What is the difference between a sacred place and a place of significance? Scholars of the geography of religion like Adrian Ivakhiv treat sacredness as a subset of significance. The Kuyperian in me has a hard time with that prioritization since we see “all of life is religion.”
I’ve been thinking about these concepts since being in downtown Boston and seeing people from around the world walking the Freedom Trail. It was one of those moments when I had an out-of-body, or should I say “out-of-culture,” experience where I was viewing the activity as an outsider. As the website states:
“Welcome to the Freedom Trail, a 2.5-mile, brick-lined route that leads you to 16 historically significant sites — each one an authentic treasure… Learn about the brave people who shaped our nation. Discover the rich history of the American Revolution, as it began in Boston, where every step tells a story.”
So what makes the trail and the sites significant? And from what I observed, the walk is more closely aligned with a pilgrimage that evokes the sacred. I have a hard time conceiving of significance without sacredness, all-be-it the religious expression of nationalism.
Places like The Freedom Trail have salience—they grab our attention. The reasons for their salience range from their vastness which expands our frame of reference, to their giving us a sense of being part of a greater whole. The Freedom Trail gives those who “attend to it” a sense of being part of the history and a larger story of people striving for freedom from oppression, an on-going story that also draws us to the present moment. Is this why people from around the world find meaning in walking the Trail? Or is it just a tourist activity of little significance to them, equivalent to looking for the Cheers Bar?
Another aspect of the significance (or sacredness of a place), is whether it generates new thoughts or creativity. Does it allow and encourage those who visit to imagine new worlds? This might be akin to the New Jerusalem at the end of the New Testament—a vision of what will/can be. Does The Freedom Trail achieve this measure of significance?
When I was middle-school age, I walked the Freedom Trail with my family as part of our pilgrimage to visit the east coast historic sites, from Walden Pond to the Old North Church. I believe it was meaningful, but now, as an adult, it all strikes me as just a bit cultish. I’ve been contemplating why that might be and I’ve concluded that it comes from living abroad. I’ve become a part of other stories and landscapes to the point where I view my culture as both an insider and an outsider. I’ve also seen some significant and sacred places of other civilizations, putting my own in the context of others’ stories. I’ve been struck how my experience of living abroad and subsequent encounters with salient landscapes in those places has relativized my own. In those encounters I have expanded my frame of reference, been challenged to accommodate more information, been forced to consider the “other” rather than myself, had to expand my sense of time, and through this, had new thoughts and imagined new worlds. I become uncomfortable with my own culture’s sacred landscapes because I’ve encountered the meaning of Tiananmen Square to the young people of Hong Kong and Mt. Maunganui to the people of Tauranga. I’ve become much more comfortable with the vision put forth in the hymn with lyrics by Lloyd Stone, sung to the tune of Finlandia:
This is my song, oh God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
This is my song, thou God of all the nations;
a song of peace for their land and for mine.