A recent visit to Independence Hall in Philadelphia reminded me of how much space matters. Standing in the room where our nation was invented, where the Declaration of Independence was debated and signed, and where the Constitution was hammered out, I got a powerful sense of the importance of place. As I stood there watching tourists from around the world and young lovers from Philadelphia vie for photo-ops, I thought of this room as a special container, a safe place where democracy could come to life. Over time, it also has become a symbol, a space set aside that reminds Americans of who we are and what we aspire to. To lose such a space would be to lose a piece of ourselves.
These are days when we all are more conscious of the significance and the precariousness of our spaces. Every important national symbol has been fortified with new security systems and new protective barriers in the wake of the terrorists’ successful destruction of the World Trade Center. That space defined New York and the world economy—a part of who we are. Had the terrorists been fully successful on September 11, 2001, we would have lost the Pentagon and possibly the United States Capitol as well, and with them an even greater portion of who we are. (As I write, our nation anxiously waits under Code Orange alert, F-16s fly overhead, and portable missile launchers are positioned around the Washington metropolitan area—sure signs of both the importance and the vulnerability of our special spaces.)
Space for Our Humanity
We need these spaces and containers if we are to be fully human. And as important as our national symbols are, they are not the only spaces that matter. Our concerns to protect our environment, to set aside national parks and monuments, to preserve wetlands and purify streams, are all about our need for natural spaces—environments in which we can live, breathe, and be the creatures we were designed to be. These spaces too are threatened and vulnerable.
Our homes are other kinds of spaces—smaller containers and symbols that make room for us to be particular people and forge particular kinds of relationships. Their hearths and tables open up spaces for intimacy, identity, and love to emerge. These spaces, so indispensable and so fragile, face their own pressures and dangers.
And then there are our religious spaces. These special places make room for our spiritual selves to emerge, for sacred stories to be told, and life-giving practices to be learned. They make room for us to meet God, rekindle hope, experience self-emptying love, and face the dark side of our humanness with the light of grace. From these places, justice and mercy are set loose in the world. But high-steepled places of worship now think of themselves as targets, and their lower-profile neighbors are joining them in a concern to protect these spaces and the people who enter them.
Facing the Challenges
Setting aside our preoccupation with terrorism for a moment, we see other challenges. Many of our important religious spaces creak under the burdens of age and neglect, after decades of deferred maintenance. As some of these spaces disappear, room for human community goes with them.
A very different kind of challenge comes from our nation’s growth. As our cities become more densely populated and our suburbs continue to sprawl, there is often less room for congregations. Office towers, corporate parks, strip malls, and planned communities compete for land, and congregations often lose. Zoning battles over whether or not congregations can build in certain areas are signs of a cultural argument about which kinds of space are most needed.
At a time in history when so much seems to crowd and threaten our precious spaces, what should we do? We must begin by protecting and caring for the spaces we have. That task, by itself, is daunting. But we must do more. Across centuries, our great religious traditions have reminded us that people must have such spaces. They can be as grand as St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome or as sparse as Thomas Merton’s hermitage, but they are indispensable.
The tradition that I know best, Christianity, has a legacy of space-making unequalled by any other. Judith Dupré’s stunning Churches (HarperCollins, 2001) is a beautiful reminder of that legacy. On one page is the great stone cathedral at Chartres, on another the wooden stave church of Borgund, Norway. In forms as simple as the Shaker Meetinghouse at Sabbathday Lake in Maine or as elegant as Louis IX’s Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, this tradition has opened space for human being in remarkable ways.
Now, in the face of pressures to destroy and crowd out, we must reclaim our commitment to care for and create. More is required of us than generic replicas of New England village churches or Gothic clichés. Soon we will recognize that the megachurches designed as barren clones of the mall or the corporate auditorium will take us only so far. Our challenge is the same as that faced in every era: to keep clearing imaginative space and keep building new kinds of sacred containers and symbols that will release healing in the world.
Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is the president of the Alban Institute. Prior to joining the Institute in 1995, he served as program director at the Lilly Endowment’s religion division. Dr. Wind is the author of three books and numerous articles, including the Alban Institute special report on leadership.