Symposium Theme
Nature and the Ordinary: Sacred Foundations of Architecture, Culture, and Spirituality

Perhaps too much of our renewed contemporary interest in the nature, purpose, and value of spirituality in human affairs tends to approach it as something that we experience in a realm beyond ordinary existence: as extra-ordinary places, activities, and events, often seen as an escape from the relentless grind of profane life and as a refuge for renewal. We want to compensate for what is missing in our spiritually vacuous quotidian experience.

Generally more by default than by design, this notion of spirituality, particularly if pursued primarily as an individual quest, runs the risk of elitism. The spiritual becomes an exercise in self-indulgence when it is relevant and accessible primarily to those who have managed to secure the more mundane aspects of their lives and thus have gained the freedom to contemplate what it means to seek fulfillment in the higher realms of enlightened consciousness. It is a modern habit to separate realms of knowledge so that they may yield to more precise analysis. But in the end the human condition is an integrated whole. Nature was our first teacher and from it arose our most basic spiritual experiences and beliefs. Animals, features of the natural landscape, sun, the stars, weather and the seasons ultimately provided the basis for the creation of works of art that would convey the spirituality experienced in nature into a focused presence. In this context, it is worth remembering John Dewey’s reflections on the cultural function and significance of aesthetics in his seminal 1934 book Art as Experience. He noted that if we are to recover a more integrated sense of art and aesthetics we must recover our sensitivity to the innately spiritual in human nature that is found, ultimately, in the ordinary or everyday.  He observes:

“A primary task is … to restore the continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience. Mountain peaks do not float unsupported; they do not even just rest upon the earth. They are the earth in one of its manifest operations."

“For many persons an aura of mingled awe and unreality encompasses the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘ideal’ while ‘matter’ has become by contrast a term of depreciation, something to be explained away or apologized for. The forces at work are those that have removed religion as well as fine art from the scope of the common or community life."

If we substitute “spiritual” or “spirituality” for "art" Dewey’s argument still applies to today’s society because—in contradistinction to traditional cultures where everyday community life is still infused with spiritual meanings—an intimate connection between spirituality and the larger cultural context from where it arose hardly exists today.

The central theme of ACS 7 considered the innate qualities of spiritual experience evoked by otherwise ordinary things, nature and the everyday, but now elevated to the realm of the spiritual, in the sense of being imbued with special meaning for individuals, societies, and cultures.