What do recent developments in the rebuilding of Notre Dame cathedral tell us about trends in ecclesiastical and civic architecture? How does the sacramental understanding of architecture compare with modern architectural designs, including the proposal to rebuild the spire of Notre Dame cathedral along postmodernist lines? Jason Van Boom discusses these questions with architect and theologian Steven Schloeder. In this conversation they compared contemporary attitudes towards design with medieval understandings, looking at how these competing attitudes reveal a clash in what it means to be human. Van Boom and Schloeder also explored some of the symbolism of Catholic and Orthodox church structures, and what this tells us about God’s relationship to mankind.
In this second interview with Dr. David Wang, we continue to learn about Notre-Dame Cathedral and the significance of the recent fire. Dr. Wang explains how Notre-Dame cathedral is an incarnation of a sacramental ordering of the world, a way of looking at creation in which “the small human being is in the embrace of an immensely larger immaterial reality, such that the small human being receives benefit.” Drawing on his experience as former head of the architectural department at Washington State, Dr. Wang contrasts this ancient sacramental understanding of buildings with postmodern architecture. The conversation steered into the implications of living in an increasingly machine-driven culture, in which our reliance on cyberspace and “disembodied communities” (i,e., communities bereft of any organic relationship to the immediate vicinity around where we live) are orienting human beings to new ways of negotiating embodiment.
Jason and Robin interview Dr. David Wang about Notre-Dame Cathedral and its recent fire. Dr. Wang is a widely published expert on architecture who recently retired as head of the architectural department at Washington State University. In this discussion, Dr. Wang explains the origins of Notre-Dame and what its Gothic style tells us about the people who built it and about us as human beings. The spiritual ideas behind the cathedral stand in sharp contrast with the design of modern buildings and cities, which are based on what Dr. Wang calls “the sacramentality of the machine.” Understanding the sacramentality of buildings points to an important limitation in the process of rebuilding Notre-Dame, Dr. Wang suggested. This is because our culture has lost more than the spire and roof of this historic cathedral: we have lost continuity with the sacramental worldview that this cathedral embodies.
The following material is taken from my book Saints and Scoundrels, chapter 16.
On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, where the Berlin Wall separated the free world from the communist empire.
In one of the most memorable speeches in living memory, Reagan offered a direct challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev, general-secretary of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party. Gorbachev had claimed that he wanted to reform the Communist party on the principles of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). But Reagan believed that there was one thing left for Gorbachev to do to prove his earnestness.
“General Secretary Gorbachev,” Reagan entreated, “if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev – Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Two years later, on November 9, 1989, East Germans began dismantling the Wall. As if in silent answer to Reagan’s words, Gorbachev did nothing to stop them. Earlier in the same year, Gorbachev had allowed the first open elections since 1917 to be held in the Soviet Union. Also in 1989 the USSR lost control of its satellite nations in Eastern Europe. For the next two years the free world rejoiced as it witnessed the systematic downfall of communism in Eastern Europe. Communism had failed. Reagan and the free world had won.
Or had they?
My teenage son and I sometimes get together with friends to watch movies and then analyze the worldview behind it. The last time we did this we watched Life of Pi, a movie based on Yann Martel’s book by the same title. The award-winning 2012 production is a beautiful drama full of stunning visual sequences which takes the viewer to the edge of fantasy while exploring important spiritual themes.
Directed by Ang Lee, the movie opens with a man named Pi telling a writer of his perilous journey from India to the coast of Mexico following a disaster at sea. As Pi narrates his epic adventure, we watch his survival with an unlikely travel companion: a fearsome Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) is best remembered for his books on communism – books like the The Gulag Archipelago which ultimately helped to undermine the integrity of the Soviet Union in the eyes of the world.
What is generally less appreciated is that Solzhenitsyn was also a fierce critic of postmodernism.
Don’t be scared off by the term ‘Postmodernism.’ The best way to explain it is against the backdrop of ‘modernism.’ As an ideology, Modernism it is closely aligned with the worldview of secular humanism, which elevates man and his reason to the center of reality. In contrast to the pre-modern worldview, which stressed that all human knowledge is a subset of God’s knowledge, Modernism emphasized that man is at the center of reality and that unaided human reason can discover absolute truth. Solzhenitsyn challenged this view in his Harvard address, claiming that secular humanist ideas were “the mistake” that was “at the root, at the very foundation of thought in modern times.” He continued:
I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world in modern times. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was born in the Renaissance and has found political expression since the Age of Enlightenment. It became the basis for political and social doctrine and could be called rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the pro-claimed and practiced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of all.
But Solzhenitsyn did not stop by merely confronting Modernism; his message of national repentance also challenged the fashionable Postmodernism of the late 20th and early 21st century.
At the risk of oversimplification, Postmodernism is the worldview which asserts that individuals or groups create truth for themselves. While agreeing with modernism that man is at the center, Postmodernism denies we can discover absolute truth since it rejects the very idea of absolute truth. Within the subjective worldview of the Postmodernist, every person creates meaning for himself. Solzhenitsyn opposed this idea just as fervently as he opposed modernism. He argued that eternal values such as truth and justice do not depend on man for their existence but have an objective existence independent of our minds. As Solzhenitsyn wrote in a samizdat letter while he was still living in the Soviet Union,
“Justice exists, even if there are only a few individuals who recognize it as such…. There is nothing relative about justice just as there is nothing relative about conscience.”
After Solzhenitsyn was deported to the West, he found this message of moral absolutes was just as distasteful to Westerners as it had been to the Soviets. Two days after his Harvard address an editorial in The New York Times declared that Solzhenitsyn was “dangerous” and “a zealot.” His crime? He believed he was “in possession of The Truth.”
Solzhenitsyn’s rejection of Postmodern relativism had direct ramifications for his view of art. In his Nobel Prize lecture, published in 1972, he contrasted two types of artists. “One artist imagines himself the creator of an autonomous spiritual world” while “another artist recognizes above himself a higher power and joyfully works as a humble apprentice under God’s heaven”. Solzhenitsyn urged artists to adopt the latter approach. Reality, including spiritual reality, is not something that we create for ourselves, since it exists external to us. Solzhenitsyn expanded on this in a 1993 speech delivered to the National Arts Club after his acceptance of the Medal of Honor for Literature:
“For a post-modernist the world does not possess values that have reality. He even has an expression for this: ‘the world as text,’ as something secondary, as the text of an author’s work, wherein the primary object of interest is the author himself in his relationship to the work, his own introspections…. A denial of any and all ideals is considered courageous. And in this voluntary self-delusion, ‘post-modernism’ sees itself as the crowning achievement of all previous culture, the final link in its chain…. There is no God, there is no truth, the universe is chaotic, all is relative, ‘the world is text,’ a text any post-modernist is willing to compose. How clamorous it all is, but also – how helpless.