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The Vacuum - Issue 15 - God spacer The Vacuum - Issue 15 - God
Knock Knock Knocking... at the Moonlit Door
by David Brett
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'Knock, knock' 'Who's there?' 'Nobody' 'Go away!'. I have just been asked to do a piece for The Vacuum on 'The House of God'. Speaking now as an estate agent I assure you there are several des.res. on the market, with vacant posession...etc.. (Improvise a few estate agent jokes; consult joke book. etc.) But, on reflection, it seems I must take the matter seriously, like a true atheist, because how we deal with the matter has several serious consequences. Not the least being the very idea of and the experience of, special places or buildings which, if not shrines or churches, undoubtedly have a power. Officially designated God-houses are often very notable places. But is this power because of the inhabitant, or does the place create the inhabitant for us? Or is there a kind of mutual dependence whereby the idea of the one focuses attention in some way that persuades us of... something.
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Ireland is a good place to think about this question because, though it lacks truly great cathedrals, it has a history of special sites that have longer continuity than pretty well anywhere else in Europe (Greece, perhaps excepted). And a building or a place doesn't have to be grand to be special. Everywhere you go in Ireland there are standing stones, circles, cromlechs and tumuli; some of huge size.
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Consider, for example, the Giant's Ring, on the south bank of the Lagan, high up in the woods above the river. Not an obviously commanding site, but in fact you can see the whole of the Lagan valley from Lisburn to Cave Hill and vice-versa. If you were an artillery officer hoping to control the valley, that is where you would place your guns. The locations of stone age sites are nearly always both subtle and powerful. Powerful because they act as points of focus and so command attention. Subtle because they set up relationships between different parts of the landscape and between yourself and those parts, that create a whole that before did not exist. In technical terms, they create a Gestalt a meaningful and immediately apprehensible structure.
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Consider the Grianan of Aileach the drum shaped stone fort on the road to Letterkenney. As a military structure it must dominate, but its Iron Age creators had the same sense of land shapes as had the makers of the Giant's Grave. Le Corbusier writes somewhere of the 'acoustic' dimension of landscape. I swear the Grianan emits a steady gong-like sostenuto. And what is more, it is empty. Go inside and all you see is walls and sky. This seems to be another pre-condition for a transcendent dwelling. There is nobody at home. Not that there is nobody; but that he's out right now. We are there within it... waiting.
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And at this point we come to the theological crux of the whole matter. I mean the distinction between the 'domus dei' and the 'domus ecclesia'. The first is an earthly house of God, that mirrors the cosmos in its formal structure and symbolism. It will always contain an inner sanctuary, a Holy of Holies, rather like a Russian doll. The second, on the other hand, is essentially a meeting hall for the congregation, and it is the congregation itself that is the church, not the building. (See Paul in 1. Corinthians, 'For we are a temple of the living God... and that temple is you.').
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In the history of the Christian Church this distinction lies, like a volcanic fault-line between tectonic plates, roughly along the protestant/catholic/orthodox divides. In Islam there is a marked distinction between the meeting hall the mosque and the shrine (at Mecca and a few other sites). The mosque contains, in its eastern wall, the mihrab, an ornamented niche that points toward Mecca (geographically) and toward Allah (spiritually). It focusses a space that has, otherwise, no centering device. The Judaic synagogue is another building that is secular in essence, the domus dei being the original Temple, often destroyed but always remembered and rebuilt in the mind.
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The horrors of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict are enhanced by the fact that the Dome of the Rock and the Wall of the Temple are parts of one and the same structure. The one must annihilate the other or the Universe and Mankind have no meaning. Or so goes the story. Theology always moves quickly to extremes.
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What unfolds when you ask these questions, ramifies in all directions. Thus the meeting house is not to be decorated because that glorifies the congregation, which should be humble. Thus the communion service insists (or denies) that bread and wine are (or are not) substantially corpus dei. If so, one substance can be two simultaneously. Either the miraculous is a real dimension of human life, or it is not. Either (and this is a typical modern form of the same question), words, objects and images have meaning in and for themselves or only in the context in which they are placed. The one must and will annihilate the other. There are some questions on which there is no middle ground to stand on.
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Except, happily, in history; that is, in the real conduct of actual persons in concrete situations. We live, happily, in the untidy dimension of time and hence of change. There is a passage in The Satanic Verses that goes a long way to explaining why devout Muslims took deep offence at Rushdie's story, but is equally applicable to Jewish and Christian fundamentalists: 'We will make a revolution' the Imam proclaims, 'that is a revolt not only against a tyrant, but against history. History is the blood-wine that must no longer be drunk. History, the intoxicant, the creation and posession of the Devil, of the great Shaitan, the greatest of the lies progress, science, rights - against which the Imam has set his face...' (Consortium ed. (1992) p.210).
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But we live in time, not out of it. Any attempt, the argument might go, to bring the transcendent down into the historical and the contingent into a particular place or person is likely to end in tears because they really are different categories of existence. On the whole, it seems a good idea to be silent about the transcendent and epiphanic dimensions of life because they cannot actually be spoken about. As the philosopher said What we cannot speak about we should pass over in silence.
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But that still does not get rid of the problem. There are still places where, like Jacob, we may set up a stone and call it 'Beth-el'. The name focusses the feeling in the same way as the standing stone focusses the space. We seem to be stuck with the idea of 'The House of God' even if we don't like the idea or have no living language to describe the experience.
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Now, having written that, I think may have begun to resolve the problem already. Any house, that focusses our attention, creates a meaning. Any site that puts us into a relationship with the landscape creates a meaning. This meaning is prior to anything we can say about it because it is prior to the possibility of everyday language. Everyday language, involving a system of logical entailment, has to fall back into a kind of stammering utterance or pure exclamation. Ole! Alleluia! I am that I am! Allah al'akbar! The experience of our own existence is primarily spatial, and therefore it is not in time. The experience of space, be it in house or landscape, has always something of the transcendent about it. The phrase 'House of God' is therefore a metaphor for that experience which architecture and the land can force upon us. That we exist. In the words of Eliphaz the Temanite 'A spirit passed before my face; the hair of my flesh stood up.'
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Let me give a last example. Anchoring at dead calm beside a Hebridean rock and scrambling over the thick kelp. A group of beehive cells, like the stone eggs of a giant stony bird. Perfectly shaped and perfectly dry within, save for one, that held a well and cistern of clear water. The entrance was low and narrow so that as you entered you made an utter blackness all around. The water had to be found by its granite smell and by its coolness. To drink you were forced to kneel and in darkness, lap.
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Image: Interior of the Chapel of St Katherine at foot of Mount Sinai, circa 1867-68 Colour Sgt. James McDonald R.E. Phot. Albumen photograph Courtesy artandphotographs ltd, london
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