10/15/2010 08:11 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Religious Architecture For Awareness, Openness and Freedom

Adapted from a speech at the dedication of the Salameno Spiritual Center at Ramapo College on Oct. 5

Architect Le Corbusier designed a major dwelling and called it "a machine for living in." Most architects of religious buildings could say that they were designing "a machine for worshipping in." Communities know what to expect when a particular faith is building, as in the case of Christian cathedrals, Muslim mosques, Jewish or Buddhist or Hindu temples. Architects through the centuries have come up with marvelously inventive variations, pushing the edges of their inherited guidelines.

Picture the firm of Holzman Moss Bottino Architecture taking on the assignment of planners and donors at Ramapo College of New Jersey to build a "Spiritual Center," as they did in the case of the new Salameno Spirituality Center there. Some cited the Meditation Room at the United Nations headquarters in New York as a rare precedent, and there have been "inter-faith" chapels on campuses. This college was started too recently to have inherited a 19th century once-Christian-styled sanctuary. Such would have served back when tax-supported schools served the Christian majority and when few asked questions about such religious service on a public site. Now, however, there were new 21st century challenges and opportunities.

First off, some of us who are uneasy with the overuse of the concept "spirituality" (meaning "post-" or "anti-" religious) could have pictured the Ramapo campus structure turning out to be simply non-descript. "Non-descript" usually means "neither here nor there," but this Center was to be "descript," a word not yet in the dictionary. Descriptive of what? one might ask, as did the campus leaders, including those who serve religious individuals and sub-communities. I joined the wrestlers with that question when dealing with the finished Center as a dedication-day speaker.

First, the Center had to include both indoor and outdoor spaces in a time when higher education institutions try to make possible an awakening both to the natural environment and the human impulse to gather under a roof. Add to that that it should serve both private or individual "users," students or others who need a place conducive to meditation or for meetings among those who share common quests, symbols, stories and ethical impulses. Third, the architects could and should not replicate, with slight variations, "Gothic," "Colonial," "Moorish" or other familiar styles. Clearly, they did not. Whether one judges the buildings to be successful, be they the smallest and, dare I say, rather quirky structures or the not-very-large focal "hut" -- again, dare I call it that? -- striking as it is as the major gathering place.

If the Spirituality Center is not to be expressive of a kind of gaseous spirituality or a non-descript house where prayers are directed "To Whom It May Concern," it still has to be seen as somehow a "machine for" or a "house and space for." I asked what leaders of a public college and its students and other members of the community might seek there and what they expressed, in different and varying terms, to the architects and donors. What I read in advance of the dedication and what I saw on that slightly drizzly day was something that translates, for me, to the concept of "soul," as in "being of service to the soul." And the structures should potentially display "soul" as, I believe, a physical creation like a good building might and must.

That meant taking a stab at defining or pointing to what "soul" can mean. For this the shadow of Aristotle and some illumination by Dr. Leon Kass applies. I'll paraphrase: By the "soul" of a person or a phenomenon (think "soul music"), we do not mean what first comes to mind in a culture where "Body and Soul" get divided in music titles or in much religious expression. No, Kass reminds: By soul we do not mean a ghost in a machine ("soul" inside "body") or a pilot on a ship or any thing. Instead it means "the integrated vital power of a naturally organic body." Here, of course, we use analogy, as architects like Frank Lloyd Wright did when they promoted architecture which Wright called "organic."

The three marks of soul? First, "Integrated?" The parts have to fit, and the Salameno Spiritual Center's clustered buildings aspire to be so, with some success. "Vital?" Buildings come alive, become vital, when humans enter them or are inspired by their external features. "Power?" Of course, we associate "power" with "soul." But what I found most appropriate at Ramapo on dedication day was a sentence of Kass as he spoke about the human soul: "The ascent of soul has meant the possibility of an ever-greater awareness of and openness to the world, and an ever greater freedom in the world."

Here is meant not exclusively the way specific faiths address the world and its possibilities, as when members of specific faiths can find a temporary home there. Instead, this Center makes possible "ever-greater awareness of the world." Campus life can be conducive to the shutting out of the larger world as people pursue their narrow specialties and preparations for career. The college needs to provide stimulation, alongside what happens in classrooms, libraries, computer centers or athletic arenas, but here there must be stimulation of a special sort.

Second, "soul" as in the soul of a building or the person quickened by it, promotes "greater openness to the world." The Ramapo people expect that their community members from around the world will find openness there. Also, ideas from everywhere can bombard individuals until they turn their backs or close their ears. Now, here, they need and, one hopes, will get encouragement for recognizing more openness of soul.

Finally, if "soul" is aspired to in structures or open places like those at this Center and embodied by some who find refuge and stimulus there, they will have found "greater freedom in the world." Freedom here builds on the other kinds of freedoms on which colleges depend and which they should enhance -- political freedom, academic freedom, freedom of choice, freedom to pursue diverse vocations and careers. Add "spiritual freedom," which here means to help develop "free spirits" in the best senses of that term. Ramapo in this case fosters awareness, openness and freedom.