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Cathedrals just aren’t practical

In Worldview on September 6, 2013 at 4:02 am

St. Augustin, ViennaIn the modern world, we evaluate almost everything against the standard of practicality, utility and efficiency.

I know people who won’t buy a hybrid, because it will take 10 years before the additional cost of a hybrid is recouped through lower fuel consumption. Therefore, it’s simply not practical to buy a hybrid. All other considerations are irrelevant.

I have been asked, “What’s the point of a humanities degree? ” It’s not practical to get a degree that won’t get you a job that pays six figures. Unfortunately this is the reality in a culture that values science, technology and entertainment. The money goes to these fields while philosophers and literary theorists work at Starbucks.

We produce beef, pork and chicken very efficiently, but we disregard the wellbeing of the animal, the worker, the environment. And the taste doesn’t even factor into the equation. The same principles of efficiency are evidenced by the fact that almost every dress shirt in the major department stores comes from Bangladesh.

Practicality, utility and efficiency are more important than loving our neigbour or being stewards of creation. Whenever something gets preferment over these sacred tasks, we are dealing with an idol. When our culture abandons a relationship with God as the ultimate source of human fulfillment, there is a plethora of other gods to which to turn. One of the options was this petty, but dangerous, god of many names, Practicality, Utility and Efficiency.

Christians are a product of the times. When we build our churches today, we consider , practicality, utility and efficiency. There’s nothing inherently wrong in this, but when it trumps all other considerations? What do we lose when our physical building are primarily designed to, for instance, maximize the amount of seating space?

From my seat in the pew in St. Augustin it is obvious that its builders didn’t care much about efficient utilization of the interior space.

They had a different set of priorities. Perhaps I idealize their motivations, but it seems as if they were attempting to erect sacred structures rather than practical ones. Many churches took generations to complete. The carving of wood and stone clearly had objectives that went far beyond mere utility. Less than half of the available floor space is used during the service. Surely they could have saved a lot of building expense if the roof wasn’t so high.

Although I didn’t understand the sermon because of the language barrier, I did figure out that the sermon was about Mary and Martha. I recalled that Martha complained to Jesus that Mary was ignoring practical concerns like the clearing of dishes. Jesus gently rebuked her and told her, in essence, telling her that some things are more important that utility and efficiency.

Reflections in the Cathedral

In False Dichotomies - the lines between, Worldview on August 21, 2013 at 8:44 pm

114I have not posted this summer because my wife and spent several glorious weeks in Europe.  Our trip covered three Sundays and we attended services in the cathedrals of  three different cities–Salzburg, Vienna and Prague.  Worshiping in these cathedrals was one of the highlights of a wonderful  trip.

Holidays are a great opportunity to visit other churches.  Each congregation values different things.  If approached with an attitude of humility, it’s very good to worship with Christians of different stripes because it helps to broaden our understanding about ourselves, the Church and the God we worship.

All three of these services were very different from the very large Protestant church I attend every other Sunday of the year, and the experience provided some significant insights that I will share over the next few posts. 

One of this most fundamental lessons that one can take away from a very different worship experience is a challenge to the idea of what is “normal”  in worship.  The essential purpose of all Church services whether in a gym or cathedral is the worship of God–as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.   It’s very easy to fall into the idea that the way my church/denomination worships is “normal,” and alternative approaches are abnormal and inferior.   Honest encounters with difference can help dispel these harmful notions.  

Before a Protestant participates in a Roman Catholic mass, it is important to appropriately frame the historical relationship between these two branches of the Body of Christ.  It is not productive to adopt the simplistic narrative that says the Roman church was corrupt and encumbered by extra-Biblical doctrines and rituals of which the church needed purging.  Rebellion against corruption and some theological imbalances were a part of the early Reformation,  but it quickly became something else.   The Reformation shifted authority from the Church and tradition to the individual.  Before 1517, the Bible was read in Latin and interpreted by the church through the filter of a long tradition.  The Reformation resulted in Bibles written in the vernacular so people could read and interpret it for themselves.  Individuals could also access God more directly without the mediation of a priest.  These changes were perhaps necessary in that they recognized that faith had both an individual as well as a collective component.  But with reforms such as these, the Reformation also ushered in a significantly different way of thinking about the self and its relationship to authority.  These changes prompted other changes which have effected western civilization ever since. 

It’s why we have so many denominations in the church.  Liberal democracy couldn’t be conceived without it.   Moral relativism is it’s logical end–most of the most contentious issues in our culture today are a result of the individual asserting its autonomy. 

The Reformation may have initially asserted individuality, but this grew into the individualism which dominates our culture today.   We understand the self as autonomous, there is no greater authority.   “My rights, my choice” is the modern mantra. 

There’s no doubt that the church needed some reform in the 16th century because it was filled with the idolatries of the day.  But we fool ourselves if we think we are not equally susceptible to the idolatries of the world.  One of the main idolatries in our culture is Individualism and worship of this idol has permeated the western church. 

One of the ways this is seen is with the emphasis in Christian circles on “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”   Although this is an important dimension of the Christian life,  the Bible has much more to say about how we are to live in community than it says about a personal relationship with Jesus.   This imbalance can often be seen in the language we use around baptism of adults and even the professions of faith of those baptized as infants.  We can also see it in our tendency to sing more songs like, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” rather than, “I Sought the Lord and Afterward I Knew.”  We see it in our interpretation of principle of being “salt and light” in the world to be an individual, rather than a collective mandate (for example when we choose and education for our children).

We have the same problem that every church of every age and every place has–we are blind to our idolatries.  By humbly engaging meaningfully with Roman Catholics (or Protestants from non-Western societies) we can more easily see our own idolatries. 

 I hoped that worshiping in a cathedral  would give me a glimpse into a time when we weren’t so immersed in the worship of the self.