Posted by: Andrew | October 8, 2015

When is a Sacred object Sacred?

Many people of faith find spiritual enrichment, solace or encouragement through the veneration of certain objects. A statue, painting, relic etc. I’ve started to get really interested in people’s relationship with these items and particularly how our relationship with them changes when they are in different locations.

My interest in this was sparked by a conversation with Rev Dr David Cheetham who has written about this in his book ‘Ways of Meeting and the Theology of Religions’. He noticed that if he took a group of evangelical Christians to see Hindu statues in a museum they were all happy to look at them and learn about them. However, if he took the same group into a Hindu Temple where they saw people venerating similar statues the group were troubled by the ‘idol worship’ and were far less willing to learn about the Hindu deities.

I’ve also been working with the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery on their new interfaith gallery as part of a working group they’ve set up. What’s fascinating is that when all the religious objects are spread throughout the museum under different categories (painting, sculpture, Asian art etc) they cause little comment or controversy. However, when you collect items from different faiths into one room and call it an interfaith gallery the objects start to have a meaning in relation to each other as well as for themselves. For example do you put them all at the same level, thereby suggestion that all faiths are equal; or do you place some higher than others in order to be faithful to the beliefs of a particular religion, ie  placing a Qur’an higher than other texts. Suddenly objects that were just considered as ‘Interesting’ now have meaning both for themselves and in relation to their location and other objects around them.

It occurs to me that our veneration of sacred objects is far more complex than just our relationship to the object. What meaning we place on an object (and therefore the way we respond to it) is also influenced by where it is, what else is around it and how other people are threating the object. This is a line of enquiry I’m just starting on so these are just some initial thoughts. But perhaps some good questions to ask are:

How would we feel if this object was in a different type of building or space?
Does it matter how other people are treating it?
What would happen if we placed sacred items of other faiths near to it?




  1. These are good questions. Having taught world religions for a number of years and working in interfaith circles, I wonder sometimes what would happen if, for instance, churches replaced crosses with arms stretched wide. Maybe this symbol of welcoming and inclusion would become a sign of life, not death, atonement, forgiveness, sin? I wonder alot about the church, since I used to be a leader in that institution.

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