A Calling, A Vocation by Elise M. Edwards

Elise Edwards

In my previous post The Feminist Influence, I began discussing what a feminist perspective might bring to a theological study of architecture.  I asserted that a feminist perspective on the ethical function of architecture offers at least two contributions: (1) it provokes questioning about what flourishing is for all peoples and the Earth, and (2) it provokes examination of systems of power and privilege and how they are constructed into our built landscape.  I think a feminist vision of architecture could help all of us (even those of us who are not design professionals) promote design that respects and responds to our environment, addressing the harm we have done.  I do want to give some thought, though, to what it means especially for architects and other design professionals.

In The Vocation of the Artist, feminist cultural critic Deborah Haynes argues that creative people, specifically artists, have a responsibility to ask how else the future might be and how to present alternatives through their creative abilities as they confront our earth’s potentially dystopic future.  She asserts that artists must reclaim the sacred in service of the future in order to address and avert the global crises that threaten our cosmos–among them, war and environmental degradation.  She frames the vocation of artists—those with religious sensibilities as well as those without them—as a calling to take their work seriously as an expression of the sacred dimension of existence.  Haynes describes the sacred as “that which is worthy of human veneration yet is ultimately beyond human comprehension,” intentionally avoiding references to ecclesiastical power or a patriarchal, agentic God. (114)   Artists who engage their creativity are participating in the sacred because they are relating to something beyond themselves.  Artistic creativity in Haynes’ approach is a special case of the divine, sacred, and mysterious process of ongoing creativity in the world.

What does it mean to talk about design as a vocation? Rather than how we typically use the term—to simply refer to our jobs or careers—Haynes reminds us that vocation is linked to a sense of calling.  This means that design work is sacred and some of us experience spiritual meaning in design as we respond to that which is sacred.

Would it change the way designers create if they thought of their work as an expression of the sacred or as spiritual practice?  For me, it certainly changes the way I think of the work I do.  If I design a building, it is not just about serving the client or the building users or even the community that lives around it.  Vocation, or calling, means that I serve God through my design.  This means that it should honor God and the cosmos that God has created.  We can do this by creating beautiful buildings that respect and reflect the beauty of creation. We also honor the sacred by creating buildings that reuse building materials wherever possible, maximize energy efficiency, and utilize other sustainable building practices.

Elise M. Edwards recently completed the requirements for a PhD in Religion at Claremont Graduate University, where she studied Theology, Ethics, and Culture.  She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines  issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.

Categories: Art, Black Feminism, Christianity, Ecofeminism, Ecojustice, Ethics, Feminism, General, sustainability, Women and Work

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2 replies

  1. Elise, interesting post and questions.

    I have studied Minoan architecture for over twenty years now. There simply is no place in it to stand in awe of or to bow down to a king, queen, priest, or priestess–or to a divinity.

    Even in the so-called palaces, there is no great room where people in their hundreds or thousands could view or listen to a “great leader.” Nor or there large statues of the divinity–female or male. Rather the rooms in the shrines are small and intimate, the items placed on the altars were not large, and even the statues of priestesses or Goddesses were small. In other words, the architecture reflects power with not power over.

    This stands in great contrast to Greek temples with statues of deities 20 feet tall, covered in gold, and temples designed to make the viewer feel small in the sense of humbled or diminished.

    In line with this way of thinking, I do not think it is appropriate to consider the sacred to be “beyond human comprehension.” Love and compassion are within human comprehension. They are qualities we know. The capacity of the Goddess to love and understand may exceed ours, but we know what love and compassion are. These are qualities we share with the divinity whose power is power with not power over.


    • Elise, thank you for your nice post. Carol, I think “beyond human comprehension” might mean “beyond human control”. For instance, we all perform various bodily functions naturally, but, if we were to consciously control every one of them, we would fail. So, it is a mystery of life that is divine. We live something that we cannot actually create or control. And as for design, it is similar there. We do create something, but as we all know, it is not entirely a conscious rational process, a process that we can control. I am a great believer in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way – and she presses this point repeatedly. Creativity is the realm of the Goddess in the sense that it is beyond comprehension. It happens when we sincerely practice our craft, when we make ourselves available to the flow of creativity, to Awen, if you will – but we do not know exactly how it happens.

      As for the intimate temples – yes, totally. I’ll go further to say that this might be how we survived at all and carried the memory of the Goddess through the darkest centuries of patriarchy: Her Temples simply moved to our female ancestors’ ovens, kitchen tables, and women’s corners, where they spun and wove and sang together.


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