Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture

Jacob’s Ladder: Reaching for the Numinous in Uncertain Times

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Jacob’s Ladder: Reaching for the Numinous in Uncertain Times

Note: This is the text of a paper I delivered as part of a panel discussion at a recent Symposium on “Transcending Architecture: Aesthetics and Ethics of the Numinous” which was held at the School of Architecture, The Catholic University of America, October 6-8, 2011.

The first words in the theme for this Symposium, “Transcending Architecture,” could be read as a double entendre. As a modifier the word “transcending” describes architecture as a means for delivering human beings to an experience of what is a numinous episode. However, as a verb, the word “transcending” also suggests to me a movement beyond our conventional expectations of how architecture functions as a pathway from the profane to the sacred.

On one hand, it is difficult to disagree that architecture has a role in shaping cultures, attitudes and value systems. It does.  Some edifices can transport even the most cynical person to heights never imagined.  On the other hand, one must ask if there are realities, still emerging, not fully understood, that are altering the role architecture plays in the hunt for a holy experience. My perspective will be focussed on religious architecture in the United States, more specifically architecture for worship.

In the texts of the Torah and the Koran  there is the story of Jacob, son of Isaac and Rebecca. While seeking a spouse in a foreign land, he dreams of a ladder set upon the earth but reaching to the heavens. He imagines angels going up and down the ladder. Seeing God by his side, Jacob proclaims, “This is none other than the house of God … the gate of heaven.”

Although there are different interpretations of this biblical story, it complements the diverse philosophies and theologies that later would also claim God is mysterious but accessible not only by faith and good work but also because of a wild imagination.

Dualities often shape our imaginations. We use contrasting words to organize and categorize ideologies and realities; words like left and right, heaven and hell, rich and poor, good and bad. The word “mystery” is often used when something real cannot be explained.  Other words like ineffable, transcendent, liminal and numinous offer possibilities for rising above the situation. These words give promise and hope. However, they are not strategies for successful living or discipleship. What we call divine is considered outside ourselves, unknown and removed from what and where we are. Then we try to figure out how to attain it or get there by climbing Jacob’s Ladder.

However, what if the holy other is more present than we ever imagined.  Annie Dillard wrote, “Beauty and grace are constantly performing whether we will it or sense them; all we can do is be present when they happen.

Countless human experiences are testimonies that the holy other is frequently met face to face in real time without the aid of a stepladder, or a religious building, or an artistic venue or the quiet beauty of a desert.

Human relationships and our attention to each other and the environment are found in our neighborhoods, the favelas, the battlefields and flooded towns. Here the experience of the numinous is cradled in times of joy and hardship. The arts, architecture, language, music — all works of humans hands — serve as narratives expressing and affirming our lived experiences. Sometimes they endorse  nothing more than the status quo, bolstering what is already familiar and comfortable. Sometimes, they offer new insights  boldly helping us see things in new ways, taking us to new places. What the arts and architecture know best is the human spirit. They can play back to us our stories. James Ingo Freed called the Holocaust Memorial a “resonator.” They can also shake our foundations.

Jacob’s Ladder then  is just one of many archetypal examples of a link between us and what is thought to be mysteriously beyond us.  Mountains, rivers and deserts serve the same purpose. The Ladder also suggests that there is a hieratic order in creation that, regretfully in my mind, separates the creatures from the creator.  For example, churches in western Christianity that disconnect, by design and distance, clergy from the laity, the holy of holies from the nave are good examples of such compartmentalization. They disregard, in a Christian context,  the significance of the incarnate God and the belief that Jesus changed forever the notion of an intangible deity. It also not only ignores the Pauline understanding of the people of God as living stones — the dwelling places of the holy one, it spurns those early Christian writers who eschewed temples and altars.

Of course, the time honored principles employed to create stimulating architectural forms, symbolized by Jacob’s Ladder, are still effective. A linear, vertical orientation, expansive volume, profuse light, the harmonious organization of organic materials, all in proper scale, with delightful proportions can serve,  in Jungian terms, as outward expressions of innermost longings. Joseph Campbell reminded us that buildings can reveal in a temporal way what is mysteriously illusive.

Further, there is no doubt also in my mind that the employment of these ingredients is not constrained by time or place or a particular building typology.  An appreciative study of architectural and religious history provides emotional if not empirical evidence that the experience of the numinous especially in places of worship, knows no boundaries and may be discovered in the simplest ritual chamber, great cathedrals and temples and in contemporary mosques and churches.

Are there ways, then, to shift the paradigm, to transcend the conventional ways built forms take us to a numinous or liminal experience? How can theologians, architects and artists  help others to perceive, recognize and respect other humans, eight million seven hundred thousand species and innumerable but not inexhaustible natural resources? Can clients, architects and artists work to create spaces and objects of beauty that reveal and celebrate the cosmic enterprise that is not out there somewhere but one that embraces us here?

The use of the thematic word “transcending” as a verb can stimulate a movement beyond the conventional understanding of the role of religious architecture in convening sacred experiences. In describing the daily human dance in Grand Central Terminal  in New York City, the writer Alastair Macaulay asks, “Are the people at Grand Central different? He was writing about the impact of the Terminal on human behavior comparing it with that of the  stale and dull Pennsylvania Station across town. In the article he recalls a story his mother told him. Her employer had a maid from Milan to whom she once said politely, “I understand the  cathedral in Milan is very beautiful.” The maid replied: “Oh, but Madame! You should see the railway station!”

This brings me then to the question of the teleology or end purpose of a built form especially one that is defined as a convener of numinous experiences. We casually call them sacred spaces. Is it the completion of the work itself? It is the satisfaction of the architect or client? Is the purpose of architecture to transcend what is tangible or is it something even larger but not always apparent, something not confined by categories or dualistic thinking? Could the purpose of architecture be to shape our imaginations about the deep dimensions of the creative process we are part of and then transform us and the way we live?

Buildings, especially in urban settings, that are sustainable in design, ecologically sensitive, and easy to navigate are places where the human spirit can be lifted up. Places of worship that also house  soup kitchens, food pantries, child care centers are expressions of how human beings can elevate themselves, climb that ladder, in face of dire circumstances. Imagine such buildings  with windows that look out to a city street or to nature. Such glazing would ground the congregation or individual in the immanent expression of God’s presence. Imagine if during worship the assembly sat in  concentric circles rather than longitudinal rows? That arrangement would help them focus on their collegial embodiment of the holy other experienced in the context of worship.

If the architect can also incorporate the components mentioned earlier — light, volume, materials, scale and proportion — and still manage to render the space delightful, functional, sustainable and accessible to all, then architecture can be a servant to humanity rather than an icon to be revered by us. 

When religious architecture is dull and unimaginative, when it fails to stir the mind, the body, the human spirit, it is easy to see why people are flocking to concert halls and museums.  The maid from Milan seemed to be saying that other venues can also provide a spiritual stimulus. What is going on in these places that evoke a sense of something beyond or bigger than a world view? Is it a bold, fresh architectural style alone or is it more about the story that is being told. Could it be that we humans  want to be refreshed and inspired now, to live peacefully with dignity in our own time; that we do not want to wait for paradise to show up somewhere beyond reality. We want to find it here and now?

Further, if religious behavior can provide us with any clues about the teleology or purposefulness of building types that are expected to provide stepping stones to a liminal or numinous experience, what is the shift in religious behavior in this country and elsewhere telling us?  The extensive research conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life among other studies provides glaring statistics. Twenty-eight percent of Americans have left their childhood religion. Forty-four percent have switched to another religion. Sixteen percent practice no faith, a number that has doubled since 1990. Latest studies on the millennial generation point out the 18-39 year old age group claims to be spiritual but not religious.

Studies are showing that  while mainstream religions are concerned about dwindling congregations, independent, non-denominational churches are growing.  These communities are known for hospitality, lively music, charismatic preachers, advanced technology in proclaiming God’s Word and outreach programs in their communities.  They are not known for building places of worship that replicate the architectural, artistic and symbolic conventions usually employed by more traditional religious groups.  There is no Jacob’s Ladder in these places other than the spiritual experience of being connected with others in the same search for peace, stillness and holiness.

If architecture is not essential in the search for what is spiritual or sacred in the lives of these large numbers of people, these emerging Christian and Jewish groups, what can be said about the power of religious architecture and art in triggering a connection with the supernatural or numinous one?

As the place of mainline religion goes through a time of transformation could it be that the role of architecture as a stimulant of what is good, true and beautiful is indeed also changing? Are other places, not necessarily categorically defined or recognized as sacred indeed serving to convey the experience of what is liminal and numinous in life? Could it be that the time honored archetypes often mimicked in places of worship need fresh interpretations?

The story of Jacob’s Ladder is an excerpt from a biblical passage filled with intrigue, war, multiple marriages, dueling brothers and the emergence of imperialistic nations. In the end, the story does give birth to new ways of living. Perhaps the lesson is that the search for the gentle touch of a loving, unpredictable creator is found no where else than in the untidiness, the imperfection and the instability of human nature.


Author: Richard S. Vosko

Richard S. Vosko, Ph.D., Hon. AIA, is an internationally known sacred space planner. He is a presbyter in the Diocese of Albany who enjoys the classroom as much as the pulpit. On Sundays he presides at worship at St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Albany, NY. For more information on Vosko’s background, his projects, publications and speaking engagements please go to his website. For his homilies and occasional musings about religion, art and architecture go to his blog. Comments, questions and suggestions are always welcomed there.

One thought on “Jacob’s Ladder: Reaching for the Numinous in Uncertain Times

  1. Provocative commentary, and a joy to read!


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