Travel to Sacred Space Project

Stage 5: Theological Significance of the Pilgrimage Journey and Sacred Space


Do further research on the history of an issue of religious or cultural significance that came up in your guidebook. Reflect on what you learned and how it relates to your own experience and perspectives. Make connections to issues and terminology from the rest of the course. Organize and express your ideas in a five-paragraph essay.

Just as the presentation required a meeting in office hours, a strong Stage 5 may well require a meeting to focus reflection. Here are just a couple of suggestions about directions worth exploring that may or may not be appropriate for your destination and interests.


  1. 7 Points Well Written – Clear and proper use of grammar, sentence structure, paragraph structure, and essay structure
  2. 7 Points Research – Show learning new information and ideas
  3. 8 Points Connection to the Course – Use the ideas and terms from the textbook and lectures
  4. 8 Points Reflection – Show that you thought about your research from your own experience and perspective
  5. 30 points total


I was initially interested in Jerusalem because I often heard it referred to as the Holy Land. Research on Jerusalem changed my expectations about what is holy about the Holy Land. In some ways, the Holy Land is indeed holy, while in other ways Jerusalem is religious but not exactly holy, and in other ways Israel is a normal modern country. The textbook Theological Questions discussed three topics that connected to my research on Israel. First, the question of the “Historical Jesus” relates to the question of authenticity of holy sites. Second, the question of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism relates to the question of conflict at the Dome of the Rock. Third, the question of modernity and secularism relates to a divide in Israeli society even within Judaism. I will discuss each of these three connections and conclude with my reflections about what is holy about the Holy Land.

I came to appreciate that a site can be holy and meaningful even if the literal historical authenticity cannot be verified. In chapter 3.3.1 of the textbook, we learned about the controversy around Historical Jesus Scholarship. People of all faiths and no faith can agree that there a Jew named Jesus two thousand years ago. He looked like someone from the Middle East and did plausible things like teach and stir controversy. Other beliefs about Jesus can be held with faith but cannot be verified in ways that all people of reason must immediately accept. Portrayals of Jesus with blond hair, blue eyes, and white skin indicate the significance of Jesus for European Christians but not the historical Jesus. From the Lonely Planet guidebook I learned that there are competing sites for where the Resurrection or Annunciation happened (pp. 54, 72, 185, 187). If they can’t both be authentic, is either of them authentic? It turns out the oldest sites date to the fourth century, when Constantine’s mother Helena went around building churches (pp. 54-56). It is possible that local followers of Jesus preserved memories of exactly where an event happened, but no such evidence has been documented. I looked into what Catholicism says about the authenticity of holy sites. The teaching is that holy sites can be holy because of the prayers and devotions of thousands of people over 1500 years even if the exact location is not precisely where the event happened 2000 years ago. There are many old stones in Jerusalem that are significant even if only a few, such as the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, have been there since the time of Jesus. The Holy Land is a place to join others commemorating the story of salvation even if every detail cannot be taken literally.

I came to appreciate that holy sites do not always bring out the holiest of behavior in people, especially people of related but different faiths. In chapter 4.3 of the textbook, we learned about how the relationship between Judaism and Christianity turned violent despite their shared ancestry. Jesus, the apostles, Paul, Matthew, and John were all Jewish, yet within a century or two they came to be understood as enemies of Jews. The idea of Deicide and consequent acts of violence stained the Christian tradition. Through history and today, there are some ways in which Jerusalem has been a place where Jews, Christians, and Muslims can co-exist. In other ways, the religiosity of some people and the religious sites only seem to make pluralism harder. As I researched the Dome of the Rock I was struck by the shared faith about what happened there in biblical times, but also the history of conflict. Jews, Christians, and Muslims agree that the site is where Abraham proved willing to sacrifice his son, and where Solomon built a temple (Lonely Planet p. 47-52). In 1099 Christian Crusaders from Europe fought take control of Jerusalem, turned the Dome of the Rock into a church, and killed or expelled all Muslims and Jews from the city (Wikipedia, “History of Jerusalem”). Today, Jews and Muslims are able to worship in Jerusalem only by keeping strict separation between their areas. The Second Intifada (violent uprising) was provoked by a gesture implying that Muslims might not be able to worship there and their shrines might even be destroyed (Wikipedia, “Second Intifada”). Augustine said that the Church is holy even though it consists of sinners (Theological Questions 4.2.5). The devotion of faithful people around sacred sites sometimes leads to beautiful art and sacred encounter, but also sometimes fails in sinful violence.

I came to appreciate that the Holy Land, even with its rich religious history, is not that different from the United States in trying to navigate faith and reason in modern times. In chapters 6.1 and 6.2 of the textbook we learned about secularism, the idea that religion should be separated within government, society, or within a person’s life. In chapter 6.2 we studied the perspective that traditional faith is no longer necessary now that we have modern science and technology. Some, such as Richard Dawkins, even see traditional faith as dangerous, and he could point to religious violence in Israel to support his point. I was surprised to learn from my research that many Israelis share this view that religion is not very important or even dangerous. I would have expected the Holy Land to be the exception, even if the United States and Europe are getting less religious all the time. Since I am interested in history and religion, I did not plan time in Tel Aviv. According to the guidebook, Tel Aviv is the Center for shopping and nightlife even though it has practically no historical religious significance (Lonely Planet p. 105). Many Israelis prefer to live in Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem. For them, Israel is a modern secular nation first and foremost. Even in Jerusalem, where some neighborhoods are extremely religious, many neighborhoods are not religious at all (Lonely Planet p. 373). Even with three thousand years of religious history, Jerusalem is not exempt from the challenges and changes that modernity brings to faith.

I still want to visit the Holy Land, but not because I think it is a utopia overflowing with holiness in every sense. The thought that Jesus lived there still makes me want to spend time there, even if the exact stones are rarely the same. I don’t expect magic or miracles or for God to be suddenly visible in ways not true at home. The people who have worshiped there for thousands of years have left traces of their piety in art and architecture. They have also left traces of human sinfulness in the form of violence and destruction. I don’t expect to perfect my piety or escape my sinfulness, but I might feel more a part of those who have gone before me. I also don’t expect to escape the challenges of the modern world. In addition to the intersection of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Israel is also a place of intersection of different ideas of whether and how to be religious even within those three traditional categories. For some, the categories Jew, Christian, or Muslim may describe their culture or ethnic group first and foremost and say little or nothing about their faith or spirituality. I suppose it is reassuring that the struggles in my life and my culture are shared even by people who live in such a historically significant place for religious faith.


  1. Hanneken, Todd R., Theological Questions. Atla Open Press 81. Chicago: Atla, 2022.
  2. Lussier, E., “Sepulcher, Holy.” In New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., 924-926. Vol. 12. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2003. Gale eBooks (accessed November 1, 2023).
  3. Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome, The Holy Land, Oxford Archaeological Guides, 4th Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 45-51.
  4. Robinson, Daniel, et al., Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Footscray: Lonely Planet Publications, 2015.
  5. Wikipedia, “History of Jerusalem during the Kingdom of Jerusalem.”
  6. Wikipedia, “Second Intifada.”