The Sacred Today

Karla Cavarra Britton

What do we consider sacred today? How do we express it in built form? How do we address these questions within our own religious traditions? How do we address these questions within the pluralism of the public sphere?

The difficulties are acute. To re-address such foundational questions is, however, critical for both architects and religious communities in the current cultural climate, where religious buildings often have such significant impact on the built environment. One thinks of recently constructed state mosques in the Middle East, contemporary cathedrals in North American cities, or even the small house churches of Communist China.

The need for such interdisciplinary conversation is especially evident – and it is uniquely possible – where schools of divinity and architecture exist side by side, as they do at Yale. Across a range of academic disciplines, in fact, there is increasing recognition that religious conviction, or at least the search for recognizable patterns of meaning, persists as a potent force in contemporary life. Law, medicine, and environmental studies are all examining how religion is shaping cultural and personal identities in surprisingly complex ways.

A “Post-Secular Age”

We may therefore now be entering into a new paradigmatic moment of engagement with the relationship between matter and spirit, and therefore between architecture and religious thought.

One reason is: We may be more open than previous generations in our acknowledgment of modern life’s religious roots. Following Jürgen Habermas we recognize today that in spite of the homogenizing forces of globalization, the distinctiveness fostered by religious commitments seems only to have strengthened in recent decades. This has called into question what Habermas terms the secularization hypothesis – that increasing material wealth and modernization would necessarily diminish the role of religious identity.

Indeed, Habermas now speaks of a “post-secular age” in which political and social movements are powerfully shaped by religious conviction, in part as a means of resistance to the ubiquity of market capitalism. In light of these changed circumstances, Habermas argues that the idea of secularization has to be nuanced to take into account the continuing influence of religious convictions in social discourse, albeit at a more individualized level.1 In the case of religious buildings, this requires a reformulation of what sacred spaces are, and how they are conceived.

City of God

Since late Roman times in the West, ecclesiastical form has traditionally emanated from the shared cultural narrative of Augustine’s concept of the civitas dei – an intermingling of historical reality with spatial metaphor in the conception of two cities. This framework provided a cosmological synthesis for human history, guaranteeing its ultimate meaning and providing a stable communal vision for patrons, artists, and architects seeking to evoke the promise of the heavenly city.

Today, we can no longer assume such a commonly held ideal, neither within Christian tradition nor certainly within a pluralistic society that emphasizes the priority of the individual rather than a unifying experience of the sacred. How, then, is one to build a religiously meaningful work of architecture?

The Catalan architect Rafael Moneo has expressed this dilemma well. Reflecting on his own approach to these questions in building the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, commissioned in 2006, he wrote,

What are the architectural implications of this shift from an understanding of the world as the civitas dei to a perception of religion as an individual, private matter? This change implies that an architect of a church cannot appeal to society as a whole, but rather quite the opposite: Society is actually asking the architect to take the risk of offering others his vision of what constitutes a sacred space.2

Moneo’s perspective suggests a framework for the challenges of the production of ecclesiastical form. In this more individualistic and pluralistic age, there is an underlying ambivalence about what religious buildings can communicate. Such ambivalence establishes the parameters within which the contemporary architect of sacred works must seek to maneuver. Without a foundational metanarrative, there is no assurance that a built form can convey a cohesive communal vision of humanity’s relationship to God. Thus, rather than conceiving of the religious building as capable of speaking from a center of reference drawn from the perennial beliefs and commitments of ecclesial communities, the architect today is actually asked by society “to take the risk of offering others his [or her] vision of what constitutes sacred space.”3

“We Belong to the Future”

Mies van der Rohe, the heroic master of a universal and modernist architectural language, was particularly engaged in the question of what architecture is and how it might reasonably relate to a world that increasingly crowds out the life of the spirit. Mies sought to understand how “the art of building” reflected modern questions of the nature of beauty, art, and the human spirit. As Mies famously put it, “For what is right and significant for any era – including the new era – is this: to give the spirit the opportunity for existence.”

Mies found guidance in the work of the Jesuit priest and theologian Romano Guardini. In particular, Guardini’s Letters from Lake Como of 1927 expressed a worldview that sought a path through the struggles and paradoxes of the modern world. Guardini was especially helpful to Mies in articulating how a search for transcendent values could be aligned with an embrace of experimentation and advancement:

We belong to the future. We must put ourselves into it, each one at his station. We must not plant ourselves against the new and attempt to retain a beautiful world, one that must perish. Nor must we try to build, with creative fantasy, a new one that claims to be immune to the ravages of becoming. We have to formulate the nascent. But that we can only do if we honestly say yes to it; yet with incorruptible heart we have to retain our awareness of all that is destructive and inhuman in it. Our time is given to us as a soil on which we stand and as a task we have to master.

Guardini’s challenge still stands as a reminder to those who wrestle with questions of the sacred and its expression in built form – and who confront the risk that one is required to take not only to design, but even to consider the question of what sacred means today.

Karla Cavarra Britton teaches at the Yale School of Architecture, and has previously taught in the Religion and Arts concentration for the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. She has written books on modern architecture and is editor of Constructing the Ineffable: Contemporary Sacred Architecture (Yale, 2010).


1 Jürgen Habermas, “The Resurgence of Religion: A Challenge to the Secular Self-Understanding of Modernity,” the Castle Lectures, Yale University, October 2008.

2 Rafael Moneo, “Architecture as a Vehicle for Religious Experience: The Los Angeles, Cathedral” in Constructing the Ineffable: Contemporary Sacred Architecture, edited by Karla Cavarra Britton (Yale, 2010).

3 Moneo, p. 159.

4 Romano Guardini, Briefe vom Comer See (Mainz, 1927), p. 93, quoted in Fritz Neumeyer, The Artless Word: Mies van der Rohe on the Building Art, trans. Mark Jarzombek (MIT Press, 1991), p. 196.