City Planning and the Gospel
“The modern protestant worship box” is what my dad critiquing calls your run-in-the-mill “non-denominational” church in America. Growing up I never really understood what he was getting at, but now I think he was on to something. My family grew up Episcopalian and I spent most of my youth worshipping in a gorgeous church in a small Kentucky town without really knowing it. It has not been until recent years that I’ve begun to realize how rare such a space is in the Modern West.
Before recent times, church architecture meant something. Recently the protestant faith in the West has come to be understood in (almost) entirely intellectual terms. “Belief” is the core and sole tenet. Due to this emphasis on an intellectualized faith, aspects like architecture, city planning, and aesthetics in general, have gone by the wayside.
Many Christians have succumbed to the Modern belief that religion is a private matter, occupying the space between your ears (if you’re Presbyterian) or a fire in your heart (if you’re Wesleyan). But this assumption assumes something that Modern man has forgotten: “the heart is a factory of idols.” (John Calvin).
Modernism assumes that religion can easily be swept off to one corner of life and all forms of worship will go along with it. But the Christian faith puts forward an entirely different view on reality. Sure, you can put the public aspects of the Christian faith in a prayer closet, but that does not mean that you have done away with “public faith.” That is impossible. Some god (or idol) must be worshiped because that’s what humans are: worshipers. The mistake of Modernism lies (in large part) in the realm of anthropology, assuming many wrong things about what it is that humans actually are.
Because of all this, Moderns usually assume that they have removed “religion” or “faith” from the public square when in reality they have simply replaced the Christian God with an idol. Peter Leithart makes this point well in his book Defending Constantine. Leithart shows this principle in the layout of cities. In the broader context Leithart is explaining how Constantine’s change in symbolism, architecture, and city planning had mass effects on the public perception of the Christian faith. Yet, the point can stretch well beyond late antiquity and find itself at home (if that’s possible) in the modern world:
Space must be organized somehow. Something must be at the center of a city, and that something is, in practice, going to be higher, bolder, bigger, more dazzling than the surrounding cityscape. Modern cities, where great cathedrals cower in the shadows of insurance companies, banks, law firms, investment companies, high-tech organizations, are certainly not religiously neutral. To a Christian sensibility, modern cities are organized to lift up the idol Mammon above all others and to leave just enough space for the church to be a cheerleader or a marginal, cranky critic. (pg. 145)
Because we tend to believe that space is neutral, we often do not think of what the organization of space is “preaching.” But whether we like it or not, the whole world is called to sing to the God who created it, and that includes cities, and buildings. The Christian faith is one of calling the whole cosmos to publicly worship the Triune God who, alone, is worthy to be praised. This cannot happen only between the ears and in the hearts of individuals (though it should happen there too). The worship of God must take place everywhere and in everyn way.
Food for thought.