I stumbled across two images this evening, one right after the other, that create a fascinating contrast.
First, Inhabitat featured this beautiful Dominican church from Maastrict, the Netherlands, adapted into a bookstore:
Then, I found photos of an old railway car adapted into an Orthodox church in Russia on the web site English Russia. (Apparently, there's a whole tradition of turning railway cars into churches in Russia. Who knew.)
These images provoked some thoughts ...
The question of differentiating sacred and secular space generates little discussion in urbanist circles, which is slightly odd because the consecration of some spaces as more sacred than others actually created the first ancient cities. The Priestly class among semi-nomadic people groups fixed themselves in a particular location and built a temple. Pilgrims would visit the temple to pay their dues and seek divine assistance, and it would eventually grow to become the political and economic epicenter of a city.
These pictures tell a different story; not of space intrinsically imbued with divine presence but of the adaptation of different spaces for spiritual or secular purposes according to activities of the community using them. This major shift in the West is actually not the product of modern secularization, but, at least within the Christian church, can be traced right back to Jesus' words in the gospel of John.
"The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth."This was for Christianity the unmooring of religion from geography - in my opinion, one of the most pivotal statements in Western history, whether you consider yourself a "worshiper" or not.
This is why, as a Christian myself, I'm perfectly content to see wonderful historic church buildings in the center of cities reused as, say, a bookstore or a service center for the homeless. While younger churches are breathing new life into industrial warehouses or burned-out strip malls. From the very first words of Genesis, the Spirit of God wasn't staying in place but was "hovering over the face of the waters." Cities are similarly dynamic.