There is a very fine book by James Kunstler, called Home from Nowhere. It is about the tragedy of the American built environment. That is, it tells of how virtually every American town and city tends towards losing its distinct identity, its sense of being a special place in its own right.
Instead of existing as sites marked by their own soul, these places become increasingly monotonous and uniform – much like everywhere else. Buildings are built which are identical and rigid – the same rigid 90 degree angles. Beauty and tradition is sacrificed to convenience, commercial instincts, utilitarianism, functionalism …
Now I repeat, this is a fine book by a fine writer, full of conscience and humanity. But to my mind, Kunstler’s penetrating analysis lacks a certain historical depth. Thus, when Kunstler ponders the reasons for modern soulless development, he looks only to post World War II developments!
I was astonished.
For to my Catholic mind, the roots of this kind of development in favour of the purely utilitarian go much, much further back than World War II!
But then I’ve spent the last third of my life, trying to understand not simply the loss of beauty in architecture, but everywhere in what we call modernity. It is a search I have been engaged in before I became converted to the Catholic, Christian religion, but it is within that religion that I have found many answers …
One conclusion seems inescapable to me. The new epistemology, initiated by Descartes, continued through Locke, Hume, Kant and countless others has profoundly shaped all areas of our culture.
That is to say that, although in school we are likely to be taught about the political leaders who shaped history – George Washington or Henry VIII or Louis XIV perhaps – it seems we are rarely taught about a history of ideas, which have shaped our civilisation even more.
And so much of the history of these ideas turns on epistemology – or the philosophy of knowledge. Epistemology which not only asks the question: ‘How do we know what we know?’ but also determines: ‘What do we take SERIOUSLY?’
For example: do we take seriously only the proven functionality of empirical data, or are we willing to take seriously that which can never be proven empirically?
Put more simply, this question often amounts to: What do we take seriously, quantities or quality? Proven, functioning quantities or quality that requires not proof, but faith.
What reigns now, is functionalism and utilitarianism. Nearly everywhere we look, there is less faith in that which cannot be reduced to quantities. The same tendency is evident in all fields, not only architecture and economics, but psychology and even theology.
Which is why, as noble as it is, Kunstler’s analysis of soulless architecture is incomplete without Descartes’ progeny.
And which is why, in my headline, I drew attention to Bill Clinton’s (in)famous dictum, which represented yet another step in reducing the values of the Democrats to the ‘bottom line’ – quality to quantity.
The question is: how do we resurrect that which transcends the bottom line – in a society that cannot take anything transcendent seriously, because it cannot be quantified or proven?
Now a very compact answer to this question comes from John Paul II: ‘Be not afraid!’
John Paul had this epistemological trajectory very much in mind. I turn to comments John Paul II offered in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, a bestselling book and perhaps the most well read papal document of all time. The fact that John Paul broke all papal precedent to offer his thinking in this groundbreaking format, suggests that he held the contents he selected for this slim volume in the highest importance.
There he turns to the epistemoligical direction which has so shaped modernity:
“[Questions of modern doubt regarding God] stem from … purely rationalist … philosophy – the history of which begins with Descartes, who split thought from existence and identified existence with reason itself. ‘Cogito, ergo sum’. (‘I think, therefore I am’).”
Such rationalism, John Paul claims, determines “the history of European thought after Descartes. I put Descartes in the forefront because he marks the beginning of a new era in the history of European thought and because this philosopher, who is certainly among the greatest that France has given the world, inaugurated the great anthropocentric shift in philosophy. “I think, therefore I am” … is the motto of modern rationalism.
All the rationalism of the last centuries – as much in its Anglo-Saxon expression as in its Continental expression in Kantianism, Hegelianism, and the German philosophy of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries up to Husserl and Heidegger – can be considered a continuation and an expansion of Cartesian positions.
[In which] only that which corresponds to human thought makes sense. The objective truth of this thought is not as important, as the fact that something exists in human consciousness. …Descartes marks the beginning of the development of the exact and natural sciences as well as of the humanistic sciences in their new expression.
He turns his back on metaphysics and concentrates on the philosophy of knowledge. [That is to say again: epistemology – RB] Kant is the most notable representative of this movement.
Though the father of modern rationalism certainly cannot be blamed for the move away from Christianity, it is difficult not to acknowledge that he created the climate in which, in the modern era, such an estrangement became possible. It did not happen right away, but gradually.
In fact, about 150 years after Descartes, all that was fundamentally Christian in the tradition of European thought had already been pushed aside.
This was the time of the Enlightenment in France, when pure rationalism held sway. The French Revolution, during the Reign of Terror, knocked down the altars dedicated to Christ, tossed crucifixes into the streets, introduced the cult of the goddess Reason. On the basis of this, there was a proclamation of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.
The spiritual patrimony and, in particular, the moral patrimony of Christianity were thus torn from their evangelical foundation. In order to restore Christianity to its full vitality, it is essential that these return to that foundation.
Nevertheless, the process of turning away from the God of the Fathers, from the God of Jesus Christ, from the Gospel, and from the Eucharist did not bring about a rupture with a God who exists outside of the world.
In fact, the God of the deists was always present; perhaps … in the work of Voltaire and of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and even more so in Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which marked the beginning of modern physics.
This God, however, is decidedly a God outside of the world. To a mentality shaped by a naturalistic consciousness of the world, a God present in the world appeared useless; similarly, a God working through man turned out to be useless to modern knowledge, to the modern science of man, which examines the workings of the conscious and the subconscious.
The rationalism of the Enlightenment put to one side the true God – in particular, God the Redeemer.
The consequence was that man was supposed to live by his reason alone, as if God did not exist. Not only was it necessary to leave God out of the objective knowledge of the world, since the existence of a Creator or of Providence was in no way helpful to science, it was also necessary to act as if God did not exist, as if God were not interested in the world.
The rationalism of the Enlightenment was able to accept a God outside of the world primarily because it was an unverifiable hypothesis. It was crucial, however, that such a God be expelled from the world.
I quote these words in depth because I think they very elegantly express so much of the crisis of our modern civilisation. They also express much of that which I hope to explore in this weblog, even if it is very unsystematic …
Finally, this entry began with an observation regarding architecture. And I would like to conclude with the same.
Recently I made a long, unforgettable and very sobering journey through an architectural wasteland. I travelled down the Spanish coast, stopping in beach town after beach town.
The journey was actually slowed down by a number of factors including illness. The result was a prolonged, sustained exposure to a kind of environment I am not used to seeing.
For each of these towns seemed completely and utterly soulless to me, akin to what Kunstler so ably describes.
These were towns built solely to meet the bottom line. Solely for the functionality of housing and entertaining tourists. Gridden, repetitive blocks of cubic buildings with no doubt gridded, repetitive interiors.
It was a depressing and demoralising experience to be subjected to this monotony for many days – and to realise that increasingly across the world, children are growing up in such environments.
Finally we turned inland, and I hoped to see more traditional Spanish architecture. Architecture built in a religious era, where the people were not saying to themselves: “It´s the economy, stupid!”
But I was initially disappointed. For at first, the non -tourist Spanish inland towns were not unlike like the coastal tragedies. The same repetitive, uninspired, cubic soullessness. It seemed at first that every single one of them had been mainly constructed post-1990, say. And constructed along lines to make them entirely devoid of any beauty.
Until at last, I finally arrived in an older Spanish city. Here was architecture dominated by the past. Architecture which I have no doubt was designed and built by people far, far more imbued by the transcendent values of the Christian and Catholic religion.
I arrived in this environment, as it were, gasping for air. Gasping for beauty. And how deeply could I then begin to breathe … And how deeply I felt the relief and joy as I began to respire something altogether different, centred on a beautiful ecclesiastical edifice.
The journey for me in its monotonous, demoralising extent and its joyful conclusion will remain etched in my mind forever.
John Paul is right. We have expelled God from the world. And although I would not wish it on you, dear Reader, if you have made or were to make a “pilgrimage” as I have, through such as these Spanish towns, you might be grateful, as I am, for the most visceral reminder of that fact, which can be found in prolonged, sustained contact with nothing but the most modern aspects of modernity and modern architecture.
In my experience, at any rate, writers do not often link the themes of James Kunstler´s Home from Nowhere, with the Catholic Faith. But it seems important to try …