Religious aesthetics in Jerusalem: IV (finale: faith and historical sensibility)

Thesis: How one feels about these Christian sites in Jerusalem — the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in particular — mimics how one feels about the relationship between faith and history in their attendant creeds. For myself, the part of me that finds the Church strange, off-putting, concerning, is my Protestant half; the part that finds it appealing despite everything else is the half of me sympathetic to the older creeds.

Perhaps the following is true: For the Protestant, 1700+ years of church life at this spot, the accumulated tradition and mechanisms of devotion, are incidental to, and quite possibly detrimental to, what its meaning should be. The real historical event is obscured under layers that seem tawdry in comparison. Theologically, veneration is incidental to the base historical fact of the crucifixion and resurrection, and possibly obstructs our understanding of it. Historically, years of veneration, ornamentation, tradition, two or three different routes for the Via Dolorosa, all detract from any sense of the place as historically accurate to what it was. Nothing looks like a tomb here — that was quarried away at the earliest possible moment by Constantine’s stonemasons. Perhaps in the Protestant mindset, what is desirable is a direct connection to the first century that can circumvent the intervening millennia. It’s no wonder that Gordon, a convert to the evangelical movement, sought and found the Garden Tomb, a place that would provide just that.

For the Catholic or Orthodox, perhaps the history of veneration in and of itself adds to the wonder and importance of the site. At least that part of me which appreciates those creeds feels a connection with those who through history have imperfectly honored and decorated the site. (Not to mention feels a real longing to participate in ritual with them, to kiss the stones, genuflect, back away from the tomb; my tradition provides NO PHYSICAL VOCABULARY to deal with sacred space!) Maybe we can say the following: Theologically, the resurrection cannot stand alone as a historical event only, the continuing recitation by the church is essential. Historically, meaning is vested not only in the first-century events but in a church with a continuing history; the Church at this site belongs to the ongoing church and the Holy Spirit.

(Ironically, the historical bona fides of the Garden Tomb are basically non-existent. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has much better claims to a real connection to the first-century events, and the Garden Tomb is as much or more a creation of the accumulated intervening sensibilities of its supporters.)

Question: How could we shape the aesthetics of our practice and presentation of the faith to reflect the strong points of both of these approaches? How might we shape worship, worship space, art, etc. that 

  • (a) confronts us with the founding first-century events in some measure of accuracy, allows a sense of direct relation to the events as they really were, does not forever cry out for more ornamentation, and
  • (b) honors tradition as the ongoing and essential recitation of these events, doesn’t pretend to have understanding of the events apart from the ongoing recitation, allows for veneration and celebration that enhances and doesn’t distract?
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1 Response to “Religious aesthetics in Jerusalem: IV (finale: faith and historical sensibility)”


  1. 1 ichsteh April 12, 2009 at 11:26 am

    “At least that part of me which appreciates those creeds feels a connection with those who through history have imperfectly honored and decorated the site.”
    I felt kind of the same at the Holy Staircase in Rome (which, if you didn’t already know, is supposed to be the staircase that Jesus walked up to get to Pontius Pilate, transported to Rome from Jerusalem). Even though I don’t believe for a second that it’s the real staircase, I was moved to be near something that’s meant so much for so long to so many people (including Martin Luther, though apparently he was conflicted about it). I couldn’t bring myself to go up it on my knees, though (which is the only way you’re allowed to ascend).


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