I’m currently living in Freiburg, Germany, so just a few days ago, I traveled to Cologne to watch the United States men’s soccer team play a match against the world-champion Germans. I’m happy to say that “we” won, and despite sitting in a crowd of loud and drunk Americans, I felt very “proud to be an American.”
During this trip I did something else: I visited the Cologne cathedral, a beautiful testament to the faith and dedication of medieval (and post-medieval) European Christians. Like many of Europe’s great churches, the cathedral now functions primarily as a museum. While there is physical space to pray, there is little mental or spiritual “space” to pray. An outer portion of the edifice is now a camera store, and tourists were snapping pictures indiscriminately.
I wonder how often religious institutions should be museums and how often they should serve the needs of the (dwindling) faithful. On the one hand, the smaller number of mass-goers (and the lack of secular authority associated with bishops) likely means fewer masses and grandiose ceremonies. The art remains beautiful and worthy of admiration for both religious and non-religious reasons. The triptychs I saw were beyond compare, and the vaulted ceiling inspired a feeling of absolute humility, a sense that a life of anything other than service is at best perfunctory, at worst, meaningless. Religious or not, the artistic talent present was worthy of appreciation and preservation.
At the same time, can you truly appreciate the art without understanding its background and context? The cathedral is beautiful because it was designed and constructed by people who took the building and decorating of churches seriously; they not only believed in God but pursued their work for his greater glory. Every work of art can (and should) be appreciated for its history, the history of its experiences and interlocutors, and for the effect it produces (which is itself bound up in its past). Still, I cannot help but wonder if the drop in religiosity makes the art not only less accessible but also less appreciable. The technique will always be admirable, but to take the time to understand what is depicted where, why it is depicted there, and its overall significance within the context of a Catholic mass is something most simply cannot and will not do. Snapping a picture can record an experience, but it can do only that: add an experience onto another one. It cannot provide the grounds for true appreciation.
I can't help but wonder if European churches are becoming less “museum-like” and more like Roman ruins in eighth century Britain: memories to be gawked at. It seems to me that we have a long way to go before instilling a richer appreciation for our history and for the roots of our civilization. Understanding and preserving history is important, but if we can't make that history comprehensible to people, then we have little chance of learning from it, of drawing from our past in order to affect and modify our present and future.
Maybe rethinking the artistic value of our churches is a good place to start.