An Architectural Reflection on Sandra Schneiders and Philip Sheldrake’s

Understanding of Christian Spirituality

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            Transformative Christian experience takes place in time and space. In this paper I am interested in the space in which this experience occurs because I am interested in an architectural approach to the arrangement of space that presumes that some spaces are more alive than others in which to “conscious[ly] involve oneself in the project of life-integration through self-transcendence towards the ultimately value one perceives,” as Sandra Schneiders describes spirituality.[1] I am interested to show here how Schneiders’ more all encompassing definition of Christian spirituality and Philip Sheldrake’s more practical description of spirituality as discipleship lived publicly can be conceived of and lived more completely when they are understood in relation to the unfolding process of wholeness of architect Christopher Alexander. I will show how to answer Sheldrake’s question affirmatively about whether “architecture and urban design enhance spirituality and reflect a vision of the human spirit?”[2] About the process of building Alexander writes that “this is the ultimate aim of all making: to make a thing which does manifest spirit, which shows feeling, which makes God visible and shows us the ultimate meaning of existence, in the actual sticks and stones of the made thing.”[3]

Part I

Sandra Schneiders Definition and Christopher Alexander’s Theory of Wholeness

Sandra Schneiders Definition of Christian Spirituality


            Sandra Schneiders has refined her thinking about the meaning of Christian spirituality over a considerable period of time.[4] For the purposes of this paper I am considering her latest attempt to articulate a definition of the description of Christian spirituality that considers its “material and formal cause, its interdisciplinarity, its relation to theology, and its self-implicating nature.”[5] She discusses these matters in her 1997 presidential address to the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. She writes that

Spirituality as the subject matter or material object of the discipline is the experience of conscious involvement in the project of life-integration though self-transcendence toward the ultimate value one perceives. In Christian spirituality these formal categories are specified by Christian content: the horizon of ultimate value is the trine God revealed in Jesus Christ, and the project involves the living of his paschal mystery in the context of the Church community through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Living within this horizon of ultimate value one relates in a particular to all of reality and it is this relationship to the whole of reality and to reality as a whole in a specifically Christian way which constitutes Christian spirituality.[6]


Because the transformative Christian experience can only take place in reality, time, space, and place then where the place of this experience is shapes and influences this experience. If, as Schneiders says, experiences as such and interpreting that experience through various intellectual disciplines is the formal object of the discipline of Christan spirituality,[7] then a specific approach to understanding the reality of space and place can help articulate this experience of Christian transformation. Christopher Alexander’s theory of wholeness and the building practice that evolves from it presents such a specific approach.

Christopher Alexander’s Understanding of Wholeness

            Christopher Alexander is professor emeritus of architecture at the University of California in Berkeley. He is also a practicing architect and a member of the American Academy of Science. In the midst of teaching and building over the last thirty years Alexander has written a series of books for Oxford University Press that have developed his theory of architecture as the creation of living spaces. His most famous book, A Pattern Language, developed 253 patterns which describe 253 systems which cause people stress and enervation in the built environment, and suggest 253 patterns which will “release people’s natural force, and thus make room for positive forces, positive emotions, and positive human interactions to have free play.”[8]

            “Wholeness” has to do with an understanding of the universe and the arrangement of matter, according to Christopher Alexander. There are varying degrees of life in different parts of space. [Slides: galaxy, forest;]  The mechanistic view of the universe says that all matter is the same everywhere, that it can be separated from its environment and broken down into its simpler parts.  If this is so, asks Alexander, why does one feel different standing in front of a modern skyscraper than standing in front of an old Victorian house?  Why does one feel different in a well laid out garden than in forest meadow filled with wildflowers?  The difference has to do with the wholeness present in any one of these areas of space.  There are coherent structures existing in every part of space, “real physical and mathematical structures…created indirectly, by symmetries and other relationships which are induced in the geometry” to create the wholeness of any structure, Alexander claims.[9] If that last statement seems a bit abstract, consider these two objects. {Ordinary saltshaker and a Heinz Ketchup bottle} Ask yourself which of the two pictures in each set has more life or less life?  Which of the two picture is a closer picture of your true self, your simple, honest, unassuming self.  Which is closer to an expression of the deepest part of your being.  I am not asking which one of the two pictures you like or dislike.  I am not asking which one seems to be more in step with what is “real life” today.  I am asking you to pay attention to the childlike place inside yourself and tell me which of the pictures more expresses your true self. [Slides]

            By the very fact that you are willing to entertain the question about the “degrees of life that, at least in a few cases in these slides, are apparent, means that you have noticed different levels of wholeness in different arrangements of space. One of the residences of a housing project he built in Mexicali in the 1970’s, Jose Tapia, said that for him and his family their home became a place where the family delighted in spending their time, whereas the prior place they lived was dim and uninviting.  Ann Medlock says of her Alexander built house in Washington, on Welbey Island, it is a place where family and friends gather regularly for deeply nourishing conversation fostered “by the grace that emanates from this holy place.”  A student at the Eishin campus Alexander built outside Tokyo contrasted his feelings of the prison-like crowded congestion of Tokyo with the nourishing space at the campus even crowded with students.  “For the first time in my life, I felt that I was free.”[10]

            Feeling “free,” experiencing “holiness,” “delighting” in a place that before was uninviting, these are spiritual qualities that people have experienced in places consciously made by attending to the “wholeness” already existing in each of these locations and building upon it to enhance the quality of the life there. Spaces and places are not equally filled with the same wholeness.

            Alexander’s latest work, a four-volume project entitled The Nature of Order: An Essay in the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe, sets out to articulate how attention to “wholeness” can create a place, a world “in which ugliness and beauty are reconciled.” To do this requires a new structure, living structure.  It requires constant attention at every step in the building process to the fundamental question, “to what extent is this building made of being?”[11] If we can identify degrees of life all around us, as we have done by looking at those slides, then there are degrees of being at every level of space as well, Alexander declares.  “Wholeness” describes the overall structure present in any organization of space.  It is perceived by understanding that the scientific definition of “life” as a self-replicating system needs to be expanded to include the understanding that life is a quality that inheres in space itself.  A brick is alive, a stone is alive, “every person, every physical structure of any kind at all, that appears in space…has life, Alexander insists.”[12] This understanding of the characteristics of life means that an architect must be sensitive to more than the ecological system and environment in which she/he is building. She must “also understanding how the piece of wood in the window sill, the piece of concrete in the edge of the flower bed fit into this pattern of life and complete it.”[13]

            Wholeness is itself is made up of what Alexander identifies as “centers.” Centers  refer to an “organized zone of space… a distinct set of points in space, which because of its organization, because of its internal coherence, and because of its relation to its context, exhibits centeredness.”[14] The centers of a pine forest would include the needles, cones, branches, tree trunks, the earth, the insects, the animal activity, the weather pattern, the plant life, the various colors of the forest, the edges of the forest.  A fruit tree is a center.  Its branches are centers, so are its blossoms, and each petal of the blossom, each leaf, and each fruit that the tree produces. Each leaf is composed of other centers: its parallel curved shape unifying the leaf, its ribs, each section of the leaf between the ribs, the stem, the joint between stem and leaf, “and the very tiny serrations, almost smooth, which form the other boundary of the leaf” all are centers helping each other to be centers,” Alexander says.[15]

            The wholeness of a building appears as one considers not only the approach to the structure, the garden, entrance, rooms, main structure, doors, windows, ceiling, stairs. It also must include people activities, the social gatherings, the places of intimate conversation, recreation, work, and study. All these entities are centers. They form a field of centers through which the wholeness of the building appears.

Wholeness then captures the essence, the meaning, “the essential character, the global structure” of any region of space through the system of centers at work there. “Life comes from it. Life comes from the particular details of the ways the centers in the wholeness cohere to form a unity, the ways they interact, and interlock, and influence each other.”[16]

            If, as Alexander proposes, physical reality is composed of a field of centers, “then there is a crucial objective sense in which there is less value in the empty space, somewhat more value in the rock, and still more value in the birch tree.”[17] If this is the case, Alexander insists, then space is not neutral, as current scientific theory holds. It has degrees of value, apparent in the ice crystal, the pond, the forest, and the galaxy. If these degrees of value are part of nature itself, then the attention the architect pays to the wholeness in the world in which she wants to build, “may reach deeper levels of value by increasing wholeness or…may break down value by destroying wholeness.” This is not a stylistic or culturally conditioned conclusion, Alexander asserts. It “is a matter of fact about the wholeness in the world.

Life will increase, or it will degenerate, according to the degree in which the wholeness of the world is upheld, or damaged, by human beings and human processes.


Thus, Alexander views the task of architecture to be to produce those living structures which contribute to the wholeness of the world.[18]

            How is this accomplished? How is it possible to create living structure, life in a building? Alexander looks to nature for his model.  Living structures are formed in nature by what he calls the “principle of unfolding wholeness,” which states that “in the evolution of an otherwise undisturbed system, the wholeness W is progressively enhanced and intensified.” Step by step the wholeness becomes “progressively intensified.  It is this process which is responsible for the creation of life,” he says. Thus were spiral galaxies formed, the growth of a crystal as a whole, the stages of development of the common mushroom, and a host of other elements in nature.[19] In every case the structure is preserved and intensified, growing organically and holistically from the wholeness that already exists.

            In order to respect this principle of unfolding wholeness in building it is necessary to have a process that insures a smooth transformation of any space from one form to another.  [When any configuration needs modification by changing or adding certain elements, as at a site where a building is to be constructed, “we distinguish,” he says, “between those additions and changes which preserve or enhance the structure and those which weaken or destroy the structure.”[20] There is a question that must be asked at every step in the building process: “what is the wholeness already present at this moment, and how will what I am about to do enhance or detract from that wholeness?”  This question is repeated again and again by the architect. She wants to do only the one next thing that will cause the centers to deepen and the wholeness to increase, and the life of the building to evolve.  Alexander likens this process to a prayer.

Like a devotional prayer, we must keep it pure, all the time, never introducing one tiny line, or crumb, or detail, or extra bit of flippancy, which come from our image-seeking self—but only doing the exact thing which is required, the simplest thing which we can do, to make a proper gift to God.[21]


            Certainly this kind of attention to reality and the built environment has as a consequence to make one conscious of the presence of God in all things, to use the Ignatian phrase of awareness of the divine. Wherever one is at any one time in any particular space one’s awareness of the divine-human encounter and its consequence can increase, if Alexander is correct, by paying attention to the “life”, the “wholeness” present where we are, by continually asking of any place, or any space, or any object, “does it have more life or less life; how is it a picture of my deepest self? The architecture around us, architecture in the broad sense of the space in which a building or other object is to be constructed, and architecture in the sense of a building and how it comes to “life” provides the place for both transformative Christian experience and for the study of it as the academic discipline of Christian spirituality.

Part II

Philip Sheldrake’s Understanding of Spirituality as Living Publicly and the Process of Structure-Preserving Transformation


            Philip Sheldrake’s latest articulation of the meaning of Christian spirituality was, like Sandra Schneiders, presented in his 2003 presidential address to the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. He understands Christian spirituality, in the final analysis, to be “discipleship.”[22] Many people, he says, understand that the word “spirituality” “implies interiority in the sense of a quest for personal spiritual experience away from everyday life.”[23] This is really not the point of prayer or spirituality because spirituality, Christian spirituality, means to become engaged in the missio Dei, the mission of God. That is, “the divine activity of self-disclosure in creation, salvation history, and Incarnation, drawing all things into the limitless embrace of God’s unifying love.”[24] All prayer, and a fortiori, mystical prayer unites the person with God. God, as Christians understand the Trinity, “is persons-in-communion, a mutuality of self-giving love.” “The life of discipleship is to participate ever more deeply in this missio Dei through a faithful following of the way of Jesus, the bearer and expression of God mission.”[25] Mission and discipleship are biblical notions at the core of Christian life and as such invite the Christian to a public living of what she/he believes.

            Sheldrake understands “living publicly” to go beyond politeness and “the incidental sharing of space with others.” It is a spiritual practice of engaging with others in ways that embrace diversity as part of the process of establishing and reinforcing the self…learning how to be truly hospitable to what is different and unfamiliar, and establishing and experiencing a common life. [It] excludes social or political quietism, it excludes existing passively in the midst of the world.”[26]

            Most people live in cities, Sheldrake notes. How, therefore, “can the city itself be sacred place and how may living in the city be a spiritual practice,” he asks? [27] “We lost a centered—not least spiritually centered—meaning for the city as it became a commodity fragmented into multiple activities, multiple ways of organizing time and space, matched by multiple roles for the inhabitants.” Now, is there a way that the city can be “humane”, that is, a place where “people would not only dwell but also belong—that is to say, be joined in attachments of affection and fulfillment as the medium of transcendence”; a place that “offers the necessary space for individual personality to be balanced with healthy collectivism…”; a place that “would facilitate a proper connection to the natural world such that environment or ecology would not be distanced…but be continuous with and integrated with people and their buildings?”[28]

            Christopher Alexander’s structure-preserving transformation of space offers just such a way for a city tobe humane, and living there spiritual practice. As I explained above, for Alexander, in every part of space there is wholeness already present, a structure of elements that make up the reality in any location. [Slide of circles from bk II ] If I want to alter that space, in our case, make a city or a part of a city more humane, I must begin by attending to the system of centers already there that make up the wholeness of the place. I do not come to the place with a set of preconceived ideas of what a “more humane” space should look like and proceed to build it. Rather I ask, what is the one next thing I can do to enhance the life that is present there, enhance and not destroy the life? I keep asking that question again and again as I begin to see the wholeness of the place expand or diminish as I try one thing or another.

            Alexander describes one place where he put this method into practice as he helped townspeople of a blighted area of downtown Fort Lauderdale Florida to reconstruct the area. He begins by describing what has happened to this place. Like most places of 20th century construction this one showed all the markings of “master plan” idea driven organization of the space that did not involve people in the process. “The city that we are making today does not belong to us. It is as simple as that,” Alexander declares. “And it is this failure of belonging which causes the economic blight….It does not belong to the people who live in it and work in it…. It belongs in part to absentee owners, bankers, and developers… but emotionally it belongs to no one.” This is the new system of development. It contrasts sharply with the way villages and towns grew up, “where every stone and every blade of grass is known, loved, adapted to people who live there.”[29] Cities like Fort Lauderdale are “faceless.” This is an important reason why so many cities are not humane.

            Alexander says that “to apply his fundamental process to create living structure in a city…the city must belong to people, in public: the public parts must belong to us. And the city must belong to people privately, the private places must belong to us.”[30] To achieve the sense of public belonging Alexander notes how before the 20th century in cities the spaces between buildings were treated as common areas, as a common living room . People lived in tiny dwellings but shared a public space where they enjoyed each other’s company. Therefore, Alexander’s first approach to making the section of Fort Lauderdale more humane is to make the existing public spaces usable, friendly, places where people want to be together. What are the structure preserving next steps necessary to make these spaces beautiful places to be, and actually be a kind of living room for the people who live there? It means shaping the streets so that they are not things to drive through, “but a series of spaces which are the places where you most want to be.”[31]

            The second approach is to “allow the city to evolve so that it reflects us all, reflects each individual in his individuality.” To accomplish this, he says, we ask the fundamental question, this time in another variation. How personally does this place touch me? Does it reflect the human soul, human making in the layout of the neighborhood, in the door, the fence, the building, the garden? “Our lives work,”writes Alexander, “when we have that kind of personal relationship to the environment. It is there of our making. Or it is there from the making of other individual beings, we recognize the human touch of it.”[32]

            To re-awaken in people a sense of the public realm of space and to re-awaken at the same time a sense of the individual realm of space, and how both might reflect the human soul, these are the two things necessary to bring a blighted neighborhood to life, to preserve and transform the already existing structure into a new wholeness in which people want to live. If “spirituality as living publicly in the city is essentially to enact the story of Jesus Christ that points to and enables a way of living differently in the world,”[33] commitment to the structure-preserving transformation of space certainly lays out a way to proceed.


            Sandra Schneiders’ definition of Christian Spirituality as “living within the horizon of ultimate value one relates in a particular way to all reality and it is this relationship to the whole of reality and to reality as a whole,”[34] can, for me, be best understood in the architectural concept of wholeness of Christopher Alexander. Every part of space, reality, is alive in degrees. We notice the degree of life present anywhere by continually asking what degree of life is present here as opposed to there. How can I make this place more reflect the wholeness, or enhance the wholeness, the reality already present? The “whole of reality and reality as a whole” come alive.

            Sheldrake says,

            In the context of the city, the idea of spirituality as a way of living publicly is not a placid acceptance of things as they are. If the “mission of God” is to reconcile all things to God and all people to each other, authentic Christian practice is necessarily an act of resistance to everything that divides people from each other or seeks to repress diversity and eliminate otherness.[35]


Christopher Alexander’s architectural approach to this “resistance” would show people how to create living structures that both belong to people publicly and belong to them individually. This sense of identity and belonging to a place unites people and makes them friends not enemies. Architecture as the process of the unfolding of living structures of reality can serve the field of Christian spirituality in important ways to study the “transformative experience of God” in the ordinary and public places where people live everyday. It seems to me that it also goes a long way to address two of Elizabeth Johnson’s challenges for the horizon of theology in the next 50 years. It names the grace of God today, and it listens to the voice of the earth.[36]


[1] Sandra Schneiders, “The Study of Christian Spirituality: Contours and Dynamics of a Discipline,” Christian Spirituality Bulletin 6 (Spring 1998): 1, 3. [Hereafter, “Contours”]


[2]Philip Sheldrake, “Christian Spirituality as a Way of Living Publicly: A Dialectic of the Mystical  and Prophetic,” Spiritus 3(Spring 2003): 28. [Hereafter “Living Publicly”.

[3]Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and The Nature of the Universe. Berkeley, CA: The Center for Environmental Structure, 2004. Vol. 4, Luminous Ground, 303. [Hereafter N of O] All references to the four volumes of N of O will have to be checked against the 2004 edition of the work.            

[4] Sandra M. Schneiders, “Theology and Spirituality: Strangers, Rivals, or Partners?” Horizons 13 1986: 265-267. ________, “Spirituality in the Academy,” Theological Studies 50 (1989):676-697. ______, “A Hermeneutical Approach to the Study of Christian Spirituality,” Christian Spirituality Bulletin 2 (Spring 1994): 9-14.

[5]Schneiders, “Contours,” 3.

[6]Schneiders, “Contours,” 1,3.

[7]Schneiders, “Contours,” 3.

[8] Christopher Alexander, N of O I: 11, 6 “A World Which Enhances Human Life,” 403. Christopher Alexander, wht Sara Lshikawa, Murrray Silverstein, Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King, and Sholomo Angel, A Pattern Language (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).

[9]Alexander, N of O, I: 3, 5 “Wholeness As A Subtle Structure,” 86.

[10] Alexander, N of O, I: 11, 10 “Experiments in Our Time,” 414, and 11 “For the First Time I Was Free,” 416.

[11] Alexander,  N of O, IV: 28 (August 14,1977), 18 “The Life of the Environment” 93. 

[12] Alexander, N of O, I: 1, 1 “Introduction,” 28.

[13] Ibid, 29.

[14]Alexander, N of O, I:3, 8”The Concept of A Center,” 90.

[15] Alexander, N of O, I:4 Ibid, 117.

[16] Alexander, N of O, I: 3, 14 “Wholeness as the Underlying Substrate of Al Life in Space,” 106, and I: 3, 15 “Life Comes Directly from the Wholeness,” 107.

[17] Alexander, N of O, “I; 6, “A New View of Nature,” 206.

[18] Alexander, N of O, I. 6, Ibid, 297-298.

[19] Alexander, N of O, II: 13 (April 1, 1998) 3, 41-50 for a detailed description of various cases of unfolding in nature. Alexander shows how the fifteen geometric properties appear in these unfoldings as recursive centers form to intensify the wholeness.

[20] Alexander, N of O, II 14 (April 1998) 2 “Structure-Preserving Transformations,” 68.

[21] N of O, III: 24 (October 21, 1997), 11 “The Structure of Nothing,” 691.

[22] Sheldrake, “Living Publicly,” 26.

[23] Sheldrake, “Livng Publicly,” 19.

[24] Sheldrake, “Living Publicly,” 26.

[25] Sheldrake, “Living Publicly, Ibid.

[26] Sheldrake, “Living Publicly, 27.

[27]Sheldrake, “Living Publicly,” Ibid.

[28] Sheldrake, “Living Publicly,” 30-31.

[29]N of O, III, I, 3 “Destruction Caused by Development,” 12

[30]N of O, Ibid.

[31]N of O, III, I, 4 “The Living Room of Society,” 13.

[32]N of O, III, I, 5 “The Individuality of Different Families and Businesses,” 14.

[33] Sheldrake, “Living Publicly,” 32.

[34]Schneiders, “Contours,” 3.

[35] Sheldrake, “Living Publicly,” 34.

[36] Elizabeth Johnson, “Horizons in Theology: New Voices in a Living Tradition,” Plenary Session, College Theology Society Convention, Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. June 3, 2004. The paper will be published in the Proceedings for this Convention.