Guest Post: Jeanne Halgren Kilde on Sacred Space at BYU

By June 15, 2009

Jeanne Halgren Kilde is the Director of the Religious Studies program at the University of Minnesota, where she earned her PhD. She is the author of two immensely important books: When Church Became Theatre: The Transformation of Evangelical Architecture and Worship in Nineteenth-Century America, and more recently Sacred Power, Sacred Space: an introduction to Christian architecture and worship, and of several articles. The value of her work is only enhanced by her graciousness as a scholar and mentor. We’re immensely honored to have her offer her thoughts here on the recent BYU Sacred Space seminar, at which she participated.

Thank you to Matt for inviting me to contribute a few words to this blog. And thank you to everyone involved in the Sacred Space symposium, including the audience members. Everyone I met was enormously hospitable and generous.

From my perspective, the symposium was precisely the type of thing we in religious studies should be doing more often–examining perspectives on religious space within a comparative framework. I think we learned a number of ways in which ideas about religious space intersect, share certain features, and diverge across traditions. We also observed different methods of approaching the topic of religious space.

In particular, I feel the conference was valuable in its bringing emic (insider) and etic (outsider) perspectives together in dialogue. Professors Givens, Cohen, Mavani, Fishbane, and Bushman along with some of the audience members spoke from emic perspectives from within their respective religious cultures. Professor Maffly-Kipp and I took a more etic or outsider perspective. Of course, individuals speaking from within a religious culture don’t always agree–interests and experiences shape emic perspectives in different ways and individuals embrace a variety of questions and methods. Similarly, those who bring etic perspectives to bear have different emphases, interests, and interpretive methods.

With respect to religious space and the study of religion generally, both perspectives are of great value. Tensions do arise, however, as they have in the previous posts on this blog, when emic viewpoints challenge the academy’s empirical methods of analysis and knowledge production, for instance, when they embrace supernatural (e.g. the Shekhinah “cloud” coming to rest in the Holy of Holies) or extrahistorical (the ancient origins of the Book of Mormon) events. Robert Orsi has written extensively on the tension between empirical methods and religious studies scholars’ difficulty in fully appreciating and integrating experiences of the transcendent or supernatural (what he calls “abundant experience”) in the fairly controversial final chapter of Between Heaven and Earth and in other articles. In his view, our historical imagination and grasp of religion must expand to include this central component of the religious imagination even when doing so challenges our deepest ethical and personal convictions. He urges scholars to adopt an “in-between” position, suspending judgment in a move to deepen understanding. Other scholars, including Russell McCutcheon, have challenged this position, arguing that Orsi’s strategy ends up being just another paternalistic way to explain away or even silence the voice of the religious other (JAAR, Sept 2006, Vol 74:3, pp. 720-50). The fact that the conversation on this blog is echoing this larger discussion within the field may bring comfort to some readers!

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks, Dr Kilde – these are valuable thoughts. It strikes me that the way you position emic and etic here, in conversation, each informing and enriching, might seem somewhat counterintuitive to veterans of the Mormon history wars particularly surrounding the career of Joseph Smith, whose participants have flung words like “devotional” and “naturalistic” at each other as epithets meant to devalue their respective arguments. One solution that some have pursued is simply to avoid working on the ‘extrahistorical’ events you refer to, but that is in some ways a surrender. The notion that our understanding of the past might best benefit from an ongoing conversation rather than slaying the other side’s dragon is hard-won.

    This is why I think Orsi’s work is remarkably applicable to Mormons; they’ve been wrestling with the issues of ‘abundant history’ for a long time.

    Comment by matt b. — June 12, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

  2. Stephen Prothero has also weighed in on Orsi’s position. Here’s our brief discussion of it in relation to Latter-day Saint scholars:

    Comment by smallaxe — June 12, 2009 @ 5:14 pm

  3. The emic-etic dichotomy you describe was particularly evident during the evening panel at the conference.
    Professor Bushman opened the panel with a rather insider perspective of his experiences with Mormon sacred space, followed by a rather emic question: something along the lines of, Is the construction of sacred space useful–is it a good thing–or should we rather try to diffuse the sacred–make every segment of life sacred? Professor Maffly-Kipp commented on how, being a Religious Studies professor at a state university, she felt sort of thrown by this question (in not quite those words, of course). In other words, Professor Bushman had thrown off the methodologically imposed brackets we are typically used to functioning within, or beside, or whatever. Which leads to my question: was this a breach of the sort of ethic Orsi describes, making it uncomfortable (or impossible) for etic discourse? (The comments did seem to be dominated by the emic sector.) And if so, does this point to a limitation of the etic discourse, or simply to the difference between the two approaches?

    Comment by stan — June 12, 2009 @ 8:22 pm

  4. I initially misread your post title. I thought you were talking about the sacred spaces found at BYU. When I was a student there, I found/created quite a few. For whatever else might be said about BYU, its many nooks and crannies provide many good opportunities to invoke apartness.

    Comment by Dane — June 12, 2009 @ 10:51 pm

  5. Thank you for your splendid insights, Dr. Kilde –

    Considering the emic/etic dichotomy of stances, and Richard Bushman’s invitation to exteriorize Mormon sacred space, I caught myself philosophizing in the garden the other day! The area behind the garage had been the embarrassment of my property for eight years. Previous owners had thrown debris there, and a shift in land contour had turned a once-drained area into a bog, further degenerated by little mosquito breeding pond measuring perhaps five feet across. A hopeless tangle of weeds and hanging branches finished the mess, until I hated even to go back there to discard pruned branches and dead plants.

    Then, last year, I found the money and energy to have the ground re-contoured. Tons of crushed gravel replaced the mud, after which I spent weeks landscaping the surrounding banks, complete with a border of fine grass. It requires a ridiculous amount of time and arthritis to maintain, but I can scarcely tear myself away from that wonderfully secluded place, summer or winter. Perhaps most surprising of all, a distinct sense of nature-sacredness has accrued to this “Secret Garden,” in my mind. And the most “sacred” point of all, where all the psychological energy seems to focus in relation to the various plantings, rock work, and other arrangements? It is the precise spot where the rancid little pond gurgled only ten months ago. The very worst, malodorous, disreputable point on my three acres has now become my sacred space.

    I hope there is a moral to this anecdote, be it ever so humble. We create sacred space. We can turn our darkest parts into our most shining and powerful aspects if we will face them, improve them, and give them our love or attention. Most wonderful of all, for me, is that I have been able to draw strength from this place and carry it out to the “world” on many occasions: pausing there before heading out on a difficult trip, or retreating there before giving in to thoughts of fatigue or discouragement. Emic, or etic, it surely works for me, though it has come as quite a surprise.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — June 13, 2009 @ 1:25 am

  6. Thanks for contributing your thoughts here, Dr. Kilde. They are, as you suggest, very relevant for Mormon scholars in understanding the larger debates on the same topic within the academy, and are expressed in a way that helps make sense of some things that have been swirling around in my mind that last few weeks.

    I also want to thank you for your participation and presentation at the symposium itself. Mormon sacred space is still and understudied subject, and your paper pointed to a number of potentially-fruitful subjects of inquiry for better understanding the topic (and the Mormon experience more generally).

    Comment by Christopher — June 13, 2009 @ 10:31 pm

  7. Thank you, Dr. Kilde, for posting your perspective here and reminding us that the issues at stake are not unique to Mormonism and that it is always fruitful to learn how other traditions and disciplines approach these issues.

    Comment by Jared T — June 14, 2009 @ 6:30 pm

  8. With all the emic and etic flying around, I keep having to stop myself from writing emetic.

    Stan: “And if so, does this point to a limitation of the etic discourse, or simply to the difference between the two approaches?”

    Yes. If the approaches really are different then, by definition, there is a limitation—something one approach can do that the other one cannot. Different approaches might arrive at the same result, but the experience of getting there is not.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — June 15, 2009 @ 12:18 am


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