Matthew Tan: like voices in the desert, cathedrals continue to prophesy

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A view inside St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

While teaching political philosophy at Campion College Australia, one minor thread of the course related to the impact that commercial and consumer cultures, such as the ones entrenched in Australia, have on the expression or maintenance of a thoroughgoing Christian identity and practice. It was suggested that these consumer cultures do not sit neutrally when set flush against a Christian culture. Rather, consumerism operates with its own cultural logic.

In a book entitled Cities of God, the Oxford University Regius Professor in Divinity, Graham Ward, argued quite forcefully that secular lifeworlds, such as consumer culture, actually house a logic that mimics, distorts and eventually undermines the lifeworld of Christian faith and practice.

A way to take the lesson out of the classroom, and see the dynamic of mimicry and redirection in practice, would be to consider the juxtaposition between two structures that mark most western (and many non-western) urban skylines: the neo-gothic cathedral and skyscrapers.

If one were to look at say, Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral, the first thing one notices when standing in front of it would be the spires that point skywards and guide the eye towards the heavenly font from which the Church receives its nourishment. When the viewer’s gaze broadens to incorporate the other buildings in the cityscape, he or she would notice something. One might notice that, imposing though the cathedral might be on its own terms, the relative visual prominence of the Cathedral in the Sydney skyline recedes.

Indeed, as one’s view pans out, one notices that the Cathedral does not do one thing cathedrals did in the middle ages, which was to serve as a pedestrian’s visual centre of gravity. As consumer culture becomes more entrenched, the cathedral gradually becomes dwarfed by the gigantic commercial and residential high-rise buildings that are now the visual norm in the central business district.

What many Christians may not dwell upon is the cultural message that this architectural trend is sending. More specifically, these high-rise buildings project a subtle visual statement that mimics that of the medieval cathedrals, as they become the new visual centre of gravity in the twenty-first century.

Ward makes an even more pointed assertion that skyscrapers function like secular cathedrals, bringing with them a cultural and ultimately theological message at odds with the message brought by the cathedral.

In a manner similar to St Mary’s, the sheer height of these buildings will draw the eye skywards. As the eye moves up however, one notices something different. Unlike the cathedral, these often oblong-shaped structures do not actually point to the sky or draw the eye to the heavens. The increasing use of glass to line the exteriors of contemporary high-rise buildings ensures a completely different aesthetic experience.

While the gothic cathedral draws the gaze beyond itself to its divine source, these secular cathedrals draw the eye towards itself. This self-reference then takes another step; the glass allows the viewer to peer into and fixate onto the building’s interior. As the gaze is drawn inwards, we are made to see the products of the slick, middle-class lifestyle, be they designer home furnishings, well-suited office workers working at stylish desks, or sleek and well-toned bodies in state-of-the-art gyms.

These architectural statements are not merely declarations of the skill (or sometimes lack thereof) of a particular designer. Like the sacred cathedral, the skyscraper acts as a call to live a way of life indicated by its furnishings. The sacred cathedrals call us to look heavenward, in a manner indicated by the saints that adorn its stained glass windows.

The skyscraper – the secular cathedral – calls us to become an inward looking, self-referential and self-aggrandising race of consumers, in a manner indicated by the “saints” we see through high rise windows. The yuppie resident of the inner-city apartment, the office worker and the gym junkie have become the new secular saints of a game of success that is crassly material, one that reduces human life to a state where value is assigned to those that can decorate their surroundings – if not themselves – with products, only because the vision of the human person has been reduced to that of a product, to be admired, manipulated and consumed by others.

Amidst this secular game of success, however, the sacred cathedrals act as a prophetic statement. They remind us that we are more than just mere raw material, that we live, move and have our being in a God that transcends the material, and indeed gives us the material world in a generous act of love for His creatures.

The gothic cathedral reminds the consumer that precisely because of this transcendence over the material and because of that love, the human person is afforded far more worth than that of a consumer product. It may be that the cathedral as the architectural prophet will be a marginal figure, obscured by the dazzling forest of skyscrapers.

But, like the prophet Isaiah, who once declared that it is for the sake of the city that he must continue to prophesy (Is 62:1), the cathedral must continue to prophesy to the dominant lifeworld marked by the skyscraper, even if it continues as a voice that cries out in the wilderness. The sacred cathedral, like the prophet, has been put on earth to serve no other purpose.

It might be tempting to think that the restoration of the Church’s evangelical impact lies in increasing the grandeur of its cathedrals. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, such a strategy risks buying into the logic of self-aggrandisement encapsulated in the secular cathedral. As students at Campion College have learned (and will continue to learn) what is more vital is the restoration of cultural literacy. It is a literacy that can enable one, were he or she to pass by an office-block, to recognise it as the secular cathedral it makes itself out to be in every way but name, and to recognise the evangelical statement that the skyscraper makes.

It is a literacy that also allows a recognition of the Christian Gospel in the cathedral spire, and the power of that Christian Gospel, even when the Cathedral spire that encapsulates it remains overshadowed by secular imitations.