Is It Unethical To Construct Outrageously Elaborate Places of Worship?
The cover image for this article is from my recent pilgrimage to the cathedral-infested country of Poland, where I attended an Orthodox young adult conference, and it depicts the largest Orthodox church in the country of Poland; complete with a bell tower that could possibly compete with the Washington Monument. I of course exaggerate, but it was a difficult process for me to come to terms with the lavish and ornate presence of the ancient Christian faith—especially in the old world—and showing pictures of this trip to folks back home provoked questions of the moral implications behind expensive Christian architecture. Didn’t Christ desire for us to focus on “feeding his sheep?” There appears to be a sharp division on this issue between members of high-church traditions with more embellished worship centers versus more informal or non-denominational groups, (although even among the low-church groups there is a rising fad in expensive church buildings with sound equipment, instruments, and fancy stage lights, even if the building itself cannot be described as “ornate”). Having been raised in a community that holds worship services in a basketball gymnasium, where the pastor has expressed the opinion that it would not affect him at all if the church building were to burn down because physical space is completely irrelevant to Christian worship, it was a different world for me to encounter the concern of parishioners for creating a beautiful and elaborate place dedicated to worship. What follows is a consideration of the dilemma we are faced with in encountering the historic practice of making sacred space for worship when the Church is called to care for the poor and feed the hungry; is it a waste displeasing to God to spend resources on the physical place of worship?
THE FIRST AND GREATEST COMMANDMENT
Ultimately the issue at hand is the task of maintaining a proper balance of loving the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving your neighbor as yourself [Mark 12:30-31]. The Church is called to care for the needy, the sick, and the infirm, and this of course is central to the carrying out of the Great Commission. This much is obvious and does not need to be explained for most Christians. However, many Christian traditions today fail to recognize the expression of the first commandment—the total love of God above all—when they see it manifested in the veneration and respect of believers towards their local place of worship as they beautify and adorn the space they go to meet the Lord. Of course, God does not need anything from us, since the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof [Psalm 24:1], but why would this mean that it is immoral to give Him gifts in the form of beautiful churches with ornate furnishings? In considering this I began to think of my own family’s traditions at Christmas time. We are all very blessed and truly are not in need of resources, yet we still purchase gifts for everyone in our family every year, as well as for birthdays and special occasions. Is it unethical for us to do so rather than give the equivalent of what we would have spent on each other to some charity? Gift giving, whether the recipient is truly in need of the gift or not, is the natural expression of affection and if this can be intimately true in our earthly relationships, why is this so often vilified when directed towards our heavenly Father?
AND THE SECOND IS LIKE IT
If, however, this first and greatest commandment is being expressed to the exclusion or abuse of the second, the love of neighbor, then it is tipped out of balance. If extortion of the poor is taking place, this is immoral and a distortion of what it is to be Christian—to lay down one’s life for the other, the stranger, the widow and the orphan. My Evangelical pastor from the church I grew up in was once on a mission trip to Romania and recounted a story where the Orthodox priest came by to give a house blessing for a family, and the impoverished family offered the priest all they could afford in exchange. The priest contended that it would only be enough to bless one room, thus the family moved all of their furniture to reside only in the one room they could afford to be blessed by the priest. This is a most horrible account exhibiting a situation where what we are discussing has fallen totally out of balance and into immoral extortion (and, parenthetically, exemplifies the need for recovery and re-evangelization of the Church in regions that have experienced the most intense turmoil from political oppression and the upheaval of the faith during the tumultuous twentieth century).
From another perspective, I was also dealing with this issue of proper use of expenses while recently attending the All-American Council of the Orthodox Church in America. This Council took place in Atlanta, and one of its main events was a very ornate, hierarchical liturgy with Metropolitan Tikhon and the holy synod of the OCA. Later that day the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) gave a presentation on relief work they are doing in the Middle East, in places where children are getting only two to three hot meals a week. As delegation continued, a priest stood up to a microphone and interrupted procedures to express a burden he felt to encourage everyone present to each give twenty dollars to this relief work. This would produce a significant sum, and fulfill the Church’s call to care for the underprivileged. The council ended up raising over $14,000 for the IOCC, which I felt was a Divine comfort to my concerns, demonstrating the proper symmetry of love for God and neighbor. Ultimately this “proper balance” is simply a reflection of one’s heart condition, and if we are concerned most of all with the Beatitude’s call to purify our heart in order to see God, then we will not have to not nit-pick and worry about whether we are being unethical with our resources. Our lifestyles will then increasingly display the proper demonstration of love for God and for our neighbor.
WHAT WOULD JESUS THINK?
Aside from personal sentiments, how would Jesus react to the construction of ornate places of worship? Would he be turning tables over and condemning concern for the beauty of the Lord’s house as pharisaical extortion? It occurred to me in considering this topic that Jesus willingly participated in worship at the most grand, ornate, and expensive place of worship perhaps in human history: “Modern estimates place the area [in the courtyard where He disrupted the moneychangers] at around four hundred square meters. If this be of surprise, consider that the whole temple occupied almost a quarter of the city of Jerusalem.”[i] Christ apparently did not have ethical inhibitions about going to worship in such an incredibly extravagant place dedicated to God, and when he saw a widow give her last cent to contribute to its beautification He praised her for her piety.[ii] A balanced approach is given by Saint John Chrysostom in his commentary on the woman in Matthew 26 who anointed Christ with the alabaster flask of fragrant oil. He says:
“If anyone had asked Christ before the woman did this, He would not have approved it. But after she had done it, He looks only to the gift itself. For after the fragrant oil had been poured, what good was a rebuke? Likewise, if you should see anyone providing a sacred vessel or ornament for the walls of the church, do not spoil his zeal. But if beforehand he asks about it, command him to give instead to the poor.”[iii]
Also, the dichotomy of “outward ‘works’ versus inward ‘religion’ was not in any way known by first-century Jews,”[iv] since for them “the external was necessary for the internal and vice versa—they were one and the same.”[v] Thus a good understanding of Christ’s making a scene in the temple revolves not around a condemnation of using resources for the Temple but a symbolic prophecy of the Temple’s destruction making way for the new and pure temple—His own body—to correct the Jewish expectation of a political restoration of Israel.[vi]
So in contrast to the condemnation of external expression of beauty and piety as being an improper or immature approach to the Christian faith, it is quite interesting that when the Bible first mentions someone being filled with the Holy Spirit, it was not to write doctrine, to preach sermons, or even to work miracles. It was Bezaleel, who was filled with the Spirit of God “to design artistic works, to work in gold, in silver, in bronze, in cutting jewels for setting, in carving wood, and to work in all manner of workmanship”[vii] for the construction of the place of worship for God’s people. This strongly implies that God cares about beauty, art, and aesthetic quality in the worship patterns of His children. The role of beauty in worship is important because it helps elevate believers to experience and commune with the Lord of creation, and to realize the potential and intended purpose behind all that has been created.
BECOMING A HEALING PRESENCE
Most rational people do not get irate when they see state of the art hospital buildings to care for people’s’ physical well being. In fact, hospitals and the medical field owe their existence to the Christian church, specifically to Basil the Great and the monastics he employed to staff the first “hospitality houses.” For early Christians, it was important to care for people’s bodies in addition to their souls. Why then is it wrong to create state-of-the-art hospitals for people’s’ spiritual well-being, for propelling them into the heavenlies to experience the realm of their heavenly Father?
While on the topic of the origin of the hospital movement, let us state that the earthly, physical aspect of people’s well-being has always been important because the Church has always had an incarnate understanding of reality. That is, Christ gave His life for the life of the world, to restore it to its intended glory. In the words of Father Alexander Schmemann:
“The world is a fallen world because it has fallen away from the awareness that God is all in all. The accumulation of this disregard for God is the original sin that blights the world. And even the religion of this fallen world cannot heal or redeem it, for it has accepted the reduction of God to an area called ‘sacred’ (‘spiritual,’ ‘supernatural’) – as opposed to the world as ‘profane.’ It has accepted the all-embracing secularism which attempts to steal the world away from God.”[viii]
Thus, all beauty, all riches, all ornateness, all the good things in this world find their source, their meaning, and their purpose within the Christian Church. It is within her walls that good and beautiful things are ultimately realized for what they were to begin with—sacramental means of communion with God—and therefore creation can progressively reach its full potential as good within the context of the Church acting as its ambassador; as God in His Church reconciles the world to Himself (see 2 Cor. 5:18-20). Beauty within worship is therefore essential to this message, to evangelizing the world with the gospel.
WHERE YOUR TREASURE IS, THERE YOUR HEART WILL BE ALSO
One final thought, I think it says something about a culture when its cities have 2-3 million dollar churches on every other block, as opposed to multi-hundred-million-dollar sports stadiums, strip malls, and places of (often times vulgar) entertainment on every corner. Indeed, the majority of grand and expensive places of worship in our culture seem to be modeled after such secular, “concert hall” style entertainment industries. Where are our priorities? Has Christianity in our culture succumbed to a false dichotomy of sacred and secular, divorcing the spiritual from the physical, attending a four-plain-walls-and-a-sermon service once a week (complete with rock concert) while investing the rest of our week on completely empty “secular” endeavors? Or is the Church in our society reflecting the proper worldview of restoring the cosmos to beauty, to its place of communion with God?
- N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 1992. p. 225.
[ii] Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4
[iii] Footnote on Matthew 26:6-13, The Orthodox Study Bible. Elk Grove: St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology. 2008. p. 1320.
[iv] Fanous, 62
[v] Ibid, 63
[vi] See Ibid, 66-74
[vii] Exodus 31:1-5
[viii] Schmemann, Fr. Alexander. For the Life of the World. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 1973. p. 16