Churches and Libraries: Foundation for the Future

on March 17, 2015

Notre Dame University professor Dr. Patrick Deneen recently spoke at the Catholic Information Center on the subject of the architecture of university libraries. His lecture was entitled “From Sacred Space to the Bunker and Spaceship” and focused on the changes in university library buildings, inside and out, that have resulted from new theories of education and an increased skepticism about tradition and truth. According to Dr. Deneen, university libraries have largely shifted from light-filled, classical structures at the center of campus life to the windowless, brutalist bunker or space-age enormity. The shift in form parallels the change in function from a focus on educating students to assisting the university’s research faculty whose output is often only read by a few of their peers.

More troubling is the shift in the understanding of tradition and liberty that coincides with the building of these new libraries. Older libraries often resembled churches and temples because their purpose was to form a link to the past – a past that was loved and revered. Because their purpose was to preserve and transmit memory, libraries were human spaces designed for study and serendipitous encounters with the wisdom of the ages. The newer research libraries, however, have nearly opposite intentions. They are focused on the research faculty – and original research – rather than on transmitting the western tradition the student. Following the leading of John Dewey and his peers, universities and their libraries have embraced the notion that new knowledge is always superior to the past. For them the past is a despotism over progress and must be overcome; students need to be liberated from their attachments to family, church, place, and history.

This liberation is the result of a revolution in the understanding of liberty. In the traditional understanding, liberty is the ability to choose to do what is right; education’s role is to prepare the student to discern right from wrong. This moral education is achieved through encounters with the great texts of our civilization that teach, both through precept and example, what it means to be a just person. This allows the student to learn from the examples of others rather than only his own mistakes. The modernist approach views liberty as the ability to do what one wants to do. Education then becomes structured not on forming the person to an accepted standard but on achieving power. In the traditional understanding liberty and virtue are inextricable linked; in the modernist approach, liberty becomes synonymous with power and domination.

Throughout the lecture, I could not help but compare the changes within the university to changes within the Church. So often today churches are constructed as auditoriums rather than sanctuaries. The focus is on the present; the connection to the 2000+ year old Body of Christ is rarely emphasized. Sacred spaces are being turned into merely social spaces. Following the pattern of the universities, instead of being strongholds for transmitting the eternal truths of the Christian faith – the world defining love of the Trinity, the world changing effects of the Incarnation, and the freedom of a life conformed to the image of Christ – churches too often are content merely to provide lectures on Scripture or commentary on current events. Sadly, this change in focus away from the past has, in many circles, led to an abandonment of tradition orthodox Christian doctrine.

Hundreds and thousands of books on Scripture commentary, practical theology, and devotion are written year after year, but who returns to the formative texts of the first several hundred years of Christianity – the texts that shaped Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy? If Christians ignore or forget their foundations in the pursuit of contemporary relevance (even the more orthodox kind), they run the risk of missing the radically world redeeming message of Christianity. Ignoring the unbroken chain of orthodox Christian teaching leaves the Church vulnerable to attack as a mere system of moral, not a proclamation of a new reality.

The extreme effects of this attitude are clearly seen in various churches and pastors’ increasingly militant demand for the church to accept homosexual behavior and marriage. They have rejected the ancient message that Christ’s Incarnation has changed everything about fallen creation, and that it is in conformity to him that we are made free. Like the modernists in education, such people reject the notion that the Church is intended to shape and govern their lives and beliefs. They reject the idea that Christian liberty is found in joyous obedience to the law of love, and instead pervert love into the liberation of the passions from any moral or teleological order.

But those of us who maintain traditional morality are not off the hook either;  we may also fail to restructure our lives according to the Incarnation. Christ calls us to love him with our hearts, souls, and minds, not just our morality; the Christian mission in bringing the gospel to the world embraces all aspects of human life. If Christians only preach (and live) Christian morality without explaining its foundations, can we be surprised when others reject it? Edmund Burke wrote that, “People will not look forward to posterity who never look backwards to their ancestors.” The early Church fathers developed a distinctly Christian understanding of morality, law, and philosophy to help understand and explain the principles of Christian doctrine. The modern Church cannot simply abandon or ignore these ideas if it wishes to remain convincing to the outside world; if the Church fails to pass on Christian philosophy to younger generations, it fails to equip them to structure their lives after the Incarnation in preparation for restructuring the world.

According to Dr. Deneen, university libraries have, by and large, lost their purpose. They now sit mostly empty of the students they were originally designed to serve. Churches run the risk of similar irrelevancy if they fail to pass on the rich philosophical and theological heritage that undergirds it’s doctrinal and moral teachings. By re-engaging these ideas and applying them to the current cultural challenges it faces, the Church can find a firm foundation upon which to oppose the fleeting cultural orthodoxies that attack her teaching.

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