Sacred Space Pedagogy

by Debra Paxton-Buursma and Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk

Sacred Space Pedagogy is animated by a fundamental belief that God intended space to be sacred: sanctuary for the flourishing and delight of all living things. And yet, we live and teach in a broken world, experiencing the effects of injustice and suffering in our curriculum and classrooms. What does it mean to create, teach, and grow in learning environments so sacred that even in the midst of brokenness we catch glimpses of how our Triune God dwells and lovingly moves with us in the world?

In order to consider that question, we look at three exploratory aspects of Sacred Space Pedagogy: (1) the importance of spaces and places, (2) human embodiment for making sense of the world’s spaces, and (3) core Christian beliefs for faith-shaped instruction. We see these aspects as “leaping off places” to ignite your Christian teaching imagination. In this way, Sacred Space Pedagogy creates spaces for organically developing as Christian teachers; it is not a neat, tidy set of rules or practices pinned down by tight definitions. Just as we individually and collectively grow our knowledge and relationship with God, so too our intent with Sacred Space Pedagogy is to structure an open space for individual and communal curiosity, imagination, exploration, and growth.

Space and Place

Until the virtual learning of the twenty-first century, schools were located in buildings. Geographic, political, economic, and religious cultural resources informed the structural design of school buildings and classrooms; yet for years we thought very little about the influence of space and place (except perhaps classroom size) on learning. Through technology, environmental studies, and interdisciplinary research, societies are becoming more aware of the connection between our surroundings and human development.

The geographer, Yi-Fu Tuan, distinguishes space from place. “Space is an abstract term for a complex set of ideas” while place is an “organized world of meaning” (34, 179). Place becomes organized as we inhabit space with the cultural stuff of life. The places where we live and work gain meaning through touchstones: books, photos, a cluster of grapes, our comfy Toms. Sacred Space Pedagogy recognizes the complexity in spaces and the possibility in creating places that are culturally familiar, yet open enough for Christ’s indwelling as the cornerstone of our living.

For years, most of us thought of sacred spaces as formal places of worship. The complexities of virtual space, along with increased understanding and respect for natural resources have helped us expand our thinking about the experience and location of space that is sacred—from celebrating God’s creation through the exquisite patterns running along a cluster of leaves, to probing the atrocities of lost lives through shootings, to hearing the life story of an elderly person. Space . . . place . . . We named the project Sacred Space Pedagogy as a reminder of the complexity in our work. We do not intend to provide a formula for creating sacred space; rather, we think that a community of educators can together explore the vast possibilities for shaping teaching-learning spaces in ways that reveal the sanctity of God’s activity in us. In the next article, “Sacred Learning Spaces as Sanctuary,” we explore interior and exterior places in colleagues’ schools and classrooms.

Bodies, Sense-Making, and Instruction

We were created as social beings with bodies—embodied earth-dwellers—designed to actively engage with others in places filled with the stuff of life. As we live, tools support our interactions and help us make sense of the world. The tools we use often seamlessly integrate very basic objects, actions, and language into complex and formative experiences. A trip to visit relatives could, for example, involve planning a schedule, packing a suitcase with life’s essentials, riding or driving multiple forms of transportation, navigating maps and matching corresponding landmarks, talking to others, and listening to music or the news. Just listing all the possible actions, objects, and texts involved in a trip would exhaust this article. In order to manage life, we develop or are taught routines shaped for particular purposes. James K. A. Smith suggests that basic activity patterns are very powerful in shaping our hearts and minds. Thus, a fine-grained look at instruction—the texts, actions, and objects in our pedagogical routines—may help us seek and see the extraordinarily sacred, God-activity in ordinary teaching-learning activity. You can read more about this in our third article, “Powerful Positioning: Text, Actions, and Objects.”

The Center of Faith-Shaped Teaching

We have seen schools develop greater intentionality and focus regarding their purpose. Vision and mission statements created from school stake-holder gatherings anchor school websites and unit plans. Sacred Space Pedagogy explores how teachers move beyond integration of two separate entities called faith and learning and toward a teaching/learning practice infused by central beliefs. Faith-shaped teaching where Christ dwells at the center of learning spaces requires pedagogical discipleship. Before designing instruction consider reviewing beliefs central to the Christian life such as a Trinitarian God or a creation, fall, redemption worldview. Explore how incarnation (the embodied Christ) or communion or resurrection centrally shape your teaching approach or routines such as practices of encounter (see Barbara Brown Taylor) or practicing resurrection (see Eugene Peterson). Ask some central faith-shaping questions such as: How does our embodied activity in this lesson/unit reveal our Trinitarian God or support the ministry of reconciliation or bring forward God’s kingdom on earth? The articles describe how Christ-animated teaching might create safe places for taking risks, transform learning experiences, and shape hearts and minds for service in God’s kingdom renewal project.

The Sacred Space Pedagogy Project

The Sacred Space Pedagogy project explored how educators designed and discussed faith-shaped pedagogy. [This is only part of the article. Want to read more? Subscribe to the website by choosing "Register" from the menu above. It's free!]

Works Cited

Peterson, Eugene H. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places:    A Conversation in Spiritual Theology. Eerdmans, 2005. Print.

Smith, James K. A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Baker Academic, 2009. Print.

Taylor, Barbara B. An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. Harper Collins, 2009. Print.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. University of Minnesota Press, 1977. Print.