Faith Column: If these walls could talk
Cathedrals offer a sense of history
Cathedrals don’t hold the best reputation in the post-modern church movement.
House-church goers and hipster Christians often claim that the ancient buildings represent the worst parts of the faith: staleness, arrogance and a dualistic lack of concern for the world.
In such circles, it’s generally assumed that stained glass windows and wooden pews are more-or-less destined for destruction. After all, Christ himself said that “not one stone here will be left on another” when his disciples were openly admiring the temple (Matthew 24:2).
I don’t necessarily disagree with the charges that post-modernists (also know as the “emerging church”) bring to the table. For a couple of years, I was that hipster demanding that cathedrals be dismantled and its materials sold to raise money for the poor. Pubs and basements quickly became my utopian venue for a church. In those situations, the division between the sacred and secular was nullified.
And then I attended an actual service in a cathedral.
I’m not exactly sure why I finally decided to check out Knox United Church. Part of it, I suspect, was due to the denomination’s inclusion of the LGBTQ community, its focus on inner-city justice and openness to hosting music events such as Sled Island. Another influence was that my home church just moved into a building in a north-east industrial park, which makes it tough for me as a transit rider to justify attending.
Regardless, the experience was wonderful. As the congregation sung hymns, shared communion and prayed together, I couldn’t help but glance around the massive cathedral and wonder if I’d been wrong the whole way along my Christian journey. After attending another service at the church, I’m confident that my understanding of the cathedral’s purpose – and dare I say usefulness – has certainly changed.
James Howard Kunstler – an American urban critic – authored a book called Home From Nowhere in the late ‘90s in which he discussed the concept of “chronological connectivity.” Essentially, he argued that the suburban model of urban design that had been followed for the past 50 years had deprived users of any connection to past generations. But before 1945, architects and planners prided themselves on constructing buildings and cities that would last and further the identity of the city.
This may not seem relevant to cathedrals and Christianity, but bear with me. In his book, Kunstler proceeded to contend that a lack of chronological connectivity in our society is not only depressing, but also damaging to our souls. He wrote that pursuing chronological connectivity “puts us in touch with the ages and with the eternities, suggesting that we are part of a larger and more significant organism.” Ultimately, he was saying that we should build to last because it reminds us that others have gone before us.
Being reminded of this argument is hugely helpful to my own spirituality. Often times, as mentioned in my first column for The Reflector, I become convinced that my reliance on religion is evidence that I’m going insane. But when I enter a cathedral like Knox United, I realize that I’m not on this journey alone. I am connected to the thousands of people that have walked before me since 1912 (when Knox was built), and have wrestled with the same things I have.
I’m sure that the emerging church has found some argument to cripple my own. But for now, I’m satisfied with the knowledge that the physical construct of the cathedral keeps me accountable to reality and humble in light of history.