IN A speech after the bombing of the House of Commons in 1943, Winston Churchill reminded his listeners: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Architecture does not merely serve our basic needs — whether personal or communal — but is an expression of shared cultural values. Whether contemplating Vitruvius’s Classical ideals, Baroque Roman Catholic churches, or Louis Kahn’s modern concrete monuments, the resonances between belief and the built environment can and should be interpreted in theological terms.
In Murray A. Rae’s Architecture and Theology: The art of place, the author makes connections between buildings and beliefs across a huge range of societies and periods. He tells the story of Christianity in society by focusing not only on religion’s impact on architecture, but also through discussions of urbanism as a whole. Architecture and Theology opens with a lucid exploration of what “dwelling” means for communities, and moves towards ways of understanding freedom, renewal, belonging, and time by showing how theological architecture is, and how architectural theology is.
In his introduction to St Augustine’s City of God, the 20th-century American monk Thomas Merton wrote: “the city that is united in charity is the only one to possess true peace, because it is the only one that conforms to the true order of things, the order established by God.” The New Jerusalem is vitally important for Rae’s theological interpretation of architecture. It is a place of hope, of beauty, and of idealism which allows Christians to dream of a better world.
This is no fruitless exercise in utopian escapism, but an anticipation of the Kingdom of God, and the simple yet powerful impulse to leave the world a little better than we found it. This book is not a survey of religious architecture, but a rich theological investigation of why buildings look the way they do, how people devise and use them, and what that says about our relationship with God.
The use of spolia, for example — architectural elements from historical edifices re-worked into a new building — is often interpreted as a way of asserting the power of one civilisation over another. For Rae, the meaning of spolia is subtler, not only rooted in power dynamics of cultural dominance and submission, but also in ideals of beauty and a system that could be seen as a kind of sacred recycling. Rae also considers the importance of architectural destruction as a way of communicating about social dissolution, homelessness, and the tensions between social cohesion and post-Enlightenment attitudes to individualism.
For Rae, architectural harmony is an inspiring ideal, because it integrates faith with communal life in ways that prioritise care for the most vulnerable. His book is a plea for theological attention to how and what we build, and how this shapes our lives.
Dr Ayla Lepine is a Fellow in Art History at the University of Essex and the Assistant Curate at Hampstead Parish Church.
Architecture and Theology: The art of place
Murray A. Rae
Baylor University Press £43.99
Church Times Bookshop £39.59