Joseph Pieper and the Beautiful Uselessness of Church Buildings

by Margaret Hughes, appearing in Volume 30

The skyline of Münster, Germany (where Josef Pieper was born in 1904), shows many buildings that were rebuilt after World War II, including Saint Paul Cathedral and City Hall. Photo:

The concluding section of Josef Pieper’s essay “What Makes a Building a Church?” begins with his admission that his reflections “are, on a practical level, quite useless.”1 In fact, he gives only two concrete rules for the design of a church building: “first, a simple sheltering element, a separating wall, a boundary line,” and “second, the exclusive reservation of the structure, at least in principle, for purposes of worship.”2 The paucity of practical reflections about sacred architecture would make an article on Josef Pieper’s ideas about it impossible, were it not for his insistence on the deep unity between speculative and practical thought. This unity allows Pieper to develop theoretical principles for sacred architecture, while at the same time respecting and preserving room for human creativity, which expresses these principles in the concrete, visible world.

The human being, because of the kind of creature that he is, brings together the speculative and the practical. A human being, as both a material and spiritual being, is uniquely positioned in the created order to glorify God. Of spiritual beings, only a human being can sense material things, and of material beings, only a human being can know and love the good apart from what is material. As a result, only a human being can praise God through what is material, by rejoicing in the good of the material world and yet seeing that it points to a good beyond it. Only a human being can see through the goodness of the material world to the goodness of God, and only a human being can express rejoicing in God’s goodness through what is material. This proper rejoicing in the material is the sight of its beauty: seeing it as good simply because it is, which it is because its source is the source of all goodness. It is this theme, and Josef Pieper’s nuanced understanding of “good” and man’s relation to it, that shapes his ideas about beauty and the sacred, and so about church buildings.

Josef Pieper spent almost the entirety of his career in Münster, Germany, where he dedicated himself to teaching and to writing philosophy. While his thought is steeped in Thomism and Platonism, in the true spirit of philosophy as the pursuit of wisdom, he also engages any influence that leads to knowledge of the truth. He is perhaps best known in the United States for his book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, in part because this was the first of his works translated into English. This work, as well as his others, is deeply speculative and yet is rooted in and refers back to concrete experience. Above all, his experiences of the wars of the twentieth century and the destruction and ensuing rebuilding of Europe, coupled with the rise of the utilitarianism of fascism and communism and the despair of atheistic existentialism, lead him to emphasize, over and over again, in various ways and in the context of various topics, the fundamental—and gloriously useless—goodness of being, of which the church building is a sign.

The Good of Uselessness

The two specific prescriptions that Pieper gives for a church building follow from his reply to the question “What makes a building a church?” His answer is quite simple and straightforward: “A building becomes a church . . . through consecration.”3 It is the performance of the rite of consecration of a church, not its design, that transforms a building, no matter what it looks like, into a church. Consecration designates that the space within the church walls is space for something that is out of the ordinary: “A church, through a specific act of consecration, has been set apart from the realm of ordinary everyday life marked by considerations of work, wages, job security, usefulness, consumption, and generally by the active pursuit of practical purposes.”4

The “everyday,” from which the church building is set aside, is a way of living and seeing the world that is concerned with doing and making things—with putting food on the table and a roof over one’s head, with building roads and bridges and economies, with getting things done. It is the realm of the practical. In this realm, what is good is what is useful. A thing is useful if it leads to some good, but that thing is good if it is useful for some other good, which is useful for a still further good. In the everyday, we are constantly striving to advance from one good to the next. It is not a realm of rest, but rather one of work and effort, with one good after another always just out of reach, such that our concern and attention is focused only on finding the next useful thing to reach the next useful good.

That which is set apart from the everyday, on the other hand, has an “explicit ‘uselessness.’”5 This includes church buildings. While, in a world suffused with utilitarianism and pragmatism, in which “good” is taken to be identical to “useful,” the word “useless” sounds degrading, that it does so is an indication that we have forgotten the good that is beyond the useful and the practical realm. The role of the church building is to offer sensible reminders of this good that is useless.

The “explicit uselessness” that Pieper ascribes to church buildings is not the uselessness of not being good. Rather, it is the uselessness that derives from what is totally and fully good. This good is “useless” because it is not pursued for the sake of a further good. Its good does not depend on its usefulness. It simply is good.

Being is such a good. Being is not good because it is useful. Instead, it is good because it is created by God. That God creates and sustains being indicates that being is loved by God. Love, Pieper writes, is “saying, ‘It’s good that you exist; it’s good that you are in the world.’”6 God, in bringing Creation into existence and in sustaining its existence, is proclaiming that He desires that existence and He desires only what is good. As Genesis states, God “looked at everything He had made, and found it very good.”7

In giving human beings rationality, God shares with them the ability to do this divine activity of seeing that it is good to be. It is an activity that is at once both useless and fully meaningful. Whereas activities in the workaday world are always for the sake of something else and so derive their meaning from something else, seeing that it is good to be is for its own sake. It is meaningful in itself. In dwelling on the goodness of being, the human being comes to rest. He does not need to continue to work towards some other goal. Rather, he can simply remain in the activity of gazing on what is good. This rest is the activity of contemplation.

Contemplation, Pieper writes, is “a gaze inspired by love.”8 It is also man’s end and his happiness. In contemplation, the intellect dwells on the truth simply to know it, and the will rests in the possession of the good of knowing the truth. As such, contemplation is intensely active, but restfully so, since the goals of the rational activities of knowing and willing, the true and the good, are present and elicit rational activity for its own sake. Unlike practical, useful activities, which always pursue a good external to the activity itself, in contemplation, the good that is the goal of the activity is intrinsic to it. Contemplation is the restful activity of the human being seeing and loving what is good simply because it is good, with no reference to its use.

The Useless Meaningfulness of Beauty and Beautiful Churches

In contemplation, which is the loving gaze on the truth simply because it is good, the human being encounters beauty. Pieper, like Thomas Aquinas, rarely speaks explicitly about beauty, and yet beauty suffuses his whole work. His one, clear description of beauty occurs in his treatise on temperance, where he writes that beauty is the glow of the true and the good irradiating from every ordered state of being and not . . . immediate sensual appeal.”9 The perception of “the glow of the true and the good” simply is contemplation. This “glow” is the attractiveness of the true and the good to the human being. Being, under the aspects of true and good, beckons to the human being because he is made for them. His encounter with truth and goodness brings him to the restful activity for its own sake that is his end, fulfillment, and happiness.

Beauty, like happiness, is useless. It is not for the sake of something else. And yet, it is essential to a complete human life. The perception of beauty, which is the experience of resting in the good, reveals the meaningfulness of human life. It is this final good that gives meaning to all other activities that humans do, because they ultimately are directed towards this good. In the sight of beauty, the human being experiences, in some small way, a foreshadowing of his final rest, which is the fulfillment of his being and his activity in gazing on the goodness—and so the beauty—of God in the Beatific Vision.

The recognition that it is good to be, which is the sight of beauty, gives rise to festivity. At the center of being festive is the affirmation that it is good to be. When we see that it is good to be, and that our own existence is good and meaningful, we rejoice. In the midst of everyday busyness and prosaic concerns, however, it is easy to forget the goodness of reality that underlies all that is and so to lose sight of the importance of festivity. Amidst concerns about usefulness, we forget to contemplate and rejoice in the goodness of being; we do not see its beauty.

We must set aside, then, time and space for the feast. Setting aside time and space in which we are not concerned with work and the everyday allows for a disposition different from that of the “workaday” world. The festive disposition is one of receptivity—of being able to rest in the goodness of existence because it is given to us. We do not need to work to make it good. In the feast, we are reminded of the joyful meaning of human life that persists even when we return to the space and time of the everyday. The “uselessness” of the feast shows us the true usefulness of the everyday, such that we are aware of the goodness and meaning of all of human existence.

The most perfect, and most real, festival is the ritual praise of God: “There can be no more radical assent to the world than the praise of God, the lauding of the Creator of this same world. One cannot conceive a more intense, more unconditional affirmation of being.”10 The festival, as a material expression of the inner affirmation and joy of the goodness of being, then, is perfected in the liturgy. The physical, material action of the liturgy is an expression and outgrowth of the communal contemplation and rejoicing in the goodness of God that is the fulfillment and full actuality of the whole human being in communion with others. It is for this purpose that the church building is consecrated.

The Beauty of the Church Building: Silence

Human beings are the only creatures who are able to erect churches. Only human beings can set space and time aside to reserve it in a special and particular way, because only human beings, as rational animals, are both material and spiritual. Man lives in and among what is material and practical, and yet his gaze can penetrate the material and practical world to see and rejoice in the invisible reality that underlies it. It is at this intersection that the church building lies. As such, the church is specifically for human beings, and for the whole of the human being. As Pieper writes, “The edifice of a church . . . is ostensibly not meant to serve a restricted specialized segment of life (as are a hospital or a school, for example), but man as such, in his total being.”11

Interior of Saint Paul Cathedral, Münster. Photo: Hopkins

The design of a church, then, should take into account the totality of the human being, both his material and immaterial aspects, his intellect, his will, his passions, and his senses—and their direction to his final end that gives meaning to all of his aspects and activities. The human being is ultimately fulfilled in being related to and receiving reality as it truly is, the pinnacle of which is He Who is the source of all that is. It is this reception for which the church building is set aside and consecrated. While it is consecration and not its design that makes the church a church, given that the church is for the human being whose meaning and fulfillment lies in gazing on the beauty of God, it is fitting for the church building to be designed in such a way that it engages the whole of the human being in the contemplation of beauty and so prepares and points the whole human being to the contemplation of God.

Pieper writes that “the invisible aspect of festivity, the praise of the world which lies at a festival’s innermost core, can attain a physical form, can be made perceptible to the senses, only through the medium of the arts.”12 The arts, which on the one hand belong to the realm of making and so of the practical, on the other hand belong to the realm of the theoretical and contemplative, because the arts are for contemplation alone. Beautiful music is made to be heard; beautiful visual art is made to be seen. Art is for the gaze, the restful activity, of the senses, which engages also the gaze of the intellect, and so is for contemplation.

In this way, then, beautiful art, whether it is music, painting, or architecture, is “useless”— but in the most meaningful way possible. It is like “the first draught of wine from the jug [that] is not ‘used’, not consumed, but ‘wasted’ and poured out on the waves or the floor as an offering to the gods.”13 That is to say, it is not wasteful at all, but rather magnificently abundant. Beautiful art, as a material and therefore sensible being that makes evident its goodness in the way that it brings the whole human being into intense and restful activity for its own sake, is a readily apparent sign of the setting aside of space and time for something different from the business and bustle of the workaday world.

Funerary monument in Saint Paul Cathedral, Münster. Photo:

In so doing, it helps the perceiver to foster and deepen a disposition of receptivity to reality and joy in that reality. The eyes, when presented with something worth seeing, can rest in their activity. The ears, when presented with something worth hearing, can rest in their activity. And in that reception there must be a recognition, first of the goodness of the art because it engages the perceiver in activity that is fitting for him, but then also of the goodness of reality to which this experience points. Beautiful art opens the perceiver to rest in the reception of and joy in reality by moving him to receive what is before him.

This disposition of receptivity is one of silence. Silence is quite different from being quiet. Whereas being quiet is simply not making noise, silence is profound listening. When we listen, we listen for something; we maintain an attentive openness to whatever comes to greet us.

And this is the role of the church building. The church exists, Pieper writes, as a place for liturgical action. And it is especially for that most perfect of all liturgical actions: the Mass. This is no merely human action. It is human activity through which God’s activity transforms objective reality. The whole of the church building exists for the activity that occurs on the altar: God comes to meet man.

Therefore, church buildings should be designed for cultivating receptivity in man towards reality and God. They should be places of silence. The church building echoes, in a material way, the silence, receptivity, and joy through which the human being, in his intensely internal and yet communal participation in the liturgy, experiences the total meaningfulness of his life and of all of reality in the praise and glory of God. In the liturgy, it is God who comes to meet us, but we must be open and waiting to receive Him. A beautiful church prepares us for that reception by cultivating a material and intellectual silence through the restful activity of the senses, the intellect, and the will.

But so abundant and expansive is the beautiful glory of God that, amid its manifestations in the material sphere, there is a great deal of room for variation. As Pieper writes, “The underlying invisible reality that seeks such visible expression, however, can assume many faces.”14 A church building may be simple although not skimpy, or lavish but not ostentatious.15 Whether a church building be simple or lavish, ornate or ascetic, it must be designed and appointed as an expression of the affirmation of the goodness of being, and so of the beauty of being and of God. The design and construction of church buildings that inspires the human being to silence and so to receive reality and God Himself is, while useless, absolutely essential for the good of the human being. It is “a space where silence rules and true listening becomes possible, the awareness of that kind of reality by which our existence is sustained and ever again renewed and nourished.”16