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The Glory of Being Shut Up


“Christ prophesied the whole of Gothic architecture in that hour when nervous and respectable people (such people as now object to barrel organs) objected to the shouting of the gutter-snipes of Jerusalem. He said, 'If these were silent, the very stones would cry out.' Under the impulse of His spirit arose like a clamorous chorus the facades of the mediaeval cathedrals, thronged with shouting faces and open mouths. The prophecy has fulfilled itself: the very stones cry out.”  - G.K. Chesterton

We lost something important when our Western culture ‘outgrew’ its infatuation with obscenely large cathedrals, ornate basilicas, dark stone chapels, stretching towers, and lonely crypts. We lost something important – a unique human experience – when religious people began their relationship with the plaster-church over the ‘old-school’ church.

We lost our awareness of the power of Place, specifically, its power to shut us up. Have you ever seen a group of tourists walk into a basilica? They respect the great artistic achievements of the Old Church without respect for the Old Church. They walk in through the creaking, wooden side-door; they are talking about their diet plans, and the relative evils of cholesterol. Through the door now, (they smell the incense), into the foyer, (they feel the cool of the stone ease away the heat of the day from their skin), and past the first arch. Wait for it, wait for it…now.

Their words die on their lips. Mouths open loosely, and necks crane instinctively upwards. Their group loosens, they begin to wander away from each other, one towards the candles, another towards Our Lady of Sorrows, and another towards the altar, each waltzing in small circles as they try to take everything in. How many times I’ve seen this, and how many more times I’ve performed this little unconscious ritual; this silent transformation; this unrequested dance.

The beauty of a basilica is that men do not visit it, it visits men. The beauty of it, yes, but also the rudeness of that dark, stone temple, for it is a hand clamped over the modern mouth, a sturdy grasp guiding one through side-chapels.

It demands that you center yourself. Here are the pews on either side, the symmetrical side-chapels, everything mirrored and proportional, even the interlacing tessellations of granite that spread out from a single star on the floor. Stand on the star. Then look straight ahead. There are two things that everything else seems to reflect from. Two things in this building that form and beauty and structure emanate from. One is you, in the center of the church, having wandered there almost by by necessity, by the strange force of the symmetry all around you. The other is the tabernacle. Of the two, choose now whom you will serve.

Every cathedral makes this bold, arrogant challenge to the visiting man. The sheer size, scope, and intricacy of these temples speaks of the total, radical commitment men gave to God; to build him a dwelling place, even if they were not to see it complete; to serve him. These living stones are their pronounced fiat; their yes; their choice. What is yours? For when Catholic or atheist leaves, the tabernacle remains. The Body of Christ will stay – the red candle still burn – and the basilica will circle and reflect around it, like ripples in a pool, emanating from the drop of some inexplicable and sublime stone.

What does a plaster-church say? “I will not be here long.”

What does a cathedral say? “You cannot deny me. For I’ve outlasted your forefathers, and I’ll outlast you.”

The cathedral speaks of the endurance of Catholicism. This is not to deny the beauty of a simple church, of the awesome fact that the universal quality of Catholicism means that Catholics can celebrate mass in their living rooms, shelters, canoes, and battle-fields. This is simply to lament that the age of the Cathedral is done, the age where one was silenced, for perhaps the briefest of moments in a life filled with noise, and brought to worship.

Perhaps the tourists would never acknowledge that they perform an act of worship, walking into a basilica. But what else are we to call it, when we all shut up, slow ourselves and walk small-stepped in awe, reduced to whispers and peace?

The Catholic Church holds that worship is not something we do. No, worship is a gift we receive. I hold that the cathedrals, basilicas, and lasting chapels of the Church are awesome conveyors of that gift, rudely thrusting worship into the hearts of all who enter them.

But perhaps there is one place left where one can experience this bit of humanity. I speak, of course, of the library, where my writings are written. It would not be unwise for the seeking, modern man, to stand in some old, dusky library, close his eyes amidst the books that surround him, and think of how such a little peace would be magnified, if he were surrounded by saints, angels, pilgrims, prayers, cool stone, and holy incense.

A man in a library - if he is a man at all – is humbled by the mass of human knowledge, wisdom, and understanding that surrounds him.

A man in a cathedral is humbled because he, as a member of the human race, has performed the incredible and audacious act of surrounding the unsurroundable God with stone.

Marc Barnes

Written by

Marc Barnes is an English major at The Franciscan University of Steubenville. He writes at Patheos.com for the Catholic Channel, focusing on bringing Catholicism to secular culture through natural law, humor, and ADD-powered philosophical outbursts. He recently created and released the website 1flesh.org with some friends, a grassroots movement in opposition to artificial contraception, promoting natural methods of family planning. He has also written for Crisis Magazine, LiveAction.org, LifeSiteNews, and his work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal. He loves blowing things up, and has a man-crush on Soren Kierkegaard. Follow Marc's blog at Bad Catholic.

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  • Damon

    I believe mankind, in general, feels a need to gather in churches, and I have always respected this apparent need even as a non-believer. Whenever I travel to a new place I like to tour the oldest house of worship I can find, and sit quietly for time. I do this not to pray, but to gently lift my thoughts toward the generations that have gathered in the same spot before me, and the reassurance of tradition slowly fills me with a sense of wonder and awe.

    • Krakerjak

      There is no denying the beauty and the impressiveness of these marvels of engineering. Would that we all could have the opportunity to visit them. Can't help but to admire the skill and genius of craftsmanship that went into their construction. As works of art they are second to none. As beautiful as they are, they pale in comparison to the beauty of nature.

      • Indeed. The former was made to worship God; the latter was made by God.

        • Loreen Lee

          Dear Brandon. After posting my comment I checked out the source of 'stone upon stone', etc. and concluded, not on instinct/intuition this time, that he was not talking about using stones in the construction of edifices for worship. I would think that he was more likely talking of the quiet, unspoken stones found within nature!!!!

          • Yes, Penny, that is a very astute observation. You have done as Paul had encouraged the Bereans to do in the Book of Acts. You have gone back and read the context in Scripture for yourself, as you should have. Jesus was in fact referring to rocks in general, not specifically to rocks of the Temple. In contrast, He was referring to the rocks of the Temple when He said "See these stones? Not one will be left on top of the other." So the rocks that WOULD cry out are rocks in general. Notice though that it is a conditional or hypothetical. If God felt there were not enough worshipers and more people were unwilling to cry out in worship of Him, then the rocks would themselves suddenly be given a voice to put Mankind to shame in his silence and neglect of the Holy God.

        • Krakerjak

          Is worship of God more meritorious in a large expensive cathedral as opposed to worship by a stream in the forest, or in one's closet at home? Is God more present in the Cathedral?

          • David Nickol

            Is God more present in the Cathedral?

            A question of the most profound importance.

          • Loreen Lee

            Yes. So I will keep my questions to 'myself'.

          • "Is worship of God more meritorious in a large expensive cathedral as opposed to worship by a stream in the forest, or in one's closet at home? Is God more present in the Cathedral?"

            Sorry, Krakerjak, but both of these questions seem incoherent to me. The purpose of worship is not to attain merit—it's to offer praise—yet even it was inherently meritorious, I struggle to see how anyone could measure the merit attained by one form of worship and compare it to other forms.

            Regarding the second question, I'm not sure how to quantify or compare the level of "presence." Certainly for Catholics, Christ is uniquely present in every Cathedral (and every parish church) in the tabernacle, where he resides substantially under the appearance of bread and wine. So I suppose you could say he is "more" present there than in the forest. But I'm not sure the word "more" is an appropriate descriptor since we're not talking about a gradation of presence.

          • Krakerjak

            Christ is uniquely present in every Cathedral (and every parish church) in the tabernacle, where he resides

            Yes....I realize that "meritorious" was not the right word to use,. Was really only asking is god more present in the cathedral. I think you knew what I was getting at without splitting hairs. I do thank you for finally plainly answering that question.

          • Linda

            I don't know that God is more present, but I suspect that Man may be more present for God in those cathedrals, which it seems is what the article is getting at.

          • Actually, "meritorious" was the perfect word, since we have lost this very old usage of the term. It is metaphorical in this sense, not literal. Your usage of it did not imply at all that you thought there would be some specific accounting of merit. However, your question is definitely valid. No need to apologize. However, we would have to invert it for today's audience. The assumption now is that spending time in nature is more meritorious than in a cathedral. The answer is not in the merit (being better than something else) of the natural setting over the manmade. It is in the activation of the soul to reflect on the Holy God who made all things and offers salvation to all people. That is the question that when answered for each person at any certain moment (since our personal responses to our environmental settings changes with life and circumstances) will have its answer to your question.

          • Loreen Lee

            Still wondering about the quotation. I have not been able to find a Catholic reference, but merely believe (as I am far from a biblical scholar) that the saying was made during Christ's entry into Jerusalem. Is this correct? Anyway, of many alternatives, this is the best possible source of interpretation I have found on the internet. There is some commentary at the close of the quotations. http://www.godvine.com/bible/luke/19-40 I also find it very difficult to accept either C.S. Lewis or Chesterton's interpretation of Church 'doctrine?'

      • Loreen Lee

        Just a little note, in compensation for the scientific viewpoint that Catholicism/Christianity is responsible for the demise of science. This was, I assert, not the result of the rise of Christianity but of the fall of Rome. Yes. There is a real distinction to be made here. Read of Hepatia, again, about 400 B.C. and found the great revolution happening in the city with pitted Christian and Jew against the Roman head Quintus, who fought the bishop Cyril. It was a real revolution, with thousands of Jews expelled from the city. Hepatia found herself on the side of the Roman constable, whatever, and it was this fact that led to her brutal slaying, not that she was an emulated scientist - my version.

        Also different sectors of any particular society gain in ascendancy during certain historical periods. During the Middle (not Dark) Ages, there was a great development in agriculture, (new methods had been found which finally allowed the development of the northern lands), the trade guilds were established, etc. Take a look at the Medieval .plays like 'Everyman' and 'Gammer Gurton's Needle'. Their emphasis is much more on the 'common people' compared to the emphasis on the nobility found for instance in Greek travel. A new class was being born, so that I can imagine it would have been far preferable to be even a Feudal serf than in the underclass of the roman empire. Were they called the Proletarian? grin grin. Anyway, it was as a result in the development of the trades, that the great basilicas were able to be built. Science, I regret to say, alone, could not have built these incredible structures.

        Also, I have been reading Aristotle. I understand now that he did indeed have 'the real scientific method'. Possibly more so than a lot of 'secondary?' sciences today. The only 'problem' was that it was qualitatively based. So again, sometimes, there is a reasoned explanation for even a brief termination of any specific human enterprise. (Wish there was one for war!). The advent of the Universities in about 600? A.D., a new development in societies, possibly had something to do with the fact that science did develop the needed math, (something to credit Jaki with), that was needed before it could again assume a supremacy. The only trouble now is that I have just read a report that indicates the dangers in scientific development in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and artificial biology. It was a detached, realistic perspective of the many dangers of a possible end times. I'm sure you all can figure out the other nine dangers that we face within the world today.

        • You should never forget that the so-called dark ages occurred mainly in a small part of the world, Northern Europe. The eastern empire did not fall until centuries later and built tremendous churches hundreds of years before the gothic tradition.

          There is no doubt that in Northern Europe there was a significant contraction in economies and communication. What did not contract, or contracted the least was religion. For at least 500 years or so, Catholicism was the only game going in terms of reading, writing, and preserving knowledge. In this time it achieved virtually nothing in terms of art, science and architecture. Beginning in the 10th and 11th century we see some theatre and religious painting emerge. But it is paltry compared to the then 1000 year old plus works of Greece.

          Within a few hundred years, real progress is made in cathdral building which remains 100% consistent with Catholicism. When. It comes to art and theatre, what followed was a centuries long battle between the church and artists, that is just barely ending now in the west at least.

          Broad changes in culture over hundreds of years are affected by thousands of factors, history, politics, religion, climate, technology and so on. Certainly religion may have played a central role in furthering things we might consider progressive. It is impossible to prove one way or another. The same can be said if atrocities. But in the year 1000 AD, absolutely everything in Europe was couched in overtly religious language, regardless of whether we now consider it a good thing or a bad thing.

          If we attribute cathedrals to Catholicism alone, we can also attribute the crusades, the inquisition to it.

          • Loreen Lee

            I agree entirely with your critique here. My attempt at a synopsis was merely in order to demonstrate (particularly to the scientists on EN, that history is a little more complicated than either/or). That thousand year interval between 300AD and 1300AD (approximately) also involved the occupation by Islam. Something some may consider relevant to the world situation today. But I have been on this site in order to research Catholicism, and am finding many explanations for why I left about the age of 15, and I'm still finding unconscious connections, which have for example recently 'upset' me even in the past little while.
            What I am finding most disconcerting is the circuitous approach to what is considered knowledge. How for instance I believe interpretation is made that will allow the church hierarchy to 'gain power and control'. With respect to the works of Aristotle, I believe it can be demonstrated to what extent interpretation is overridden by Platonic/NeoPlatonic metaphysics. I am only now re-reading these philosophers within an entirely new perspective. But as my family has long been involved in the Irish/Catholic tradition, I continue to give some paltry economic support to the church. Although I do not support the practical aspects of their natural law, it may yet be that Church may be a necessary counter to some movements within the secular and scientific fields of endeavor. We have already lived through Social Darwinism, and the Eugenics of the 40's, for instance. Just because one is a scientist, does not necessarily guarantee 'sainthood'. !! grin grin.

          • Yes, very complicated. This time period also involved nordic raiding which would have been a wet blanket on scientific progress.

            My own lay belief is that following the fall of Rome in the west, there was an overemphasized large scale devolution into warring kingdoms and largely illiterate kingdoms. Christianity continued to spread in these kingdoms, but it seems to be most interested in monasticism in those years. For many and good reasons.

            In the late medievil, we see larger political groupings such as Charlemagne, some unification in England. Some modest development, mainly in the area of church building.

            But what really seems to ignite the scientific revolution is the rapid and large scale proliferation of knowledge by way of the printing press. Sure other things need to be in place, among them, arguably a worldview similar to christianity, some peace, though war seems to be a constant during all history.

          • Loreen Lee

            Just saw this now, Brian. Thanks. I am most perplexed by a lot of viewpoints within current atheist perspectives. Although I have been with atheists all my life, as artist, Marxist husband, etc. etc. some of the agenda currently put forward somewhat 'worries' me. Although I don't intend to make a big issue of this, especially as I am attempting to live 'within my stream of consciousness', this New Atheist agenda is certainly 'different' from Hume, Mill, Marx, you name it. No further remark concern this. (P.S. I think there was some art before the Aquinas etc. era. Hope to investigate this. Also some philosophers. Have you ever read Boethius? Imprisoned about 525A.D. - a high echelon Roman - Christian. Also the inclusion of Stoicism, and even some Epicurean philosophy early into Christianity. Those monks in the monasteries I think were really quite busy with philosophy and art, until the Irish came along and rescued Europe!!! But growing up in the 40's I never would have gotten an education if I hadn't decided to go my own way. Even then, it was a battle - as you can tell!!!!

          • Loreen Lee

            Will get back on this. Hopefully you will be able to give an answer later. I'm just wondering about the possibility that cosmologists/scientists may be feeling that 'science' in these fields has run into a kind of 'dark hole'. After all, I understand there at at least 17 explanations for quantum theory, and everyone seems to be pushing their opinion as if it is the final end all. Also- the speculations can indeed be classified as metaphysical. There is just no possibility of having 'evidence' as they admit.

            I actually believe that science was in a similar state following the demise of Aristotle. It took an advancement of culture/society as a whole before it was able to 'begin again'. Like, no segment is unique, complete onto itself, kind of hypothesis. Just a thought here. Hope the a-theists don't ban me...!!! Nor Brandon...See you later alligator.

          • Doug Shaver

            This time period also involved nordic raiding which would have been a wet blanket on scientific progress.

            Military necessity usually promotes scientific progress rather than hindering it. Why was there an exception at this particular time?

          • I'm not sure this is the case in medieval times. It seems more like those with the advantage dominated and conquer those who have not innovated. We see it by the massive success of the Norse with their longboats, and then by their descendants in Normandy with the stirrup in 1066. I think until the existence of the scientific method, we don't really see a threatened population overcome a foe by coming up with a scientific innovation in response to war.

            Being charitable I can accept that the Norse raids and conquest would likely have put the brakes on any emerging science in the British Isles at least. But this is being quite charitable. By the time they settled England in they converted to Christianity.
            What were the pre-scientific Catholic scholars doing in Germany or Austria, or Italy during these centuries?

            And of course it is not as if the centuries of 1000 to 1500 were peaceful in Europe!

          • Doug Shaver

            I'm not sure this is the case in medieval times. It seems more like those with the advantage dominated and conquer those who have not innovated.

            It was not like that only in Medieval times or only in Europe. The progress of technological innovation was glacial everywhere until around the 16th century. There was not a large enough body of established scientific knowledge on which to make any progress fast enough to affect the outcome of any particular conflict. But slow progress was occurring in the Greco-Roman world before the Roman empire collapsed. After the collapse, it came to a near standstill in Europe, and this happened a long time before the Norse began their raiding.

            What were the pre-scientific Catholic scholars doing in Germany or Austria, or Italy during these centuries?

            So far as I have been able to find out, they were doing almost nothing of any practical value. And I have checked sources friendly to religion, not just anti-Christian propaganda.

          • Agreed. My point was that war does not seem to have sparked tech innovation historically. Perhaps the converse.

            There is a good early Middle Ages course online from Yale if you're interested. On you tube. In this the prof deals with the myth and reality of what we mean by Dark Ages. I think they settled on something like it is clear that Western Europe underwent a widespread economic contraction.

            Anyway, think we agree that of Christianity is to be considered a major factor in the scientific revolution, it has about 10 centuries of lag time to account for. I'd agree that it was a factor, particularly the world view that allows for nature to be modelled. (But we likely have a chicken and egg issue here.)

            I'd say that the printing press and Protestantism would be much more significant factors.

          • Doug Shaver

            There is a good early Middle Ages course online from Yale if you're interested. On you tube. In this the prof deals with the myth and reality of what we mean by Dark Ages.

            If you're referring to the Paul Freedman videos, I don't think I've seen them all yet, but I have watched several.

          • Yep. The one on monasticism and the refrain of heresies I found are interesting in the context of these discussions.

  • Krakerjak

    Man has performed the incredible and audacious act of surrounding the unsurroundable God with stone.

    In other words, men of all cultures have tried in vain to put God in a box.

    • Enough

      The churches, Basilicas, and Cathedrals that are so beautiful are simply built out of love.

      • Krakerjak

        The churches, Basilicas, and Cathedrals that are so beautiful are simply built out of love.

        True in a way.....but not "simply" built out of love" but also built out of fear of god and the church hierarchy , but also from the personal guilt of damnation that was instilled within the adherents of the faith with the impression given the faithful, that contributions to the building of such could perhaps assuage that guilt.

        • Loreen Lee

          Yes. It appears that Jesus was not indeed the 'final' sacrifice. But I don't want to be heretical.

          • Krakerjak

            Hi Loreen.....I am not saying that Jesus was not the ultimate sacrifice or not....and do not care if my thoughts and expressions are "heretical" or not as per the RCC....I admit that the story of Jesus is very attractive ...and wish/hope it were true, but have great reservations as to the Catholic presentation of same. Of course I cannot express all my trepidation here...as I don't want to be deleted or banned. But it is really interesting and informative to dialogue with unique individuals such as yourself who are not expressions of the cookie cutter.

          • Loreen Lee

            Thank you Krakerjak. I too can distinguish between the concepts of redemption and salvation. I also have difficulty in the way I am obliged to meet the interpretations of same without 'question'. . And of course, I too cannot express all of my constant musings. Am meeting up with Mr. Green tonight, although I plan to listen only to what is said at the 'A' meeting. As I have said I'm 'between' naturalism and 'religion?' or 'the personal', and find difficulties on 'all fronts'. Hopefully, I can keep and 'find' my 'peace/piece'. Take care.

  • Loreen Lee

    I must first confess that I have neither the wealth or the time to visit all of the great Christian cathedrals. But then, do I not recall Jesus saying, (without I believe mentioning such a need to build powerful structures) that the kingdom of heaven lies within.

    Within the context of 'power' I offer this comparative evaluation of the 'stones that cry out'. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=krbX-9ugbI4

    • Linda

      There are beautiful cathedrals and basilicas in most large cities. Even those can be awe-inspiring.

  • Marc Riehm

    As have Muslims with their mosques.

  • Mike O’Leary

    Many people find churches beautiful, therefore God is real?

    • I don't think that was Marc's point. Perhaps you should read the article again.

      • Mike O’Leary

        Mr. Barnes stated that Catholic cathedrals have a unique power in touching a part of each person's psyche, even for non-believers. He states the awe and silence that comes about by entering one of these cathedrals is worship, even if non-believers would not use such a term. The only thing that Mr. Barnes says that comes close to that level of wonder and introspection is the library; but that too he says would be greatly improved by the addition of saints, angels, prayers, etc., and that anyone seeking truth would have to accept that fact (as he is laid it out).

        It's clear this is a variant of the argument from beauty. While not saying it directly, in so many words he is telling us that the feelings one gets from entering a Catholic cathedral shows the truth of the Catholic Church, including the existence of God as they define him.

  • Marc Riehm

    I, too, visit cathedrals when in Europe. I do feel awe - at the beauty, the engineering, the art, and the sense of history. But I also feel many more emotions. I shake my head at the futility of these buildings. I reflect on all the baggage, some of it ridiculously arrogant ("shave one month from your time in pergatory by purchasing this small indulgence"), some of it evil (the Albigensian crusade). I wonder at the fact that people can and do convince themselves of anything in the name of religion.

    • Enough

      I am an architect and Designer, I agree these beautiful buildings are awe inspiring by architecture and engineering alone. They are do not represent anything earned. They are a gift. Just as you give gifts to the people you love, these buildings are a gift that represents most humanly love for God. All humans understand beauty and want to have and give beautiful things especially to people we love and cherish. Why would it be any different for people that love and cherish God.

  • William Davis

    What does a cathedral say? “You cannot deny me. For I’ve outlasted your forefathers, and I’ll outlast you.”

    Can't we have friendly cathedrals? Why must they be arrogant?

    • And, think of what the pyramids must be saying! Stonehenge.

      • William Davis

        The pyramids were clearly intended to facilitate the physical resurrection of the body of the pharoahs. Jesus and Paul believed in the same physical resurrection (minus the pyramids). Their view of the afterlife died a long time ago, clearly the buildings can outlast the beliefs :)

        • Ya, the pyramids say to the cathedrals, wait until you've been here for a few millennia, before you start bragging about "outlasting forefathers".

          • teomatteo

            those arrogant pyramids : )

  • Rae Marie

    I also am in the school of thought that beauty points to God. It is a great vehicle of evangelization.


  • Krakerjak

    Cathedral Building As an Expression of Faith

    Although cathedral building was driven by religious figures or
    institutions, it was often a community effort. From the mid-twelfth
    century, the Church started granting indulgences (forgiveness of sins)
    to those who would help to build a church or cathedral.Taking relics on tour was a very also a lucrative means of fund-raising.


  • I've always had a great appreciation for cathedrals. But not just the gothic have this effect on me. The Duomo of Florence is a sight not to be missed, not just for the experience noted above, but also for its historical role in engineering and the renaissance.

    The greatest has to be Agia Sofia. The sheer age and history of the project are staggering as is the size and beauty. But of course, in beauty it pales to the Blue Mosque across the way.

    Being an atheists and even an "active" one does not seem to diminish this experience. I,most recently had it in Cologne. Of course I would use different words to describe it. And I certainly feel it in many other places. Machu Pichu, great temples in Japan. We shouldn't forget that this effect was not lost on cathedral builders and they did serve an outreach and marketing role as well as educational and religious purposes.

    Part of the effect is that they do seem magical, the heights achieved in heavy stone seem impossible (and in some cases they were and collapsed.) the beauty of the stained glass, the proportions. I would point out that all of this was intentionally designed by people to have these effects. To me their design and construction really are testimonials to the ingenuity of the later Middle Ages. (As was that if the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Persians and others.)

    • "Being an atheist and even an "active" one does not seem to diminish this experience."

      Indeed, but it fails to explain it. Why don't other animals marvel in wonder at majestic buildings? Why isn't their breath sucked away? Why do they lack a sense of the transcendent?

      • Good questions. I am unawre of any complete answers to these. I wold suggest the difference between us and other animals is do to the biology we evolved.

        • William Davis

          See my reply, I think there are answers, it just isn't a subject that has been the target of a lot of research.

      • David Nickol

        Why don't other animals marvel in wonder at majestic buildings? Why isn't their breath sucked away?

        The blindingly obvious reason why human beings marvel in wonder at majestic buildings is because human beings designed these majestic buildings to evoke such a response in fellow humans. Cathedrals were not built to impress dogs and cats.

        It is true that humans react to many things that animals don't react to, but that does not seem so difficult to explain. No animals (except, of course, human animals) laugh at jokes. But I don't see why we must assume that human beings are tuned into a spiritual realm without which jokes are impossible.

        • William Davis

          When I was a teenager, the family took a trip to the St. Louis Zoo. The most memorable part for me was going into the chimpanzee area. The viewing platform was completely encased with heavy plexi-glass, and there were boulders mysteriously on top of it. I remember watching two chimps knock an older chimp off a log, and take his seat, two were fighting over something (I don't remember what). All of a sudden, there was a loud crash, one of the chimps had thrown a huge rock into the plexi-glass, and scared the crap out of me, and a small child beside me, who started screaming. I looked out, and the chimp who threw the rock was laughing with two other chimps, I kid you not. From the number of rocks on the viewing area, this was a big joke for them. No one can tell me chimps don't have a sense of humor (even though it is only compatible with Denis the menace, lol).

      • OverlappingMagisteria

        These are fascinating questions which I admit, I don't have answers to. Although you don't outright say it, I assume you are suggesting that theism does provide an answer to them?

        If that is your implication, then I don't see how a god does answer these questions. Well, I suppose if God is omnipotent then he can do anything, including instilling humans with awe and wonder. But saying that "God can do anything therefore he did this" seems arbitrary.

        Sure, it provides an answer, but we have no reason to think it's the answer. After all, the ancient Greeks had an answer to the question of lightning (Zeus) but I think we agree it wasn't the right answer.

      • Ignatius Reilly

        Why would atheism explain it? Atheism is a lack of belief in gods. Atheism doesn't answer questions about aesthetics or our responses to it. That is for philosophy or psychology. Theism alone doesn't explain it either.

        Saying that God caused us to wonder at beauty is merely an ad hoc explanation; it is not necessarily incorrect, but it is not informative.

      • Papalinton

        Good question. Go and ask them. I would hazard a guess it's because of our evolutionary path to consciousness of self.

      • William Davis

        Animals simply have different tastes. In common theme in theories of beauty is the appreciation of something "done well". People build buildings, and a Cathedral is truly a building done well. My dog sees beauty in a well thrown ball, in a piece of stake, or in a well dug hole. A bird hears beauty in the song of another bird well song. All sexual creatures see beauty in the a well done form of the opposite sex (peacock hens see marvel at a male peacocks taile). I'm sure a beaver sees beauty in a well built damn. Here are some interesting links, they can be a little hard to find on the net.


        When looking at the sky on a story night, you could say that you are admiring something God did well, if God exists, surely he is responsible for that particular type of art. I've spent a lot of my life studying the hard sciences which is the study of God's law and his art. I see beauty in all life, and all the rules that govern reality. I've always been drawn to the beauty of understanding done well and honestly, with as little bias as possible. I also find beauty in the profound mysteries still left to be discovered (I think we are still barely scratching the surface).
        That said, when I look at Christianity, I see beautiful literature, beautiful buildings, beautiful art, but they all look man made. Man made beauty is great, but it pales in to beauty straight from the hand of God. Christianity does not seem to be from the same author as the universe, the author of the universe gets everything right the first time. Man is forced to evolve, and religion and even our imaginations of God have clearly evolved over time. God, in my mind, is something completely different than man, and our imagining God as a man is a form of human arrogance. Our genes are 98% the same as a chimpanzee, why should we dismiss our cousin so easily? Because we evolved to only care about kin, and I'm fine with stopping the line with members of homo-sapiens. Study chimps, and we have a ton in common though. I still think God prefers us (assuming God prefers anything, which I doubt) because we are much better at surviving. It is clear God made the game such that surviving is the highest priority. Now that surviving is easy for easy, we are free to engage in "higher" things :)

        Thanks for creating this site, by the way. It generates some interesting discussions.

      • Doug Shaver

        Why don't other animals marvel in wonder at majestic buildings?

        We don't know that they don't, actually. How could we tell if they were? However, I'm satisfied with the assumption that their feelings are unaffected by our architectural achievements.

        I see nothing mysterious about that (assumed) fact. It seems very probable, if not practically certain, to me that a sense of wonder requires a certain degree and kind of complexity in the brain that experiences it -- the same degree and kind of complexity that enables us to work with abstract concepts in ways that animals cannot. In other words, roughly speaking, we can experience wonder when seeing a cathedral for the same reason we were able to build the cathedral in the first place.

  • In terms of the kinds of issues raised by our discussions in these pages, what does the Gothic period of church-building say?

    One possibility is that such works would not be possible unless the Catholic story is true. I don't think that point is being made and it is betrayed by many facts. These churches were built by people. Some did not work and collapsed, others aren't terribly beautiful. We also have many great churches built to Protestants, and today, Mormons. We also have the great buildings in Islam, Hinduism. The gardens and temples of Buddhism and Shinto in Japan, rival the cathedral experience. Then we have works such as the pyramids, the Parthenon, the Pantheon. I would say these all would argue just as strongly for their causes. The. Of course we have multitudes of secular architecture. The arc de triomphe, the New York public library, many palaces and castles also generate similar feelings.

    It then could be that these buildings are largely irrelevant to whether a god exists. They could have easily been constructed whether or not one exists. I think this is the case. In any event, they are wonderful, and they still need our help. Donate to a cathedral restoration project. Actually, don't. Donate to the international Rescue Committee.

    • Loreen Lee

      Thank you for this. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Rescue_Committee It sure beats the picture published today of the pope praying for the Coptics who were beheaded. Still, (re last post), am not going to 'throw out the baby with the bath water). I'll just 'wait' and see what 'develops'. My $15.00 a month to the RCC is not going to solve any humanitarian crisis, one way or another. And my kids won't have any problem with the details for my burial. It' all 'taken care of'. (I also do not buy 'a complete reductionism'. Not to say it's not possible, but ...... Take care..

      • Papalinton

        Prayer is what you do when you can't do anything useful or purposeful.

        • Loreen Lee

          If you are speaking about my comment regarding the Pope, I was admittedly being a little crude. I would not expect that he could be personally useful or purposeful in that situation. And maybe it's possible to both pray and at the same time be useful and purposeful. I think it would be a danger for me to think too long and hard on 'what' is involved here. Thanks for your concern and attempt to help.

          • Papalinton

            No. Not you personally, Loreen. :o) But prayer is what people resort to when they cannot do anything useful or constructive.

          • Loreen Lee

            It's difficult to know how to interpret comments sometimes without an audio accompaniment? But after much reflection I have come to the conclusion that praryer must have something to do with keeping one's silence and having the glory to (be) shut up. :)

        • Loreen Lee

          Please understand Papalinton that I didn't want to get into a discussion about prayer which assumed a limitation to vocal rote prayer and appeals for intercession, etc. I can think of prayer, as any self-dialogue I have within the interior of my consciousness, which seeks for a wider understanding. In my life, I have especially benefited from what I learned from the Buddhists, a meditation technique which is being applied more extensively within therapeutic psychology. Thanks again.

  • cminca

    The fall into the same silence at Stonehenge.

    Does that speak to the endurance of the Druids?

    Crowds fall into silence in the US Capitol, at the Lincoln Memorial, at the Guggenheim, at Fallingwater, at the Acropolis, at Delphi, at Madame Tussaud's, at the Hall of Mirrors.

    Does that mean the US Government, Lincoln, Frank Lloyd Wright, Pericles, the Oracle, Madame Tussaud and Louis XIV should be items of worship?

  • Krakerjak

    One fact that cannot be seriously questioned is the fact that religions of all manner inspired the evolved creative urge, in homo sapiens to produce art....from the mediocre to the sublime from the time of prehistoric man to the present day.

  • Papalinton

    This was not my experience when visiting quite a number of religious sites in Italy a few years ago, particularly when my wife and I visited the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi and the Sistine Chapel in Rome. At the franciscan basilica, there were monks dressed in brown habits patrolling all areas, upstairs, downstairs and even in the crypt, hollering, "Fate silenzsio! Silenzio!" We found the noise of the crowds and the monks quite distracting. In the Sistine Chapel, priests were also rising above the din of the crowds with, "Silenzio! Silenzio!"

  • Máire Ní Bhroin

    There is something to be said about the type of beauty that causes one to contemplate God and forget onself; but, this can also it be found in the contemplation of an orchid, God's painterly landscapes or kneeling in a small chapel, designed by a master like Matisse.

  • Thank you Mark for this article. Yes, I wholeheartedly concur. In fact, it was at such a small cathedral in Seattle that I was fished out of despair and a series of encounters with the Holy God began. Not only for me, but for so many others the open door policy of the Catholic and Orthodox churches opens the door to the testimony of those stones. And this makes up for the shortcomings of the testimony of Man.

    Perhaps you would be interested to see the work I am doing on a new method of translating the Scriptures at The Rooted Word (therootedword.com). I am currently working on the Letter of Jacob (a.k.a. James - thanks to the anti-semitism at the time of King James and its renaming only in the English speaking world). I'll be looking for your email response. ~Ron Craig