Sacred Spaces

Press play before you begin reading.

As you listen to the ambient echoes of Messrs. Leeb and Fulber ca. 1994 wash over you, I want you to briefly close your eyes an imagine a sacred space. Describe it quietly to yourself. Is it austere? Serene? Placid? Momentous? Spiritual? If you are a confirmed Catholic, does it feature the Stations of the Cross? If you are a MOT, is there a Torah carefully hidden from view? If you serve the Emperor God, do you see an Imperial aquila overhead?

Perhaps you imagine dim neon lighting and loud house music. I asserted recently that a strip club could rightly be considered a sacred space of a sort. What I mean by that is that such a venue has one and only one correct use, and to use it for other purposes is, well, uncomfortable. How would you feel about using a strip club as an AARP bingo hall? How would you feel about using a mosque as a place of polling?

If you’ll grant me some leeway with my language, it is exactly this single-use characteristic that uniquely identifies a sacred space (I’d offer that if a sacred space contains a religious element, it becomes a holy place). So, yes, a tabernacle is a sacred space, but so is a bedroom shrine to Rainbow Dash, and so are secular monuments. If you squint a little at Neil Gaiman’s characterization of America in his novel American Gods, so are roadside attractions. After all, you go to roadside attractions for the specific reason of witnessing sacred American kitsch, not to eat, not to use the restroom (though you may perform these activities incidentally).

Contrast an Apple Store with a Wal-Mart. Apple has meticulously crafted its brand to mimic the sacred. When you walk into a place that boasts an electronic altar staffed by self-anointed “geniuses”, the parallel to Hellenic oracles is inescapable. Wal-Mart, contrarily, is altogether profane: it does not even momentarily pretend to be anything other than what it is—a mundane place of commerce. Squealing kids are not shuttled out of a Wal-Mart by red-faced parents. (Nearly) anything goes.

What import hath sacred space? Well, in economics, we call the return to a fixed asset a “rent”. Land is a fixed asset, so the returns to owning land is called “rent”. Political privilege is a fixed asset, so the returns to owning a senator is called a “political rent”. I’d say that it might be analytically useful to isolate sacred rents, to help understand why we see some of the peculiar institutional arrangements we see in the world. Tithing, for example. Tithing is a big part of those religions that have thorough systematic theologies. Catholics and Mormons tithe, Friends and Old World Mennonites do not. If the gathering place itself, as well as the institutions and organizations supporting it provide sacred rents, tithing is how the priesthood captures those rents. If the worship hall is naught but timber and glass, with the sacred space existing between the parishioner’s heart and the Word of God, then there is no intermediary to capture the rent.

Unfortunately, this proposal is tricky to clearly test empirically. You could make a little list of sacred spaces (including, perhaps retailers like Apple) and test land valuation in their vicinity, but it’s pretty tough to control for covariates, and it’s a question-begging exercise for the most part anyhow. But maybe you can sort of test it out yourself on your own. Find your sacred space and ask yourself how much you’d have to be paid to perform a profane act there. Ask yourself how much you’d be wiling to pay someone else to stop performing a profane act there. If your answer is greater than zero, you’ve got yourself an estimate of what the sacred rent value is in that place. Once you have that number in mind, maybe you can start thinking about why it is the huffly-puffly types in the Bay Area are all twisted up about profane Google bros invading their sacred granola-and-wookiee Mission District. Their mere presence is offensive, even if the individuals have committed no unseemly acts. Ditto US Soldiers stationed in Saudi Arabia.

Ditto lots of stuff. Also interesting to think about is how sacred institutions coevolve with sacred places. I’ve a few thoughts on that too, but this is already wordy enough, so I’ll let my fine fellows here at ST chime in with their own thoughts.

Blessings to all y’all.

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