The survey probes visitor observations, not just of the sights, smells, and sounds, but also of their spiritual understanding of the space—including whether they got chills or were moved to tears, said Thomas Beaudoin, Ph.D., professor of religion at the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education and the study’s principal investigator. He received a grant of $200,000 from the Templeton Religion Trust two years ago to fund the survey, which he calls the Pantheon Research Project.
Beaudoin noted that not everyone understands that the Pantheon is now a Catholic church. Many see it as a monument, a museum, a mausoleum, and/or an ancient historical artifact.
“[The Pantheon] is a built environment attracting diverse visitors, from ‘tourists’ to ‘pilgrims,’ but lacking a controlling religious narrative,” he said.
The ancient structure serves as a perfect example of an under-specified spiritually significant space: a place of spirituality for some and utilitarian to others. While many such places exist throughout the world, for the past two decades Beaudoin has focused his research on the Pantheon because it is both a church and a tourist destination.
A little under a year ago, he visited the site of the Oculus at the World Trade Center to film a video. He noted that the transit hub serves as a train station for some and the site of the 9/11 attacks for others. As such, it is also an under-specified spiritually significant space.
“Architecture provokes our bodies, and profound built spaces can have a felt effect that we never forget,” said Beaudoin. “Few people cross the threshold of the Pantheon without a physical or emotional response, from chills to mouths agape.”
Beaudoin explained the purpose of the study and his personal relationship to sacred sites in a paper presented at the Association of Practical Theology Biennial Meeting, which was held on Zoom last April.
“[Pantheon] visitors … seem to have a variety of experiences [regarding]the significance of their visit. Exploring this is part of the study,” he said. “What this suggests is that the Pantheon can be considered to be both a Catholic church and simultaneously more-than-Christian.”
Beaudoin refers to the research as a “practical theological” project, a phrase often employed at the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education as a way to interpret contemporary situations from spiritual perspectives.
He said he hopes that the study will reveal what matters to visitors to the Pantheon and how the art of the Pantheon plays a role.
With the survey coming to a close, Beaudoin recently reflected on how the project began.
“My involvement in this research is personal. My father is a former Jesuit who taught me a sense of the church as an open space, and I’ve also been a practicing musician since I was a teenager, having learned from rock clubs and concert halls that resonant spaces that make room for diverse spiritual seekers can be a place of discovery.”