Saturday, January 27, 2007

Passivity and Practice


handle's recent and excellent post on architecture raises some connected issues that I've been struggling with lately: To what extent should the church reflect local culture, flavor, etc. and to what extent should it be Mormon? I know this is quite broad, and diahman and others have posted on related questions. The one I want to ask is more specific to architectural and temple traditions.

Are we more invested when we pay for and design our own meetinghouses? And do we understand the temple better and become more engaged with it when we are the ones doing the acting and not actors on a screen? Does a cookie-cutter temple or ceremony imply cookie-cutter practice? Is this what God wants? I am profoundly convinced that architecture (and active participation in ritual) alters the spirit.


In my hometown recently a world-famous architect designed a pedestrian bridge that cost far too much for a small town to afford, and many were justifiably angry about it (although the project was almost entirely funded by private donors). Once it was built, though, it became a focus for the community, a gathering place, and for the first time in my life I felt like there was a community.

I grew up going to a completely non-standard meetinghouse and temple. In other areas of the country I've attended regularly the cookie-cutter types (with one embarrassing story about going in the wrong bathroom because the position of male/female restrooms was one thing they decided to vary.) Now I'm back to a non-standard meetinghouse that sometimes drives me crazy, but it drives me crazy in all the ways the area I live in drives me crazy. In this building the local customs, flavor, attitudes, people are expressed, and in the end it enhances my worship experience. One would have to say the same thing about the "cookie cutter" buildings--not that the people are monotonous in their attitudes, but that their values (frugality, willingness to accept authority, perhaps even desire for unity) are expressed through this architecture. Maybe it says more about me--in both positive and negative ways--that I prefer atypical architecture.

I think similarly about the format of the temple ceremony. I realize that the video format makes it possible for scores more to attend and for more temples to be open, less staffing problems, etc., but likewise something is lost when the patrons aren't the ones participating in the ceremony--delivering the lines, playing out the drama. I worry that there is a trend toward the passive, and that some of the values the Church was built on (local sacrifice and dedication are two I'm thinking of) are fading. As the architecture becomes increasingly unremarkable (and Protestant?), are we?

25 comments:

Handle said...

I, too, am currently in a ward that meets in an atypical building. I enjoy the unique setting for Sunday meetings. Unfortunately, the church is constructing a new stake center in our area. That means going from a renovated landmark with all of its local color to a typical stake building. Needless to say, I am not looking forward to the switch.

cyninge said...

Orthodoxy is not a word I am known for liking very much, except where my religion is concerned. In a church of millions with varying cultural influences on its membership I think uniformity has its place in preserving orthodoxy.

I love intriguing architecture, and I am suspicious of my own tendencies to prefer what is familiar over what is exciting. I love the beautiful Catholic architecture I've seen in Europe and South America. I have often imagined how inspiring it could have been to worship in such buildings.

On the other hand, I would never want my religion to become the type of organization that built such structures. There's a certain egalitarianism in the Church's building models that I believe fits our efforts to achieve socio-economic harmony and justice (i.e., consecration). Although it can be quite boring, it can also help to avoid the Chartres-Paris rivalry, the Zoramite Rameumpton, the medieval rich-in-the-front, poor-in-the-back experience.

The inculcation of passivity probably is an unforturnate by-product of such ritualistic standardization. But it can be corrected in those who are motivated to resist it. Those without such motivation are doomed to it anyway. The alternative, as I see, is the very real potential for apostasy through the traction of stubborn cultural idiosyncracies that are incompatible with eternal truths. This can be manifest, I believe, even in the architecture of sacred spaces or sacred rituals. (I'm imagining the white clothing businesses raking in Utahns' cash becoming a quasi-institutional cultural standard for temple worship over the next few generations as an example.) Standardization may be the only way to cut off that tendency of the natural man to discriminate based on temporal, cultural standards.

In addition to active involvement, what you lose through standardization is freedom. And I am reluctant to advocate this approach too enthusiastically because it smacks of a lack of faith in individual choice. But when it comes to the human desire to show off greater wealth by building a chapel or temple grander and more opulent than the next neighborhood's, I think we have already shown that faith in our unfettered choice is not justified.

cyninge said...

Sweet! Does posting here mean that I am finally "thoughtful and intelligent"?

TrailerTrash said...

Does posting here mean that I am finally "thoughtful and intelligent"?

Not necessarily!

JupitersChild said...

cyninge,

Excellent and circumspect (i.e. thoughtful and intelligent...) thoughts. I too share your wariness of the divisions that inevitably arise with distinctiveness (I guess it's built in).

I guess what I'm trying to get at is how to control variation? If there are people doomed to passivity anyway, are there people doomed to exclusiveness and turf wars? I guess in the end passivity is preferable to power struggles or to an abuse of power.

But what's wrong, as Handle said, with seeking alternatives that don't necessarily reflect disparity in wealth, such as his atypical meetinghouse? Will it necessarily devolve into the medieval mentality you described?

Is this, in your opinion, where the Church was heading, or did it simply need an efficient standard? Why did the Manti, St George, Salt Lake, Calgary (et al.) tradition cease?

In the end, I guess, like you, I've got to meet my need for exciting architecture outside my church/temple tradition. (Although there are certainly some cool temples.)

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