Dennis R. Mcnamara
We live in an era that is not known for making beautiful churches. In fact, the sensus fidelium seems to indicate that something is indeed severely wrong with the unprofane architecture erected in the last few decades. Sometimes modern churches claim a vague Christian symbolism or association through shape or general motif, which is nonetheless found largely unsatisfactory. In other cases, purposeful attempts are made to avoid eschatological sacramentality. Many churches of the last half century seem to live up quite well to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s (who, along with Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan, sought to offer an intellectual, faithful response to theological modernism) claim, adapted from Karl Barth, that without enthralling pangs of beauty, theology does not inspire. If it is in the very nature of beauty to transport us to rupture, Balthasar asks, how could we then possibly dispense with the concept of the beautiful that is sharp and yet tangible, something that abstract modernism undermines?
This description certainly fits much of the church architecture of recent years. Yet, an unconsidered return to the Romantic historicism of nineteenth-century architecture cannot be a solution to today’s problems, despite the calls for traditional architecture appearing today. Even Ralph Adams Cram, twentieth century’s great proponent of a renewal of liturgical architecture through a return to medieval precedent, critiqued the nineteenth-century revivalists for their history-driven formalism. He called the Modernist “revolt” against the period’s parade of styles a laudable thing, but could not agree with its solutions, since “they were measurably inferior to what they have decried.” We find ourselves in a similar dilemma. A return to a purely Romantic approach to architecture is not a true solution though the romantic spirituality of the Christian artists and aesthetic philosophers of the last two centuries (from 1860 to the present) is strongly brought out by their preserving a sense of the unity of beauty and religion, art and religion, when they had almost no support from theology.
A Balthasarian approach to liturgical architecture can avoid the pitfalls of both Romanticism and Modernism. To canonize a particular “style” of architecture only because of a historical association is an architectural aesthetic theology. However, the Modernist denial of historical styles precisely because of their historicity is also an architectural aesthetic theology. A Balthasarian solution beckons: begin by conceiving liturgical architecture as the form of Christ (Christus totus) in his sacramental, ecclesiological dimension in the liturgy. Liturgical architecture can therefore best be evaluated in light of its ability to bear the Christian message, that is, the “ontological secret” of the liturgical event, which by definition reveals beauty and results in joyfully rapturous discovery.
Balthasar writes about the apologetic nature of his “fundamental theology,” saying “the heart of the matter should be the question: ‘How does God’s revelation confront man in history? How is it perceived?’” One could ask the same question in architectural terms: “How does God’s revelation confront man in liturgical architecture? How is it perceived?” Here we have an architecture that is claimed to reveal the divine, and that, on the basis of this claim, demands that we should believe and therefore expend our resources in a certain way despite the clear, rationalistic overarching demands of economy, functionalist utility, and the Zeitgeist. What basis acceptable to the liturgical-architectural establishment can we give these authoritative claims?
Although the answer may seem redundant at first, it is worth stating that liturgical architecture is first and foremost liturgical, a bearer of the mystery of the anticipated eschatology of the Banquet of the Lamb. Balthasar speaks of the Church as an “event” in which the “power of the Christ-form expresses and impresses itself,” in which “the Lord becomes present in the assembly manifesting himself within it.” Both the Eucharist and the scriptures are described as making no sense unless enjoyed as a means of “impressing the Christ-form in the hearts of men.” Liturgical architecture can be understood in a similar manner. Liturgical architecture (and of course, figural art), as symbol of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb of the Heavenly Jerusalem, would make no sense without the Christian’s partaking in the invisible liturgy that it represents.
As part of an architectural theological aesthetic, liturgical architecture is not primarily an example of the trends popular in Architectural Record, a neutral setting for the horizontal activities of an improperly understood “People of God,” or a “skin for liturgical action . . . which need not look like anything else.” Rather, liturgical architecture should be capable of becoming part of the cluster of symbols that make up the liturgical rite. In other words, it should be considered sacramental, making present by way of foretaste the Wedding Feast of the Lamb in the Heavenly Jerusalem. “If beauty is conceived of transcendentally, then its definition must be derived from God himself.”
This emphasis on the sacramental, eschatological nature of Christian worship and its liturgical architecture finds a decided sympathy with Balthasar’s writings. The liturgy is certainly one place where the encounter with Christ is made available to us. In fcat, liturgy is made up of two distinct movements. “First God is made present through words, signs, and symbols,” then “people respond to God’s presence in their midst through word, song, and action.” This second movement is not a separate event, but a spontaneous response to the first. If architecture is part of the system of symbols that make God known, then it is not simply the neutral beige background common to the post-conciliar era, but part of the “eschatological orientation” that “endeavors to make the divine present through a type of eschatological anticipation.”
Through its positive, beautiful images and sounds, and by its confident celebration of the eschatological banquet, it steps beyond the present-day signs of the kingdom’s distance and anticipates the time of the kingdom’s fullness. Thus, liturgical celebrations avoid the chaos, contingency, moral confusion, and existential anxieties that mark our transient lives. Liturgy needs the kind of eschatological anticipation implied by these characteristics if it is to offer the believer an encounter with God, since most do not have the contemplative vision to find God in the type of muck found in our everyday lives. If the salvific narrative, the “theo-drama,” is to captivate us and elicit our response, we must encounter it in its fullness so that we can perceive its divine rendering.
These claims are easily transferable to liturgical architecture, which, along with its art, should present this eschatological dimension of the liturgy. The altar should be read more as the banqueting table of the Lord than merely a community table. The figural imagery is more than abstract mood-evoking shapes or simple devotional imagery; it makes sacramentally present the Christus totus, including the heavenly assembly. The church building can present an image of the heavenly banquet in a building that images the Heavenly Jerusalem.
# Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, vol. 1: Seeing the Form (San Francisco: Ignatius Press/Crossroads, 1983).
# Balthasar’s well-known writing on aesthetic theology and theological aesthetics can be applied to architecture directly. While a theological aesthetics begins with God’s transcendent beauty and his desire to allow man to participate in his divine life, “aesthetic theology,” by contrast, begins with the creaturely concept of rupture and attempts to universalize it.
Denis R. Mcnamara is assistant director and faculty member at the LiturgicalInstitute of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary in Chicago.