh well). This view, as you can imagine, has a huge effect on how we conceive church architecture, but it goes much further, extending into liturgics, the role of images, sacramentology, your understanding of the office of the ministry, indeed, into your whole understanding how the external world overlaps with and mediates the powerful presence of the invisible God and the spiritual world,
It has certainly had such broad ramifications in my case. For example, the chasm between these two paradigms explains why most of what James Jordan said about images (posted here last fall) was seemed so self-evidently nonsensical to me. Unknowingly, somewhere along the way, I had fallen into the worldview of the domus Dei idea of holiness, not as an intellectual conviction, but perhaps more as a gut feeling, or even an aesthetic sense. I believe I got it while visiting the Gothic cathedrals in England, where, it seemed to me, there were still the unmistakable traces of God’s sanctifying presence in the very stone.
So, you see, now I need to go back to square one and see why I think what I think, and what, in fidelity to the faith, I ought to think. My sense is that the chasm is perhaps more bridgeable than it often seems…that we can vigorously affirm a both/and here…and I’ve already started brainstorming a few ways to star building that bridge. But a lot of reading will have to be done.
Soon I will post some thoughts on this issue from Alexander Schmemann and from the Pope, since I encountered this issue in my reading of them this past week. If any readers want to join me in this discussion, and help me in my search for the holy, I eagerly invite you to comment and dialogue about it over the next few weeks (and if you have any book recommendations, please offer them).