Friday, December 14, 2012

New Church Architecture: Human Beings..

The role of the Christian minister is to transform the core information which constructs a human being, through Christ to bring about "the new human." This may appear either a fairly empty, or deeply relevant statement.

The Christian movement has always been a matter of information and the way it recreates, or reprograms, human existence. The gospels end with the command to "teach all nations" and their main data involve the immense claim of a crucified man risen from the dead. To believe this, to be informed by it, is to accept quite a bit of reprogramming.

Over the centuries the institutional, established character of the churches has to a degree disguised this fact, but at the same time the physical composition of churches always remained a matter of conscious information. Those buildings on every corner proclaim loudly they are programming systems, with their stain-glass windows, their bells, their steeples pointed at the sky, and all the dense array of signs and symbolism within.

But today they also look more and more outdated, because their information systems have been displaced, if not destroyed, by an unforeseeable, epochal shift.

That street-corner church with the dim lights glimmering within used to be the only game in town in terms of a free, universal and fascinating system of signs that could be and was downloaded in the lives of individuals. Now we have all of the same thing on our computers or smart phones ("It's free and always will be," as Facebook says it, with a billion profiles a couple of clicks away). This should not be taken as simply a provocative or opportunistic comparison. The advent of the World Wide Web, Social Media and The Cloud provides a simultaneous, universal, intimate and deeply layered communication, and it replicates a great deal of the anthropological function which used to be filled by the churches. I personally regard this as a major reason for the steep drop-off in church allegiance of the under-thirties. It's much easier, and surer, to connect with some form of human meaning online than in church.

What does this imply then for church ministers? For certain, some will claim the WWW cannot help you when it comes to sickness or death. But is that what the church wishes to be reduced to, a pallbearer at the end of a life? (OK, there's also birth and marriage as the other rites of passage, but internet celebrations of the pics of these events are progressively at least as important as any church service. And, yes, again, there's the role of churches in moral education and socializing of youth, but really, both quantitatively and qualitatively, how does that compare to the role of the media in doing exactly the same?)

There is now a huge acceleration of the ecclesial consequences of our contemporary digital situation: most of all we are brought to understand with dramatic new clarity that the church is about how we are informed by Christ and how we inform each other in Christ.

Here is a parable. Just as church architects and masons figured out how to make the clustered columns and capitals for Gothic cathedrals, the joints for the vaulted roofs, and the filigree stonework for rose windows, so the contemporary pastor, teacher, priest, leader, must figure out how to build with and through believers a more and more radically human church, how in fact to make a new human architecture.

This may sound vague or metaphorical. But a recent and growing trend in theological reflection has begun to include the findings of neuroscience. See, for example, "Neuroscience and The Mind of Christ" where the author, Derek Flood, argues for a concrete neurological sense in which the mind of the Christ becomes in fact "the brain of the Christian."

This can be understood also from a Girardian perspective. If violence first generates our human world, including its possibility of language and, therefore, necessarily the structural development of our brains, then the new human "generation" brought by Christ must at some physical level act to re-structure the same brains. It also makes perfect sense that just as some of the discoveries of neuro-science have validated Girard's basic insights, the new nonviolent humanity of Christ would play out at the neurological level.

In which case the obvious way forward is not to try and tempt people back in the temples, what might be called "Big Box" Christianity, but adapt to the new transforming reality of an information world, by getting to the micro or neural level where its truly exciting meaning lies. Without a doubt people need large places to gather in, but much more urgent is to understand the radical meaning of gospel information within the human self. Christianity has always been about good news but so often it has gone the big-box way because, well, the architecture of stone is so much more impressive!

In fact the real job of the "minister" (she who serves) is to build together with a specific group or groups the mutual brain architecture of new humanity. To put up those neural pillars that can withstand the mechanical forces of a violent world, to construct the inner windows permanently shaped to plunge into the endless peace and forgiveness of Christ, to joint the roof beams of the beloved community that recognizes itself on sight! Everything in these situations has to be face-to-face, not the bland single face of the priest, or the hyper face of the evangelist, because only in that direct download situation is real human change possible.

Quite some time ago I took a trip to South America. On some nameless Brazilian river lost in the gallery forest we rounded a bend and encountered a "town," four rows of cane and thatch houses in lines receding from the river. My priest guide told me that the parish priest held a meeting in each of the rows during the weekdays to read and reflect on the following Sunday's scripture. Then on the Sabbath they all came together in one of the houses to share the fruit of their smaller gatherings. The image of those low roofs and their nightly meetings has remained with me. It has the horizontal, human look of a contemporary cathedral.

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian

P.S. I am glad to welcome to this blog Andrew Marr OSB, someone whose whole life is based on the new architecture of the human. The post below is his introduction and contains links to his many wonderful writings and reflections.


  1. Hi Tony .. a (fecundly) provocative reflection indeed! .. how would your ecclesial paradigm counter the DE-humanizing effects of social media? (lamented by no less progressive an organ than The Atlantic magazine, see LINK below)

    Your former Bexley student ..
    Richard G.

  2. Richard, I think that is the nub. The "Internet paradox" is that the web increases connection but decreases contact (in the sense of "tactile.") A world in which we are a vast interconnected crowd feels like a form of transcendence, erasing differences of tribe, tongue, gender, geography etc. But its surplus of information is also a hollowing out and accents the need for "information" on a much deeper level. If the church creates the environments for genuine mutuality and self-giving then it carries through the Christian project of a worldwide family/koinonia on the levels where it really counts. The secular world always creates half-born versions of the Christian project. It is now the role of the church to carry them to term.

  3. Thanks for the reply, Tony .. your point about the 'half birth' of virtual human community is well taken .. I would add to the malignant side of the ledger the birth of the modern(and now postmodern) "self", which today demands all of the freedoms of an adult but with a child's ignorance of the self-giving Love of the Gospel ..

    Like a child, the unschooled 'self' today views others as only means to the ends of its own desires (or 'personal growth', to use one popular euphemism) .. social media technology has given our 'inner child' the power to commodify hundreds, even thousands, of other (constructed) selves, who in their turn also see online "community" as a commodity to be consumed and therefore expanded and improved ..

    Is this no less a "war of all against all", just as violent and destructive as a universally armed populace? .. in promoting its historic vision of fully EMBODIED communion (yes, only human bodies are 'tactile' to use your word!), the Church as the global fellowship of disciples of the endlessly Self-giving Lord Christ must take great care to use technology as only an expedient means to authentically embodied koinonia and never as an end or idol in it-'self' ..

    Richard G.

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