Architecture and the ivory towers of theology

by | Oct 2, 2017 | Opinion, Review

Home E Opinion E Architecture and the ivory towers of theology
I recently found myself chatting to a friend, someone I hadn’t seen for a few years, about my role at Moorlands College and our emphasis on applied theology. It’s quite a common conversation I have when people show an interest in what we do.

My friend immediately saw that our students benefit from the theoretical knowledge. But he glazed over slightly when I explained they’re also compelled to apply it practically, within their area of ministry. His response surprised me, as—if anything—people usually see the benefit of the ‘doing’ bit before they regard the full value of the ‘learning’ bit. I was caught slightly off guard.

“My friend immediately saw that our students benefit from the theoretical knowledge. But he glazed over slightly when I explained they’re also compelled to apply it practically”

Why you shouldn’t build

A few days later, I was listening to an interview with Aaron Betsky on Monocle 24’s Section D show. Betsky, Dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture in the US, was being interviewed about his new book, Architecture Matters (Thames & Hudson, 2017). In a chapter entitled ‘Why You Shouldn’t Build’, he argues that our cities and understanding of the built environment are heavily shaped by ideas and projects that never actually ‘break ground’. The structures and spaces that never materialise beyond an architects’ drawing, rendering or model are nonetheless crucially important to the field, he says, for their conceptual and educational merit. For Betsky, ideas don’t necessarily need to be built in order to matter.

Betsky’s approach comfortably reflects the philosophy of his mentor, Lloyd Wright, who promoted a harmony between human habitation and the natural realm through ‘organic architecture’. Betsky argues that “architecture is first and foremost about seeing, and knowing what you’re seeing.” In an increasingly ephemeral world, and with resources (including land) fast disappearing, socially-adept architects can shape both our view and our experience of the world through ideas alone—without the need for cumbersome bricks, mortar, steel or glass to prove a point.

Architecture Matters book

Architects without buildings

Listening to this perspective, I was immediately reminded of an architectural practice supporting Betsky’s line of thought. Formed in London in the 1960s, the notorious avant-garde architectural group, Archigram, influenced the postmodern and deconstructivist trends of the late 20th century—even though most of their projects dwelt at the limits of possibility and remained unbuilt. Their work was dramatically neofuturistic and envisioned a glamorous future machine age; turning away from convention to, in the words of Simon Sadler, “propose cities that move and houses worn like suits of clothes. In drawings inspired by pop art and psychedelia, architecture floated away, tethered by wires, gantries, tubes, and trucks.”

Perhaps the eminence of Archigram grew particularly because so much of its work remained illusively conceptual. What occupies the mind needn’t occupy a plot in order to shape society and culture. Without being something one can physically experience, somewhere to step into and move through, somewhere whose limitations become both known and felt, somewhere that would soon fade in the memory of lived experience, the ideas of Archigram linger instead in the imagination. And so often our imagination can overpower any of our five senses.

Archigram, Walking City (Project 064), 1964

Above: Archigram’s Walking City (Project 064), 1964 (© Deutsches Architekturmuseum)

Ultimately, though, architects are judged for their mastery of the discipline on the quality of their buildings. Radical ideas may win competitions and the hearts of enthusiasts, but only in physical form will they truly impact private lives and the public square. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, not just in the artfully illustrated recipe.

“Ultimately, though, architects are judged for their mastery of the discipline on the quality of their buildings… The proof of the pudding is in the eating, not just in the artfully illustrated recipe.”

Then it struck me. Might there be a similarity here between the Christian whose theological knowledge isn’t purposefully put to use, isn’t trialled and refined by their actions, and the architect whose work rarely breaks ground?

Take your mind for a walk

Theological thought and knowledge is indeed vital. God’s Kingdom is no troubled metropolis—a place where sticking to the popular hotspots of Christian theology will keep you safe, but where intellectually wandering the backstreets is a shortcut to trouble. This is a place where a lifetime of cognitive strolling, exploring and sightseeing is a faithful part of what it means to be a committed Christian: it does us good individually, and it does us good collectively.

Let me explain. First, rigorous theological understanding is important for us as individuals. There is merit to the mind. In Matthew 22, a Pharisee tests Jesus by asking him which is the greatest of the Law’s commandments. Jesus’ reply is to love the Lord completely: with our heart, our soul, and our mind (v37). He’s referencing the Torah directly, by quoting the key confession of the Jews; also known as the Shema. Found in Deuteronomy 6:5, the Shema extols the Israelites to obediently “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

Note, however, that last word. In his restating, Jesus swaps the original Hebrew word for “strength” with the equivalent word for “mind”.

In Hebrew thought, the heart wasn’t the seat of emotion, as it is now, but the place from where decisions and choices were made. The ‘heart’ of the early Israelites was the ‘mind’ of today. By saying to love God “with all your heart”, the Shema doesn’t neglect the mind, but treats it as an inseparable part of the whole self, called to a life of public devotion.

“In Hebrew thought, the heart wasn’t the seat of emotion, as it is now, but the place from where decisions and choices were made. The ‘heart’ of the early Israelites was the ‘mind’ of today.”

So why is Jesus recorded by Matthew to have subtly changed the language to re-emphasise the mind as a discrete expression of faithfulness? We know that Matthew generally has a high view of the intellect in his Gospel, made apparent in the emphasis he places on Jesus’ teaching ministry. Furthermore, Frederick Dale Bruner believes that, according to all the Gospel writers, Jesus wanted to accent believers’ mental, critical and rational love of God already resident in the intellectual impulse of Hellenistic Jewish tradition. The commentator suggests that “Good thinking loves God as much as do good feeling and good willing, and this thinking deserves equal time with these usually more celebrated faculties.”

And it’s particularly fitting that Jesus should be challenging an expert in the Law to love God with all his mind.

I wonder if there’s another reason for the word swap, too. Purely speculation, of course, but could it be that this person of Jesus standing before the Pharisee, this revelation of God’s character in relatable, human form, opened up the way for all people to really know God with their minds in an entirely new way?

“Could it be that this person of Jesus standing before the Pharisee, this revelation of God’s character in relatable, human form, opened up the way for all people to really know God with their minds in an entirely new way?”

Whatever we learn from Matthew 22, it’s clear that attentively feeding our mind is a key way of building a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. And it’s not just conceivable, but commanded.

Second, rigorous theological understanding is important for us as a community of believers. Thinkers are inspired by other thinkers. When theological thought is shared, it credits the account of the Christian community. Critical thinking and different insights keep us from becoming complacent in our understanding of the faith, and our appreciation of God’s Word. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul describes the gifts of the Holy Spirit—each being a “manifestation of the Spirit… given for the common good.” (v8) The gifts listed by Paul include messages of wisdom and knowledge, all serving to build unity through diversity. A bit later in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul urges his brothers and sisters to “stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.” (My emphasis, v20) This suggests that Paul sees the Church as being a community of believers who help each other to mature in their thinking, and therefore in their faith.

Faith without deeds

But just as the life-long accrual of an architect’s expertise cannot fully reside in a polystyrene model, a Christian’s growing understanding of faith cannot inhabit the mind alone. In their recent book The Compelling Community: Where God’s Power Makes a Church Attractive (9Marks, 2015), Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop propose that sound collective thinking is the right starting point, but not an end in itself. They echo Paul, and his emphasis on serving others within a context of selfless love, by arguing that the fruit of our theology must ultimately find its expression in our practice. “It is impossible to know too much about God and his love for us in Christ. If someone is into theology and not into loving others, the problem isn’t that he’s spent too much time learning about God; it’s that he never took to heart what he learned. In fact, 1 John warns he may not even be a believer at all.”

Elsewhere in the New Testament, James declares that “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:17) The knowledge formed in the mind needs to manifest itself in the world. Whatever we think with our heads and confess with our lips only proves to be authentic when it’s commended by our deeds.

“Whatever we think with our heads and confess with our lips only proves to be authentic when it’s commended by our deeds.”

James uses the example of Abraham who, by offering Isaac on the alter, “completed” his faith by integrating it with action (vv21–23). What Abraham thought and believed in his head would have been worthless had it not influenced how he responded in the situation. Going further, Abraham’s faith only cemented itself as genuine faith when it found itself tested under pressure. Apparently it was Eleanor Roosevelt who once said, “A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water.” We might legitimately say the same of the Christian faith.

Theology that isn’t lived out will be like an architect’s building that can’t be lived in. It’s helpful to a point, but its value will only ever be restricted to a theory rather than fulfilled in a life. Ultimately, Christians who employ their minds will find they simply cannot be like the architects whose ideas never break ground. What privately unites our hearts, souls and strength will eventually be made public by our conduct. And this we see modelled by God, too, when divine thought breaks into the world as divine action. As Francis Schaeffer once said, “We know God only because of His choice to create”, and the real significance of God’s conviction that “all he had made… was very good” (Genesis 1:31) truly broke ground in the structure of a wooden cross and the space of an empty tomb.

Neil Tinson is Marketing Manager at Moorlands College, and has just successfully completed the MA in Applied Theology (Christian Leadership).

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