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The Shadow of the Sacred

The Shadow of the Sacred

I recently had the extraordinary opportunity to tour Israel and visit a number of historical and sacred sites. And as I fully anticipated from the beginning, the trip’s most memorable moments by far were found within the city of Jerusalem. Seated at the intersection of three different faith traditions—Jewish, Christian, and Islamic—the city has been contested for centuries, and currently exists in an uneasy “status quo” arrangement predicated on mutual non-disturbance.

Not all sacred sites are equally thought-provoking. Some of the great cathedrals of Western Europe—chiefly Notre Dame—have become sharply divorced from their original purpose, and feel more like heavily commercialized tourist traps than religious sanctuaries. An American example of this phenomenon might be the Washington, D.C. National Cathedral—a beautiful building housing a religion that demands little of its adherents.

But Jerusalem, more than any other city I’ve visited, is a place where religious truth-claims are taken seriously: if a religion is true, then it should shape the behavior of its adherents. In the quiet reverence and solemnity of the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Dome of the Rock, there is a common sense of dignity.

This, in turn, has given me a renewed appreciation for the principles of civic pluralism and religious freedom. A real kinship of sorts exists between persons of faith—even those whose beliefs strongly differ—in that they share a sense of transcendence and reverence beyond the immediate, and (ideally) their actions are subordinated to moral norms beyond personal preference. “Interfaith dialogue” is often criticized as basically shorthand for the claim “all religions are true.” And while this sort of neutering has sometimes occurred (usually resulting in limp platitudes having much more in common with liberal secularism or religious kitsch than with historic belief), this need not always be the case. Instead of trying to engineer some sort of doctrinal hybrid, I submit that a better starting point is an affirmation of shared history. Like Christianity, Judaism and Islam are rooted in the Abrahamic tradition, and their art and writings and other works reflect that shared heritage (see this month’s roundtable for more discussion on Islam). It stands to reason that a Christian, who sees himself or herself as also part of that tradition, will have a unique appreciation for that culture.

The aforementioned undercurrent present throughout Jerusalem—the idea that true religion should challenge, not merely amuse, its adherents—extends beyond abstract ideas about behavior and into the architecture of the city itself. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, collectively maintained by the Roman Catholic Church and several Eastern and Oriental Orthodox groups and traditionally believed to house the holiest historical sites in Christendom—Golgotha, and the tomb from which Christ rose—epitomizes this. Beyond the old wooden doors (the posts of which are still marked with Crusader-era graffiti), the Church is dark, laden with iconography, and filled with the scent of incense. There are no audio tours, no easy-to-read labels on every surface in sights, and no gift shops. During worship services (one of which I was privileged to attend early one morning), priests and parishioners are not simply cordoned off into their own section while visitors continue to file through (as was the case in Notre Dame and in St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome): portions of the Church are closed off while the Eucharist is being celebrated. In short, this Church is not a museum: it is a consecrated place that tourists may briefly visit.

There are those who might find the candles and incense and omnipresent icons over-the-top, or so alien to the Western mind as to trigger discomfort. To such critics, I submit that Christianity is a faith characterized through-and-through by symbolism and paradox, and that it attempts to communicate the incommunicable—from the Trinity to the sacrament of Holy Communion. Accordingly, such tangible effects—braziers, paintings, water, fire, wine, and many others—are possessed of multiple layers of meaning. Seeking to understand that meaning (essentially, what an unknown symbol or object communicated to its long-ago creator as they worked within the Christian tradition) is, at least to me, both a fascinating and meditative task.

Contemporary America is filled with churches that look far more like stages for TED talks than sacred spaces, and with theologies similarly decoupled from their historic moorings. And indeed, this is unsurprising: perhaps the traditional forms and dogmas seem uncomfortable, or at times inaccessible.

But isn’t that, though, what meaningful faith should also be?

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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