Protecting Sacred Sites in the Secular Age
In 2014, I had the opportunity to pass through Durham to finally see in person the cathedral I had particularly admired from afar. That experience confirmed that Durham Cathedral was the apogee of the English Romanesque, but I also felt a certain hollowness, as if something was missing. More than a house for the tombs of Saints Cuthbert and Bede, the cathedral itself was a corpse, a building unensouled.
The fear of this reality inspired Marie Clausén to write Sacred Architecture in a Secular Age: Anamnesis of Durham Cathedral. Picking up her book, I was thrilled by the title. Here is someone, I thought, with a keen interest in saving Durham Cathedral from the emptiness an irreligious society has imposed on it.
In fact, Clausén, an academic book editor and poet, accepts that Christianity is passing away and will soon be gone. Christianity cannot save Durham or other ancient churches. What can, she asks? Is there a way that Durham can rise to new life when Christianity loses its significance?
At the core of the problem is the reality of a mechanistic modernity. The world has become desacralized in an attempt to tame nature and utilize it to seek pleasure and power. She is extremely perceptive in her portrayal of the ills of the modern globalist economy and draws on a variety of sources such as the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton and the psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist to demonstrate the ways our world oppresses the human person. Her most compelling passages describe the urban and architectural expressions of post-industrial neoliberalism, which are the antithesis of buildings such as Durham Cathedral.
Aware that this post-industrial neoliberalism is the face of secularism to most people, she finds a moral imperative in presenting the spiritual nature of the world so that with the collapse of Christianity she expects, the modernists will not win. If we are not careful, she warns, the transition from a Christian world to a secular one will empty our sacred buildings of meaning.
If we are to save our ancient sacred architecture, as Clausén emphatically believes we should, we must understand the nature of a properly secular spirituality. With its status as the most beloved building in Britain, she uses Durham Cathedral as the cornerstone on which to build a case for this post-Christian religion.
For what she proposes is not irreligion but a new religion. As David Foster Wallace says, “Everybody worships, the only choice we get is what to worship.” For Clausén, there may be a spiritual realm or there may not be, but our minds perceive something “numinous” about certain ancient piles of stone and it is our duty to connect with and protect these places, if only for our own sakes.
Although she is clear that nothing she says necessitates an actual deity, hiding behind her rhetoric of transcendent reality, “ghosts” within our sacred buildings, and the timeless nature of historic structures is Being itself, a philosophical god, an Unknown God. If Durham Cathedral is to be the centerpiece of a new religious worship, it will be at most what classical Christian thinkers call “natural religion,” the worship due to God understood through natural reason, not based on divine revelation.
Will this be enough to save Durham Cathedral? When it became clear that the ancient pagan gods were mythological and the stories about them were fabricated, the atheistic rulers attempted to maintain the pagan cults to no avail. If our worship is a lie, we soon grow tired of the duty. Clausén believes this is the fate of Christianity, but will a spirituality predicated on the unknown fare any better? Will not the disillusioned of the secular age reject the imposition of a religion based on vague personal perception?
Perhaps the only hope for Durham Cathedral is not in a vague, secular, natural religion, but in a clear statement of the truth of a divine being that became flesh and fills our sacred spaces and our souls. Clausén herself admits that anything less than traditional Christian worship at Durham Cathedral will appear inauthentic.
Without it, Durham will remain a museum piece, and not the spiritually pregnant edifice she wants. In this secular age of skepticism and existential mystery, Durham Cathedral needs to be a solid place to stand where we know our myths are true.
Can we save Durham Cathedral? Should we even try? These are, ostensibly, the questions at the heart of Sacred Architecture in a Secular Age. Flitting methodically between an apologia for secularism and a lament for a more numinous age, Clausén looks through her architectural subject to the existentialism that haunts modernity. Ultimately, though, the question is not “Can we save Durham Cathedral,” but “Can Durham Cathedral save us?”
Nathaniel Gotcher is an ecclesiastical designer and studies the theory of liturgical space with a focus on the Gothic tradition. He holds a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Notre Dame with a minor in Medieval Studies.