Letter from Rome
Had you or I been among the almost 30 million Americans who tuned in to hear Walter Cronkite bring us the news of the evening of October 29, 1969, we would have heard a great deal about an underground Soviet nuclear test that day, one of 19 throughout the year that exacerbated fears of an all-out nuclear war.
We also would have heard about the Alexander v. Holmes case decided that day, in which the US Supreme Court decreed that segregation in public schools must end “immediately”.
What Uncle Walter wouldn’t have told us about is that on the same day, a brief one-word message was passed between two of the four computers then hooked up to the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, a project commissioned by the Department of Defence as part of its strategy for survival of government in the event of that nuclear exchange.
The message was passed from one computer at UCLA to another in Stanford – well, part of it, anyway, because transmitting the simple word “login” caused the receiving computer at Stanford to crash after just two letters.
In that inglorious fashion, the internet was born.
The moral of the story is that much of what we talk about in the press, things that seem so important in the moment, turn out to be historically meaningless. The nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union feared that October night never transpired, and it turned out that segregation couldn’t be ended by fiat, even from the Supreme Court. Yet the Internet today is, well, a fairly big deal.
In other words, what looms most important with the passing of time often goes unnoticed as it transpires. Journalism is sometimes called the first draft of history, but that’s not quite right. It’s more akin to the surging river in which the nuggets of history one day will be mined, carrying all manner of flotsam and jetsam along with the occasional piece of gold.
All this comes to mind in light of a recent feature in, of all places, the New York Times ‘Style’ supplement featuring a rundown of what its contributors consider the 25 most important pieces of post-war architecture. What’s of interest here is that of the 25 structures, only two have any connection to religious faith – the Bait Ur Rouf Mosque in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the Dominican Couvent Sainte-Marie de la Tourette in Éveux, France.
That striking fact has passed largely without comment in the arena of Catholic media right now, consumed by whether the President of the United States should be denied communion, which senior Church official will be the next to be outed for private use of a gay hook-up app, and who’s stabbing whom in the back in the Vatican’s blockbuster trial over a $400 million (€340 million) property deal in London gone bad.
Yet arguably, we’d all do well to pay a bit more attention to the Times piece and what it has to say about the creative power of religious faith in our era.
For a term of comparison, consider a 2017 rundown from Architectural Digest of the 50 most iconic buildings around the world everyone should see before they die. They date from all periods of history, virtually all of them before the 20th century, and religion is by far the most important creative force underlying the achievements. A robust 23 are explicitly religiously-inspired structures, ranging from Sacré-Coeur in Paris to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Another five are arguably also religious in origin, such as the Potala Palace in Tibet, built as a fortress and seat of government for the Dalai Lama – but, of course, Tibetans also regard the Dalai Lama as divine and he’s the centre of their faith.
In other words, across time more than half of the greatest architectural achievements of humanity, as designated by AD, have been inspired by religious faith. Over the last 70 years, according to the panel assembled by the ‘Style’ section, that percentage has dropped to just eight.
Granted, that’s just two highly subjective samples, and others might be very different. Italian professor of the history of architecture Maria Antonietta Crippa did such a rundown for the magazine z in 2019 covering the most important buildings of the last 40 years, and there’s almost no overlap with the ‘Style’ list – except in one particular. Of the 40 buildings she lists, only four are religious in character, meaning 10%.
Like a warning light on the dashboard, surely that contrast should be alerting us to something about the declining capacity of religious faith to create culture. Moreover, it’s not a problem confined to the West or to Christianity, but something that seems to be affecting all religious traditions.
Arguably beginning with the Iranian Revolution in 1978, global religion seemingly entered a largely reactionary period. The thousand and one jihadist movements that drew inspiration from the Khomeini uprising are destructive forces bent on recapturing an imagined version of pure Islam, and the dictionary definition of non-creative. Nationalist and fundamentalist currents in Hinduism currently backed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi likewise are mostly defensive in nature, premised on protecting Indian tradition and national identity.
Parallel currents in Christianity are well-known and don’t really require comment, except to say the current contretemps in Catholicism over the Latin Mass is a classic symptom of a religious community relitigating its past rather than engaging its present.
Perhaps this reactionary posture was necessary to stop the bleeding after centuries of erosion of religious faith and practice under onslaught of a rationalist, empiricist and secular tide, which is a matter for historians of religion to assess. Yet it’s also possible to hypothesise that such an extended period of defensiveness has taken a toll in terms of religion’s capacity to be bold, to take risks, to express itself with confidence and to imagine new forms, not only in architecture but all realms of culture.
In any event, that’s an example of the kind of long-term conversation people interested in religious affairs probably ought to try to have more often – if, that is, we can tear ourselves away for a few moments from whatever the frenzy of the day happens to be.