Tuesday, July 23, 2013
A Defence of Modern Churches by Thomas Merton
I can't claim to be a fan of Thomas Merton. I started reading The Seven Storey Mountain once, but found it boring and put it down (admittedly after only a few pages).
But I did like this quotation that I came across today, in The Hodder Book of Christian Quotations:
One of the big problems for an architect in our time is that for a hundred and fifty years men have been building churches as if a church could not belong to our time. A church has to look as if it were left over from some other time. I think that such an assumption is based on an implicit confession of atheism-- as if God did not belong to all ages and as if religion were really only a pleasant, necessary social formality, preserved from past time in order to give our society an air of respectability. [Italics mine.]
I can't help inclining towards, if not perhaps entirely agreeing with, this viewpoint.
I anticipate the reply of those who hold anti-modernist tastes in church architecture; that great architecture is timeless and that, when we step into a church, we should find ourselves confronted with the abiding and the permanent, as a kind of foreshadowing of the eternal.
As somebody who is very much a literary and artistic anti-modernist, I would have great sympathy with this response. I don't think there's anything antiquated about (for instance) iambic pentameter, the sonnet, or classical narrative. I don't think we need a radically new idiom in painting, writing and sculpture to express the times we live in. My favoured Bible translation is the Douai-Rheims, the Catholic equivalent of the King James.
And yet, I do personally find that modern church architecture seems more alive to me than more traditional church architecture. I certainly would not like to see old churches bulldozed, or neglected, or paid anything less than the honour they deserve. But give me a humble, even ugly church that was built in the last forty or thirty or ten years. That seems to me more of an expression of a living faith than a great cathedral.
I took the above picture the last time I was in Dublin Airport; it shows Our Lady of Heaven church, of which I am especially fond.