Read more of R & E's interview with Boston University professor Stephen Prothero about sacred space:
What makes a site sacred?
The community that decides it's sacred. There's no real one-two-three rule for why and how a site becomes sacred. A community decides that it's an important place.
A site can be sacred for a lot of reasons. There can be some event that happened in history that a community wants to remember. There can be a mythic story attached to a particular place -- Mount Fuji in the Shinto tradition, where particular gods have manifest themselves. It can be associated with history -- Medina in the Muslim tradition, where Muhammad first gathered his followers, or Bodhgaya in India, where the Buddha achieved enlightenment. It can be associated with a miracle, as in Lourdes, for example, where the Virgin Mary appears.
But the most common reason for a site's becoming sacred is the association with death -- the death of a particularly important founder, for example, the death of Jesus on Calvary in the Christian tradition -- or association with the relics of death, which you see in medieval monasteries and churches all over Europe where you have relics of saints.
Is there any sense in which the World Trade Center site could be called a sacred or holy place?
It already is becoming a sacred or holy place. One thing we look for with sacred sites is pilgrimage, and clearly there's massive pilgrimage already to the World Trade Center site. People are coming from all over the world, all over the United States, to see it. It's clearly a site that's associated with death. We've had thousands of people die there. And their remains are, in a sense, still there. So many people who died in that tragedy died through incineration, and their remains were scattered all over Lower Manhattan. In that sense, the site is doubly sacred ... as a place of death but also as a cemetery of sorts where the dead are interred.
Why would the site be sacred? What are the reasons?
We want to remember what went on there. Sacred places provide focal points for our memory. We go there, and we remember or think about the place. This is what happens with sacred places all over the world. When Muslims converge on Mecca, they're remembering the events that happened in the life of the prophet and in the life of their tradition. People want to remember this.
One way to remember is to carve out a particular piece of land and call it sacred and set it apart from the neighborhood around it. Then we act differently there. We might talk in hushed tones. We might tell certain stories, recall certain events. That's clearly happening already at the World Trade Center site.
What do different religious traditions have to say about sacred ground?
I think it's fair to say that some traditions use sacred space more than others. Native American traditions, for example, make certain mountains sacred. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions all see Jerusalem as sacred. All religious traditions in some sense make space sacred because they all have the need to remember certain historical or mythic events that happened at given places.
What are some examples?
In Buddhism, Bodhgaya is an important sacred site. It's in north India, and it's the site of the Buddha's enlightenment. Buddhists travel from all over the world to go to that site to sit and remember how the Buddha sat and woke up at that particular place. They make that place sacred through pilgrimage there and through remembering that particular story.
Jerusalem is a place with so many events associated with Jesus' life. It's also the site of the old Jerusalem temple, now the Wailing Wall. And it's the site as well of many events from the life of the prophet Muhammad in Islam.
Hinduism makes sacred its geography. The Ganges, for example, is literally a goddess, and if you want to tap into the power of the goddess, you touch and bathe in the Ganges and take up that sacred power that exists in that particular place.
Are there certain practices associated with sacred ground?
The most common practice is pilgrimage. In order to make the site sacred, you need to go there in some sense. In the Muslim tradition, it is imperative -- one of the five pillars of Islam -- to travel at some point in your life to Mecca if you can afford it. First and foremost is pilgrimage. You need to go there.
Then, once you're there, how do you treat the space? There is no hard and fast answer. People don't always take off their hats or don't always take off their shoes or put on a particular kind of clothes. But they do act differently from the way they act elsewhere. They put on white clothes to go to Mecca. Or they take their shoes off to go into the mosque. Or, when they walk into the church, they talk softly rather than talking in a normal voice. So there's some kind of rule or behavior that sets it apart. You are aware that the spot is different from the place outside the wall or over the fence or at the edge of the property that is profane rather than sacred.
What's the distinction between profane and sacred?
There's no hard and fast distinction. It is made by the people who practice a particular ritual that they see as sacred or who respect a particular site as sacred. The profane is the nonsacred and the sacred is the nonprofane. But the most important thing is that the sacred place is the spot where you behave differently, you talk differently, you walk differently; in Hinduism, you circumambulate the image of the divinity to carve out that spot as sacred. You do something different from what you do when you're in a supermarket or a library or your own home.
And is this happening already at the World Trade Center site?
I think so. I wouldn't say all those things are happening now at the World Trade Center site. We clearly have pilgrimage going on there. The most visible piece of iconography at the World Trade Center site is a cross, and this is important. It says, "This is sacred ground." If you look at the World Trade Center site, you see workers there, you see a big hole in the ground, you see some American flags on the buildings surrounding it, but the most dominant image, the icon that's there, is that large steel cross. To me that says this spot is being made sacred already.
What is unusual about the cross there?
What intrigues me is the fact that it's been accepted, because this is a multireligious country. It's not a country merely of Christians, it's a country of Buddhists and Jews and Muslims and Hindus. And we don't have an image of Ganesha, the Hindu divinity of thresholds, at the World Trade Center. We don't have an image of the Buddha sitting next to the image of the cross. Neither do we have the text of the Ten Commandments. We have a Christian symbol there. And the symbol isn't just Christian, it's Protestant, because in the Protestant tradition you have the empty cross; in the Catholic tradition typically you have a crucifix, which has the body of Jesus suffering on the cross. So it's not just a Christian image, it's a Protestant image. And this is appropriate in a sense, because the United States is largely Protestant. We have more Protestants here than any other faith tradition.
But somehow that cross has been, in my view, abstracted to stand for religion in general rather than Christianity in particular. The reason I say that is because there has not been a swelling up of opposition to that cross. I could imagine people saying, "Take that cross down. It's inappropriate. Jews died here. Muslims died here." But that's not what people are saying. People seem relieved in a way that there is some kind of sacred symbol there, and the cross is generic enough, perhaps, to stand for that sense of the sacred at the site.
And people see the cross as a sign given from God, in some way a divine manifestation?
Well, I'm not sure how people are seeing the cross, but I know that they are accepting the cross. And I think the reason they are accepting it is because of this deeply felt perception across New York and across the country and the world that this is becoming a sacred place. What the cross does is mark that. It says, "Yes, you're right, this is important. A lot of people died here. What happened here was important. We can't forget it, and we won't forget it."
Do you think that a future memorial will contain that cross, and if so, do you imagine it would contain other religious symbols as well?
The memorial is going to be tricky, and I do not envy the work of the people who are on the commission to decide what to do there. It is, obviously, a highly charged political task that they all have there.
I would be very surprised if the cross were not integrated into the memorial. There is a strong demand for a memorial that is significant, that is not overwhelmed by the commercial buildings in the site. There's an upsurge, it seems to me, a calling across the country for a significant memorial that somehow speaks to us, not just as Americans but as a spiritual people. I think that cross will be there.
Now, when the cross is there, it raises the problem of "What about us?" You know, what about Hindus who died at the World Trade Center? What about the Muslims who died at the World Trade Center, and not the terrorist Muslims but the innocent Muslims? What about the Buddhists or the Jews who died there? That's going to be very tricky. I think at the point of [creating] the memorial, people are not going to have the sense that the cross stands for generic spirituality, and if the cross is there, there is going to have to be some kind of recognition of other religious traditions there.
One thing that's going on now in the United States is a negotiation, particularly after 9/11, about the religious character of the United States. We used to talk about ourselves as a Judeo-Christian nation, and we would speak of God or the Supreme Being, and that would be, in a sense, our national divinity. That embraced Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. But as the country has become more pluralistic religiously, particularly since new immigration liberalization in 1965, that Judeo-Christian notion of America has become more and more contested. After 9/11, there was an effort to turn the Judeo-Christian country into the Judeo-Christian-Islamic country, the Abrahamic country. That may be where we're going, but that doesn't include Buddhists and Hindus; neither does it [yet] include Muslims, so maybe we're not a Judeo-Christian-Islamic country. Maybe we're a multireligious country.
That battle about the religious character of the country is going to be played out in the design of this site. What the designers come up with is going to give us some new sense of what we are religiously. Are we going to be three great western religions that are largely represented there? Is it going to be multifaith, multireligious, or is it going to be generic -- just God language that isn't really particular to Christianity, in which case the cross would not be appropriate?
What about the role of civil religion and places like Gettysburg representing the sacred, as it were, in American civil religion?
Well, at Gettysburg, of course, we have the two types of death associated with the sacred coming together. We have Gettysburg as cemetery and Gettysburg as battle site, and so that is doubly sacred. That is one of the great sites in American civil religion, along with the Lincoln Memorial or the Vietnam Memorial or the Declaration of Independence or the Pledge of Allegiance, which are all part of that panoply of religious beliefs, practices, sites, and symbols that we refer to [as] civil religion.
In some ways, the connection with Gettysburg (that is apparently going to be made quite explicitly through the reading of the Gettysburg Address at the anniversary or the one-year remembrance of the World Trade Center and 9/11 events) seems to me particularly apt, because this, in a way, is Gettysburg for our generation. This is the place of mass death that we are going to remember, where Americans responded to an attack and in a way defined the character of the country. That connection strikes me as quite appropriate. At the World Trade Center, we have that lingering presence of the cremated remains of innocent people who died there. It seems to me that it is shaping up as a new site in the list of sacred sites in American civil religion.
American civil religion exists alongside the great traditions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. It's the "religion" of all of us as Americans, the spirit that we feel when we're at the Fourth of July parade in our hometown or when we recite the Pledge of Allegiance or read Lincoln's words on the Lincoln Memorial. It's that spirit of being an American that is something higher than the mere feeling of nationhood. It's the sense of being connected with some kind of divine purpose or divine destiny that is American civil religion.
And how would a place like Gettysburg be different from the Vietnam Memorial for the purposes of American civil religion?
The Vietnam Memorial is an interesting place. Besides the fact that it's a brilliant design by Maya Lin, it lists the names of the dead individually. This strikes me as very 20th-century America. This is not something that was done typically in the 19th century or the 18th century, when people died in war together, as it were, rather than as individuals.
But in the 20th century, it's become much more important to remember people as individuals. We see that at the Vietnam Memorial. We also see that in the NEW YORK TIMES series of short biographies of all the people who died at the World Trade Center site. I'm sure when it comes to designing that site, there will be some way to integrate the names of everyone who died there, but I suspect there will be something even broader than that. I wouldn't be surprised if there is a way that those NEW YORK TIMES pieces will also be incorporated into the site, or something similar.
The Vietnam Memorial is different from Gettysburg in the sense that it is not a burial site; it is a commemorative site. It's also not a place where people lost their lives. So in that sense it doesn't resonate, or it shouldn't resonate as powerfully as a place where someone actually died or is actually interred. But even without that, the site still carries so much power. Once the World Trade Center memorial is done, if it's done in an equally powerful way, it ought to resonate at least as powerfully in the minds of Americans as the Vietnam Memorial site already does.
The Vietnam Memorial, though, is a memorial not just to the dead of Vietnam but also to the conflict that happened here. Its healing, its purpose isn't simply to remember the dead but also to heal the conflict. The conflict happened here. It happened in Washington, D.C. -- debates in the White House, debates in the U.S. Congress about how to go forward with the war, and protests that happened right in that very area. In that sense it is sited at the place of what it's memorializing. It commemorates the soldiers who died in Vietnam, but it's also an effort to heal the divisions that happened in this country between people who were for the war and people who were against the war.
Some people say 9/11 is the great human spiritual experience of our time. What does that mean for the World Trade Center site in the future? Is it going to become some kind of preeminent sacred site for us?
It will definitely join other important sites on the map of American civil religion. It will join Gettysburg. It will join the various important sites in Washington, D.C., essentially a memorial city where we remember the dead -- Lincoln, Jefferson, the Vietnam War dead. It will certainly be in that league.
Whether it surpasses those places seems to me entirely up to the design. Is this going to be a design that really works in the way the Vietnam Memorial design works, or is it going to be designed by a committee? Will it be a compromise design that doesn't work? The sacredness is going to be in the details -- how well is it done? If it's done well, it will certainly be one of the most important sites for pilgrimage in American civil religion. If it speaks to people the way the site already speaks to people, then it's hard for me to imagine it won't endure for a long time as an important pilgrimage site.