When is ruination not (quite) ruination?—Some Christian a/theist thoughts inspired by Heidegger and Bonhoeffer

The altar table at the east end of the Cambridge Unitarian Church

A podcast of this piece can be found by clicking on this link 

From my childhood on, one of the great pleasures in life has been to visit ruins of any kind, but the ones which have brought me the greatest pleasure are religious ones, especially those of chapels, churches, the great abbeys and priories. 

Along with the poet Peter Levi, they have always caused me to “consider what these ruins are, / desolate spirits in the air / singing in their stone languages / what religion is not and is”

As I have sat in their “Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang” (Shakespeare, Sonnet LXXIII) it is obvious that they no longer function in the way their builders and original users once thought they should and that, therefore, in one way, they may be considered religiously dead. 

But is this true? Thanks to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Romantics, it is possible to see the ruination of these buildings, not only as a continuation of their original religious function, but as a nuanced, heightening and broadening of it. Like the human soul spoken of by the poet Edmund Waller (1606–1687), though “batter’d and decay’d” they are now more able to let “in new light through chinks that time has made”. (“Of the Last Verses in the Book”) In short, in the clear, open spaces delineated by these ruins — with their roots in the good dark earth, now open to the bright sky and which still speak of the gods and mortality (cf. Heidegger’s “fourfold”) — the Romantics found themselves suddenly able to understand creation and encounter the divine and the sacred anew in the form of Nature. Along with Spinoza, who coined the memorable phrase “deus sive nature” — God or Nature — the Romantics attempted (and for some of us succeeded) to divinise the natural and naturalise the divine, God was nature and Nature was God. As the historian Frederick C. Beiser notes, following Spinoza’s dictum meant that “a scientist, who professed the most radical naturalism, could still be religious; and a pastor, who confessed the deepest personal faith in God, could still be a naturalist” (Frederick C. Beiser, “After Hegel: German Philosophy, 1840-1900”, Princeton University Press, pp. 4-7). Anyway, thanks to this it has become possible for someone like me to feel that these ecclesiastical buildings in their ruined state entered into a new and different kind of religious fullness. 

These memories and thoughts have been very much in mind during the COVID-19 pandemic because the church where I am the minister has been closed since March 2020. As a student of religious history, I am acutely aware that a sudden closing of a church during a time of significant political and social turmoil has often been the prelude to a building’s abandonment and eventual ruination. I say “abandonment” but, although this is true at the moment for the vast majority of the regular congregation, because my wife and I live next door to the church, and my study in which I wrote and am recording this piece is attached to the church itself, I have daily been haunting the nearly always empty buildings for some eight months now. Inevitably, as I walk through the equivalent of its own bare, but not yet ruined, choirs, I find myself considering once again, though now literally very close to home, what this building is, this desolate spirit singing in its stone languages what religion is not and is?

It continues to strike me that the idea of openness lies at the heart of it all and this is true whether that openness is spoken of in terms of actual skies or to a sense of how the transcendent can break into and illuminate the darkness of our earth and help us meaningfully still to speak of the gods and our mortality. Does a religious building have to fall into decay in order for this openness to be manifested or displayed by it? 

I don’t think so and, to illustrate this, I can turn to the strange case of the altar-like, communion table situated in the fine classical apse at the east end of the Cambridge Unitarian Church. If you follow the link to the blog in the notes to this podcast you’ll be able to see a photograph of this arrangement. 

Since becoming the minister here in 2000 I have continued to use the table in exactly the same way it has always been used; then, as now, it has upon it flowers and two candles and, following the collection, the small collection bag is put there as well. It is important also to know that since the church was built in 1927 no cross has ever been placed upon it. 

Now, I’ve been involved with churches in one way or another for my entire life — I was born an Anglican and at one point nearly began the process of training for its priesthood — so, when I first saw this table, it’s placement, and how it was being used, I took it to be, quite unproblematically, an altar. Indeed, even the light switches in the vestibule for turning on the lights above it bore, and still bear, a little label upon which you can find, quaintly misspelled, the word “alter” (sic).

But one Sunday, only a week or so into my ministry, in the presence of a very elderly and senior member of the congregation (who'd joined in the mind-1940s), I had occasion to refer to this table as an altar. He fairly bit my head off and, in no uncertain terms, informed me that it “was not an altar but the table for the flowers”.

His vehement, even angry, response led me to wonder why on earth a dissenting, liberal Protestant church such as this, re-founded in only 1904 (although its history goes back into the eighteenth-century), and with bespoke buildings dating from 1923 (the hall) and 1927 (the church), had decided to place an altar table in, what is for us a very unusual and controversial, Catholic pre-Vatican II position, and then never to place upon it a cross or to use it as an actual communion table? I was suddenly struck by how odd this was in a Unitarian context.  

A couple of years later (perhaps 2003/4) we were visited by an architectural historian, alas I do not know their name, who was researching the work of the architect of this building, Ronald Potter Jones (1876-1965). Given my earlier experience I asked the historian why he thought this Unitarian congregation had decided to commission and build a church with what looks so much like a conventional, high altar? His answer was as follows. 

Following the end of the First World War many liberal churches were literally reeling with shock and disappointment for, not only had they lost many members in the conflict (as had, of course, all churches) but also their liberal, optimistic, late-nineteenth century theology which (in the language of the time) expressed a belief in “the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and the progress of mankind onward and upward forever”, had begun to appear to them and others as no more than a mere whistling in the wind. It was a time when Matthew Arnold’s “sea of faith” could be seen to have withdrawn even further than its lows of the 1860s, and the “death of God”, first publicly proclaimed by Nietzsche in 1882, had become ever more plausible to more and more people. However, despite this, it is in 1919 that we first read of the Unitarian congregation’s plans to build a hall and church on Emmanuel Road.

The historian suggested that the trauma of the war led to a number of congregations, like Cambridge, to decide to build churches which, architecturally speaking, deliberately harked back to safer, more conservative and apparently secure times. At their most ineffective, these buildings enabled a congregation merely to pretend their outdated theology wasn’t in real trouble, and that their liberal God was not dead and still dwelt on the altars in their holy places. However, at their most effective, they gave a congregation some real time and breathing space slowly to work through, and come to terms with, both the withdrawal of the “sea of faith” and the shocking death of their liberal God.

Over the intervening years this interpretation has encouraged me, now and then, to look a little closer at the history of the congregation I have slowly discovered that, from the very start, a powerful tension was always being expressed in and through our altar-table. 

It turns out that between between 1908 and 1914, the influential founding figures of this congregation who drove the project to build this hall and church actively tried to employ a controversial Unitarian minister called the Revd J. M. Lloyd Thomas who, in 1907, had published a book called “A Free Catholic Church”. In such a church Thomas believed, would “ultimately be found an Ideal which, if courageously worked out, will transcend or reconcile the oppositions not merely of Anglicanism and Dissent, but of Romanism and Protestantism” (p. 3). In short, Thomas desired the development of a church tradition which could combine in some fashion, Catholic (or Anglo-Catholic) liturgy and practice with the kind of liberal, rational, non-doctrinal approach to belief and theology favoured by liberal Protestants, including the Unitarians. However, it proved impossible to persuade Thomas to leave his congregation in Nottingham and so, instead, they eventually obtained the services of Revd Edward William Lummis from Leicester, Great Meeting there, who shared Thomas’ Free Catholic position and who stayed, off and on, until the start of the First World War. 

What is important to see here is that their protracted attempt to hire someone like Thomas strongly indicates that the founders of this congregation were predisposed to building a church with a high altar dedicated in some fashion to a liberal God who would “transcend or reconcile the oppositions not merely of Anglicanism and Dissent, but of Romanism and Protestantism.” In an ancient university town such as Cambridge which then, as now, values both the practices of traditional religion and the active seeking of new light and truth, such a mix, were it possible to concoct, would have been a highly attractive proposition.   

But, as we know, in 1914 the First World War begins and the minute books clearly reveal that the congregation struggled greatly during this time, not least of all because its leading figure and inspiration, Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick John Marrian Stratton DSO OBE TD DL FRS PRAS (1881–1960) (and who later became Professor of Astrophysics here at the University of Cambridge between 1928 and 1947) left to join the fighting in France with the British Expeditionary Force. By July 1919 Stratton is finally back from the war and this seems to be the immediate trigger for the aforementioned plans to build a church with an altar table at the east end, a project which comes to final completion in 1927.

I don’t think it is too much of a stretch of the imagination to say that, following the unimaginable horrors of the First World War experienced by Stratton and his generation, our altar table powerfully encoded for us the trauma and paradox of twentieth- and now twenty-first century liberal Christianity; a trauma that played out in, on the one hand, in a strong desire to continue to believe in the reality of a transcendent, good, loving and just God and to raise up for him an altar where one could go, like the Psalmist, with exceeding joy to give praise with the harp and, on the other, the need to raise up an empty, memorial table, a grave even, upon which to place flowers of remembrance to acknowledge the death and absence of the very same God.

It has become apparent to me that since those traumatic post-First World War days the temptation to collapse this paradox to one of its poles has always been present in this local community. Even in my own, short, twenty-year ministry here, I have seen some members continue vehemently to insist it should be seen as an altar to a living, liberal Christian God, whilst others have continued vehemently to insist that, because God is dead, it is a simply a table upon which to place flowers, candles and the collection. The basic, and to me false, binary question being asked all the time is: are we still some kind of liberal Christian church or, instead, simply an association of free-thinking humanists/atheists? 

But, as I see it, our altar-table should continue to express the paradox. This is because, theologically speaking, when the paradox is consciously maintained, our altar-table seems to me to be working just like the ruined religious buildings with which I began this podcast. It offers us a unique open, clearing at the heart of our building because, at the same time as it’s clearly a ruin of an old liberal Christianity — for following the violent horrors of the twentieth- and twenty-first century the God of liberal Christianity is assuredly dead — it is precisely this same ruin which now helps us to notice and frame a new kind of openness to that which transcends us — to the possibility of the appearance of a new God suitable to our own, much more sceptical and disbelieving age. In short, when held up as the paradox it is, our altar-table is for me a beautiful, ruinous, open clearing in our midst which encourages us freely to re-ask and re-answer, again and again, the perennial question of “what religion is not and is”. 

Personally, I consider myself to be fortunate that my own species of Christian a/theism allows me to approach this unique altar-table without ever feeling the need to collapse it’s foundational paradox because before it, like the philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), I come before it each day to “prepare readiness, through thinking and poetry, for the appearance of the god or for the absence of the god” (Der Spiegel Interview with Martin Heidegger, 1966). And, like the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), I stand “in the presence of God who makes us live in the world without the God-hypothesis” (“Letters and Papers from Prison”, SCM, London 1971, p. 360). For this challenging gift I daily give hearty thanks.

To conclude. For various good reasons I do not think that the current pandemic is the first step to the abandonment and eventual ruination of our present buildings. But, even as I say this, these reflections on our altar-table helps me sense that, whenever inevitable ruination does come — be it in the next few years or a few centuries hence — it will not necessarily spell the end of the living religious significance of our building but, instead, may well “open up access to [even] richer and more relevant ways for us to understand creation and for us to encounter the divine and the sacred.” (Mark W. Wrathall’s introduction to “Religion after Metaphysics”, Cambridge University Press 2003 p. 1). But in the meantime, this opening is already with us in the paradoxical clearing that is our altar-table.



If you would like to join a conversation about this or any other edition of this podcast then please note that our next Wednesday Evening Zoom meeting will take place on 2nd December at 19.30 GMT. The link will be posted in the notes to the next podcast.

Here’s the timetable:

19.15-19.30: Arrivals/login

19.30 - approx. 20.00: Streaming of the latest edition of "Making Footprints Not Blueprints"

20.00 - 21.00: Questions to, and conversations with, Andrew James Brown moderated by Courtney Whalen Van de Weyer

21:00: Event ends 

Those of you who have already listened to the podcast and who only wish to join in the conversation are invited to login to the meeting at about 19.55.