BY MATTHEW JOHN PAUL TAN
At Campion College, we teach political philosophy students about the impact that commercial and consumer cultures, such as the ones entrenched in Australia, have on the expression or maintenance of a thoroughgoing Christian identity and practice.
These consumer cultures do not sit benignly alongside a Christian culture. Rather, consumer cultures mimic, distort and will eventually undermine confessionally Christian practice.
Had the lesson been taken out of the classroom, this academic theme would have found a subtle visual accompaniment, since classes roughly coincided with the celebration of the anniversary of the dedication of the Cathedral of St Patrick's in the diocese of Parramatta.
Though a relatively young diocese at 25 years, Parramatta has the potential to become one of the largest dioceses in Australia, and currently lays claim to be the most culturally diverse diocese in the world.
Like most Cathedrals, St Patrick's is built in the classical Gothic style, with a central spire that points skywards and guides the eye towards the heavenly font from which the Church receives its nourishment. When the viewer's gaze broadens to incorporate the other buildings in Parramatta's cityscape, he or she would notice something.
Despite the growth in the diocese demographically, the visual prominence of the Cathedral in the Parramatta skyline is receding as consumer culture becomes more entrenched. The relatively tiny St Patrick's is becoming dwarfed by the gigantic commercial and residential high-rise buildings that are emerging in the Parramatta CBD.
What many Christians may not dwell upon is the cultural message that that architectural trend is sending. It is interesting to note how, visually, these high-rise buildings act like secular cathedrals, and bring with them a cultural and ultimately theological message at odds with the message brought by the Church.
Towering over the Cathedral, these monoliths either block the view of St Patrick's, or draw one's gaze away from it, and in the process visually create new urban centres of gravity, a function that a Cathedral would previously have fulfilled.
In a manner similar to St Patrick's, the sheer height of these buildings will draw the eye skywards. As the eye moves up however, one notices something different. Unlike the Cathedral, these often oblong-shaped structures do not actually point to the sky and draw the eye to the heavens.
The increasing use of glass to line the exteriors of contemporary high-rise buildings almost ensure a completely different aesthetic experience. While the Gothic Cathedral draws the gaze beyond itself to its divine source, the secular cathedral manifest in the modern skyscraper draws the eye towards itself.
This self-reference then takes another step, as the glass allows the eye to peer into and fixate onto the building's interior. As the gaze is drawn inwards, we are made to see the products of the slick, middle-class lifestyle, be they designer home furnishings, well-suited office workers working at stylish desks, or sleek and well-toned bodies in state of the art gym equipment.
These architectural statements are not merely declarations of the skill (or sometimes lack thereof) of a particular designer. Like the Cathedral, the skyscraper acts as a call to live a way of life indicated by its furnishings.
The Cathedral calls us to look heavenward, in a manner indicated by the saints that adorn its stained glass windows, while the skyscraper calls us to become an inward looking, self-referential and self-aggrandising race of consumers, in a manner indicated by the “saints” we see through highrise windows.
The yuppie resident of the inner-city apartment, the office worker and the gym junkie have become the new secular saints of a game of success that is crassly material, one that reduces human life to a state where value is assigned to those that can decorate their surroundings, if not themselves, with products, only because the vision of the human person has been reduced to that of a product, to be admired, manipulated and consumed by others.
Amidst this secular game of success, Christian Cathedrals act as a prophetic statement. They remind us that we are more than just mere raw material, but live, move and have our being in a God that transcends everything and also loves. The Cathedral reminds the consumer that precisely because of this transcendence over the material and because of that love, the human person is afforded far more worth than that of a consumer product.
Like the prophet from the Old Testament, the Cathedral will go unnoticed amidst the forest of skyscrapers, if only because of its relative lack of visual prominence. But like the prophet of the Old Testament, the Cathedral must continue to prophesy to the dominant culture marked by the skyscraper and the shopping mall, even if it were to continue to be a voice that cries out in the wilderness. The Cathedral, like the prophet, has been put on earth to serve no other purpose.
It might be tempting to think that the restoration of the Church's evangelical impact lies in increasing the size of its Cathedrals. Nothing can be further from the truth, and indeed such a strategy can buy into the logic of self-aggrandisement encapsulated in the secular cathedral.
As the students at Campion College have learned and will continue to learn, what is more vital is the restoration of a cultural literacy. It is a literacy that can enable one, were he or she to pass by an office-block, to recognise it as a secular cathedral and to recognise the evangelical statement that it makes.
It is a literacy that also allows a recognition of the Christian Gospel in the cathedral spire, and the power of that Christian Gospel, even when the Cathedral spire that encapsulates it remains overshadowed by secular imitations.
Matthew John Paul Tan is a lecturer in Theology and Philosophy at Campion College, a Catholic Liberal Arts College in Sydney. He has published articles in theology, politics and culture and runs the blog The Divine Wedgie: Church. Culture. Politics.
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