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!