Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, May 13, 2024

Faith of our fathers

One of the things we noticed on our tour of southern Europe -- not that it was any kind of surprise -- was the omnipresence of churches.

They often are built on hills, and overlook the landscape; many are beautiful, and a few -- like the Duomo in Florence -- are architectural wonders.

It's an interesting experience for a non-religious person like myself to walk into some of these buildings.  One of the first places we visited was the fifteenth-century Basilica de Santa Maria degli Angeli et dei Martiri in Rome, which is unprepossessing from the outside, but the inside is nothing short of stunning.

The churches of Europe are renowned for housing works of art, and one in the Basilica that struck me as beautiful (if somber) is The Head of St. John the Baptist by the modern Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj:

On the façade of the same church was another haunting sculpture:

This sort of painstaking artistry was evident in churches wherever we went.  There was the Church of St. Spiridion on the isle of Corfu:

And the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence:

But nowhere blew me away quite as much as the Church of La Sagrada Familia (the Holy Family) in Barcelona.  It was begun in 1882 by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, who is a fine example illustrating the quote from Aristotle, "There never was a genius without a tincture of madness."  Gaudí knew it was such an extravagant plan that he'd never live to see it completed; in fact, it's still under construction today, and the locals call it "The church that will never be finished."  Like many of Gaudí's creations, from a distance the exterior looks like something out of Dr. Seuss:

Only when you get closer to you begin to see the intricate details of the sculptures in every recess:

All of this is suitably amazing... but then you step inside, and it takes your breath away.

Gaudí was a master of using light as part of his vision for the place, and the stained glass of La Sagrada Familia is the most beautiful I've ever seen.

According to the guide, Gaudí was intent not only on creating a monument to his religion, but creating a place that celebrated the natural world -- somewhere that all people, of every religion (or no religion at all) could wonder at and be uplifted by.

But still, I couldn't help remembering that places like this are built because of beliefs I don't share any longer.  In a very real way, I feel like an outsider when I enter these sacred spaces.  When I was a kid, growing up in a staunchly Roman Catholic family, every Sunday we sang the hymn "Faith of Our Fathers:"

Faith of our fathers, living still, in spite of dungeon, fire and sword,
O how our hearts beat high with joy, whene'er we hear that glorious word!
Faith of our fathers, living still, we will be true to thee till death.

As a child I sang those words with tremendous gusto, but it didn't really work out that way, did it?  I left the church at age 21 and after a period of searching, I kind of gave it all up and for the most part, never looked back.

But there's a part of me that still resonates to the desire embodied in places like La Sagrada Familia.  I don't think I'll ever go back to the beliefs I tried like mad to hold onto in my youth, but there's a mystery and grandeur in these buildings that plucks my heart like a guitar string.  It goes beyond just desiring the sense of community you find in a church; there's a part of me, perhaps, that craves ritual as a sign of belonging, that needs beautiful symbols to help explain this strange and often chaotic universe.

There's no doubt that religion has much to answer for.  Not just big ticket items like the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the Islamic jihadist movement(s), but suppression of dissent, institutionalized bigotry, misogyny, cruelty, homophobia, abuse of power, and simple self-righteousness.

But religion has also been the impetus for the creation of great beauty.  It's doubtful Gaudí would have envisioned a masterwork like La Sagrada Familia had he not been religious, and the same can be said of works like Michelangelo's Pietà and Bach's Mass in B Minor, to name only two of hundreds.  It's obvious I'm of divided mind on this topic, and it's beyond me to figure out how to square that circle and resolve the seeming paradox.  I rejected religion's fundamental claims forty years ago, yet its draw for me has never really gone away.

A long-ago friend once said about me that I was a failed mystic -- if I'd had the balls, I'd have been a monk.  The comment stuck with me all these years because it hits so close to the mark.  To paraphrase the poster on Fox Mulder's wall, I Wish I Could Believe.

But until that unlikely event occurs, I can still appreciate the profundity and depth of what the religious impulse has created.  And nowhere has that been realized more beautifully than in Gaudí's Church That Will Never Be Finished, in the city of Barcelona.


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