Sunday, April 21, 2019

In the Name of Humanity

My father was an architect more interested in meeting human needs than building monuments. But I know he cared about beautiful things, things he could build, just like he cared about people. Another sermon here, I'm afraid.
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Notre Dame and Louisiana
In the Name of Humanity


From the very beginnings of human civilization architecture has been a testimony of lasting human needs. It has been art and the vessel of artistry. It is the art that “builds,”as the Greeks remind us, tekt┼Źn and it is of “chief,” arkhi concern. It can be pre-made like the caves of Chauvet or Altamira but what is contained within them is as much what we mean when we feel the importance of place. What we place within the architecture of human need speaks to our great stories and, perhaps as importantly, tells us a story that we think transcends even humanity.

One needs to think of Notre Dame as a narrative not only of the past but of our deeper need for eternity expressing achievement, the developments we have made, the travails we have endured over the ages. Notre Dame survived the wars and it has survived Christianity, which might be the real miracle. It is about the power of human ingenuity and human hope representing the power of the divine. It doesn’t matter what you think about that “divine” or even if it exists, it matters that there is something more than our brief, individual lives. It matters that we make something that attends to the “more.”

This “more” that we need is a complex matter and it is no zero sum game. We can want the majesty of the monument and not address the needs of human community. We can want a richer sense of human community without the monuments.  We can have both.

When we compare the burning of Notre Dame to the devastation of people whose churches have been burned down by arson we witness the inverse of that testimony to collective greatness. We see too that humans have possibilities for nihilism and hate and that these are powerful, motivating, and disturbing. When we grieve for our nihilism we show our better angels. When we grieve for those who have lost their community’s center, we find in grief the companions of those same angels. There is something about grief that tells us what matters.

With the GoFundMe campaign to restore the Louisiana churches we are witness to human goodness and care. When we see billionaires pledging to restore Notre Dame we see an old story of history about power and with President Macron vowing restoration we see that we have a need too for monuments of culture. But these matters are easily mixed up and I think they are not the same nor are they exclusionary.

What we have in Notre Dame is our desire for majesty. What we have seen in Louisiana is a story about caring for each other. Both can be directive from culture about the kinds of culture we want and need. If this were the same story we’d have understood from the outset that accidents are not like intentions and that goodness is not the same as the human need for magisterial awe.

What we write when we create place are complex stories of human desire. Our need for each other and for the story of majesty are not the same need. We may need to make art and to construct the enduring material projects of the imagination. But we surely need each other, even when we seem intent upon destroying the world.

Traditions are not built merely on monuments. They converge on human feelings, as ephemeral as they are and as misdirected as they can be. Whether or not people have the privilege and power to build great stone churches or temples to commerce or other spaces of grandeur, what we want to know is if they must have already learned to care for each other.

Architecture began before writing but as it evolved it has proven capable of telling more stories than were originally intended. Writing meets the human need to connect to one another across time and place. Architecture defines itself in place, contains other kinds of stories, like art, and invites our connection to itself and to those things. Great works of architecture want to place a seal upon tradition, they want to claim their value apart from our mortal coil. But because we are so very human, that is not enough even when it outlasts us. We are going to need each other and, as far as I can tell, that is the story we tell when we help good people rebuild their communities.

Long before architecture wrote its story, humanity has had to ask what more we want from ourselves and from each other. We’ve proven ourselves capable of everything from debased, amoral venality to altruism and love for neighbor we don’t even know. We need not exclude one kind of need from another. What we can do instead is try to feel the breadth and meaning of our needs and admit that their complexity often confuses us. What is clear is that there is always more to the story than what we can express in words, which is why we grieve and applaud and wonder at all of the things that humans create.