My son Jacob always enjoyed John Lennon’s song, “Imagine.” The melody line is catchy, and the lyrics call one to imagine a world without nations, religions, no heaven and no hell – a vision of peace and community representing Lennon’s world view and one consistently promoted by modern Progressives. “The world’s problems would be solved if society could eliminate the primitive organizations that have divided humanity.” This “vision” seems to draw many supporters in our current postmodern culture even in light of what one observes historically. (The great secular states of the 19th and 20th centuries have miserable records on human rights and the destruction of life through war, for example.) Humans are deeply flawed and seek something beyond themselves to achieve greater wholeness.
Most of our trip has been visiting sacred places – many Christian and others simply sacred in some cultural context. We’ve constantly talked about how sacred sites remain sacred sites even as cultures change and move. (Our modern secular state is perhaps the only one that rejects a commitment to sacred space.) This past week we toured one of the great cathedrals of England – Salisbury – and immediately followed that trip with a visit to the great sacred site, Stonehenge.
Salisbury Cathedral recently celebrated its 750th year. When you stand in the nave of the church, it is hard to imagine that Christians have been worshiping there for more than seven centuries. It has a wonderful cloister, beautiful stained-glass windows, and choir seating of hand-carved wood dating back centuries. Individual craftsmen spent their entire lives dedicated to producing Salisbury Cathedral and designing a place of worship that would focus the attention of the congregant upwards toward God. Everything is designed to lift your eyes and focus your thoughts on heaven. Certainly, as Christians, we had an inside perspective on the stained glass and the stories conveyed in the stonework. Yet, we were surrounded by hundreds of people who had simply come to admire the work – the architecture and the art. Believer and nonbeliever were affected by the craft of artisans who created beauty that is still being recognized seven centuries later.
On one level, if you believe that all that exists is the world we live in and that God is a creation of the human mind, then the cathedral of Salisbury is a significant waste of human resources and energy. For people to focus an entire community on building a structure that would honor a being that does not exist would be the ultimate folly and waste of energy. Yet no one, even the secularist simply there to admire the architecture, expressed that thought. They were standing in the immense beauty that was driven by a group that had a passionate love of God. It was an awe-inspiring experience.
In the same context, Stonehenge draws a similar respect and awe. On one level, the international heritage site might be viewed as a group of rocks arranged in a circle intended for some type of sacred experience or worship. Yet, when you are there experiencing the “place,” your feelings are quite different. Perhaps not in exactly the same way as Salisbury, but I felt I was in a great sacred space. The people who built Stonehenge dedicated much of their lives and service to building it. The major stones that make up the site were brought from more than 250 miles away. How would they have done that? Archaeologists don’t know for sure, but they hypothesize that the stones were rolled on logs for that entire distance, taking months to arrive. This work was purposeful. What did the people who built Stonehenge do there? We don’t really know, but experts believe that they were focused on sacred things. Stonehenge, like Salisbury, draws thousands of people every day. While many may come to see great architectural work, I believe they find much more.
Salisbury and Stonehenge – two very different architectural structures built by different cultures at different times. Both aimed at a single purpose: sacred worship. Western secularism has not quite discovered what do to with “sacred.” I think we were reminded this week that, rather than being something to “overcome,” the “sacred” adds life-giving purpose to the existence of humans, and Salisbury and Stonehenge are two prominent examples. Indeed, people still consistently come each year in search of – or at least recognition of – the sacred in our past and its continuation beyond our lifetimes.