Relativism by Any Other Name

by Moyra Doorly, appearing in Volume 6

The style of church building in an age reflects many things, not least how the universe is perceived by that age. Just as the Gothic cathedral can be read as a microcosm of the medieval universe, so can the contemporary church building be read as a model of the contemporary universe. Therefore the argument for adopting “current norms for the design of liturgical spaces,” for example, is also an argument that the church building should model the universe that this age thinks it lives in.  In this relativist age, that universe is inherently materialist and deeply hostile to the Divine.

The modern age is said to have begun in 1915 with the publication of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.  The body of ideas which constitute modernism may have been around prior to that date, but it took relativity to give the body its form and cosmic context.  In response to the already famous Michelson-Morley experiment which showed that light does not obey Newton’s absolute laws of motion, Einstein dismissed the absolutes.  From that moment on, the universe would be a purely subjective affair.  All points of view would be equally valid and value would be ascribed by the observer alone.

The relativist universe is therefore —

(1) boundary-less, because every part of it and every place in it has equal value and boundaries, and divisions between places are unnecessary.

(2) homogeneous, because without boundaries and divisions, places merge together into one vast space that is the same throughout.

(3) directionless,  because in unbounded, homogeneous space there’s nowhere special to look and no particular place to go.

The result of all this is a universe that is empty and meaningless.  Since there is no objective truth or reality to be found out there, since infinite and unbounded space has room enough for every possible point of view and yet none of them can raise a stir in all that emptiness, the only direction to look is inwards.

It is often argued that in the medieval or, more accurately, the Ptolemaic universe the Earth was positioned at the center of things, and therefore people in the Middle Ages must have believed that everything in the universe revolved around Man and the Earth.  The argument continues that we in the Modern Age know the truth: we and our planet are truly nowhere and utterly insignificant in a universe that extends to-wards infinity in every direction.

But in the Ptolemaic universe the Earth appears diagrammatically to be the central sphere among all the spheres. But if the diagram is read three dimensionally, the Earth’s real status as the furthest sphere from God becomes apparent.  In the Middle Ages the Earth was believed to be at the lowest point in the universe in keeping with Man’s fallen status. It is the modern universe—where the only valid truths are those which originate in human consciousness—that is truly human-centred.

Modernist church design is—

(1) boundary-less, since every attempt is made to diminish or dispense with divisions between parts of the building. This is most obvious in the merging of the sanctuary and the body of the church both visually and by generating a traffic between the two with lay people frequently entering the sanctuary and the priest leaving it.

(2) homogeneous, since the typical contemporary church has few divisions between spaces and the overall aesthetic is one of sameness.  The various areas of the building are difficult to distinguish from each other; and by dispensing with statues, wall paintings, carvings, etc. in favor of the unadulterated modernist aesthetic, the distinct impression is of one single space that can be taken in at a glance.

(3) directionless, since there’s little to attract the eye or move the body forward, and the sanctuary and altar are pushed forward into the body of the church with the people gathered around. This configuration is, in effect, a circular one; and even in a church building that has not been reordered, the mere fact of turning the priest to face the people creates a circular form.  Circles are essentially nondirectional, closed, and inward-looking.

The result of this is an inward-looking community in which the immanent takes precedence over—or even excludes—the transcendent.  The contemporary Church worships in relativist space, space which has to—by its very nature—exclude or radically diminish the concept that any part of it may be special or worthy of being set apart, that any part of it may be sacred. And in the absence of any meaningful space without, the only option is to look in.

The influential  “Environment and Art in Catholic Worship” (EACW), produced by the American Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy in 1978, summed up as much as any document could the post-Vatican II style of church building.  In this document the Council’s emphasis on Christ’s presence in the community at worship is further explained and EACW goes as far as actually making “the assembly the primary symbol of worship.”

The liturgical environment, claims EACW, draws on the “community’s recognition of the sacred,” and “it’s own expression,” more than on liturgical or theological principles.  And so there it is, in black and white—as well as in concrete, steel and glass—the relativist church, so emptied of the transcendent that the people are its first source of meaning.

It wasn’t until after the Second Vatican Council that the Church adapted the liturgy to the modernist style.  For the first half of the twentieth century, new churches were built which were unmistakably modernist but which retained traditional liturgical forms.

The Bauhaus School was founded in 1919 in Weimar, Germany by the architect Walter Gropius.  Many important modernists taught there in order to create a clean, pure style for a clean, pure future.  Styles and traditions were considered obsolete and the talk was of “starting from zero.”  A new aesthetic was to be found through the use of honestly expressed materials.  All forms of decoration were out.

The architect Le Corbusier published “Towards a New Architecture” in 1923, a text which was to become one of the twentieth century’s most influential works of architectural theory.  The spatial principles which inspired them were laid out in the text:  “A great epoch has begun.  There exists a new spirit.... There is no longer any question of custom, nor of tradition.... The Styles are a lie..."

The message was clear.  The past was dead and the future wide open.

Just as relativity had freed universal space from absolutes, so architectural space was to be liberated from traditional concepts.  New construction methods employing steel and reinforced concrete allowed greater spans to be achieved without so much solid masonry.  Space could now “flow” because there was no longer any need to restrict an activity to an area en-closed by heavy walls.  Free flowing space could be multi-functional and open-plan. Sliding doors and partitions allowed activity areas—or zones—to be closed off and opened up again as the need arose.

No longer was a building to be considered in terms of connected  but individially defined spaces,  but as an expression of unbounded, egalitarian space.  Light-weight curtain walling and extensive areas of glazing helped lighten the perimeter of the building, and the city was to be liberated by abandoning traditional patterns of streets, squares, avenues, courtyards, etc. By raising buildings off the ground on columns, or “piloti,” space could also flow underneath them.

One of the most frequent complaints people make about the contemporary church building is that “it doesn’t look like a church,”  which to the modernist, at least, will only be evidence of “a sentimental attachment to outmoded concepts.”  After all, if we’ve been freed from the limitations of traditional forms, who’s to say what a church should look like?

Part of the modernist project has been to turn to the ancients for inspiration.   Easter Island statues, Mayan temples, the Acropolis, all demonstrate the purity of  “primary” forms like cubes, pyramids, spheres, and rectangles which have an inherent beauty due to their geometry alone.  This tendency to look to the farthest past in order to develop a style for the future is a feature of much modernist art.

Similarly, the model of the early Church is often held up as the example to follow when new churches are commissioned or a reordering is proposed.  The contemporary liturgy requires an authentic and relevant setting, it is claimed, one that reflects the simplicity and togetherness experienced by the first Christians as they came together in each others’ houses or in the simplest of buildings.

But the first Christians lived in a directional, bounded, and hierarchical universe. It was Aristotle who proposed that the boundary between the earthly realm (which was subject to change and decay) and the celestial realm (which was immutable and eternal) lay at the orbit of the moon.  The division of the universe into Earth and Sky was further emphasized by the distribution of the elements.  Below the moon was air, earth, fire and water, whereas above the moon was the fifth element, or “ether.”

The astronomer Ptolemy of Alexandria, who died around A.D. 180, mapped out the orbits of the celestial spheres.  From the Earth  upwards was the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the “Stellatum,” or sphere of the stars. Then came the Primum Mobile, the “First Mover;” and beyond that—beyond the ninth sphere—lay the Empyrean, the abode of God.

It was God’s love that caused the Primum Mobile to turn, which then transmitted motion down through the spheres, which made music as they turned.  This was a universe moved by the love of God. Like the nine choirs of angels, the spheres increased in perfection the closer they were to God.  The furthest sphere—the Earth—was also composed of a different element than the rest of the universe.

It is difficult to imagine a universe more different from ours.  To the Medievals, direction really mattered—up and down had absolute value.  Theirs was a transcendent universe that inspired movement and aspiration.  Where you were in the hierarchy was a crucial matter and every part of that hierarchy was occupied.

This was also a universe that died its death.  But was that death as much the result of a human desire to climb from the bottom of the cosmic pile as of the discovery of new scientific facts?  As C.S. Lewis has pointed out, the universal model of an age is as much a product of the psychology of that age as of its scientific knowledge.

When the appetite for a new or modified universe becomes strong enough, the scientific phenomena to justify it will turn up—or so the argument goes.  This is partly because science isn’t nearly as fixed in its theories as it seems.  For example, there isn’t enough matter in the universe to satisfy the laws of gravity which are supposed to govern the forces between planets and stars and keep the galaxies moving. But it is generally assumed that gravity is this universal force because it is convenient for the contemporary world to do so.

Similarly the Doppler effect, which explains why the pitch of a car horn changes as the car passes, is employed to explain the red shift observed in light waves coming from stars in the most distant galaxies in the universe.  This red shift is supposed to indicate that these galaxies are moving away from us, which leads on to the expanding universe and the big bang theory. But doubts have been raised that the phenomena observed are entirely due to red shift effects.  But again this puts too much doubt into the prevailing scientific mind.

The call for the re-sacralization of the liturgy is often heard these days. But this cannot be achieved without the re-sacralization of space, without a reawakening of the concept of a sacred universe.  The contemporary mind set might favour relativism, but this will not last forever.  Meanwhile popular culture has moved into space by reworking the myths and setting some of its most popular adventures beyond the planet.

The Church does not have to accept the relativist universe.  It is acknowledged that the liturgy suffers from too great an emphasis on the immanent.  To redress the balance in favour of the transcendent, the Church has first to reclaim sacred space.