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The Case for the Preservation and Restoration of Religious Buildings: The Human Side of the Equation 

12-09-2015 17:35

To make the case for preserving and restoring many religious buildings, one advisedly turns to the "huma-" section of the dictionary. Such words as "human," "humane," "humanistic," "humanitarian," and "humanizing" offer motives and impulses for new activity. Why? Why stress "human" in the case of what most people call "houses of God"? Does not this stress misplace the accent and confuse the purposes of such buildings in the first place?

Houses, be they churches or temples, synagogues or mosques, represent material culture. They are things. Preserving and restoring them calls for attention to mortar and brick and wood, to tracery and Tiffany, to organ pipes and water pipes. Those who know about such material objects are not necessarily expert at "human" concerns.

Despite the issues raised by the notions of the "houses of God" and the "houses of God," the human theme properly dominates. So we revisit the dictionary to learn and to argue that preserving and restoring religious buildings involve people with the:

"Human," because we have nothing to say about God or the sacred except what is grasped through human experience and language. And we have few places where such experience and language have been more focused than in houses, buildings.

"Humane," because the buildings symbolically "store" the stories of people past and present. Not to honor these stories, be they of sufferings or triumphs, sorrows or joys, is to dishonor humans and to contribute to the dulling of regard for others.

"Humanistic," not in the sense of "humanism" as against "Godism" but in the sense of "the humanities." Those who care about literature and philosophy, religion and history, linguistics and anthropology or law, find that the floor plans of cathedrals, the architectural drawings of churches, the photographs of synagogue arrangements become "texts" as much as do pages of Dante or Emily Dickinson. The Commission on the Humanities pointed out the zones in which we recognize what we might call "humanities` humanism":

The humanities mirror our own image and our image of the world. Through the humanities we reflect on the fundamental human question, what does it mean to be human? The humanities offer clues but never a complete answer. They reveal how people have tried to make moral, spiritual, and intellectual sense of a world in which irrationality, despair, loneliness, and death are as conspicuous as birth, friendship, hope, and reason. We learn how individuals or societies define the moral life and try to attain it, attempt to reconcile freedom and the responsibilities of citizenship, and express themselves artistically. The humanities do not necessarily mean humaneness, nor do they always inspire the individual with what Cicero called "incentives to noble action." But by awakening a sense of what it might be like to be someone else or to live in another time or culture, they tell us about ourselves, stretch our imaginations, and enrich our experience. They increase our distinctively human potential.

On such terms, the acts of preserving and restoring religious buildings never mean mere antiquarianism, nostalgia, or aestheticism, although some have dismissed them for such vices or minor virtues. Most of the literature on architectural heritages necessarily accents the integrity of buildings pre- and post-restoration. But from time to time it is proper to ask, as we are asking here, why bother with the art and architecture of such structures?

"Humanitarian," a fourth word in the dictionary sequence, signals still another interest in such buildings. Most of those that are to be preserved or are being restored are strategically located in areas of human need: in declining rural areas in which poverty engulfs once prosperous farms, in smaller cities that have seen their industries move away and the victims of industrial change remain, and most of all, in city centers from which large congregations have fled to be replaced by people who stand little chance of becoming affluent. Surveys show what the eye has anticipated or can confirm: that historic churches and synagogues are among the most efficient and effective centers for humanitarian activity.

"Humanizing," the final word in the chain, suggests that the attention to the human relates to a process and not to a product. There is no day when preserving and restoring will be complete or when all the functions of religious buildings have been exhausted. A vital culture constantly meets new problems in its efforts to hold back the forces that deprive people of their story and their integrity.


Most of those who work for the preservation and restoration of religious buildings bring expertise in art and architecture, fund-raising, and dealing with politicians and the public. For example, during the mid-century boom in suburban church building, my own interests in liturgical design led me to be a judge in church architecture competitions and a frequent speaker on religious art. Forty years later the buildings of that era are beginning to need their own preservation and restoration, and the original interests have to be replaced by the "human-" ones just cited. (One cannot help but note with regret that the only places worth restoring are in locales in which it is financially difficult to do so and that when it is fiscally feasible to build new ones, congregations tend to favor structures that will not be worth preserving or restoring in the future.)

Between the 1950s and the 1990s American religious groups have passed through stages of social activism and calls for radical reform, stages and calls that led some to suggest that buildings did not matter. They were distractions and luxuries in a time when the demand for justice has been so urgent, and when stewardship, charity, and philanthropy have had to be directed toward the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the victimized. But concentrations on activism apart from aesthetic and humanistic concerns were shortsighted. They overlooked the need of people to find beauty and sacred space in areas in which demoralizing elements threatened. And even practically, they led to the loss of roofs over the heads of those who would serve and be served.

Today, therefore, it has become easier to make the case for bringing together the antiquarian and the humanitarian, the aesthetic and the humane. Yet a perceptual problem afflicts those who should be called to the act of bringing them together. Many in the public, including the religious public, look at the buildings as ruins, relics, monuments, or sepulchres--as thousands have been or become before the wrecking ball and bulldozer arrived--and they also look at the people who use or might use them, as ruins. The double use of "ruin" here needs unpacking if perception is to change.


Now and then we read of archaeologists who come across decayed buildings, "ghost towns," remains of walls and ramshackle roofs, and overhear these visitors voicing a phrase cartoonists have picked up: "These ruins are inhabited!" So it is with religious buildings. Most of those that should be preserved and restored seem so far past their primes that only ruin can lie ahead. Some have already been converted into restaurants and nightclubs, residences and stores--on the way toward their eventual and apparently inevitable fall into ruin. Yes, ruins they appear to be: Where are the people who once built and used them? And then comes the discovery, which surprises few people close to the scene but which does catch off guard the social scientists or those who take surveys: "These ruins are inhabited!"

By whom? By some people who, from the distances created by suburban moves and luxury high-rise residences, are themselves dismissed as ruins. The dismissal is sometimes voiced with ideological disdain and more often unvoiced because it derives from casual observation. It causes those who do the dismissing to ignore the people who surround and often use the buildings.


The dictionary, now called upon a second time, is again of help in connecting actual with metaphoric ruins. A "ruin" is defined as "a ruined or ruinous building" and is also used "figuratively: of a person." So a ruin can represent "the downfall or decay of a person or society." We see the metaphoric human use in literature heavy and light.


Thou art the Ruins of the Noblest man
That ever lived in the Tide of Time.

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, III, i, 256-7.

Or light:

There`s a fascination frantic
In a ruin that`s romantic;
Do you think you are sufficiently decayed?

Gilbert and Sullivan, Patience.

Eloquence and flippancy alike may distract from the understanding that we live in a culture that views physical and human decline or even mere remoteness and distance as representing dismissible ruins. In the last year of Jimmy Carter`s presidency when I served on a commission that reported to him, one task force produced some lines that slipped past most of us commissioners and Carter suggesting that rustbelt cities be allowed to fall into further and perhaps terminal ruin, to be deserted so that sunbelt cities could have new and fresh life

During the 1980s, partly by political design and partly by economic happenstance, such abandonment came to be common policy and practice. With such an assumption about the buildings, it is not surprising that many came to regard the people left behind as ruins also.

Those who assume the task of historic preservation and restoration know that the buildings they would save are ordinarily surrounded by these people who are too often regarded as ruins. It takes no sophistication in the social sciences to "type" them: They are more often old than young, female than male, racial and ethnic minority than majority representatives, young and dependent than mature and independent, of lower income and poor than upscale and wealthy, underclass and overlooked than in power. Ruins.


The ruins, however, are inhabited; and the inhabitants, be it noted again, are not ruins. The buildings and the inhabitants connect in two ways. Understanding these two, and how they connect, is vital for any attempts to recover the humane, humanitarian, and humanistic dimensions of preservation and restoration. A recent survey of one metropolis--Chicago, but replicable almost anywhere--concentrates on the first of these, which I shall call "the horizontal." That term refers to transactions conceived on a lateral plane, from humans to humans.

This survey was inspired by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, conducted by the Community Workshop on Economic Development, and its results were released in early June of last year by Inspired Partnerships, a demonstration program developed by the National Trust. The Community Workshop randomly sampled Chicago churches and synagogues more than forty years old. In them, to what should have been no one`s surprise, were found thirty-one types of services. Food distribution ranked first, youth programs with day-care and educational facilities were second, counseling was third. While every program had been established in drastically underfunded places, three quarters of these congregations showed that their members and they were not "ruins": They housed at least one community organization. Approximately sixty percent housed two or more. On the average they served 400 people per month.

If religious buildings are erected by those who use them, for their own purposes, in their "near-ruins" state the situation changes. Seventy percent of those served in these older buildings are not members of the congregations and, we must surmise, hold no prospects of becoming so. Yet this majority has access to programs for as many as eight hours per day, five days per week. The few core members are moved to put their small funds into the human services. In the buildings the pipes come to drip, toilets fail, roofs leak, furnaces die, doors are locked, and the city and its people lose. Such groups as Inspired Partnerships exist to reverse this trend by trying to bring together what Holly Harrison Fiala, the program`s director, calls "new and creative partnerships involving the congregations, neighborhood groups, lenders, and philanthropies."


This is not the place to revisit religious buildings in order to increase awareness of what goes on in the service functions. To do this, a person is simply called to visit one or another of them, in imagination or, better, in person. This is, instead, the place to connect these horizontal service functions with what we shall now think of as the "vertical" dimension in the use of these buildings. All of these congregations conceive of their doings in the two relations, and the core members connect them, even if recipients of their services do not.

The vertical dimension is where worship occurs: Worship is what Romano Guardini called the "pointless but significant action of humans. Most communities` lives have to do with pointed activity. (Pointed means practical, mundane, productive.) But whoever knows the history or psychology of religion knows that it is the "significant" sphere, the one in which people experience and celebrate that which "signs" another, a higher order of being, that motivates them to connect their hearts with what their senses reveal to them about human need. Some estimates find that two thirds of American hours and dollars are donated through religious channels. Additionally the independent sector finds that the religiously motivated are also the best donors in the nonreligious sector. They play an enormous role in the humanizing of farm, town, and city.


Here is where the art and beauty of what we perceive as "the houses of God" come in. There, in worship, where "signs" are celebrated, where people praise, is where those thought of as ruins show best that they do not think of themselves as ruins, as, of course and indeed, they are not. I have stumbled and fumbled looking for a single notion to connect the two dimensions. For more than ninety percent of Americans the concept of God will do. But many Unitarian Universalists, humanistic Jews, Ethical Culturalists, participants in Asian religions, and who knows what else, are uneasy or unfamiliar with theistic reference, so we might better code what is signed as "the Other," which connects with the human other. To the point: In the vertical or worship dimension, people seek and experience the hospitality of the (capitalized) Other; in the vertical or social and service dimension, they seek and experience the hospitality to and of the (lower cased) other. Yale Divinity School Dean Thomas Ogletree puts this well: Here we people experience
wonder and awe in the presence of the holy,
receptivity to unconscious impulses arising from
our being as bodied selves,
openness to the unfamiliar and unexpected in our
most intimate relationships,
regard for characteristic differences in the experiences
of males and females,
recognition of the role social location plays in molding
perceptions and value orientations, [and]
efforts to transcend barriers generated by racial

Emanuel Levinas properly speaks of the "other" as the being who is not under our power; in worship people "gaze" at the face of the Other--and "the face means differently"--and at the faces of each other, and others. Again, each time, "the face means differently." Now let me momentarily convert the concept of the capitalized Other to the language of God, expecting patience from the minority who do not find that language congenial but who appreciate why it occurs. Here, according to a "process" theologian and philosopher, Charles Hartshorne. is the focus of the vertical dimension: "God is a name for the uniquely good, admirable, great worship-eliciting being. Worship, moreover, is not just an unusually high degree of respect or admiration; and the excellence of deity is not just an unusually high degree of merit. There is a difference in kind."

If we would see, however, why people who live with the two dimensions of which we speak are not and cannot see themselves as ruins, the words of Soren Kierkegaard are most theologically focused: "God who creates out of nothing, who almightily takes from nothing and says `Be!` lovingly adds `Be something even over against me!` Wonderful love, even [God`s] omnipotence is in the power of his love! Hence the reciprocal relationship."

Apologies go out to those who entertain "inspired partnerships" in a "sacred trust" but for whom such theological language is murky and even offensive. I have been trying to show only why there is dignity among those for whom worship space is the place where they hear: "Be something, even over against me!" and then turn the gaze from the hidden face of the Other to the very vivid face of the other, the person in the next seat, or huddled in homelessness and hunger in the doorway.


Whoever keeps this vertical and horizontal connection in mind will understand why the physical place, the sacred space, the building that is the "house of God" is of such humanistic importance. Material objects are vital in the spiritual connection. Human transactions illustrate this. A quarter of a century ago when radical students attacked faculties and administrators of colleges and universities, some trashed the unpublished research notes and findings gathered over ceaseless hours of work through eighteen years by a New York University professor. When challenged about the inhumaneness of this mode of attack, students justified it by saying that they were careful only to hurt objects, not humans--as if that research was not an extension of that professor`s humanity.

Objects matter. The anti-Semitic vandals` spraypainted swastika on a synagogue wall aims to be the equivalent of a concentration-camp tattoo on the arms of its members. The violinist cherishes an instrument and the carpenter a tool as if they were elaborations of their bodied selves. Pollsters tell us that when asked what single object interviewees would retrieve from their burning houses if they had to leave all the rest behind, three fourths say they would grab the family photo albums. When a Holy Angels church burns, the members, the community, and the city weep--as if for a dead person--and then work for rebuilding, a resurrection of sorts.

When once one gains a humanistic vision of what has gone on within the walls of these old synagogues and churches, it becomes possible in imagination to honor those who celebrated the events and passages of life in them. Those who built them were sometimes people of great power and wealth whose heirs have moved on to leave them to fall to ruin. More were built by new immigrants for whom these were centers of sociality, security, the formation of identity--all translations of the fact that there they wept and laughed, mourned the dead and celebrated the newborn, coped with separations and brought about their unions, observed the sacred seasons each year.

Some of these structures bear the marks of the great architects and builders, and more are vernacular expressions by people of intuition and zeal who often designed and built better than they knew. Their prayers consecrated the walls they erected; keeping and restoring those walls are acts of extending the value of their nonruined lives. Anyone who looks at the eroded bronze memorial plaques or at the memorial medallions in old stained-glass windows can recognize that the now forgotten donors and their anonymous contemporaries built in the hope that their labors would last not for eternity but into the generations. Inspired partnerships and sacred trusts can help honor those hopes and project new hopes into the future. Such building and preserving is an act of friendship. Let me take a homely, quaint paragraph for a proper analogy. E. B. White`s spider, Charlotte, speaks: "`You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because l liked you. After all, what`s a lite anyway? We`re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider`s life can`t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps, I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone`s life can stand a little of that.`"


This is not the place to develop all the notions of who make up the inspired partnerships or of how to produce a yield so that the "horizontal" or service functions of these buildings can continue. The public instinct is to turn immediately to "organized religion," conceived as a wealthy, smug set of institutions. Anyone familiar with the economics of church and synagogue life knows that no one can depend on denominational jurisdictions to come up with more than a token to meet these needs.

Roman Catholicism, apparently land- and property- wealthy is functionally broke; the Vatican is so deeply in debt that it may sell off treasures placed there by Renaissance princes. American dioceses find it necessary to close ruined inner-city churches used by ruins left behind in urban change. You can pick up rural monasteries cheaply. Protestant denominations have all cut back staffs and have no central funds to distribute. Synagogues, like most Christian centers, are on their own; their prosperities and misfortunes come and go with the financial conditions of their present owners. The patrons and endowers of imposing edifices now are long gone with the robber barons. The money today is in "parachurches," television ministries, self-help and self-esteem agencies, which have developed large markets. But their leaders can hardly be perceived as having the vision to connect the beauty of old buildings with the beauty of the lives of those in and around them--the figurative ruins of dictionaries and American perceptions. So new "inspired partnerships" are being formed.


There are several reasons why such credible ventures are so hard to understand and promote, and I shall conclude by pointing to a few.

First is the privatism of American religion as an inspiration for philanthropy, charity, service, and the occasions for meeting the face of the "other" who is really different. "Religion is a private affair," we say, in part because some dimensions of it are and in part because we can thus hide it from the view of the public, where it makes a difference. Yet it is not only a private affair. The people who use these buildings may travel past many remote farms or emerge from the loneliness of apartments to congregate, there to speak and be spoken to, to organize and to act. The Friday-through-Sunday bulletins of even the most apparently self-centered or sectarian of these congregations point to numbers upon numbers of activities that have public consequence. The city may not know it, but from these centers come impulses that humanize public life.

The second deterrent is pluralism. I may have great interest in both the architecture of a synagogue and the service functions of its few remaining members, but I am not a Jew: Why "subsidize" an activity that would not sustain itself in the horizontal dimension alone? Why should Jews or the secular-minded, in turn, help "pay" for a structure built by and for the house of Israel and now used by African-American Baptists? How keep track of all the separate ways of conceiving the "Other"?

In the case of preserving and restoring buildings and enabling their core members to serve communities, however, distinctions that matter in theological debate and ecumenical conversations are secondary if not irrelevant. Foundations and philanthropies that help preserve and restore a religious building, any religious building, will always be dealing with traditions. But they will not be faulted for denominational favoritism by denominationalists of competing sorts. Again and again we have seen how congregations cross religious boundaries to help others in need--for example, when they must rebuild after a fire. A figurative fire has hit the near ruins now in need of restoration.

The third deterrent has to do with the fact that sometimes governmental issues of program and funding are involved. These are irrelevant with respect to the service functions that go on in religious buildings. I was brought up short to conceive this one Sunday in the 1960s. The pastor of a south-side Chicago church told his congregation of "ruins," whites who had not fled to the suburbs and nonwhites who were only beginning to take their place in this "cathedral of Gospel art," of new programs that would begin in a neglected wing of their building that was currently being rehabilitated. He knew that we listeners and congregants recognized that there were no funds in our depleted ranks for such ambitious and helpful programs. No, he said, government funding would be behind the clinics and day-care centers, counseling programs and recreational activities.

The pastor also knew that we Lutherans were as insistent as most other Americans to "separate church and state" and keep clear a line of distinction between religious and civil authority. "I know that some of you will have trouble with what will go on here after nine A.M. Tuesday morning because of your traditional doctrine of the separation of church and state. But with human need and opportunity involved," he went on, "I would advise you to acquire a new traditional doctrine of the separation of church and state by nine A.M. Tuesday." He did not settle everything with that quip, nor do I try to by repeating it. But it should be noted that while valid church/state issues are involved both from the church`s side, when landmark status is applied, and from the government`s side, when religious use is made of a building, these are minor circumstances and they should not obscure the larger issue of inspired partnerships. They are addressable in many ways.

I have been stressing implicitly the biggest problem: an atrophy of the imagination that sees ruins where beauty was and can be, that sees ruins where exalted individuals congregate and see the faces of the others who are really different. Sometimes people help us see the perduring role of the spiritual in their lives and inspire new vision. In Cape Town, South Africa, the government decades ago bulldozed "District Six," the notoriously vital area of the city--vital because of a racial residential mix that the apartheid-minded government could not tolerate.

Years later whoever looked down the hill above old District Six would find that the government had successfully destroyed the huge area, so valuable, so near the heart of Cape Town-- but that no one else would or dared build new there. The ruins represented human and humane interests. But a few old buildings, virtually in ruins, remained: a Mennonite mission, a mosque, an Anglican and a Lutheran church, and the Methodist church where I spoke. Incredibly, its members, forcibly removed to concentrations in "townships" thirty miles away, returned each week for lively worship at the place where they met the Other and others.

Today, if there is to be a post-apartheid era, people may well surge back to District Six. Waiting for them will be the religious buildings that lived through the cycle--as they have already begun to do in the towns and cities of late-twentieth-century America. By insisting that their buildings and they not be reduced to or regarded as ruins, they set examples of humanitarian service and humanizing endeavor that should now, in new ways, produce inspired partnerships in countless communities.

Publication Date: May/June 1992


Author(s):Martin E. Marty

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