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Historic Church Preservation: Clues from the Almost Incommunicable Past

by Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict. This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 21-28, 1990, pp.303-305, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed. we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.
Willa Cather, My Ántonia

Those who promote the preservation of historic buildings find houses of worship strategic. Such buildings often represent the most formal and ambitious efforts of those who once populated America’s towns and cities. While shops, houses and many other slighter structures have fallen into decay and been destroyed, stately if now shabby churches and synagogues have survived. Congregations that have survived to use the buildings often want to restore them. Neighborhood and civic groups have often assumed the responsibility if descendants of the old congregations have long since moved away. Very often the issue is treated in historic, aesthetic or practical terms: dollar signs, issues of brick and mortar, and debates about architectural design dominate the discussion.

Building preservation also has humane and humanistic dimensions. Theodor Adorno observed that since most human history is suffering, never to remember is to dishonor the sufferers and rob them of the dignity that telling their story grants them. To choose to forget, then, is dehumanizing. Of course, not all church buildings signify suffering: some of them served to flaunt a congregation’s power and wealth. Yet churches and synagogues evoke awareness of the cycles of life; they call to mind earnest prayer and resolve, the observances of birth, marriage and death. Preserving at least some of them helps retain communication across the generations.

We often forget the role that physical objects play in defining the human. During riots at Columbia University some students trashed research notes accumulated by a professor over 18 years of work. They justified themselves by claiming they were humane: they did not touch people, they only attacked objects. But these notes were not only a tool, a record of his years; they were extensions of his personality. We all have certain tools or instruments with such a character. Some people’s homes have personality. In visiting a restored house of a famous historical figure, one can establish a communion across time.

A poignant literary episode that suggests the devastation that temporal distance causes to such communion occurs in Willa Cather’s My Antonia. Protagonist Jim Burden grew up with the Czech immigrant girl Antonia Shimerda in pioneer Nebraska. For two decades after leaving the prairie, Burden, who became a lawyer in New York, shunned the idea of returning to visit Antonia, now a grandmother. "In the course of 20 crowded years, one parts with many illusions. I did not wish to lose the early ones. Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again." Yet eventually he took the risk of letting reality displace illusion. He paid a visit.

Burden returned to the old wagon-road crossing where he had first met the slightly older girl so many years before. In an eloquent passage, Cather, through Burden, describes the scene where the ancient tracks had been progressively disappearing. He found, of course, that he could not really return to the past. Yet the physical evidence of their time and place together as children remained. That road enabled him to recall "the precious, the incommunicable past" the two had shared. If indeed people who have had a common experience find the past difficult to retrieve, how much more so those who never knew each other in the first place. In the literal sense the past is irrecoverable, "incommunicable."

Yet some sort of communication does occur. There is irony in Cather’s tale: for the reader, the otherwise irrecoverable is partly recovered, though transformed, by the novelist. Not all of the past is communicated, but the author allows the reader to participate in an experience that would otherwise be out of range. The effect is profoundly humanistic.

Historic religious buildings are analogous to the wagon tracks where Burden and Antonia met. Congregations, volunteer agencies and citizen groups that preserve and restore churches are like the novelist: they help new generations retrieve traces and imaginatively reconceive otherwise incommunicable pasts. This project is part of humanistic study. "By awakening a sense of what it might be like to be someone else or to live in another time or culture, [the humanities] tell us about ourselves, stretch our imagination, and enrich our experience. They increase our distinctively human potential," said a Commission on the Humanities sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, in its report The Humanities in American Life (University of California Press, 1980)

The brick and mortar, the furniture and paint of church preservation are necessary, but much of the effort to preserve physical properties stays with externals. We lose the connection to people. Most of the literature on restoration is technical and aesthetic. From time to time we need to step back and ask what humanistic purposes the renewal of such buildings sets out to fulfill.

To praise preservation is not to propose that all old buildings are worth saving. The past and evidence of it can be oppressive, overwhelming. It is possible to hope for too much communication from the past, to nurture too much memory. Yet thoughtful people can find a balance: letting the past speak to them while preparing to live in the present and the future.

Restored houses of worship are strategic in that they carry so many connotations -- ethnic, familial, congregational and personal. A superficial view suggests that physical properties belong only to the decor, not to the stuff of life. True, "ethnics" retrieve old-country recipes and post (probably fictitious) coats of arms above their mantels when they cannot relive the immigrant or old-country experience and can rarely even recover the old language. Church buildings have similar limitations as guides to the ethnic experience. And just as families select artifacts that suggest past happiness in order to soften the blows inflicted by actions of family members in less happy times, congregational histories can create illusions: authors might relate in two sentences the experience of an unhappy pastorate that led to two decades of misery -- and distort the whole story by dwelling on the beauty of the old sanctuary, hence suggesting general happiness.

It is one thing to retrieve elements that communicate the almost incommunicable transactions of one’s personal past. To experience the communal past of people one did not know and who, because of their death, have become inaccessible is more difficult. As individuals we have no personal memory of events beyond the span of our own biographies. In culture and society we therefore lack all access to social pasts unless a novelist re-creates their features or preservers ensure that a hallowed building can endure into a new generation. We turn to the novelist, the historian, the preserver not as a matter of routine but only when we "stop to think."

In John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, a migrating "Okie" family is told not to waste vital packing space on photographs, a china dog and other artifacts of family experience. But one of them asks, "How will we know it’s us without our past?" Religion, through myth, symbol, rite, ceremony, art, music and architecture, helps communities know "who they are" by giving them representations of some elements of their past, which is also the past of someone else -- the departed, the moved-away, the displaced, the fallen away, the dead. Three elements of which my colleague David Tracy speaks -- finitude, contingency and transience -- simply overwhelm people unless someone fosters their imaginations by retrieving, retelling and restoring something that will help them interpret their experiences.

To be free for such activity, people have to be ready to let many things go. The world would be piled high with relics if everyone wanted to preserve everything. The restorer, therefore, with some regret about the realities of finitude, contingency and transience, begins her work with a painful prayer of thanks for loss, for forgetting. Katherine Whitehorn in the Observer (November 2, 1980) gave this a mythic cast: After God had created all things, "On the seventh day He saw all that He had made, and realized the way things would go. On the eighth day He bestirred Himself again, and created moth and rust, His final stroke of mastery." Deciding to save something therefore has to be an act of calculation, risk and true commitment.

For comparison, think of family photographs. They represent attempts to rescue something from the almost incommunicable past; they are the figurative eroding wagon trails of our imaginations. We know that they distort. They usually show people displaying eternal smiles, which are usually unrepresentative of the faces they really wore. Pictures also have borders. With their edges they domesticate, they make safe the experiences we want to recall. Most of them are posed, so they represent a frozen and overordered experience. Or they were taken on days of triumph -- at graduations, homecomings from hospitals, or competitions. Thus they isolate the artificial elements from life, since the days of most people, most of the time, are prosaic, filled with failures and suffering. So it is possible to overpraise photographs and memory. Scholem Asch was right to remark in his novel The Nazarene: "Not the power to remember, but its very opposite, the power to forget, is a necessary condition of our existence."

And yet we advocate rescuing and preserving some churches for intrinsic reasons and because they trigger memories and imagination. Far from idolizing the past, selective church restoring and preservation is a high-risk projection into the future. And as a committee projects, it should rely on some humanistic calculus.

Different criteria apply to religious buildings than to others. According to George David Miller, who in his article "Ordo Amoris: The Heart of Scheler’s Ethics" has condensed one credible calculus by philosopher Max Scheler, the "regions of values" can be ordered this way:

The "highest" value-modality is the holy (characterized positively by the holy, negatively by the unholy) ; the next "highest" is the spiritual (characterized positively by the beautiful, the right, and the pure cognition of truth and negatively by the ugly, the wrong, and the positivistic quest of truth in terms of controlling nature) ; the third "highest" of the value-modalities is the vital (characterized positively by the noble and negatively by the vulgar) ; the next "highest" region is the useful (characterized positively by the useful and negatively by the nonuseful) ; and the ‘lowest" region is the. pleasant (characterized positively by the agreeable and negatively by the disagreeable) [Listening, Fall 1986, p. 218].

This scheme of Scheler can help correct the usual approach which, following aesthetic and antiquarian interests, reverses the order. Especially when a civic group that does not share the liturgical premises of a congregation becomes involved in preservation -- and such groups often perceive what heirs of a congregation do not see -- the tendency is to begin with the issue of beauty. Or when a congregation preserves a house of God, its interest is often on the second level, of utility. Those are Scheler’s bottom two ranks: the pleasant and the useful.

Often preservers are motivated by the impulse to honor those who sacrificed, whose immigrant lives were ennobled by the devotion they gave to a structure in the new country or by their ability to create a space in which tenors of life, which came in abundance, could be controlled. Preserving their achievement then pays attention to the vital, the heroic. But the people who built and used the buildings were not simply moved by beauty, utility and nobility. They made the sacrifices to build as part of their search for the pure cognition of truth in forms of spirituality that promoted the right along with the beautiful. Those who were successful built a space and enacted experiences in which they had access to the holy, and thus in worship they turned their backs on the profane and unholy. Scheler’s hierarchy of values can help one determine what to preserve and how to preserve it.

Keeping in mind those who used the building in earlier generations will give preservers an interest in representing the ordinary life of the people. Often one sees a restored building that verges on cuteness or on what Joseph Sittler used to call a Suburban Dress Shoppe appearance. Everything is too glossy, too tidy. One forgets that the 19th-century worshipers came in from streets redolent of horse manure, to a building whose heating plant left coal dust on the higher reaches of the furniture. They no doubt sat in some disarray, and saw their children now and then scuff a pew. It would be absurd to refabricate or accent surviving traces of such drabnesses and marrings. But to use images of real life instead of museum-case perfection helps present the holy as experienced in the midst of the ordinary, where it matters.

A second way of making Scheler’s higher concerns a priority is to recall how holiness and spirituality had to be developed in the contexts of a sacred building. While it is good to rescue the last beautiful building on the block, happy are the preservers who can keep a building in a neighborhood where it is integrated with the surrounding profane structures. Such preservation probably implies humanitarian as well as humanistic commitments: so many of these good buildings are in settings where the homeless take shelter on the steps, where declining values afflict nearby homes and businesses.

Abraham Joshua Heschel said that observing the sabbath was a temporal recognition of the hallowing of all of life. So architectural and artistic preservation, when it values sacred space in the context of ordinary surroundings, assists in the hallowing of the rest of life, decades later.

One finds the holy in the encounter with otherness, with the Other. This other may come for a Jim Burden in the form of an Antonia, who years before had spoken a different language and presented a partly forbidding culture. It may lie in the wagon trails that evoke old meetings. The Other can be present in the friend, the neighbor, the stranger, in the "least of the brethren" and sisters who represent need. Surviving sacred buildings were used for more than satisfying worship needs. They marked passages on the way of ordinary life. They provided locales for conversations that were capable of changing lives.

The implied polemic in this humanistic approach to preservation is against nostalgia, antiquarianism, idolatry of the past; against mere prettiness and artificiality; against restoration that ignores contexts and the human stories that were worked out in past encounters with the holy. Attempts to reconceive the contexts of ordinary life and neighborhood, to replicate with more a sense of realism than an impulse toward beautification, to help imagine the lives of the people who built and used old houses of worship, make preservation worthwhile. At their most successful, restorers retrieve from the incommunicable past something of two elements the world too often otherwise does without: the experience of the truly human and the surprising holy.

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