Sunday, July 16, 2017

Discipleship and Architecture: Works in Progress

The earth was formless and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.

Parthenon, 447 B.C.
One of the only things I remember my first year studio professor saying is, “A work of Architecture is never finished.” The term “inchoate” means “just begun, and so not fully formed or developed; rudimentary.” “Tohu va vohu” is the Hebrew phrase that gets translated as “formless and void” as a way to try to grope with human language towards toward the primeval condition before which Silence and Light separate and words emerge.

I submit that these are images of the self. Like a work of Architecture that is “in process” or under construction, we are unfinished, inchoate, formless and void. We tend, however, to imagine the opposite. A facebook friend of mine – Sean Davidson - suggested that we tend to imagine that we “have arrived at the end and can see everything clearly and all at once.” He’s the one who got me thinking more about this, actually.

Aligned with that tendency of ours, John McArthur - sounding like he might have been preaching about tohu va vohu - accuses N.T. Wright of writing “a mass of confusing ambiguity, contradiction, and obfuscation” (toward the beginning of this video). Similarly, last week when Eugene Peterson made what sounded like a grand pronouncement of his affirmative stance on LGTBQ rights, the left celebrated another step in a victorious march towards equality while bookstores from the right made plans to take his books off their shelves.

Architecturally, this is to imagine that we see from the top of the Tower of Babel. In the scriptures, however, the Tower of Babel was never finished. There is no seeing from heaven. Just as I have a tendency to want to be final and secure in my judgments of John McArthur, McArthur is more certain in his judgments of N.T. Wright than is proper for the order of human knowledge.

Crystal Palace, 1851

Further, McArthur’s finely delineated pronouncements about Wright are indicative of how McArthur goes about reading and interpreting both scriptures and the world in the first place. John McArthur doesn’t love beginnings. The appearance of McArthur’s language in the world is disconnected from the tohu va vohu from which the words of his mouth emerge. McArthur doesn’t realize that the perfectly harmonious relationships achieved at the Parthenon are a sacrificial ending and thus a beginning of something new rather than an achievement of something eternally ultimate.

When the Crystal Palace was finished, it was visited by people from around the world. In the mid 19th century, such travel was a big deal. For most of the rest of the world, the Cyrstal Palace didn’t only symbolize a vast empire’s achievement of great material wealth and of a new vision for humanity centered on individual rationality. It also symbolized something final and ultimate obtained by a great power that we lack.

“The Crystal Palace…portended a universal surge of mimetic desire: people desiring and trying to possess the same objects. Germany, Russia and Japan set out to catch up with Britain and France in the nineteenth century’s first major outburst of appropriative mimicry. Two world wars eventually resulted…by 1945 the new nation states of Asia and Africa had already started on their own fraught journey to the Crystal Palace, riding roughshod over ethnic and religious diversity and older ways of life…The Crystal Palace now extends all over the world, encompassing the non-West and the West alike, literally in the form of the downtown areas of hundreds of cities, from radically ‘renovated’ Shanhai to the surreal follies of Dubai and Gargaon. Homo economicus, the autonomous, reasoning, rights-bearing individual, that quintessential product of industrialism and modern political philosophy, has actually realized his fantastical plans to bring all of human existence into the mesh of production and consumption…” – Pankaj Mishra, Age of Anger

I submit that Eugene Peterson’s recent pronouncements became a fantastical and unobtainable display of an illusory, final, and transparent Crystal Palace - from which we get a clear view of everything all at once - that those on both sides of the argument mimetically sought in a rivalry to grasp.

Architecture, then, is formational for the self and our character. It is both indicative of and shapes our desires and urges that lie behind the scenes of action on the familial, social, and political stages. The segregation, rivalry, blame, protest, dissent, and self-righteous assertion that characterized the “lightless heat” surrounding Eugene Peterson’s interviews can be summed up in Architectural images that embody our socio-political history. In other words, the work of Architecture is interwoven with the work of discipleship.

Greek Temple at Paestum, 550 BC
So, “What would it be like to interact with each other as though we are on the way rather than at an end?,” my friend Sean asks. “I like beginnings,” Lou Kahn is well known to have written. His favorite Greek Temple wasn’t the Parthenon. Instead, it was Paestum.

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you…” The end of the first verse of the scriptures is and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. We learn throughout the scriptural story that, in such beginnings, the Spirit is at work sending us out as disciples is a Spirit of love.

So, part of what it means to love people, then, is to be “on the way,” to realize that we are all “in process” or “under construction.” The disciples were sent out two by two before Peter grew such cahones at Pentecost. If I imagine myself as John McArthur addressing an N.T. Wright with whom I disagree, imagining myself mirrored in the Temple at Paestum rather than in the Parthenon changes how I speak.

My tendency to close the gap between what I imagine that I can know as compared to what I actually know as a mere human is tempered in my response to those with whom I disagree on LTBQ rights if I don’t identify with the Tower of Babel or with the Crystal Palace but instead if I imagine lovingly caressing one of the concrete columns outside the dining hall of La Tourette. Eventually meeting a similar fate as the Tower of Babel, the Crystal Palace just so happened to burn down in November of 1936, anyway (four years before the start of WWII, which it portended).

Concrete Columns at La Tourette, by Le Corbusier, 1956

Perhaps, once I let go of such grand visions, I am more vulnerable and open, more sympathetic and affectionate. Maybe I am quicker to listen and slower to speak, slower to anger and richer in love. Maybe my mimetic rivalry is exchanged for “outdoing one another in showing honor” or “counting others better than myself.” Once my illusions have been consumed by fire at the altar of God, I am more capable of looking not only to my own interests but also to the interests of others, not counting equality as a thing to be grasped but taking the form of a servant.

Le Corbusier referred to poured in place concrete as “plastique.” The relevant definition of the term here is “capable of being molded or receiving form.” That sounds like a desirable trait for a disciple, right? That’s exactly what Lou Kahn saw of the Greek Temple at Paestum. Le Corbusier loved beginnings, too.

Abraham the exile is to Paestum as Solomon the imperialist is to the Crystal Palace.

To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappado′cia, Asia, and Bithyn′ia, chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood:

May grace and peace be multiplied to you.

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