The new temple

It is not the purpose of cathedrals simply to make people feel small . . . but rather to help people understand that they are located within the vast orderly architecture of creation. We are indeed small, but a small part of something glorious, in which we can participate, find our place, find our purpose. Cathedrals are celebrations of all that God has made, and they embody in their stone and glass the history of God’s dealings with his world and people made in his image.

— Alan Jacobs, from his response in the current First Things to Alain de Botton’s “A Religion for Atheists”.

Jacobs’ answer is problematic, I think, on the whole. He demonstrates well enough the deep inadequacy of de Botton’s notions both of religion & history (not diminishing, though, his insights about basic human needs and the recurring conflicts of secularism). But Jacobs, in this reply to de Botton, is like de Botton in missing the essential counterpoint, the volatility at the heart of Christian religion, that undoes cathedrals as surely as it gives rise to them: that is, cathedrals emerge as attempts in architecture to tell or ‘embody’ a history only because built first of all to house, impossibly, something come from outside of history, an intervention relativizing history itself, an intervention itself an embodiment, an incarnation — God speaking to us, among us, in a singular Word. Not merely ‘finding our place in creation’ but finding ourselves involved, in Christ, in the life of the Creator, is what we’re confronted with, mysteriously, contradictorily, in the Church. A recovery of cathedral-building might be enough for de Botton’s ‘new’ religion, but for the religion that has sometimes indeed given the world the sort of cathedral he seems to admire, there’s the disclosure within history of something infinitely more — something infinitely more personal — in view.

10 Replies to “The new temple”

  1. My … emotional (not the word I want, but the one I’ll settle for) history with cathedrals is a bit mixed. On the one hand, my religious history has its origins in clandestine meetings inside village barns. The protestant, anabaptist perspective is that the body of Christ is eternal and all-sufficient; buildings are merely its temporal jewelry, so the protestant impulse was to build houses of worship that weren’t far removed from the barns that sheltered the fledgling movement.

    On the other hand, there sure is something about a cathedral. Some years back when I was going through a patch of tough sledding I used to spend my lunch hour at a cathedral near my place of employment. The first few times I entered the building, it felt like the top of my scalp was being stretched like silly putty up into the arches.

    That feeling has recurred only once — in California, the first time I entered an enormous Barnes & Noble. Go figure.

  2. I have some factors of religious heritage in common with you, Darrell, although the connection to the community that passed it down is ragged & fading in my family’s case. Until my granddad, the Bowman (orig. Baumann) line were rural, German-speaking Brethren. (Who, when they first came to Pennsylvania in mid-18th cent., before moving south to Virginia, were taken in by Menno. communities, from what I’ve gathered.)

    I grew up Baptist, more or less, but the whole capital-c Church idea has taken me a long time to start to comprehend. (In late teens/early twenties, at my most Evangelically fervent, used to make a point of prodding people who spoke of some place of worship as a church — ‘Church building,‘ I’d insert, with my little smile.)

    My dad took a Europe assignment for a few years, early 80s. He liked to see cathedrals on the occasions we’d hit some city on the map — cathedrals, monuments, palaces, anything grand. But the grandeur never had much in it for me, for better or worse. I didn’t have my dad’s pure engineer’s-mind ‘Wow’ reflex. A kid, moreover, I couldn’t see history & human development; a cradle evangelical, I certainly didn’t see religion (or art, even, really).

    We have a cathedral here, incidentally, the U.S.‘s very first, the Baltimore Basilica — a modest classical building. I drove by it just the other day, passing through the city — but have never visited. My mind is hardly settled about these things.

    At any rate, de Botton is not entirely wrong on his architectural point, naturally. And Jacobs is naturally right to suggest de Botton is stuck on the mere architecture in a way that should be embarrassing for someone who thinks about architecture as much as he does. But neither of them seems to want to pay attention to the basic conflict of Christian religion/history — or recognize it in a cathedral, no matter how in-your-face.

  3. I’m mistaken, above, if anybody’s interested.

    Baltimore has two Catholic cathedrals, in fact — or rather co-cathedrals: Latrobe’s early-19th-cent. classicist-congenial Basilica, which I mentioned, and also a rather more aloof 1950s modern-deco-gothic edifice, the Cathedral of Mary our Queen. Of course, I’m ignoring any Episcopal & Orthodox cathedrals, probably without justification.

  4. Hey man, I just live here.

    I’ve never seen The Wire, I’m afraid. (No HBO!) That should be shameful, I guess. One of these days I’ll get to it.

    Actually, I’ve never lived in the city proper. I’ve studied & worked inside the limits at various times, am not too far out in the county now, know my way around reasonably well. But I don’t have the strongest Baltimore identity.

    (I’m near Woodlawn, incidentally — one of the county’s rougher spots abutting the city line. A few years ago, had some kids beat up on me a bit while I was out walking at night. Just for fun, evidently. Could have been worse, but it taught me renewed respect for Baltimore’s tensions & their reach.)

    If I had to guess, I’d go with the earlier cathedral — for downtown location. The later building is well into what was once suburban ring — comfortable old garden neighborhoods with private schools & colleges nearby, and still a wealthier part of the city. Not the likeliest setting for TV cops & drug dealers. — But really, I have no idea.

  5. Hey, I don’t have HBO either! I just rent the DVDs, or buy them if they’re cheap enough. Costco was selling TW for $20 a season. Since I’m crazy over a number of the writers featured — George Pelecanos, Dennis Lahane, Richard Price — I put down the money. So far I consider it money well spent.

    The cathedral in question sparks off the entire second season when the cop union’s efforts at installing a stained-glass window are thwarted by the dock union.

  6. The whole series appears to be purchaseable on iTunes. Maybe it’s time for me to start looking at a few episodes, at least. I know (in some significant part because of discussion on your blog) that it’s supposed to be one of the best things done for TV — and, of course, a prime media showcase f’r aehr good old gritty Choarm Ciddy.

    I’ve done some checking, and it seems this is a south Baltimore landmark, St. Casimir’s, that figures in the episode — not actually a cathedral but a very large parish church of the once burgeoning Polish community of harbor neighborhoods Fells Point & Canton. Your impression that it was a cathedral has justification I think, judging from photos (and speaking as one cradle protestant to another): its exterior scale, particularly, & dual bell towers give it something of that imposing quality we’d associate with the episcopal throne. According to the church’s web site, it was one of the largest churches in the eastern U.S. at the time of its construction in the 1920s. There’s some fascinating history, with pictures of its construction, here. (Pics of the interior, oddly, make me think more of some of the grander 20th-cent. Baptist & Presbyterian meeting-hall-type church spaces I’ve known than of the few Catholic churches I’ve been in, especially in newly constructed, undecorated condition shown in the history gallery there.)

  7. Little is seen of the interior in the episodes, but I would concur with your impressions of it. The proposed stained-glass window is, of course, a farcical aesthetic travesty.

    As for The Wire’s place in TV history, I’m not sure it’s quite as breath-taking or groundbreaking as some crickets insist. I’ve often thought that CBC’s DaVinci’s Inquest broke more ground as a long-running serial, years before The Wire got up and running. But as David Bowie is fond of saying, often the issue of who did what first isn’t nearly as big a deal as who did it second, or third.

  8. Darrell Reimer’s comment re: Barnes and Noble reminded me of a similar comment that someone (I forget who, alas) made about today’s giant cineplexes, that they are like modern-day cathedrals. And indeed, while this metaphor can probably be extended to cover any giant box store, bookstore, etc., I think it applies best to cineplexes, as they are places one visits to have an out-of-body, transcendent experience, if you will (like a bookstore, true, but more communal), and are places that embody the values which our society holds dear, in terms of those portrayed by the movies shown.

  9. I can appreciate comparison between cathedral & the grandiose mall movie house of our day in certain limited respects. But it’s important to keep in mind that cathedrals in the original sense of the word, cathedrals per se, are still being built & consecrated. And important to keep in mind that the idea of the cathedral is essentially ecclesiastical rather than architectural — the cathedral is the ‘chair’, the bishop’s seat, stuck in the city center as a form of concrete enactment of apostolic mission, ongoing since Pentecost. Underlying this ecclesiastical idea, moreover, there’s the fundamental ecclesiological idea — that Jesus Christ is present and reigning over all things in his Church. A lot of layers of significance here, in fact, for which we don’t have any parallels elsewhere in the culture, really. Layers of significance many of which are highly controversial in our world, by the way, if they’re plainly acknowledged. But we tend not to acknowledge them — perhaps because we want to claim the architecture and retain something of what it can ‘do for us’ on terms independent of religion in any strict sense. Hm? : )

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *