Religion as a Window on Culture


Allow time to view the video and review this section of the leader’s guide before meeting with your class. Determine what you will cover in the available class time.  Plan for any of the Optional Activities you would like to use and how you will integrate the work with the class.  Acquaint yourself with any terms that are unfamiliar (see gloassary). Consult with members of your clergy when appropriate.  Finally, duplicate any materials you plan to distribute to the group.

(5 minutes)

Prepare your group to watch the video. (Read or paraphrase)

This video demonstrates how people of different religious faiths go about designating space as sacred.  A number of the locations you will see in this episode were not originally intended as sacred space.  Some sacred space is not contained within a traditional house of worship.  In fact, some outdoor spaces are considered sacred.

Give members of the group the opportunity to tell about various sacred spaces known to them. Use the following questions to engage your group in considering the video’s main concept.

  • Can you name outdoor spaces that are considered sacred or holy?

Answers may include mountains, such as Mt. Sinai; rivers such as the Ganges; or cities such as Mecca or Jerusalem. Some people may mention public spaces such as the War Memorial or Monument Circle in Indianapolis or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C.  Cemeteries might also be mentioned.

  • Aside from traditional houses of worship, what local buildings or parts of buildings are considered sacred or holy?

Answers may include storefront churches, a chapel in an airport or a truck stop. Some people may mention places of temporary religious use, such as a gymnasium that is rented on Sundays for church services or hotel meeting rooms rented for religious services.

As you watch the video, look for symbols and rituals that are used to designate space as sacred.  Consider what criteria are used to designate space as sacred.


SHOW EPISODE II  (17 minutes) 

Allow time for members of the group to discuss what they have seen before proceeding with the rest of the discussion.

(15 minutes)

After viewing the video, distribute the pages you have duplicated titled “Session II—Worksheet” found below.

Allow five minutes for participants to complete the worksheet.  Then lead a five to ten minute discussion by asking people to share thoughts from their completed worksheets.  You might wish to use the following questions to prompt discussion:

  • What did you include as your faith tradition’s most important rituals and symbols?
  • Why do you think these rituals and symbols are the most important?

(10 minutes)

Lead a discussion on the sacred space in your facility. You may find the following questions useful:

  • What spaces are sacred in your faith tradition?

     Answers might include the sanctuary or altar or other places in the building.

  • What makes these spaces sacred?
  • Are rituals or symbols used to designate these spaces as sacred?
  • The video suggests that ritual, formal or informal, makes space sacred. Sandy Sasso suggests that it is the gathering of people for religious purpose that makes space sacred. While honoring formal and established rituals, Martin Marty also defines ritual in a more informal way.

 Answers will vary from faith group to faith group but they may include an activity that occurs in the space, or special ceremonies or rituals used to dedicate or transform the space.  You may wish to consult with a clergyperson about the rituals of your tradition.

  • Does your faith tradition have prescribed rituals or ceremonies to consecrate, or make space sacred?
  • Are any areas of your building not sacred?  What are these areas used for?

Answers to this question might include fellowship halls, classrooms, gymnasiums, storage areas, and others.

  • Why are these areas not considered sacred?


Remind participants of the home blessing that took place in the video.

  • Does your faith group encourage the creation of sacred space in the home?
  • If so, what kind of ritual is required for this?
  • If not, would it be good if your faith tradition did encourage this?
  • Would such a ritual change the way you value or act in the home?


Over the next several days be receptive to recognizing non-traditional sacred spaces you encounter.  Think about spaces you occupy in your daily routine, especially at home or work.  What changes could be made in these spaces to transform them, at least in part, to a place of comfort and special meaning to you?



Congregations sometimes create unique sacred spaces.  Brainstorm about ways your group might devise a plan to create sacred space specific to your congregation. Consider particular events that have taken place in the church’s area or neighborhood. Choose an event of special importance that may have occurred in a different part of town. Examples might include the birth or death of a particular individual, the site of your faith group’s first congregation in the area, or the location of an event that has strongly influenced the history of your congregation or faith group.

If there is sufficient interest, form a committee to implement the group’s ideas to create appropriate rituals for making the space sacred and commemorating the spot. A visit to the spot might become a special annual event.


Consider your relationship to the various spaces around you? Many people create space around themselves that they consider as their own.  It is special to them, filled with personal items such as mementos, photographs of family, friends, or admired persons, trophies or other items that have personal meaning. These may be places where family events take place, or a place where one goes for introspection or for community. People often come to think of such space as “sacred” to them.

Take a moment to think about a space that has personal “sacred” significance to you.  Visualize it clearly, and, on a separate sheet of paper, proceed to draw that space or describe it in words.

When they are finished, give participants about five minutes to share their own examples by asking the following questions:

  • Are any of these spaces defined by personal ritual, symbol, or story?
  • In what ways does your faith encourage you to create personal sacred space?


Much of religion is based on ritual and symbol.  In the space below:

Describe some of your religion’s most important rituals:

Describe some of your religion’s most important symbols:



  • Why is the place of worship often called a sanctuary?
  • Is this a place of retreat and comfort or is it a place that creates in you a sense of awe?  Does it ever make you uncomfortable?
  • Are there activities that could desecrate sacred spaces?  If so, are there ceremonies or prescribed rituals in your faith tradition to reconsecrate desecrated space?
  • Are there ceremonies or prescribed rituals in your faith tradition to de-sacralize space?


  • Are any of your rituals and symbols similar to those of other religious groups you saw in the video?  In what way?  How do they differ?
  • Does your faith tradition view sacred space the same as other traditions?  How is it the same?  How is it different?


  • Why do people, past and present, frequently think of outdoor space as sacred?

Answers might include: In the past, people spent much of their time out of doors and were dependent upon nature as hunters and gatherers, farmers and herdspeople. Many natural features and acts of nature are awe-inspiring.  Outdoor space is often revered as divine creation. 

  • What are some of the reasons that the sky and many other natural features have been considered sacred?

Answers might include: Unexplained and catastrophic events were associated with them: storms, eclipses, and earthquakes. Some features represented permanence: rock formations, mountains, and rivers.

  • What does the specific construction of a sacred space say about faith and humanity?

Ask the group to consider the large cathedrals with high vaulted ceilings where the individual is small in the presence of the Divine.

  • What changes, if any, have occurred in the use of sacred space in your faith tradition?


Consider ways to honor the sacred spaces of other religions. For example, there have been recent controversies involving the use of sites sacred to Native Americans and located on public lands. Many Native Americans consider recreational use of such land to be a violation of their sacred spaces. An example is Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.  There have also been numerous cases of the illegal sale and importation/exportation of objects from sacred sites.  The Cypress mosaics that were offered for sale in Indianapolis in the 1980s are one example.   Acts of arson have been directed at houses of worship.  Controversy exists concerning the control or use of land at sacred sites such as Jerusalem.

  • What do you think is right in dealing with the sacred spaces and objects of various religious groups?
  • What are some ways to honor the sacred spaces of other religions?
  • Why is it important to treat all sacred spaces with respect?
  • What happens when you do not respect the sacred spaces of other faith traditions?