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The Altars of the Future
by Rev. Richard S. Kirby, Ph.D., March 29, 1999
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This statement was delivered by Rev. Richard S. Kirby, PhD., International Chairperson of the World Network of Religious Futurists on March 26, 1999, inviting youth religionists to build the sacred centers in the "temples" of tomorrow.

I write these words on behalf of my colleagues, scholars in the future of religion and society.

"Then will I go unto the altar of God, unto God my exceeding joy; yea, upon the harp I will praise thee, O God, my God." -Psalm. 43:4 KJV

New Altars for New People.

Let us build some new altars. Maybe a couple of thousand.

Who will build these 'new altars,' these 'altars of the future'? You --- the young of today and tomorrow - for you have the energy and innocence, the openness and the freshness of thought, the courage --- and the time. And as "new people," to use Thoreau's phrase, you need new paths of worship. Today's youngsters have to redefine the life of Faith. You need to create for yourselves new avenues of ultimacy. You must design and build new places of final, supreme value to them. You need new altars suited to your needs in your time.

An altar is a symbol of sacredness, of perfection. It is a place to find, to locate, and to honor the highest and best we can think of. It is the core of the core of our holiest or best places. And it is a place where, perhaps, we will meet God in a new way [Isa. Ch.6].

A library, too, has some kinship with an altar. A library is, or could be a place of studiousness, of concentration, of the search for perfection. It can also be a place to find, to locate, and to honor the highest and best we can think of.

To think about new altars is to think, in part about new churches, future churches the churches of tomorrow. Somebody has to think about future churches - that's our job. The future of religion is our business.

Church building - whether we think of buildings, people, mission, or community--is a human act; but it is one, which is done in partnership with the Divine Being.

In building the Churches of Tomorrow, the churches of the future, one approach is to do it in pieces.

If we consider one model of church design as a series of concentric circles, the Altar is the innermost circle. Even within this innermost circle, there may be more and more sacred realms. The quintessential center is the "Holy of Holies," where even the priest or minister of the Sacraments may go only under special, rare circumstances.

The Altar of the Heart

The 19th and 20th centuries have seen a shift in the locus of 'the sacred:' from the outer, to the inner. The 'holy' [see Rudolf Otto] has also been increasingly seen as an interior reality, that is, a psychological or mystical, rather than an ecclesiastical fact.

And perhaps the 21st century will complete this movement by seeing relationships as the truly holy - that is, love.

In the 19th century, such writers as Walt Whitman could sing of your own soul, your own self as the greatest of things. The Supreme had migrated under the skin. For some, the Ultimate had become an interior reality. Whitman was foreshadowed by the New England transcendentalists [Emerson and Thoreau] among others. The 'self-reliant' person needed a limitless self.

In the 20th century, with the advent of existentialism and psychoanalysis, there is also a cultural trend towards seeing an altar as symbolizing the core of a person's self. The sacred places of the altar are a kind of external expression of the 'Secret Places of the Heart' - to cite the title of Nancy Mitford's book. Putting it the other way round, the external altar expresses the human capacity to act out of true self, not false self --- that is the idiom of psychoanalysis; the existentialist way of putting it would be to say that the altar points to the human capacity for authenticity. Paul Tillich, the [in some respects] existentialist theologian might say that the altar embodies the idea of 'ultimate concern.'

But the altar can also have a more baleful meaning, psychologically. It could be considered a projection of the desire for authenticity - that is, a displacement of it, a removal to a safe distance of 'true self' or 'actual self' as the psychologists term it. Jung, in such books as The Undiscovered Self spoke of the repression of the true self in modern, post-war culture. This would imply the unpalatable truth, for religionists, that an altar can simply be a concretization of 'false self', 'false consciousness', a veritable consolidation of inauthenticity, what the existentialist Sartre called bad faith [mauvais foi]. Going to church can be bad for the soul! But before we go too far into the depth psychology of the altar, let us be sure we know what we are talking about. I hope to return to the subject of the depth psychology of the altar in a later article.

The Meaning of 'Altar'

The word is a noun. Its lexical ancestry, or Etymology: Middle English alter, from Old English altar, from Latin altare; probably akin to Latin adolEre: to burn up. Its date: before 12th century.

Here are some dictionary definitions of its meaning:

1: a usually raised structure or place on which sacrifices are offered or incense is burned in worship;

2: a table on which the Eucharistic elements are consecrated or which serves as a center of worship or ritual.

A Biblical viewpoint is as follows: Altar - (Heb. mizbe'ah, from a word meaning, "to slay"), any structure of earth (Ex. 20:24) or unwrought stone (20:25) on which sacrifices were offered.

Thus, the Altar is a place of fire, of sacrifice, or offering. or change, of dramatic activity, of encounter with a Higher Power.

The Altars of Yesterday

To construct the altars of tomorrow, we need to try to understand The Altars of Yesterday.

Here is a viewpoint from the ancient Hebrew religion. Altars were generally erected in conspicuous places (Gen. 22:9; Ezek. 6:3; 2 Kings 23:12; 16:4; 23:8; Acts 14:13).

In Christianity, the word Altar is used in Heb. 13:10 for the sacrifice offered upon it--the sacrifice Christ offered.

Paul found among the many altars erected in Athens one bearing the inscription, "To the unknown God" (Acts 17:23), or rather "to an [i.e., some] unknown God." The reason for this inscription cannot now be accurately determined. It afforded the apostle the occasion of proclaiming the gospel to the "men of Athens."

The first altar we read of is that erected by Noah (Gen. 8:20). Altars were erected by Abraham (Gen. 12:7; 13:4; 22:9), by Isaac (Gen. 26:25), by Jacob (33:20; 35:1, 3), and by Moses (Ex. 17:15, "Jehovah-nissi").

In the tabernacle, and afterwards in the temple, two altars were erected.

(1.) The altar of burnt offering (Ex. 30:28), called also the "brasen altar" (Ex. 39:39) and "the table of the Lord" (Mal. 1:7).

This altar, as erected in the tabernacle, is described in Ex. 27:1-8. It was a hollow square, 5 cubits in length and in breadth, and 3 cubits in height. It was made of shittim wood, and was overlaid with plates of brass. Its corners were ornamented with "horns" (Ex. 29:12; Lev. 4:18).

In Ex. 27:3 the various utensils appertaining to the altar are enumerated. They were made of brass. (Comp. 1 Sam. 2:13, 14; Lev. 16:12; Num. 16:6, 7.)

In Solomon's temple the altar was of larger dimensions (2 Chr. 4:1. Comp. 1 Kings 8:22, 64; 9:25), and was made wholly of brass, covering a structure of stone or earth. This altar was renewed by Asa (2 Chr. 15:8). It was removed by Ahaz (2 Kings 16:14), and "cleansed" by Hezekiah, in the latter part of whose reign it was rebuilt. It was finally broken up and carried away by the Babylonians (Jer. 52:17).

After the return from captivity it was re-erected (Ezra 3:3, 6) on the same place where it had formerly stood. (Comp. 1 Macc. 4:47.) When Antiochus Epiphanes pillaged Jerusalem the altar of burnt offering was taken away.

Again the altar was erected by Herod, and remained in its place till the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans (70 A.D.).

The fire on the altar was not permitted to go out (Lev. 6:9).

In the Mosque of Omar, immediately underneath the great dome, which occupies the site of the old temple, there is a rough projection of the natural rock, of about 60 feet in its extreme length, and 50 in its greatest breadth, and in its highest part about 4 feet above the general pavement. This rock seems to have been left intact when Solomon's temple was built. It was in all probability the site of the altar of burnt offering. Underneath this rock is a cave, which may probably have been the granary of Araunah's threshing-floor (1 Chr. 21:22).

(2.) The altar of incense (Ex. 30:1-10), called also "the golden altar" (39:38; Num. 4:11), stood in the holy place "before the vail that is by the ark of the testimony." On this altar sweet spices were continually burned with fire taken from the brazen altar. The morning and the evening services were commenced by the high priest offering incense on this altar. The burning of the incense was a type of prayer (Ps. 141:2; Rev. 5:8; 8:3, 4).

This altar was a small movable table, made of acacia wood overlaid with gold (Ex. 37:25, 26). It was 1 cubit in length and breadth, and 2 cubits in height.

In Solomon's temple the altar was similar in size, but was made of cedar-wood (1 Kings 6:20; 7:48) overlaid with gold. In Ezek. 41:22 it is called "the altar of wood." (Comp. Ex. 30:1-6.)

In the temple built after the Exile the altar was restored. Antiochus Epiphanes took it away, but it was afterwards restored by Judas Maccabaeus (1 Macc. 1:23; 4:49). Among the trophies carried away by Titus on the destruction of Jerusalem the altar of incense is not found, nor is any mention made of it in Heb. 9. It was at this altar Zacharias ministered when an angel appeared to him (Luke 1:11). It is the only altar which appears in the heavenly temple (Isa. 6:6; Rev. 8:3,4).

The Devotional Meaning of the Altar

And Jehovah appeared to Abram and said, To your seed I will give this land. And there he built an altar to Jehovah who had appeared to him. [Genesis 12:7]

I exhort you therefore, brothers, through the compassions of God to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, well pleasing to God, which is your reasonable service. [Romans 12:1]

After Abraham had arrived at Moreh and after God had reappeared to him, he built an altar (12:7). This was the first altar that Abraham built.

In the Bible an altar means that we have all for God and serve God.

Building an altar means that we offer everything we are and have to God.

An altar is a place of DEDICATION. We can, if we wish to dedicate something, place it on the altar. We can also dedicate, or rededicate, ourselves. We can periodically decide, God helping us, to "place" all that we are and all that we have on the altar. The altar is a place of gifts. We give ourselves. Some Christians feel you do this weekly with the Mass, Communion or Eucharist.

The altar is a place of worship --- where the highest good is perceived, contacted. The experience of worship is to put all that we are and all that you have on the altar for God. This is also the highest in real fellowship, real worship.

A very deep form or worship, perhaps the 'most real worship,' of people of God, is to put all that we are and have on the altar. The altar is thus a place of CONSECRATION [making formally connected with the sacred or holy], and of HOLINESS, or wholeness, or health, or healing. An altar is a place of the deepest reality, the place to be most real, the place to "go sane!" An altar is a place of the theoretically maximum in wellness.

Those who check with their experience may report that the need for an altar, a symbol of the Highest Good, the Ultimate Reality, the Supreme Being, is associated with a sense of having been called.

God may have appeared to us, and we said words equivalent to the gift of ourselves to the Supreme: "Lord, from now on everything is Yours." All that I am, all that I have, all that I can do and am going to do is for You."

We lifted up our eyes to heaven [or dedicated ourselves to our own deepest center] and said, "God [or supremely real self], from today on everything is for You [or in accordance with my supremely real self]." That was a real consecration. In a spiritual sense, it was almost the equivalent of the building of an altar.

The Altars of Today

There are hundreds of thousands of churches in America alone - church buildings, that is. Each of these is constructed with an 'altar': the centerpiece of the worship experience.

But these are not the only contemporary 'altars' in the sense of ultimate concern. In a certain sense, 'altars' are where 'gods' [penultimate concerns] are 'worshipped'. Such altars of today are maybe to be found in Las Vegas, at the computer screen [or the TV screen], in the Dance hall or Bedroom.

The 'most real place,' or the place where a person feels, or seems to feel, 'most real' is a kind of altar. According to some species of Post-modernist epistemology, there are many truths...and should be many altars! This is certainly true in the sense that each person has a unique experience of God, and the Post-modernist Theology and ecclesiology [theory of church] of tomorrow should recognize this fact.

The Altars of Tomorrow

This is our real subject!

So: Let us indeed build some new altars. Maybe a couple of thousand. One altar-design, one definition of the most sacred place from each of you, the projected members in the WNRF Youth Division.

For you are the ones who will build these 'new altars,' these 'altars of the future'.

You are the young at heart. You are gifted with energy and innocence. You have the openness of imagination; you have the possibility of freshness of thought. You have the courage or foolhardiness; and you have the time.

The Young need new altars because you need new paths of worship. Today's youngsters have to redefine the 'sacred'.

Why so many --- a couple of thousand altars? Because each of our young people is unique, and needs to express herself uniquely. An altar is shared, but expresses uniqueness. But an altar of tomorrow is a place of relationality, not individuality. So our young architects can work together in teams to develop your visions of your new concepts of the Altars of tomorrow.

As you build these 'new altars,' these 'altars of the future', you will create for yourselves new avenues of ultimacy. And new communities of prayer.

As architects of tomorrow's churches, the young at heart will design and build new sacred spaces, places of final, supreme value to them.

The altars of the Future are literally and symbolically the centerpieces of the churches of the 21st century. The WNRF Youth Division, in designing them, is creating a school of Futurist Architecture in a new sense: ecclesiastical architecture, the architecture of future faith.

Thus, The Academy of Prayer will convene a competition for the best designs in any space for these 'new altars,' these 'altars of the future.' This Competition in ecclesiastical architecture will be partnered by a competition in essay writing about the best statement of the meaning and purpose of an Altar of the Future. In this way we will also launch a movement of Youth Theology.

Altars are not only places to celebrate: they are places to mourn, to grieve, to regret and repent, to sorrow--and to change. They are places to know ones' own sins' reality, and to begin to change towards the perfection of harmony with God. An altar is not just a place to 'feel good,' but a place to acknowledge moral failure, to experience ethical cleansing, to make a fresh start, to shed tears and be renewed. An altar can confront us, like a mirror, with our own moral disorder, and call us to 'mend our ways'. An altar is the right place therefore, to start a Way, a journey, the epic journey of the soul towards the Uncreated Light.

Altars are not only expressions of the sacred places of the heart; you are also home to the sacred places of the land. The geography of altars is sacred geography. The presence of altars is one of the starting-points for a spirituality of the earth, a truly deep ecology, and a truly sacred environmentalism.

Conclusion: The Altars of Love

An altar, a place to express and meet ultimate concern, is for the young a place of love. That is the ultimate, and the greatest miracle!

An altar is a place of love's greatness: forgiveness, and even greater than that, reconciliation. It is a place of meeting. A place to love. A place where divine and human love meet. The altars of the future are altars of love. The altars of the future are antidotes to hate. And because they are places to learn about love, they are places of prayer. An altar is like the headquarters of the source of all love stories.

In love, as with God, all things are possible; for God is love. In post-post-modernist thought, we move beyond the personal and the impersonal to the transpersonal - the world of love and human interconnectedness.

The Altars of tomorrow are altars of love; the Altars of the heart are altars of love. The connection between joy [the intuition of God in heart and soul] and love is through our relationship with God. So, as we began our preliminary inquiry into the Altars of the near and far future it is with a Psalm that we end this first foray into a great subject: the design and construction of the Altars of tomorrow, home to innovation and ethical success, habitations of joy, centers of a high and wonderful hope, the hope of humans reconciled to one another and to God.

Psalm 84 [excerpts]
King James Version of the Bible

How amiable are thy tabernacles, O LORD of hosts!

My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the LORD: my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God.

Yea, the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O LORD of hosts, my King, and my God.

Blessed are you that dwell in thy house: you will be still praising thee.

For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand...

For the LORD God is a sun and shield: the LORD will give grace and glory...

A Prayer

Heavenly Father, we belong to You and are dedicating ourselves to You.

Help us to design and build and employ those altars, which will help us to grow into the fullness of Love.

Inspire us to build altars where we can truly worship, today and all our tomorrows.


Selected references, and recommendations for further reading.

Barrett, William. (1958) Irrational Man: A Study in Existentialist Philosophy. New York: Doubleday/Anchor editions, 1962.

Freud, S. Civilization and its Discontents
Freud, S. Beyond the Pleasure Principle

Jung, C.G. The Undiscovered Self

Miller, Alice. The Drama of the Gifted Child [subsequently published as The Drama of the Child]

Rubin, Theodor Isaac. Compassion against Self-Hate.

Copyright 1999 by Richard Kirby
A Response from Dr. James Wellesley-Wesley

On April 2nd, Dr. James Wellesley-Wesley responded to Richard Kirby's essay:
Hail Richard - The following in response to various messages from you, starting with "Altars of the Future" just received and maybe including messages lost as a result of the most recent crash of our equipment. (Now have a whole new set-up which is working just fine just as long as it continues to work just fine!) - The temptation is to write volumes (which few today seem able to resist).

You refer to the young as "new people", but inevitably they inherit the sins of the mothers and fathers. Hopefully, in time, they may progress beyond a mere reaction to them (I am not referring to moral sin, but to missing the mark - as we all do as a result of shere ignorance + the misinformation and disinformation to which we are all subjected nowadays). For sure each has his/her path to discover and travel, there being as many variations on the basic theme as there are 'pilgrims'. But re-experience must precede any attempts at re-definition.

You refer to the "young at heart", but such are not just the young in years. The 'infant heart' (Mencius) is the growing-point in every person potentially throughout the entire life span. Being very tender, however, it can be wounded or killed outright at any stage in life if we are required to bear/suffer too much too early - where upon further growth ceases and we continue to live out the remainder of our lives in accordance with the understanding reached prior to such trauma. (It is the aim of psychotherapy, of course, to try and heal such shock and paralysis).

I suggest that we should see each person, metaphorically, as a family - we are all male and female, + the 'offspring' of the two which, paradoxically, is also the matrix of the two. It is the 'accentuation' of one or the other which results in a man being predominantly masculine and a woman being predominantly feminine, psychologically, while 'essentially' they are as one - as represented by the 'child', who leads the person.

You refer to the Altar as the "core of the core . . . the Holy of Holies . . . the quintessential centre" (whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere?). Yes, in the sense that the temple of God is within us. And Yes, in the sense that any altar is an outer expresion of the inmost Reality and we need such re-presentations in order to come to the internal realisation of the ultimate Reality.

But I personally find the example you suggest, of a library as having "some kinship to an altar", misleading, for surely a library is more symbolic of the over- rationalising and under-intuiting orientation of these times. And we must not get 'stuck' with such outer re-presentations as being the ultimately real, for then they just become 'graven images'. Inevitably, we see through dark glasses of course until such time as we may come to see face to face and know (as distinct from only knowing-about) even as also I Am known. So the Altar is not a place to go to but rather to come to . . . and even in a library in Las Vegas thou shalt worship no other Gods than I, the Very God of very gods!

You give the meaning of 'altar' as to burn up, as a place where sacrifices are offered and incense is burned in worship, and as where the Eucharistic elements are consecrated. But whether the young (of any age) are willing to sacrifice their egotistical selves, their desire to possess and their hunger for power, is surely the issue. Christ showed the way, finally, despite all such temptations. But it is a truly crucifying experience, is it not?

And, YES, a thousand times + for times, time and half a time (Revs.12), to your enjoinder to "move beyond the personal and the impersonal to the transpersonal - the world of love and human connectedness" . . . but for this, surely, the prime symbol is the Cross (rather than the altar) and Christ's crucifixion at the centre of all possible opposites is the most dramatic illustration we have of what is required of us all if we are to become the agents through whom the Life Eternal may gain entry into the event-stream of our everyday hum-drum lives (let alone the present destructiveness of our collective lives). Greater love hath no person than this ....

And so, in veneration of Life, Light and Love let us come to worship the 'Gloria in Excelsis' at the very heart of our Being - the One heart that pulsates for All.

Further.... Concerning the sanctification of Science - This must depend on the sanctification of the scientist as observer ,measurer and interpreter, whose apprehension of the explicate universe ( micro- to macro-) is dependent upon his/her limited sensory capacities (and their tech extension), since we live as they say in an observer-conditioned universe. But the apprehension of the essential dimension of 'reality' requires a state of mind other than that which is brought to bear by the scientist, whose discovery and accumulation of knowledge-about derives from the claim/assumption that genuine knowledge is necessarily objective knowledge.

So the challenge, surely, is to humane-ise the notorious impersonality of so much of science. As I see it, this must include the psychology of the subject, if only because this underlies all we think, do and interpret and, most importantly, intervenes between our rational/analytic/calculative and essential states of mind, distorting the interpretation of whatever revelatory knowledge we may be so fortunate as to experience (what we make of it, as distinct from what it may make of us).

I see it as absolutely necessary now, in these times, to realise that the sacred/Holy is not an adjunct to, but wholly inherent to the mystery of Life (science still fails to come up with an acceptable definition of what Life, as such, is!). This requires closure on the transcendence of the Divine which only serves to remove it both spatially and temporaly from this world - a perspective which only arose when the paternal bias gained ascendency over that which preceded it (the reign of the maternal). This does not mean the re-establishment of the dominance of the Earth Goddess and the worship of spirits, however, as is the tendency today, but requires an evolution in our apprehension of the essential to the reign of the Holy Spirit - the spirit of communion, of ultimate relationship . . . the One Life in all and between all, in which we all participate( and how seperated we are from this today as I write). Not only do we have to come to our senses, but also to our sensitivities, and to this heart of Life. For, as it has been said, if God is not present, who is absent?

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