Research Themes from the First Colloquium


It was noted above that with very few exceptions, spatiality as a basic category of human existence and of our created reality has been neglected in the theological tradition. This contrasts markedly with the attention given to time and history. The incarnation, however, was as much an event in space as an event in time, thereby suggesting that, just as it has been developed in respect of time and history, the incarnation may also be brought to bear upon and be transformative of our understanding of what it is to exist in space. Equally, there are particular aspects of the biblical testimony concerning the incarnate Son of God that prompt a revision of our conceptions of space.

A number of papers addressed this theme:

  • Tiffany Robinson suggests, following Douglas Farrow, that in the light of the ascension there is need for a critique of our spatio-temporal cosmologies.
  • Bill Dyrness asks about the 'theology of space' implied by the Protestant desacralisation of space, and by its objection to the concentration of theological meaning in particular places.
  • Nicholas Wolterstorff asks about the significance of the fact that we are creatures who inhabit space and who construct and live in built environments.
  • Both Bill Dyrness and Murray Rae touch on questions of presence and omnipresence, particularity and universality. How are these to be conceived in relation to the spatiality of our existence?
  • In exploring this theme further, it will be useful to draw on the two books by T.F. Torrance, Space, Time and Incarnation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969) and Space, Time and Resurrection (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing Co., 1976).


Salvation and Shalom

There appears to be considerable potential for an exploration of the spatial dimensions of salvation and of the spatial metaphors used in the Bible to bear witness to God's saving work. There were a variety of ways of conceiving this theme; the language of 'human flourishing' was used, as also that of 'well-being', and there was some debate about how the themes of human flourishing and well-being should be related to the doctrines of creation and redemption. Nicholas Wolterstorff, for example, analyses these themes under the rubric of creation and develops them through the concept of shalom. A focus of Graham Redding's contribution was the desire to integrate the themes of creation and redemption.

The following papers have a bearing on this theme:

  • Nicholas Wolterstorff offers the concept of shalom as a criterion for assessing how well the built environment serves the various dimensions of human flourishing. It might also be the case that an exploration of the spatial arts will shed new light on what shalom consists in.
  • Murray Rae asks more explicitly about the spatial dimensions of the biblical vision of salvation, and both he and Nicholas Wolterstorff draw attention to the denigration of creation implied in a conception of salvation that is concerned only with the salvation of souls.
  • Henry Luttikhuizen offered an introduction to the ways in which artists have depicted spatially the life of Christian discipleship in communion with God.
  • Bill Dyrness raises questions about the merely instrumental conception of space that has been a feature of the Protestant tradition.
  • Though not addressed specifically in his paper, David Ley's discussion of graffiti which links the claiming of place with the establishment of identity might well be explored in terms of the new identity that is established in Christ and in the church.


Humanity and its Environment

The relation of humanity to its environment has been a vexed theme in Western culture, as also in others. The present environmental concerns have forced us to think again about how that relation ought to be conceived. A rich and neglected resource for that task is to be found in the Scriptures of the Jewish and Christian traditions, and there would seem also to be considerable potential for fruitful conversation with the spatial arts in which humanity's relation to its environment is a quotidian concern. The question to be explored is how, in conversation with the spatial arts, we might offer a theological account of the relation between humanity and its environment.

  • Henry Luttikhuizen's discussion of humanity's location in space is again relevant here.
  • Murray Rae's paper introduces the theme with particular reference to landscape architecture.
  • Nicholas Wolterstorff's question about the significance of our habitation in built environments is also pertinent.



Prompted perhaps by the biblical use of the city as a metaphor for the kingdom of God, as also by Augustine's contrast between the heavenly and earthly cities, the city has been a matter of considerable discussion in the theological tradition. As David Ley points out, however, much of that discussion has been deeply disparaging of the city. There is some biblical support for this attitude, as in Micah's tirades against Jerusalem for example, but setting such material alongside the more positive images of the city in the Bible suggests a range of themes that might fruitfully be explored. Again, we will be concerned especially with how reading the text of the city can be a heuristic exercise for theology itself.

  • Such questions are the primary focus of David Ley's paper. Through an exploration of the city as text, he asks about the nature of human community and about what values and social relations are established and sustained by the city.
  • Nicholas Wolterstorff is similarly concerned with the city, particularly in relation to the theme of justice. He also notes the Islamic conception of the city as the image of Allah, and asks about what differences there might be in conceiving the city in relation to the Triune God of Christian faith rather than in terms of the undifferentiated unity of Allah.
  • There are links here to the development of 'New Urbanism' which theme was addressed at a parallel conference some of us attended.
  • Tim Gorringe's book, A Theology of the Built Environment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) has extensive discussion of this theme.


How do space and place shape us?

It is widely recognised that the spaces we shape for ourselves shape in turn the people we are and the lives we live. They shape too the conceptions we have about the world, about our neighbours, and perhaps about God. A number of papers draw attention to this reflexive power of our built environment and suggest ways in which the theme might be explored.

  • Bill Dyrness asks how our spaces shape us with particular reference to the shaping and utilisation of space in Protestant worship.
  • Murray Rae links the question to the theme of interiority and exteriority and suggests the possibility of exploring the contrast between the individualistic and relational notions of personhood embodied in our built environment.
  • Duncan Stroik relates the theme to sacred architecture and is particularly concerned with the ways in which church buildings bear witness to the gospel and form the people of God.
  • Again, there are links here with the theme of 'New Urbanism'.


Sacred space

Most writing to date on the interface between theology and the built environment has been concerned with the building of churches. This research colloquium is particularly concerned with the ways in which sacred space gives expression to theological themes. This is a particular instance of the question, how do buildings speak and what do they say?

  • Bill Dyrness' paper is again relevant here in relation to the peculiarly Protestant shaping of space for worship. He further asks how space may evoke in us a sense of worship and devotion.
  • The theme of sacred space is the main burden of Duncan Stroik's paper. He asks, for example, whether the richness and perceived extravagance of much church architecture, far from being an affront to the poor, might instead be conceived as a means of including in the richness of the kingdom of God those who are usually excluded from partaking in the abundance of God's good creation. Concomitantly, he suggests that the church may be conceived as an icon of the heavenly banquet to which all are invited, and a precursor of the heavenly city.
  • The question was raised in discussion whether the church as building ought to figure in ecclesiology, i.e. in our conceptions of what the church is.



Immanence and transcendence

Few buildings are merely utilitarian. It is possible to draw the distinction between a house and a home, for instance, even in respect of the most basic and aesthetically bland of dwellings. The distinction suggests that our buildings have and accumulate meanings that transcend their function. In many cases those meanings may be explored in theological terms, especially so in relation to sacred space, but also in relation to secular building. This theme pervades many of the papers given at the colloquium.

  • Murray Rae addresses the theme explicitly by drawing upon the example of the Maori meeting house. It is also apparent in his discussion of the theme of pilgrimage.
  • Duncan Stroik, Bill Dyrness and Nicholas Wolterstorff all raise the question whether and how buildings may give expression to the holy. Duncan Stroik links the question to the question of architectural style thus prompting discussion, particularly with Ben Suzuki.
  • David Ley is concerned with how the built environment of the city speaks of meanings and values beyond mere functionality.


Exploration of a doctrinal field

There are numerous possibilities for the exploration of particular doctrinal fields in conversation with the spatial arts. Some of these are apparent in the themes already mentioned above, but Tiffany Robinson makes explicit how such an investigation might proceed.

  • The particular concern of Tiffany Robinson's proposed PhD research will be an exploration of the doctrine of the ascension with particular reference to spatial (and temporal) themes. She has previously done similar work in relation to doxology, the theme of judgement and the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. As noted, Douglas Farrow's book, Ascension and Ecclesia (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999) will be a particularly useful resource here.
  • Both Duncan Stroik's and Bill Dyrness's papers raise questions about architecture for worship. There papers suggest a territory to be explored in relation to the themes of liturgy and doxology.
  • Murray Rae's paper suggests the possibility of similar explorations in relation to the doctrine of salvation and the notion of the communion of saints.


Memory and Tradition

One of the fascinating aspects of the spatial arts is their endurance. We inhabit many buildings and built environments that are bequeathed to us from the past. Some buildings are built precisely in order to commemorate. And yet it has been the project of modernity and postmodernity alike to eliminate memory and to eschew tradition. In architecture and in theology alike, innovation and originality are prioritised and breaking free of the tradition is set forth as virtually obligatory. Engagement with the spatial arts, as they have been passed on to us and as they endure through time, may allow a reappraisal of the importance of memory and tradition and a reinvigoration of theological claims about the centrality of anamnesis in the eucharist for example, and the safeguarding of truth through tradition and apostolicity.

  • Nicholas Wolterstorff gives explicit attention to this matter in his paper and asks a range of questions about memory in architecture. How are we to live in the buildings that we have not built ourselves but have been handed down to us? What is the significance of social memory? How does architectural style serve as the bearer of memory?
  • Duncan Stroik's paper laments the disconnection of modern churches from the traditions of church architecture and pleads for the recovery of an historical sense in the building of spaces for worship. The additional question to be asked is how memories and traditions as expressed in our built environment may help us to offer a theological account of how memory and tradition lead us into and hold us within the truth.



Western philosophy, whose company theology has often kept, has typically supposed that true knowledge of reality is attained through detached observation. Accordingly, any personal engagement with or participation in the reality under investigation is thought to compromise, distort and ultimately undermine the endeavour to know things truly. Engagement with the spatial arts shows the inadequacies of this typical philosophical approach, for space is understood not by detachment but rather through indwelling. The epistemology appropriate to the knowing of our built environment precisely parallels that which is necessary in theology, where knowledge comes through indwelling Christ and through participation in the reality of his Church.

  • Murray Rae gives explicit attention to this matter in his paper and indicates some of the ways that theology has been led astray by its capitulation to the prevailing philosophical epistemology.
  • Nicholas Wolterstorff endorses this theme and refers to the 'paraplegic' epistemology that has dominated the Western intellectual tradition.
  • Tiffany Robinson's earlier work on 'Doxology through Indwelling' also links with this theme.
  • Alan Torrance argued that Christ could be seen as the 'place' of God's relation to the world, and cited Athanasius' notion of Christ as topos.


Further themes

In less formal discussions in Grand Rapids and in subsequent correspondence, a range of other themes have been suggested that might be fruitfully explored.

  • Jack Kremers suggested the potential theological interest in reflecting upon the various elements of architecture, light, colour, texture, and so on, as also upon the design and construction process itself.
  • There may need to be some consideration of the importance of 'land' as a biblical theme in relation to what we build on the land.
  • While it is hoped that all our work will be referenced to the witness of Scripture, it will also be important to give some sustained attention to the architectural/built environment language that is used in Scripture. In particular there needs to be some work on the way the temple is conceived theologically, both literally and metaphorically. Harold Turner's book, From Temple to Meeting House (The Hague; Mouton Publishers, 1979) could be a useful resource here.
  • Similarly, there could be a useful study made of the ways in which metaphors from the built environment have already been used in the theological tradition, for both good and ill effect.



University of Otago Theology and the Spatial Arts