OPINION | Chris Jones: Our heritage is not just our past, we are creating it every day

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As we celebrate Heritage Day and our diversity of religions, we should remember that sacrality can be  experienced in various ways and places in our cities, towns, and neighbourhoods, writes the author. Picture: iStock
As we celebrate Heritage Day and our diversity of religions, we should remember that sacrality can be experienced in various ways and places in our cities, towns, and neighbourhoods, writes the author. Picture: iStock

Although institutionalised religion is losing ground and societies are increasingly characterised as secular, we should bear in mind this  heritage day that "society is not necessarily de-sacralised" as we transform new spaces, writes Chris Jones.


On Heritage Day (24 September), we are encouraged to celebrate our diverse cultures, religions, languages, food, music, and other traditions. In my reflection on this important national holiday, I would like to focus on religion and new developments regarding sacred places and what this means for the way we celebrate our religious heritage.  

A couple of years ago, a colleague from Tilburg University in The Netherlands, the moral theologian Jan Jans, gave me a copy of research at the Tilburg School of Humanities titled Humanities Perspectives (2012), of which he was the editor. Two articles, in particular, caught my eye: The one written by Inez Schippers, and the other by Lieke Wijnia. 

Schippers writes how, during her time researching the sacred in the suburbs, she regularly cycled through Leidsche Rijn that forms part of the city of Utrecht. The Leidsche Rijn development was/is part of the Dutch government's programme to address the housing crisis in The Netherlands.

She found that churches did not form part of this specific urban development because the planners assumed that there was no demand or need for such places. This helped her look "beyond the church building at new forms of sacred space, and at new places for ritual practice". 

Heritage is part of our present 

This is of great interest to me because heritage, as I view it, is not only found in, and celebrated as part of our past, but also created in the present. Perhaps this is something that we should also consider in our debates about heritage.

Schippers makes the critical point that the "de-institutionalisation of religion" does not automatically mean that the sacred has disappeared from society. 

In this regard, she refers to sociologist Mathew Evans who sees "the sacred" as "things set apart". He describes four dimensions of sacrality: the personal, civil, religious, and spiritual. All these dimensions are "non-exclusive". 

This implies that the "sacred is not only to be found in traditional, institutional religion but in individual and differentiated forms of sacrality as well". It ranges from the individual and natural to the collective and supernatural. 

This is happening across the globe, including South Africa. The popularity of traditional, institutional religion is shrinking and this, according to Schippers, has "created the search for new forms, more individualistic and philosophical, and consequently also for new sacred places to suit these new forms". 

READ | Sonwabile Mancotywa: Its time to rethink our heritage resource management

The core of her research was to identify and investigate these newly emerging places to get an insight into how they were functioning. 

After 25 minutes of cycling, as referred to above, she usually reached her destination – a so-called birth memorial forest. Twice a year, residents of Leidsche Rijn can plant a tree for their newborn child or grandchild. In some cases, a tree can also be planted for a deceased (young) child. 

For her, it was rewarding to observe and participate in this interesting new ritual. New rituals often emerge as people plant their trees: "whole families are helping, pictures are taken, and poems are read". 

All the participating families in this ritual receive a certificate with their name and the exact GPS location of their tree on it. This helps when someone returns to see how his/her tree has grown, to take pictures, or to hang something onto a branch. 

Peace and quiet 

Most of these trees carry a personal story and is therefore important to their owners.  The people in the then growing suburb of Leidsche Rijn, who preferred a traditional church, attended the church of their choice in the old(er) parts of Utrecht that sufficiently accommodated everybody. 

What Schippers found, is that the residents of this new growing neighbourhood had particular places in their neighbourhood where they felt special, went to reflect on life, or found some peace and quiet. 

Her bike ride took her through different neighbourhoods that were built in different historical periods — from the early Middle Ages to areas that were still under construction. The way in which these neighbourhoods were planned and set up also varies. They represent the time in which they were built, and one can easily see the differences. 

One of the most significant characteristics, as already referred to, was the fact that church buildings had "disappeared". Churches do not have such a prominent place in cities and villages as before. They are often left out of the equation. Many people find themselves in a post-church situation. 

This confirms the fact that traditional and institutional forms of religion are losing ground right across the Western world but, as Schippers points out, "this does not mean that sacrality is disappearing from our society: people look for new forms and accompanying sacred places in the public domain. Where people used to go to church for their religious or sacred experiences, nowadays they also seem to find similar experiences in nature, in music, in art, or in silence". 

'Set-part' places

In South Africa, we also experience this shift away from traditional religion to certain "set-apart" places ascribed to sacrality, as Evans refers to it. One could argue that this is another example of how heritage is being created in the present. 

This brings me to Lieke Wijnia, who reasons that although it is challenging to give a single all-encompassing definition of what sacrality is, a crucial aspect emerging from all the definitions is that it has a "non-empirical" character. 

READ | Opinion: Cas Coovadia: We must get rid of our heritage of corruption and crime

In other words, the importance of individual experiences and how they are put into words, are very important in describing the sacred. 

In Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (1998), Christopher Small argues that the sacred takes people out of their daily contexts and touch them in a way that help them experience how they really want the world to be. 

Although institutionalised religion is losing ground and societies are increasingly characterised as secular, "society is not necessarily de-sacralised", as Gordon Lynch reminds us in The Sacred in the Modern World: A Cultural Sociological Approach (2012). Wijnia says that "religion takes on different forms and the sacred has become an attribution instead of merely an institution with established boundaries". 

As we celebrate Heritage Day and our diversity of religions, we must also remember that sacrality can be recognised and/or experienced in various ways and places in our cities, towns, and neighbourhoods. The more we identify and explore them and enhance both actual and ideal relationships among the different people sharing these places and spaces, the more we create heritage, which hopefully will be celebrated, reflected upon meaningfully, and even be transformed creatively by those who come after us. 

- Dr Chris Jones heads the Unit for Moral Leadership in the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University.

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