Sunday, September 25, 2011

Why Build?

In this calm before the storm of framing that is set for this week, I like to remember the philosophical basics. So here is one of the shorter chapters of my master's thesis, "Towards a New Christian Architecture," where I asked what the whole point of building for church gatherings is anyway, and enlisted the help of some of my favorite theologians - Maritain, van der Leeuw, Wolterstorff, the Apostle Paul. (I left the footnotes so you'd know it was official. Ha.)

Why do we need buildings at all? If nature is fully incarnate with God’s truth, as directly designed by him, why not always worship in a completely natural environment and never build? The Bible does not command us to build buildings for worship. Recall that our first-century brothers and sisters gathered in houses. And Scripture does not record that these Christians had any desire to build structures specifically for worship. God commanded the tabernacle of Moses and the temple of Solomon to be built, and even designed them himself; but we after Christ have no such command, nor design, from God. As mentioned earlier, we now have no need for a temple as a place to meet God; he resides in each believing heart, and we have direct access to him there. Our body now takes the place of the temple. Where in the Kingdom does this leave architecture?

Architecture can still be made to express God’s truth in the same way the temple did—for all we need is analogy. And these days in America the conditions are usually favorable for the design and construction of church buildings that express and instill Christian values, that glorify God. But again, nature does this already, and further is not compromised in its expression of God’s truth by the sin that so often enters into human endeavors. Why should we not make nature our place of worship?

The answer is obvious, but profound: nature is too often inhospitable. If we were to worship in a completely natural environment, wherever on earth we choose, we would soon become uncomfortable: we would be too cold or too hot, or it would be too windy, or rain would fall on us, or flies would pester us and mosquitoes would bite us, or it would be to dark or too bright. Of course we could find some times and places where we would be comfortable for the length of a church service. But such times and places are much too few and far between to satisfy the demand for regular gatherings, which we surely need.

What is profound about this inadequacy of nature is that it bears witness to our expulsion from the Garden and the curse on creation. Nature’s inhospitable character bears witness to human sin. It is significant that Adam and Eve did not build in Eden: nature was sufficient. But their sin expelled them from this condition; nature as a true home was taken away. All of nature from then on would be affected by the curse. Paul communicates this point where he speaks of the transformation of nature that will accompany Christ’s second coming:

For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. (Rom. 8:22)

The verse following this reveals that even our bodies are under the curse:

even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. (Rom. 8:23b)

As Scofield explains in a footnote to these verses, “Adam brought down into his ruin the old creation, of which he was lord and head. Christ will bring into moral unity with God, and into eternal life, all of the new creation of which He is Lord and Head (Eph. 1:22-23). Even the animal and material creation, cursed for man’s sake (Gen. 3:17), will be delivered by Christ.”[1]

One of the more obvious consequences of the curse is that nature now exhibits many aspects and qualities that war against us humans. No longer can we be fully at home in nature. Hence architecture. The need for architecture arose out of human sin.

Building is the provision, the supplement to nature, that is necessary during this time between the Fall and Christ’s return. “The City of God, the New Jerusalem, needs no temple, ‘for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb’ (Revelation 21:22). But in the old Jerusalem, building must go on; God’s house as well as ours.”[2]

Thus it is revealing that Christians in the first century worshipped in houses rather than in some hidden spot in nature. Our regular gathering for worship, for Sunday services, requires a building. And when our God-given conditions and resources allow for the construction of a structure specifically for these services, as they most often do in America today, we have the opportunity to make a building that expresses God’s truth, that bears fittingness with Christian faith and life.

From earlier discussions it should be clear that to build anything is already to reveal a worldview. When we build we make a grand gesture that relates in some particular way to the materials we use, to the natural and built surroundings, and to the human occupants. These physical relationships inevitably reveal or express a spiritual orientation, an ideological perspective, with respect to the world and to human beings. As Berthold Lubetkin said, “All works of art and all philosophical systems reflect a particular cosmology, an idea of the physical universe and of man’s nature in it. Architecture, probably more than any other form of art, should be considered as three-dimensional philosophy.”[3] Merely to build is to reveal some perspective on the meaning of the world and our place in it. Even if our intent in the design of a building is to prevent such expression, we will fail: “forms have significance and content even if that content itself is a refusal of meaning.”[4]

So it makes sense to say that if some particular worldview, a belief about humanity and the cosmos, is inevitably revealed when a building is erected, the worldview expressed by a building for Christian worship should be that of Christianity. In Wolterstorff’s terminology: it would be profoundly fitting for our places of worship to express our faith. We can say that the church building, as a whole, should express the character of Christianity, where “character” here refers to overall expressive content—which is also a quality of art, music, and nature. The character of the weeping willow tree is sadness; the character here is an emotion. The "seeker-sensitive" church buildings presented earlier express a secular character; here character refers to a worldview, which perhaps brings with it particular emotional responses. For a building to express the character of Christianity means that the physical composition of the building and its relationship to its surroundings and to humans share a significant similarity to the overall spiritual disposition and worldview exemplified by Christ as revealed in Scripture.

The philosopher Jacques Maritain argued that Christian art is defined by its character: “By the words ‘Christian art’ I do not mean Church art…. I mean Christian art in the sense of art which bears within it the character of Christianity.”[5] The theologian Gerardus van der Leeuw made the same point regarding architecture where he argued that a building that expresses a character that doesn’t match its function is inherently false: “There is a laboratory in Groningen that looks like a church…. We feel that this is false. A laboratory is, and remains, a laboratory and should not give the impression of something else; a factory is, and remains, a factory and should not give the impression of being a church.”[6] Van der Leeuw meant by this to critique the popular trend in church design—even in his time, during the mid-twentieth century—that conceived of the church building as a mute backdrop, a mere shelter for worship. He argued that, instead, “In God’s house God must reign; his thoughts must find expression in the building…”[7]

Two significant but neglected spiritual benefits would result from this fittingness between the character of our faith and the character of our buildings: 1) God would be glorified through yet another medium - the Gospel would go forth through our architecture, in addition to our service, teaching, etc.; 2) our own Christian faith would be clarified and instilled in us by the building - God’s truth would influence us not only verbally, by sermons and prayers and songs, but nonverbally through metaphors, like those in Scripture and in nature.

[1] C.I. Scofield, The New Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 1430, n. 1.
[2] Gerardus van der Leeuw, Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art, trans. David E. Green (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963) 205.
[3] Quoted in William J. R. Curtis, Modern Architecture Since 1900 (London: Phaidon Press, 1996) 657.
[4] John Dixon Hunt, Gardens and the Picturesque: Studies in the History of Landscape Architecture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992) 13, 16.
[5] Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism and The Frontiers of Poetry, trans. Joseph W. Evans (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962) 64.
[6] Van der Leeuw, 201.
[7] Ibid., 202.

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