As an American who’s used to seeing dilapidated ‘historic sites’ no older than four hundred years old, I dream of visiting the numerous thousand-plus year old sites of Europe still standing and often functioning in the capacity for which they were built. And so many of Europe’s historic sites are cathedrals, parish churches, and monasteries. A quick image search of historic churches of Europe will yield an amazing amount of breathtaking examples of Celtic/English, Frankish/Norman, Greek, Italian, Kievan/Russian, Kartvelian, and Scandinavian Christian architecture, some dating from the fourth century. At the center of nearly every ancient or medieval town across Europe stands one of these jewels. A note on a compilation of historic European churches by the Huffington Post quipped, “Churches seem to be nearly as abundant in Europe as drugstores are in Manhattan.” A comparison like that once again highlights the obvious difference in the scenery of America and Europe.
I think there’s more going on in that comparison, however, than just a stark scenic difference. Manhattanites (often used as the representative populace of America in movies and t.v.) apparently value their drugstores enough that their abundance serves as a comparative marker in a Huff Post caption. Obviously the line is meant to be humorous and to make a point about the number of churches in Europe, but it equally draws one’s attention to the large number of drugstores in Manhattan. Through this comparison of an abundance of Manhattan drugstores to an abundance of European churches, the reader is now either consciously or unconsciously introduced to questions about what the abundance of an institution says about the needs of a society, the comparative “institutional purposes” of drugstores and churches and their comparative usefulness, and probably the value or valuelessness of beauty and antiquity. It turns out the amount of baggage that can be unpacked from that one little throw-away joke is pretty large.
Like most jokes, this one takes advantage of societal norms, beliefs, or assumptions about some aspect of life which it uses to create or expose some sort of irony or absurdity. In this case, I think there are a few different assumptions at work. One assumption, promulgated by a consumerist culture familiar in Manhattan and elsewhere, is that ‘new is better than old.’ This assumption, though obviously absurd, is nevertheless unthinkingly held by many in our society, at least much of the time. I think we can become embarrassed when we do realize the absurdity of that assumption, and so in this comparison of the transitory quality of drugstores with the time-tested churches of Europe, there’s an admission that something is indeed venerable about antiquity, even if only for the pragmatism of being ‘well-built.’ One can’t use the pragmatism rationale when admitting the superior beauty of European churches over Manhattan drugstores, though. Beauty, like antiquity, seems to command our reverence and admiration for no other reason than that it deserves it.
But it’s not really fair, is it, to compare the beauty and antiquity of old churches to drugstores? They’re not the same kind of thing, after all; they have different purposes. Churches give people a sense of comfort and purpose in a big and confusing world. Drugstores (half pharmacy, half convenience store) offer solutions to real and immediate problems. Or from a more severe perspective, churches enslave people to a system of lies and corruption, whereas drugstores house the only things necessary for true life: food, medicine, and creature comforts. The beauty and workmanship of churches indicate the misplaced energies of their builders toward honoring a God who either isn’t there or who isn’t around to notice. Our society has come to discover that health and happiness come from medicine, magazines, and milk duds, and so we invented drugstores where these all can be found together. They may not last for centuries or be mindfully beautiful, but they’re sensible and need be nothing more.
I won’t spend any time now discussing the assumption at the core of this rationale, which is “real stuff is more important than spiritual stuff.” It’s enough now to point out that the distinction between real and spiritual has only spread to popular consciousness (or rather unconsciousness) in the last couple centuries, following a long series of unintended consequences stemming from secular-tending, post-Reformation political arrangements. The following decades and centuries have produced Western societies that fancy themselves mostly free of the tempestuous issues that rocked the Reformation churches, having undergone the liberation of Enlightenment, and subject only to the limitations on pleasure and amusement which their sciences have yet to conquer. The ancient structures, fossilized exoskeletons of debunked superstitions, provide shelter now only in the most violent tragedies, and are utilized still only for the most persistent solemnities, though even those are at last being freed from the old stubborn prejudices and bigotries. In Europe, the omnipresent sentinels of a bygone epoch continue at least to force the societies around them to face their past and remain self-aware, self-conscious to some degree. In America, the sentinels are less impressive. And many are even being shaped by the brave new worldview, taking on the form of shopping malls, movie theaters, restaurants, … and drugstores.
I know it seems that I’ve made a much bigger deal of a simple one-liner than it could possibly have warranted. It’s not even a meaningful statement empirically. But I’m not concerned with its facticity or even its comedic quality. I wanted to point out that the assumptions behind it and the questions it raises, if one lingers on it for more than a second, are deeply indicative of the direction of the meta-current which has been sweeping the modern West along, no longer just in the governments that work at it, but now at the popular level. The name that can be given to this direction, this powerfully popular modus operandi, is Secularism. I’ve touched on secularism here and there on this blog, but now I want to formally introduce the concept and develop it further in a near future post. It is the echo of the serpent’s whisper in our age, filling our ears so to the point that it goes mostly unnoticed, and guiding our eager hands toward our Fall – not in a single epic sense, but at every turn, day after day, developing a behavior which may go on in a half-slumber for all the ages. This subject certainly requires our attention, and I will turn to it more squarely soon.