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New Age of ‘Cathedrals’: Reflecting the Image of God or Man?

Robert Schuller clearly has an eternal hope for his Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif. In a recent interview, Schuller confessed, “I dream in hundreds of years.” The Crystal Cathedral “will never die,” he said. “It’s built around the sun, the sky, the water, the mountains. It meets the deeper emotional needs of people.”

Schuller is among the earliest and most notable of recent church builders, but he has many who emulate his ambition. This is an age of remarkable church building. The amounts spent rival the wealth committed to build the most famous church structures of the past. Will these new expressions of worship and faith similarly endure? Is this a new age of cathedrals?

Magnificent cathedrals and beautiful churches dot travelers’ itineraries. Those cathedrals, especially those in Britain and Europe, are expressions of an ancient past. Some continue in their tradition: Barcelona’s cathedral and New York’s Riverside Church are 20th century creations. Washington’s National Cathedral, one of the world’s largest Gothic structures, was just recently completed, and work on New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine still continues.

Some might argue that historic cathedrals were built from a nobler purpose and higher sense of faith than modern church campus complexes. But the great medieval structures were also frequently built with at least a secondary hope that they would enhance the standing of their city or town. Their builders also had an eye on pilgrims’ money and the egos and skills of the bishops, nobles, artisans and artists who brought them to life, to name but a few “earthly” motives. The most civic-minded viewed them much as a city views a convention center—as a magnet for new development and regional or national importance.

There are some differences, however. For one thing, most British and European cathedrals and significant churches emerged from an already present tradition of “holy place.” They were often a third or fourth expression of Christian worship and community in a particular location, preceded by a monastic community or two, and before them, a small mission outpost church, and before that, perhaps, a center of pagan worship. In that sense, great churches of the past were shrines to specific locations of God’s presence.

Cathedral churches also frequently inherited strong worship traditions of the monastic communities which preceded them. And in addition to expressing the glory of God in one place, they represented the church universal as the official “seat” of the regional bishop. They were fusions in stone of both the spiritual and the temporal assumptions of medieval understanding.

Europe’s great cathedrals were built to express the highest and best aesthetic sense. Much of medieval theology centered on the notion of God as the highest perfection and the most perfect beauty. Churches built to God’s glory, therefore, were called to express that beauty and perfection in the most dramatic means available. Art, light, structure and embellishment were not secondary issues, but the first and most important consideration.

Rather than being an economic drain, historic cathedrals often provided a stimulus to the economy. They supported common laborers and developed trades and crafts. The money, effort, commitment and pride that created cathedrals in that age goes more often today into sports arenas, trade towers and grand commercial developments.

Today’s new church buildings are not usually built on holy places. They are rarely created to commemorate the past, but instead to stimulate growth for the future. Few of them place beauty and perfection of design as the highest priority. They are designed to accommodate the needs of the people they might attract, not only to worship, but to a wide variety of activities and interests.

The New York Times recently quoted the executive pastor of one emerging church as saying, “We’re not a large church. We’re a small town.” In that comment there may be a significant difference between cathedrals of the past and construction of the present. The theology that underlay the impulse to build medieval cathedrals clearly perceived a corrupt and fallen world from which the community of God’s people should be called out in the hope of achieving God’s eternal kingdom. The church or cathedral sought to give them a glimpse of a better place and a better time. The grandeur and glory they displayed was committed to motivating them from this world and into the next.

Many modern churches, and especially the vast church “campuses” of the mega-churches, reflect a theology that asserts that if the world is corrupt and fallen, a parallel but better world within a church context can be constructed—one that is in every way equal to the pleasures of the world, but more wholesome, healthy and better. Eternity seems a secondary consideration.

Were yesterday’s cathedrals morally and economically justified? Certainly they have endured not only as expressions of architecture and art, but as testimonies to a great, transcendent age of faith, even if it was profoundly different from our own. Could the funds have been put to greater and better use in alleviating suffering and promoting justice? Certainly they could have. Whether they would have been alternatively available for such work is a different matter. And, though it is hard to measure, the inspiration cathedrals have provided through the centuries may have multiplied the wealth available for good works in a single century.

Is church building, whether cathedrals or otherwise, justified now? That is probably not the first question anyone seeking to build a mega-church campus or small shrine will ask. But the answer lies not only in their immediate success, but in how—by their transcendence and inspiration—they might inspire a new age of faith to come.

Even more, one might wonder whether their inspiration reflects the image of a new and better life in response to God’s vision and community, or simply a new and improved version of the secular one from which they rise.

Everett C. Goodwin is senior minister of the Scarsdale Community Baptist Church in Scarsdale, N.Y.

Order Goodwin’s books from Amazon!
Baptists in the Balance: The Tension between Freedom and Responsibility
The New Hiscox Guide for Baptist Churches

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Goodwin’s column is part two in a four-part series about church building projects. Part one—”Blessed Are the Builders?”—is also included in today’s content. Look for parts three and four tomorrow on EthicsDaily.com!