Once there was a great building. Mighty with towers, spiky with spires, a-bubble with domes. Inside it opened into gallery after gallery, vault after echoing vault, so high that human beings who set off across its marble pavements sometimes mistook its roof for the sky and the building for the world itself. And though it showed signs of many styles, and had been built by many different architects over many centuries, it had been standing so long than no one could remember when it wasn’t there, or suspected that it could ever fall. But it did…
Some of the rubble was gathered up by those who had particularly loved the building and assembled back into a much smaller structure—somewhere in size, say, between a cottage and a garden shed. The rest, however, lay where it had fallen; and the grass grew over it, and creepers disguised the biggest pieces of the ruin till they looked almost like outcrops of rock; and with a speed just as astonishing as the collapse had been, those who walked there forgot there had ever been a building, and took the bumpy hill beneath them for the plain and natural ground.
So begins a piece that Francis Spufford wrote for Mockingbird last week. It’s an architectural metaphor for a spiritual reality that many sense and lament quite keenly. And as far as metaphors go, it is an arresting one. Even those of us from low-church traditions that tend to eschew spires and domes feel that there is a broad worldview, a kind of cultural and moral taken-for-grantedness anchored in and enlivened by Christianity that is crumbling or has crumbled. It does indeed often feel like we are wandering around amidst the rubble, attempting to salvage what we can, feebly attempting to bolster or reconstruct what once was.
The evidence is all around us. Many churches are aging and shrinking in size. There is institutional anxiety all around. Where are the young people? Who will fund these institutions? How will we keep going when funerals vastly outnumber births and baptisms in many churches? Last week I attended a progressive-ish ecumenical gathering that would have drawn well over a hundred people pre-pandemic. Now, fewer than fifty souls showed up. I was among the youngest in the room (and I’m, um, not that young anymore).
But beyond pragmatic realities and institutional, Spufford (rightly) wonders about the intellectual and spiritual inheritance of Christianity and what we are replacing it with. Often, at least in the West, it is scraps and fragments of Christian ethics and assumptions that are poorly understood and incoherently and inconsistently employed. This can only go on so long, as I’ve noted before (here and here, for example).
Spufford points to two reasons for the crumbling of the building. First, there is the relentless and relentlessly individualistic demand for personal authenticity that is all around us. We have no use for anyone telling us what to believe or what to think or what might have proved useful to those who preceded us (to say nothing of what might actually be true!). Spires and domes are kinda cool to look at and they can make for great selfie backgrounds, but that’s about it. All must, in the end, bow to the self and its projects. It seems to matter little that all of our precious individuality tends to come out looking the same under the pressures and rewards of the digital landscape and late capitalism, as Spufford notes:
It doesn’t seem to shift this perception much, to point out that the whole idea of a DIY ethic is, in the context of our present society, a deeply conformist one; and that most people’s kit of post-Christian understandings are very similar, except for a few bright feathers of individual experience.
Second, there is the charge that the spires and domes actually don’t reflect anything glorious at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. The church represents oppression and tyranny and corruption and every other nasty -ism and -obia that we are well rid of. This is a remarkably naïve viewpoint, both historically, anthropologically, and philosophically but I’ve written about this elsewhere (here, for example). I would say that this, too, is a deeply conformist view of history and religion, owing at least in part to those same pressures and rewards of the digital landscape and late capitalism. But that, too, is probably another post.
So what do we do? Are condemned by our cultural and ideological moment to just sift confusedly through the religious detritus still lying about, picking up what seems useful, discarding what doesn’t, and more or less proceeding with the same DIY worldview that Spufford is critical of earlier in his piece? Or might there be the option of genuine reevaluation and reconstruction. Spufford, an Anglican if I’m not mistaken, ends up sounding some fairly Anabaptist notes in his conclusion:
But brothers and sisters, the building fell. And now the work that went into it is all to do again—the work of persuading people to hear our song of redemption, of cruelty overthrown and even death laid low. Maybe there are some advantages in managing without all that impressive architecture. Perhaps the best place to write LOVE YOUR ENEMY wasn’t on a ring of gold around the base of an immense dome. Perhaps we shouldn’t have tried to express Christian thoughts in the vocabulary of might. Perhaps we should leave the majesty of God to God.
I couldn’t help but chuckle at the irony. Many Mennonites and other low church folks (myself included) have found themselves drawn to higher church liturgies, practices, and aesthetics)—the “spires and domes,” as it were—in recent years. And here we have an Anglican saying that the post-Christian wasteland might demand “managing without all that impressive architecture” and refusing the “vocabulary of might.” Well, yes and amen. I guess. Bewildering times.
But yes, let’s leave God with the task of being God. And for those of us still stubbornly navigating the rubble, still insisting the past has much to teach us and that there is great danger in forgetting this, let’s lovingly and persistently and with all due humility and appropriate penitence continue to insist that the church and the God to whom it points is good news for a hurting and confused and angry world far more eager to tear down than to build up.
Ryan, could you elaborate on the meaning of this sentence – “First, there is the relentless and relentlessly individualistic demand for personal authenticity that is all around us.”
Hi Elizabeth. I can’t really improve much upon how Spufford describes it in the article I linked to, so I’ll defer to his explanation:
I think that part of the issue with the church is today we are dealing with so much carnage that the church was responsible for… for instance, all of us are appalled at the carnage being discovered from the residential school years…and all the of sexual abuse from priests over decades and the church’s cover up and difficulty in apologizing… very sad….this carnages seems to overshadow the good the Church also was part of…
Yes, this is very true, Jimmy. We don’t seem great at saying that two things can be true at the same time:
1. The church did harm, which must be repented of.
2. The church did great good, for which we ought to be grateful.
Too often, it seems, we prefer unambiguous heroes and villains and black and white narratives to, you know, reality.