Brian Jay Stanley visited Europe’s cathedrals and pondered the absence of God:
Europe’s cathedrals sublimely evoke the absence of God. They are temples that have decayed into museums. Tourists, not worshippers, fill their naves, driven by curiosity, not faith. One does not pay alms anymore but admission fees. The altar is roped off, not because it is sacred, but fragile. The silence of emptiness has replaced the silence of holiness.
Upon further reading, he learns that there was a great deal of human interest and motivation involved in their construction: competition between cities for prestige, desire for aristocrats to show off their wealth and “buy their salvation;” etc. He finds all this unsavory and unreligious:
“A secular and a religious society are equally profane, for a secular society banishes the sacred, while a religious society defiles it with the human.”
In fact, religious desires can only be expressed by human beings using our human energies, abilities, and, yes, weaknesses.
But this seemed to open up an interesting question, or relate to the ongoing debate in England about the riots last week. Mark Vernon points to an essay by Gordon Lynch on the development of values in individuals and communities which includes this:
If broader, sacred values can also bind us into a deeper sense of shared moral community across society, we might also ask how these can be nurtured. Our society has distinguished itself in creating built environments that show the least signs of any sense of sacred meaning of any period in history. Our high streets are dominated by chain stores and global corporations who promise convenience but little meaning. New-build properties offer modernist-lite conceptions of style, devoid of any sense of modernism’s original moral purpose. The explosion of public art has left our towns and cities with works that are all too often vacuous and un-compelling. Policy makers are clearly aware of this gap and have tried to address it, usually through repeated and unsuccessful attempts to re-launch a sense of ‘British-ness’. But convincing moral visions for society cannot be created in ersatz fashion through short-term policy ideas. They are already at hand, woven through the moral significance that is variously given to the nation, nature and humanity in the stories that our society tells about itself. Learning to see where these sacred meanings still move us, as well as the shadow-side of sacred commitments, is another long task for a remoralising society.
I think this is exactly right for the USA as well as for England. And it points to one of the key problems with Stanley’s post. Whatever motivations were involved in the construction of the cathedrals, at their heart was a vision of a space in which one might encounter God, indeed a vision, in some sense, of the heavenly city itself.