Monday, August 24, 2009

of churches and fish nets

My cousin Alice preached this week on church buildings. In her sermon, she said "You could say that there are two main schools of thought on church buildings – one, that they are important visible reminders of God’s presence – centers of holiness, sanctuaries; two, that they are money pits, artificial expressions of reverence for God which are really more about ego gratification for the worshippers, absorbing money which should go to mission. Worship in a cathedral! – or — Worship in a storefront! Neither school of thought really addresses the heart of the matter, though – why do we set apart any kind of place for worship? Why do we have any kind of church buildings at all?"

This intro leads her to consider the etymology of the word temple, which, in the original Latin did not mean a construction of walls, floors, and ceilings but rather an area of the sky defined by the priest for his collection and interpretation of the omens.*

Alice develops her theme by discussing the medieval Christian hierarchy in which the lower regions of earth are hell and the empyrean regions above are heaven; between the two are located the orders of nature, man, and angels in ascending ranks of relative goodness. The Divine Comedy of Dante is one of the most familiar expressions of this cosmology.

She says Christians moved away from the idea of perfection above and nastiness below and reminds us that the technological and scientific advances which have forced revision of church doctrine have also brought us string theory in which all matter — earth, the heavens, and all else — are thought to consist of oscillating lines, points, or surfaces and can be envisioned (in a way) as multidimensional membranes.

She brings these thoughts around to the utility of physical spaces for worship — the church, in her case two churches &mdash. She says they are "visible reminders of the invisible. Visible reminders of invisible God [which help us to keep in mind that] God is real, that we are not alone. We need to be reminded to treat the world with reverence. Our buildings, indeed every aspect of our church life, can remind us of this, or distract us from it."

Alice's image of the Roman templum as imagined three-dimensional grid suspended above and the related multidimensional membranes of string theory brought to mind Indra's Net, which figures in a book I'm reading.

Unlike the European Christians of the same period, the Tang Dynasty members of the Huayan school of Chinese Buddhists imagined the earth and cosmos not as hierarchy but all-encompassing unified network. They used a familiar image, Indra's net as metaphor for this universal interconnection. They described it to demonstrate how all things are ultimately — if remotely — linked both in space and time. The concept makes sense, but, even with a visual aid, is hard to imagine. They asked the faithful to picture in their minds the fishing net of the Hindu god Indra. At each node of the net is a shiny round object — a pearl or jewel, and each pearl reflects the light of all the others, thus causing its own light to be part of their light and accepting their light as part of its own. Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter develops this theme in modern Western terms.

The Roman ethereal templum can be envisioned as a stone framework for watching birds in flight; something like this:

{Birds on Stonehenge — this blog post imagines that Romans used the stones for devination, a true templum; source:}

Neither Indra's Net nor string-theory's multidimensional elements of interconnected strings, points, and surfaces can be depicted in two-dimensional imagery any more than they can readily be imagined. The first is a bit more accessible. Here's one rough idea of Indra's Net:

{Indra's Net; source:}

And here, a less satisfactory interpretation of the oscillating strings:

{imagined strings; source:}

*"Templum is a term derived from Etruscan divination. First of all, it meant an area of the sky defined by the priest for his collection and interpretation of the omens. Later, by a projection of this area onto the earth, it came to signify a piece of ground set aside and consecrated to the gods. At first such areas did not contain sacred buildings, but there often were altars on such sites, and later shrines." Source:

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