I saw a quote recently that asked: if God is everywhere, what do we need churches for? A good solid Protestant question if ever there was one. An even better atheist one is: if there is no God, what use do churches or other assorted places of worship play?
I tend to think that churches have always tried to emulate and overcome the beauty of nature. There are places in this world for which the term ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’ spring naturally to the lips. Great waterfalls, sun-dappled forest grottos, the deep places of the earth, the highest refuges of stone and snow and sky. Nature, in all its wonder, holds all the awe and splendor anyone could need for an entire lifetime.
Cathedrals, like every grand work of man, skyscrapers, massive dams or bridges, create similar senses of awe and wonder. You cannot stand within them or before them without feeling overwhelmed by their magnitude or even beauty.
We build these things not to assert god’s mastery over us but our own mastery over nature. There are those who find such assertions presumptuous or even wrong but there you have it.
I like churches when they are no longer primarily religious expressions but cultural ones. The first re-purposed church I remember seeing was a large Catholic one transformed into condos in the city of Halifax back in the 70s. They were kickass accommodations not the least because they retained so many features of the previously consecrated space.
A few years later I travelled to Europe and visited many cathedrals – some of which were still active (though hardly full) worship houses. The one in Salamanca, Spain, was particularly interesting. Spanish masons had a long history of conflict with the Church and especially the Inquisition – but they were a necessary evil for the Church. The tension resulted in some very salacious and sacrilegious carving being placed high in the naves of the church, invisible until modern times brought us telescopes and binoculars. Priapic bishops and cavorting priests and nuns attested to the opinions (or perhaps observations) of the stone carvers.
Last night I dined in a deconsecrated Anglican church – a place with a lot of significant religious and cultural history. Handel first performed the Messiah there and the organ still stands. I could go on about the beauty of the place and the excellence of the food…
But that’s ten minutes.