Discourses of Religious Space


William E. Deal

Department of Religion

Case Western Reserve University

October 2003



Draft \x96 Not for Citation

Last Updated: 26 October 2003


AAR/SBL Annual Meeting 2003

Constructions of Ancient Space Seminar





In the paper I presented for the 2002 Constructions of Ancient Space Seminar, \x93Simulating Pure Land Space: The Hyperreality of a Japanese Buddhist Paradise,\x94 I explored aspects of the spatial trialectics of Lefebvre and Soja. Like others in the Seminar, I hold to the idea that there is a need to employ spatial studies along with historical and social analyses of religious data. For the Seminar, the spatial theories of Lefebvre and Soja have been central to exploring these issues. This paper, which is more a series of questions with narrative than a tightly developed argument, examines issues of religious space from the perspective of discourse \x96 what gets said about space \x96 and the idea that the study of religious space is, inter alia, a textual practice. I \x93read\x94 space through the historiographical observations of historian Hayden White and through perspectives on metaphor delineated in the work of George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, and Mark Turner. I use a selected passage from Eliade\x92s The Sacred and the Profane as data for my considerations of the textuality of space.


In the paper proposal I submitted for this year\x92s Seminar \x96 and that is the published abstract for the AAR/SBL meeting \x96 I said I would write the following paper:


This paper explores ways in which discourses of religious space are articulated from at least three (interrelated) perspectives:


1.      Experiences of religious space are typically translated into narratives that become part of discourses with resonances to issues of power, knowledge, subjectivity, and other Foucauldian cultural measures.


2.      Contemporary scholarly descriptions of religious space and spatial experiences are often expressed without benefit of any firsthand experience. Yet, academics often talk authoritatively about these spaces. This constitutes an academic discourse of space and has its own problems and peculiarities.


3.      Scholarly descriptions of religious space as a generic, cross-cultural category have their own changing discursive history. The discursive logic of, for example, Eliade's notion of sacred space, does not necessarily fit with, say, postmodern notions of religious space. What is at stake in this shifting terminology?


What was I thinking? I foresee no way to pull this off without at least a book-length manuscript. So, I propose now to look at space in terms of discourse and textuality which are the related concepts that tie these three agenda items together. I hope to make comments that are suggestive enough to generate further conversation on these matters.


A Textual Opening in Space


I start with this question: To what extent is any space both a physical place and, in many significant ways, a textual practice? As spatial discourse, space is embedded in knowledge regimes that broker power and have ideological implications. The historian Hayden White\x92s work on \x93metahistory\x94 is suggestive for understanding space textually, and semiotics and metaphor theory is useful for exploring the textual nature of our representations of space. In short, my exploration of textuality in a group devoted to the exploration of spatial practices is meant to suggest that space \x96 although having an external, physical aspect \x96 nevertheless presents itself to us as a narrative practice. Space may be physical, but it is also conceptual and its representations largely textual.


There is \x96 for me, at least \x96 a curious thing that happens whenever space is examined. It always becomes a discourse about space. Even when \x93real\x94 material space is described, it is through language and other spatial representations \x96 either ones we construct to narrate the space and its meaning(s), or the representations we are re-presenting through images inscribed in various media, whether film or pixels or whatever. I keep thinking about whether we can ever \x93do\x94 space (I am here trying to avoid saying things that want to emerge out of my reliance on language, like whether we can ever \x93talk\x94 about space or \x93interpret\x94 space without language) without implicating language, or perhaps better, discourse that forms knowledge/power in Foucault's sense of discourse.


There seems to me an analogy between issues of religious space and issues of religious experience (and, by extension, about any space and any experience). The classic debate among those who study religious experience has traditionally been over whether one's religious experience is mediated or unmediated by culture and language. One view holds that religious experience is primarily unmediated by culture and prior to language and only secondarily becomes cultural and linguistic in the relating of the experience to others verbally or in writing. The contrary view holds that all experience is already \x93tainted\x94 by culture, language, and conceptual structures so that the notion of \x93pure\x94 experience is at best wrong and at worst a legitimating discourse that seeks to prove or otherwise authorize the experience as authentic. So the analogy to space: we experience space through our bodies and bodily sensations. Can we have an unmediated experience of space such that our relating of our experience can escape language? It seems to me the answer is no. The interpretation of space \x96 which is this Seminar\x92s charge \x96 is largely reliant on language to get its work done. Though I would personally applaud such an effort, no one as far as I know has built a material \x93space\x94 as a way to interpret another space. I'm not sure what any of us would do with such a material interpretation, and it would surely be problematic for Jim to get it online. My point is this: in the same way that religious experience seems to require language in order to do its discursive, ideological, and other work, so, it seems, does religious space.


Fine. But my concern is that in our turn to space as a way to expand our understandings of religion as something that goes beyond or is not limited to \x93thought\x94 \x96 professions of belief, creeds, and other verbal markers of how and what we think about religion \x96 we are thrown right back up against thought. We think about space and interpret space through language. So, is space, like Hayden White's view of history, primarily a textual practice when it comes time for academics to have their \x93say\x94 about space and spatial practices?


White: History as Text


White argues that historiographical self-reflection \x96 looking at scholarly assumptions and presuppositions in the writing of history \x96 is the goal of what he terms \x93metahistory.\x94 White elaborates: \x93It [metahistory] addresses itself to such questions as ... What is the epistemological status of historical explanations, as compared with other kinds of explanations that might be offered to account for the materials with which historians ordinarily deal? What are the possible forms of historical representation and what are their bases?\x94 (\x93The Historical Text as Literary Artifact\x94 81). I want to shift the focus here to space: What is the epistemological status of spatial explanations? What are the possible forms of spatial representation? These are important questions that I will not pretend to answer in any satisfying way here. But I do want to raise these questions to the Seminar and ask for additional reflection on these questions, and whether or not these are questions worth asking.


White's own answers to questions about historiography involve the idea that history is a textual practice. White\x92s textual or narrative view of history revolves around the idea that although there are real events occurring in time and space, we only have access to language about those events, never the events themselves. History, as a narrative of the past, is therefore primarily textual. While it could be argued that we do have tangible access to material spaces described, for instance, in the Bible, it seems to me the analogy still holds: we have no direct access to these spaces as they were lived and experienced 2000 or 3000 years ago. Our enterprise here is therefore largely about re-constructing space through our interpretations-in-language of what those spaces must have been like and the first, second, and third space implications. The only access we have to these spaces-as-experienced is through textual descriptions of what these spaces meant to those who lived in them. And, for the sake of discussion, I will go out on a limb here: I do not think the archaeological record provides us with much access to Thirdspace because the archaeological record must be conceptualized and interpreted in a way similar to interpreting a text.


One of the implications of White\x92s view is that historical truth is always constructed through the narratives crafted by historians. Historical knowledge, therefore, is not simply the apprehension of an external reality, the truth of the past, but is a product of the historian\x92s discourse. White\x92s work typically takes aim at binary oppositions that pretend to organize \x93reality\x94 in a logical, objective way. From White\x92s perspective, for example, the traditional opposition of history\x92s facts to literature\x92s fictions is a false one. Extending his observations to questions of space, we might assert that spatial knowledge is not simply the description of a material, external space, but is the product of discourse replete with binary oppositions, a \x93plot,\x94 metaphor, and other tools of the narrator\x92s trade.


White\x92s notion of the construction of the historical past through narrative involves the idea that history is a discursive and rhetorical enterprise, not one of excavating objective, incontrovertible facts. White\x92s ideas about historical discourse are contrary to traditional \x93realist\x94 views of narrative which assume the posture of an omniscient narrator who tells a story characterized by uninterrupted flow. Such a narrative voice masks the usually fragmentary nature of historical sources and evidence. It creates the appearance of a complete and unambiguous story where none exists. Following White, we might argue that studying past religious spaces is a discursive and rhetorical venture. To what extent are our narratives about space addressing or hiding the ruptures and fragments that these spaces possess?


White\x92s theory of tropes (tropology) is central to arguments about historical writing he expresses in Metahistory. A trope is usually understood as a figure of speech, such as a metaphor. White, however, uses this term to refer to styles or modes of thought used by historical narratives to craft their discursive arguments. Through extensive research into the history of historiography, he shows how historical texts from particular periods have in common the use of certain tropes. For White, \x93troping is the soul of discourse\x94 (Tropics of Discourse 2), and it is one of the chief tasks of the historian to identify what tropes are used and to uncover their ideological ramifications.


White discusses modes of emplotment utilized by historical discourse. Just as with literary narratives, historical narratives have a plot structure that is utilized by the historian to tell the story of past events. White identifies four primary modes of emplotment: romance, comedy, tragedy, and satire. These modes of emplotment in turn are connected to modes of explanation and ideological implications. The narrative a historian creates from choices of plot, explanation, and ideology serves as an interpretation of past events. Historical interpretation has, according to White, at least three aspects: (1) the aesthetic (choice of narrative strategy); (2) the epistemological (choice of explanatory mode); and (3) the ethical (ideological choice). Historical discourse consists of these three interpretive aspects and thus presupposes a particular metahistory. \x93Every proper history presupposes a metahistory which is nothing but the web of commitments which the historian makes in the course of his interpretation on the aesthetic, cognitive, and ethical levels differentiated above\x94 (Tropics of Discourse 71). Thus, the issue for historians, according to White \x96 and one that extends to the historian of religion \x96 \x93is not, What are the facts? but rather, How are the facts to be described in order to sanction one mode of explaining them rather than another?\x94 (Tropics of Discourse 134).


To what extent are processes of emplotment, explanation, and ideology operating in analyses of religious space? I want to make some suggestions about how his agenda might illuminate narratives of religious space. Like White\x92s view of the historian narrating a history, is the academic study of religion primarily a textual practice? Are religious traditions constructed by the narratives that religionists employ to talk about past events? Are there patterns of emplotment to religious texts, both those produced within religious traditions and those written by religion scholars?


Eliade\x92s Discourse of Sacred Space


To further explore these matters, I offer a brief reading of a single paragraph of Eliade\x92s The Sacred and the Profane to further examine textual attributes of spatial analyses. I am not trying to dismiss Eliade\x92s work, but simply to show how fundamentally textual his theory of sacred space is. His scholarship on sacred space is well-known and has become a part of our \x93commonsense\x94 about the nature of religious space. But this commonsense is discursive, not spatial.


Eliade observes the following in a section titled \x93The Center of the World.\x94


The cry of the Kwakiutl neophyte, \x93I am at the Center of the World!\x94 at once reveals one of the deepest meanings of sacred space. Where the break-through from plane to plane has been effected by a hierophany, there too an opening has been made, either upward (the divine world) or downward (the underworld, the world of the dead). The three cosmic levels \x96 earth, heaven, underworld \x96 have been put in communication. As we just saw, this communication is sometimes expressed through the image of a universal pillar, axis mundi, which at once connects and supports heaven and earth and whose base is fixed in the world below (the infernal regions). Such a cosmic pillar can be only at the very center of the universe, for the whole of the habitable world extends around it. Here, then, we have a sequence of religious conceptions and cosmological images that are inseparably connected and form a system that may be called the \x93system of the world\x94 prevalent in traditional societies: (a) a sacred place constitutes a break in the homogeneity of space; (b) this break is symbolized by an opening by which passage from one cosmic region to another is made possible (from heaven to earth and vice versa; from earth to the underworld); (c) communication with heaven is expressed by one or another of certain images, all of which refer to the axis mundi: pillar (cf. the universalis columna), ladder (cf. Jacob\x92s ladder), mountain, tree, vine, etc.; (d) around this cosmic axis lies the world (= our world), hence the axis is located \x93in the middle,\x94 at the \x93navel of the earth\x94; it is the Center of the World (Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane 36-37).


I want to underscore here that although Eliade is talking about physical space \x96 albeit in a generic fashion \x96 his narrative is ultimately less descriptive of an observable, experienced space that it is textual. The following brief and very tentative comments are an attempt to tease out aspects of textuality found in Eliade\x92s famous work.




Following White\x92s claims about emplotment, what kind of plot does Eliade\x92s narrative utilize? Eliade writes in a realist mode, employing an ideology of objectivity. His narrative appears to speak transparently about observable, experienced space. (Though I have not had time to explore this further, it may well be that others of the Religionswissenschaft school wrote with a similar mode of emplotment.) But Eliade\x92s division of space into tripartite planes is not a description of physical space in any objective, empirical sense. Rather, it is a construction of space through concepts, tropes, and other linguistic maneuvers.


Despite Eliade\x92s realism \x96 particularly evident in the paragraph quoted above \x96 there is also a mythic drama that lurks just below the realism. In Eliade\x92s narrative of sacred space, the central event is the hierophany: it ties together different planes, it makes space inhabitable, and it creates a center point for human lives. It is also a very dramatic event, transforming both time and space. One of the ways that Eliade is able to meld realism with mythic drama is by utilizing a sequential plot structure that has a beginning, middle, and end \x96 in that order \x96 that takes spatial chaos and transforms it into spatial cosmos. It is commonly observed that realist narratives have such a sequential plot structure, but it is also the structure of the kind of mythic tale Eliade tells.


A couple of further thoughts:


\xB7        It strikes me that the cosmic drama that Eliade unfolds has less to do with space as physical place and much more with a literary construction whose dramatis personae include Kwakiutl neophytes and other human beings, and the appearance of God, or the sacred, in starring roles.


\xB7        Experiences of religious space are typically translated into narratives that become part of discourses with resonances to issues of power, knowledge, subjectivity, and other Foucauldian cultural measures.


Binary Oppositions


Among the binary oppositions expressed or implied by Eliade are:


sacred\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0 profane

center\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0 periphery

upward\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0 downward

divine world\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0 underworld/world of the dead

habitable world\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0 uninhabitable world

cosmos\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0 chaos


These oppositions \x96 inherently linguistic \x96 are necessary to Eliade\x92s realist plot. It allows him to create a narrative with clear lines drawn between the sacred and the profane and to value each accordingly. By extension, oppositions like us/them, center/periphery, and habitable/uninhabitable can be additionally stated or implied. Obviously, binary oppositions do not exist in material space, but are rather constructed to make sense out of an otherwise inchoate experience of space. Not all cultures construct the same binary oppositions.




Metaphor, as a trope expressing similarity, is central to Elidae\x92s narrative. He employs such metaphors as:


\xB7        space is like a mathematical plane

\xB7        sacred space is like a navel


We are once again confronted with the textual nature of Eliade\x92s conception of sacred space. A plane is a two-dimensional surface \x96 a curious metaphor to describe three-dimensional space when other mathematical metaphors are available, such as the image of a cube or sphere. This mathematical imagery is continued with the idea that a manifestion of the sacred \x96 a hierophany \x96 is like a line bisecting the three planes of heaven, earth, and underworld. The notion of an earthly navel is similarly metaphoric. The earth, being spherical, cannot physically have a central point on its surface. This is another example of using language to conceptualize a space. In short, material space does not represent itself as Eliade describes; rather, Eliade constructs this representation out of metaphors and binary oppositions that are a part of larger patterns of meaning-making.


Paradigmatic Relationships


Eliade utilizes paradigmatic relations to forge a typology of the sacred that finds sacred and profane space everywhere and which creates a hierarchy of value ranging from \x93supreme\x94 to \x93elementary\x94 hierophanies (Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane 11). Hierophanies are symbolized, among other things, as:


\xB7        pillars

\xB7        ladders

\xB7        mountains

\xB7        trees

\xB7        vines

\xB7        people


These terms serve as the paradigmatic, or associative, relations that are containers to \x93house\x94 the hierophany. They also serve the purpose of valorizing as \x93higher\x94 or \x93lower\x94 the religious expressions of different cultures and traditions.


Textuality of Space


Eliade\x92s notion of sacred space can be located within the framework of the spatial trialectics of Lefebvre and Soja. I summarize Lefebvre and Soja as follows:



Lefebvre\x92s terms

Soja\x92s terms


Space 1

\xB7     perceived space

\xB7     spatial practice


physical, material space

Space 2

\xB7     conceived space

\xB7     representations of space


concepts/ideas about space

Space 3

\xB7     lived space

\xB7     spaces of representation


space as experienced (physically, emotionally, intellectually, ideologically, etc.)


Eliade appears to be dealing with both Firstspace and Secondspace, but not Thirdspace. He describes sacred space as physical, material space (the sacred, he says, is experienced in space) and he deals with conceptualizations of sacred space (for instance, the different conceptualizations of how the sacred manifests itself in space). But, it seems to me, his encounter with the Firstspace of sacred space is largely textual or literary, not a description of any really existing space. His sacred space is generic \x96 it is all spaces and no space at all. Invoking Saussure\x92s semiotics, Eliade\x92s conceptualization is reminiscent of the Saussure\x92s distinction between langue and parole. Langue is language in the sense of the entire linguistic system. This system is given in culture and constitutes what it is possible to say, such as words, sentences, and sounds. Parole, on the other hand, is speech in the sense of the individual utterances an individual makes. These actual speech acts are constrained by the linguistic system of which they are a part. One of Saussure\x92s own examples is that of the rules of chess (langue) and the individual moves one makes while playing (parole). Individual moves can only be made according to the larger rules of the game. Extending this idea to Eliade\x92s conception of sacred space, we can understand his notions of hierophany, tripartite planes, and the sacred as system-level rules (langue), while particular manifestations of the sacred \x96 such as pillars, or stones, or people \x96 constitute particular expressions of the sacred (parole).


Soja describes Firstspace as \x93fixed mainly on the concrete materiality of spatial forms, on things that can be empirically mapped\x94 (Soja 1997: 10), that is, tangible physical space. But Eliade\x92s description of sacred space is generic. Scholarly descriptions of religious space as a generic, cross-cultural category have their own changing discursive history. The discursive logic of, for example, Eliade's notion of sacred space, does not necessarily fit with, say, postmodern notions of religious space. What is at stake in this shifting terminology? One possible answer is that Eliade\x92s realist account of religious space hides a theological agenda. Eliade has been critiqued on this point. Whether intentional or not, Eliade\x92s textual maneuvers allow him to both speak (apparently) as the dispassionate comparative religionist while at the same time putting forth a theological assertion about the nature of the sacred and profane. At points, Eliade resembles Rudolf Otto more than he does a historian, especially when he contrast an \x93elementary hierophany \x96 e.g., manifestation of the sacred in some ordinary object, a stone or a tree \x96 to the supreme hierophany (which, for a Christian, is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ)\x94 (Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane 11). Again, this view is not about a physical space or place, but rather a thinly disguised cultural Darwinistic view of religion and a theological assertion of Christian superiority.


In contrast to Firstspace, Secondspace and Thirdspace, present us with the significance of language and textuality for understanding and conceptualizing space. Secondspace, says Soja, is \x93conceived in ideas about space, in thoughtful re-presentations of human spatiality in mental or cognitive forms\x94 (Soja 1997: 10). Thirdspace represents the lived experience of space, \x93lived realities as practiced\x94 (Soja 1997: [page number??]), \x93that draws upon the material and mental spaces [Firstspace and Secondspace] of the traditional dualism but extends well beyond them in scope, substance, and meaning\x94 (Soja 1997: 11). While Secondspace is entirely linguistic, Thirdspace is both physical and linguistic. Physical space (Firstspace) is also always conceptualized space \x96 looking out over a natural landscape is still done through a conceptual lens \x96 and is also always lived and experienced. One\x92s experience of space \x96 lived space \x96 is an experience of a conceptualized, physical space. The point here is that space is never merely a physical location that can be represented conceptually through a photograph, painting, architectural drawing, or map, as if the representation was a one-to-one likeness of the physical space. (I am reminded here of Baudrillard\x92s recounting of the Borges story in which a map is so detailed that it covers the entire space it represents and becomes more \x93real\x94 that the physical space itself.) Space seems to require the linguistic or textual in order for it to make sense.


I conclude with the suggestions that spatial textualization is accomplished in at least three ways.


\xB7        First, space is sometimes described experientially even when no specific experience has necessarily taken place. In this instance, language \x93stands in\x94 for the concrete experience, representing it as experiential when it is really a linguistic construct.


\xB7        Second, space becomes the focus of a narrative that constructs the significance of a particular space. The space becomes meaningful as a result of this narrative move.


\xB7        Finally, space is textualized through the metaphors and other tropes embedded in spatial narratives. The language used to describe space masks linguistic practice, but can never fully escape it.





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