Building things to point at the heavens…

We have been doing it for a long time now.

Remember the story of the Tower of Babel?

According to the biblical account, a united humanity of the generations following the Great Flood, speaking a single language and migrating from the east, came to the land of Shinar, where they resolved to build a city with a tower “with its top in the heavens…lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the Earth.” God came down to see what they did and said: “They are one people and have one language, and nothing will be withholden from them which they purpose to do.” So God said, “Come, let us go down and confound their speech.” And so God scattered them upon the face of the Earth, and confused their languages, and they left off building the city, which was called Babel “because God there confounded the language of all the Earth.”(Genesis 11:5-8).

This has come to mind because of two stories over the last couple of days. The first one concerned a strange offer from the Brazilian government to build a replica of Rio de Janeiro’s famous Christ the Redeemer statue, on Primrose Hill, overlooking the City of London.

The Guardian reports local councillor-

Primrose Hill Lib Dem councillor Chris Naylor said he wasn’t sure a 20ft statue of Christ with his arms outstretched was quite what the area needed.

Then today there was another story in the papers about a plan to raise a temple to Atheism at the heart of the City of London. As if there were not already plenty of those. De Botton said he chose the country’s financial centre because he believes it is where people have most seriously lost perspective on life’s priorities- presumably he hopes to restore the balance of these priorities by architecture.

The philosopher and writer Alain de Botton is proposing to build a 46-metre (151ft) tower to celebrate a “new atheism” as an antidote to what he describes as Professor Richard Dawkins‘s “aggressive” and “destructive” approach to non-belief.

Rather than attack religion, De Botton said he wants to borrow the idea of awe-inspiring buildings that give people a better sense of perspective on life.

“Normally a temple is to Jesus, Mary or Buddha, but you can build a temple to anything that’s positive and good,” he said. “That could mean a temple to love, friendship, calm or perspective. Because of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens atheism has become known as a destructive force. But there are lots of people who don’t believe but aren’t aggressive towards religions.”

Dawkins criticised the project on Thursday, indicating the money was being misspent and that a temple of atheism was a contradiction in terms.

They appear to be finding it difficult to find a site in the City of London however-

Discussions with City authorities about a possible site stalled because “they can’t be seen to be connected to anything to do with atheism”, the project’s architect, Tom Greenall, said.

Well there you have it. The Protestant Work Ethic and the Opium of the People all cosied up perhaps?

Whatever the merits of these two schemes, which may well never get anywhere near planning permission, there are some interesting issues here. Spending money on buildings in the name of religion or areligion always seems a little like a power statement- particularly in times when people are in need. The great medieval cathedrals were build to inspire awe and trembling and to dominate the skylines.

But they remain. And I love to be inside them. And the can be very useful in our climate.

It is one of those human contradictions that constructed spaces can open up spiritual spaces inside us – or perhaps close them.

What gives buildings this kind of power? Is it simply the curve of arch and the vault of roof? The ambient acoustics? The softening of history or the pride of ownership? I suppose it might be all of these things, but it seems to me to be as hard to dissect and define this power as it might be to do with any human art form.

What of that ancient story of the Tower of Babel? I have heard it used to illustrate all sorts of theories-

  • God was bringing mankind down a peg or two as we were getting too big for our boots
  • God was blessing us with nationhood and nationalist pride
  • It is an illustration of a stage of the journey away from the Garden of Eden. A logical extension of the move from hunter-gatherer, to farmer, to wealth accumulator, to city builder

I tend to associate with the last of these. Cities are wonderful places. I visit them most often as a tourist these days, as we live so far out on the western fringe. I love their energy, their human variety, the layers of creativity and commerce all mingled. Then I love to leave them behind and go home.

Because our experience of the weight of human experience is not really captured by how high, how big or how magnificently we can stack stones is it?

This is about what happens within our small spaces, wherever they are – when we meet and love within them. The Tower of Babel might be seen as a warning of the pointless steeple, unconnected to the land and the life of those upon it.