Gothic Architecture and Medieval Theology (failed attempt at a thesis)

notre dame paris cathedral photos LED 11For a long time I wanted to write a DPhil thesis on the relationship of Gothic architecture to the theology of the High Medieval period. I suppose in the back of my mind was this idea that I had largely imbibed from the sort of Radical Orthodoxy-ish theology that this period was the crowning apogee of Western Christian civilization before its demise into heresy, schism and ultimately the cultural and spiritual morass of Modernity, the detritus of which we live with today. My idea was that this movement could perhaps be traced in architectural history as it could be in philosophy and theology, with the Gothic obviously the high point of man’s architectural genius and other forms representing a falling away from the Christian idea into types of neo-Paganism (cf. Pugin’s critique of Christopher Wren etc.) and simple post-Christian crassness and inhumanity. And there might have been a good idea in there somewhere, but after some investigation I quickly realized that I had neither the scholarly ability nor the ingenuity of thought to bring such a thesis to fruition. On the latter, I realized that there are many scholars who have already made the links that probably can be made between the Gothic and Medieval theology and that those chaps know a helluva lot more about both subjects that I did or could. Probably the closest of all to what I was aiming at is Erwin Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, which makes some interesting links between scholastic forms of theologizing that reach their zenith in the Summa Theologiae and the structure of Gothic Cathedrals. This is all not to mention, of course, that such a thesis would constitute something far more substantial than a mere DPhil and so was hopelessly overambitious in scope. So I jacked the whole thing in and started something else…

But the High Medieval age still continues to fascinate me, and when I read its theology and inhabit its sacred spaces, I am still piqued and haunted by the idea the people really did inhabit the world differently in this time, differently not just in terms of what they believed, but in terms of what they felt and experienced about reality. Their world was a much more spiritual one, a world that was enchanted and full of magic and fantastic creatures like angels and demons and pixies and wood-elves. I am still utterly convinced that the reason modern people are so obsessed with Game of Thrones and Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings and so on is because these things offer us a passage back into that world. And the most thrilling thing of all, the thing that most fascinates me and fills me with the thrill of hope and expectation, is that maybe that world – the world of pixies and wood-elves – is more real than this one. I don’t mean that I think that Hogwarts is a real school for magical children with wands, but I do mean that what it represents – that something more than is offered to us by a reductive scientific view of the universe with all its crass culture, oppressive state politics, and perverse anthropologies – might be. The films of Harry Potter would have been an absolute scandal if they hadn’t utilized Gothic architecture for precisely this reason: Harry Potter is a Gothic story. Everyone knows it instinctively, even without the films.

But what exactly does that mean? I don’t really know. But I do come across from time to time some tantalizing glimpses of the sort of thing I think it means. It was going back to Julian of Norwich that set me thinking about this recently. In the introduction to my Penguin Classics version, I read:

Through the first thousand years of western Christianity, Christ was widely seen as a remote, awesome judge and hero, who had fought and conquered the devil to gain the possibility of salvation for the human souls seized as a consequence of Adam’s sin. In this struggle, human beings were little more than spectators.

And although this view (which could probably be called, a little simplistically, the Christus Victor view of the atonement) never disappeared, in Julian’s time (the late fourteenth century),

Alongside it there grew up a different emphasis on Christ as suffering man, arousing compassion in his fellow human beings. In this new theology, developed in the eleventh and twelfth centuries […] God’s Incarnation as man was seen not primarily as a device for defeating the Devil but as a means of drawing human love towards God as an object for identification and imitation.

And this change that comes about in the Medieval period – at the exact same time as the first development of Gothic components in churches and cathedrals – is reflected in its piety, architecture and ecclesial art, which focus much more and with much more detail on Christ’s suffering body, his material flesh.

This all got me thinking about Paul Crossley’s introduction to Paul Frankl’s magnum opus Gothic Architecture, and I went back to that and I did, in fact, find what I was looking for. Paul Frankl, who is, according to my limited understanding, probably the greatest scholar of the Gothic of modern times, did indeed argue that the Gothic is not merely a style of architecture, but that it describes ‘a harmonious civilization’ and reflects ‘a style common to every cultural sphere’. Crossley writes,

The crowning realization of Gothic Architecture […] is the conviction that the root of the Gothic, of ‘Gothic Man’ and ‘Gothic Society’, was the personality and teaching of Jesus Christ.

I think he is referring to the same kind of shift I mentioned in the introduction to Julian, an emphasis not simply on the divine aspect of Christ’s salvific work (though of course that perdures throughout all periods) but also upon ‘the reconciliation of man to God through Christ’s suffering’ (Crossley again).

How, then, is that taken up in Gothic architecture and the Gothic cathedral? This is the point where the claims become the most extravagant and I feel the least able to keep up with them. Frankl claimed that, ‘Where Romanesque art (and style that preceded the Gothic) and architecture present a God who is ‘unapproachable, tremendum‘, Gothic forms ‘symbolize the disappearance of the boundary between Man and God”. And because of this integration between man and God, ‘The principle conviction of ‘Gothic civilization’, and its Christian values, ‘is that man is a fragment of creation, who can find his totality only by taking his place within the kingdom of God”. This understanding manifests itself in Frankl’s idea of the mental and spiritual attitude of the period which he described as ‘partiality’, which means ‘an interdependent relationship between man, God and society’.

I’m not sure whether he means that the kind of rooms within arches within rooms one finds in medieval cathedrals reflect this kind of interdependent partiality or if it is, as Crossley says a bit later, only that ‘Architectural style takes on the psychology of its maker and the mentality of its period’ in a less obviously analogical and more general fashion. But the idea that the philosophical and spiritual currents of the age could bring about something of that beauty and magnitude, indeed surely among the heights of human artistic achievement in all of history, is a suggested that continues to draw me on.

The quotation that first suggested these things to my mind I read first in Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human. Nietzsche, more than anyone it seems, understood that the decline of Christianity, which in general he despised, could not simply be waved good-riddance without a serious consideration of the consequences, not least what it would mean for art and culture, which had been, for more than a thousand years, entirely Christian and wonderfully glorious in so many ways. What would it be like once Christianity declined, as Nietzsche believed it inevitable would (and he was right about that)? He wrote of this,

Now if belief in such truth generally diminishes, if the rainbow colours at the outermost ends of human knowing and imagining fade: then the species of art that, like the Divina Commedia, Raphael’s pictures, Michelangelo’s frescoes, the Gothic cathedrals, presuppose not only a cosmic, but also a metaphysical significance for art objects, can never blossom again. A touching tale will come of this, that there was once such an art, such belief by artists.

That touching tale and its implications remain with us in millennia-old stone castles of spirituality that speak of a faith and an artistic achievement that we can no longer hope to replicate or rival. And all of these things make me wonder very deeply what it is that we have lost.

Well, anyway, there is an idea for a project for anyone who has got the skills and tenacity that eluded me. Thanks for reading!





Why I Wear Precious Feet: Words for the Unborn

I have started to wear a pair of precious feet on the lapel of the blazer I use most often. These feet are an exact representation of the feet of a ten week old child in the womb. I bought this pin from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. I have done a fair bit of thinking about the rights and wrongs of wearing a political symbol on my clothing (not something I would normally do), but I went ahead and attached this pin to my blazer anyway, and, to the extent that anyone would be interested in my views on this, I would like to provide a rationale as to why.

Put simply, I oppose the practice of abortion and its facilitation in ours and every culture that would so promote it.

I do not believe that children who are less than twenty-four weeks old are somehow less than human, but I believe that they should be afforded all the rights of a child over that age. I do not believe that they are not ‘children’ or ‘babies’, and I do not think it is right to use euphemisms such as ‘foetus’.

I believe that future societies will look back on the practice of abortion in the same way as we look back on systematic atrocities like slavery with horror.

I believe that when an abortion takes place then there are at least two victims: the child who is killed and his or her mother, who has become complicit in the taking of an innocent life, indeed the life of her own child. The doctors and nurses involved in the practice are also dehumanized through their involvement, and the family and friends of the mother and father are affected too.

I believe that the practice of screening for Down’s Syndrome and other genetic conditions to better inform parents about the possibility of an abortion is a form of eugenics which is deeply wrong and is morally indistinguishable from terminating a child for being a girl or a boy.

I believe that children who are aborted often feel intense agony as their bodies are destroyed.

I believe that there are no scientific or philosophical arguments to support the practice of killing children on the grounds that they have not reached the status of a person. Such arguments always have the potential to apply to newborn children and are as such arguments for straight-out infanticide. Personhood is binary, not something on a spectrum that develops over time. Either children are persons and are worthy of protection or they are not. This status does not change when they become ‘viable’ or at any other stage. If there is a moment after conception at which a foetus becomes a person then we cannot possibly know when that moment is and therefore should not terminate the foetus in case we are wrong and accidentally kill an innocent baby.

I believe that the clinical practice of abortion is a deeply immoral act, not least because it contravenes the duty of doctors and nurses to provide care for their patients rather than to permanently damage them.

I am aware of the objections to my position.

I am aware that we should have compassion on women who accidentally become pregnant or who become pregnant through rape. These women deserve enormous compassion and love, nothing less. But I do not accept that showing compassion to women should be outworked by encouraging them to kill their own children. I accept that women often face a stark choice between a life with a child they didn’t plan (affecting career, physical and mental health, relationships, opportunities etc.) and an abortion, but I believe that abortion is never a preferable option. I reserve judgement on whether or not there are cases in which a child is dead already (or near enough) and may kill the mother in her giving birth, but I am far from convinced that this argument can be used to legitimize abortion more widely. And this circumstance, if it exists at all, accounts for a tiny proportion of abortions in our society.

Further to this, I believe that children are an incalculable blessing to our families and our society more broadly. I believe that children are made in God’s image from the moment of conception and that they therefore should be treated with care and love. Children are a source of joy in our lives and we should make every effort to ensure that they can live and flourish for their benefit and ours. As such, I do not accept any argument that states that a child would be better off being aborted because he or she would not have a chance to live a good life: any sort of life is preferable to being terminated, and children should be given a chance to live, even in awful circumstances. I always think of the child in the film and novel ‘Room’, who, although the product of rape and incarcerated for his early life, is deeply cherished and ultimately saved through the redemptive love of his mother.

I am aware that people will say that I am a man and so I cannot have a legitimate opinion on this matter because I have not encountered first-hand the suffering of women with unplanned pregnancies. But it is my belief that in any apparently liberal society all voices should be recognized as having at least the potential to contribute to a public discussion, even the voices of white men. To say that a certain person cannot have an opinion because of gender or race has traditionally been called sexism or racism. The right to be heard should be based not on the privilege of gender or race but on the content and the qualities of one’s arguments (to lightly paraphrase Martin Luther King). And besides there are plenty of women who have exactly the same view on abortion as I do (including my wife and mother, for example).

I am aware that I do not do enough either to support women who have unwanted pregnancies or to promote awareness of the wrongs of the practice of abortion. I am aware that I could do more to help children who are born without a loving and caring family to support them. I am aware that I am not good enough at supporting other worthy causes. All I can say to this is that I would like to do more and my eyes are open for more opportunities to help.

The wearing of a pin is a pretty shallow gesture in many ways. It cost me a few pounds and it will probably cost me very little in any other way. But the reason I have decided to wear it is because I believe that this issue is the singular most important moral issue that our culture faces and that children are dying because of people’s attitudes towards it. I believe that this issue is highly underrepresented both in mainstream media and in the Church that I hope to serve. In fact, I believe that this is the only issue about which genuine prophetic speech can be made by that Church, largely because it is the one issue that is not fashionable or trendy but which must be spoken about more than any other. So I will wear the pin.

In this post, I have tried to avoid polemic and rhetoric as much as possible whilst still stating my true opinions about abortion. I am sorry if you have have found it upsetting or judgemental in any way. I want to be a source of love and hope to anyone who has been touched by the realities of abortion, unplanned pregnancies, rape or terrible medical conditions. And I would never condemn anyone who has been caught up in these things. And I do not condemn. As a Christian, I believe that I am a sinner in need of God’s grace like everyone else. I will let that be my last word.

Alasdair MacIntyre on the Emotivist Approach to Ethics

In After Virtue, MacIntyre identifies one of the characteristic aspects of modernity, that of the loss of the concept of “virtue” and a corresponding groundlessness to all discourse on ethics in the public realm. Or rather, it might be better said that MacIntyre argues that, either explicitly or implicitly, a view of ethics has developed within modern culture that he calls emotivism. Emotivism is the idea that all moral feelings or intuitions are, at base, preferences that are based on the choices of the individual and nothing more. They are not indicative of some kind of divine sanction or objective ethical values that really exist. They are merely feelings that are entirely subjective:

…whatever criteria or principles or evaluative allegiances the emotivist self may profess, they are to be construed as expressions of attitudes, preferences and choices which are themselves not governed by criterion, principle or value, since they underlie and are prior to all allegiance to criterion, principle or value. (p.38, third edition)

At the heart of the modern view of the individual, therefore, there is a belief in a certain type of freedom that consists in the ability to “choose” prior to any kind other factors. “Choice”, in this sense, becomes a kind of supreme good that takes priority over any other kind of consideration. When one thinks about it, it is quite obvious that this kind of “choice” is at once totally imaginary (because it is impossible to choose anything independently of the individual’s web of life experiences, human interactions, community environment, family and cultural influences and so on) and entirely arbitrary. Arbitrariness is built into its very definition: This is the right thing to do because I feel it is the right thing to do. How we have got to this state in modernity is the subject matter of After Virtue, and in my next post I will try to encapsulate MacIntyre’s articulation of the view of ethics that preceded emotivism.

A final point to make about emotivism is that, upon its foundation, it is impossible to resolve moral disagreement in any satisfying way: nothing is objectively wrong or right but is merely up to the preference of the individual. This includes acts of kindness and philanthropy as well as acts of child cruelty and murder. Any claim to objectively binding moral matters of fact are merely descriptions of the speaker’s preferences.