The Cathedral of St. John the Divine: A Metaphor for American Christianity

Like the unfinished Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, American Christianity is always shifting its form.

The Cathedral of St John the Divine

Construction of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine began in 1892, but the structure is still unfinished.

Photo by Fotolia/Tupungato

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Christianity takes an astonishing variety of forms in America, from churches that cherish traditional modes of worship to evangelical churches, megachurches, and apocalyptic churches—congregations ministering to believers of diverse ethnicities, social classes, and sexual orientations. Nor is this diversity a recent phenomenon, despite many Americans’ nostalgia for an undeviating “faith of our fathers” in the days of yore. Rather, as Stephen Cox argues in American Christianity (University of Texas Press, 2014), Christianity in America is a revolution that is always happening, and always needs to happen. The excerpt below, from chapter 1, uses the ever-shifting construction plans of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine as a metaphor for the ongoing evolution of American Christianity.

On Amsterdam Avenue in New York City stands the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the largest cathedral in the world. Designs for the church were drawn in 1887. Work began in 1892. But the structure remains unfinished.

The first fourteen years were slow—“not entirely,” it was said, “because of a lack of money.” There were also problems with soils and materials: the church, built in a medieval style, was supposed to be constructed entirely of stone, like the medieval cathedrals, and that wasn’t easy. In 1906 the building consisted of a crypt, one chapel—about the size of a country church—and a granite arch 150 feet high. Tourists asked, “To what ruin does that arch belong?”

In the next year, unpredictably, new life came to the ruin. More chapels appeared, radiating from a beautiful chancel. Enormous granite piers arose, prepared to support the great tower that was planned for the crossing of the nave and transept—a tower 425 feet high, with a bulk that would dwarf every other feature of the church, as the church would dwarf every other religious structure on the continent.

Then, suddenly, the building committee fired the architect and for no known reason commissioned a Gothic church of a radically different design. The new architect, Ralph Adams Cram, was daring and original. He spent the rest of his life trying to convert one type of church into another type of church while creating an organic unity between the present and the past.

Cram never solved that problem. “We ourselves,” he said, “shall never be called upon to complete the work unless some miracle happens.” It didn’t. At Cram’s death, in 1942, St. John the Divine was nowhere close to being finished.

In the 1970s construction resumed in a modest way, but the cathedral is still an agglomeration of strange, fantastic, and discordant parts—a gargantuan façade and nave, chapels of many shapes and architectural periods, wall and window ornaments representing every historical and cultural movement under heaven. Near the high altar, surrounded by masterpieces of modern medieval sculpture, stand two giant Japanese vases, the gifts of Emperor Hirohito in his youth. But the traditional altar is no longer the one ordinarily used. Its replacement is a nondescript platform that presents no obstacle to the many nonreligious events held in the church, such as a birthday bash staged in 2007 for the pop singer Elton John, a vocal opponent of Christian churches. Near the entrance to the nave rests an equally trendy, though permanent, attraction: a huge section of tree trunk called, for some reason, a “peace table.” Midway on the south wall of the nave is another work of art, a metal sculpture by the contemporary artist Peter Gourfain showing scenes of freeways and automobiles and of hunters massacring animals—an apparent protest against the despoliation of the natural environment.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking feature of the cathedral is the decorative dome above the crossing. It was installed in 1909 as a temporary substitute for the vast lantern tower intended to cover this space, but advocates for historic preservation now insist on keeping it, even if the church raises enough money to complete the plan. When the traditional becomes temporary, the temporary naturally becomes traditional.

In the meantime, hundreds of other cathedrals have been constructed in America. They come in every imaginable shape and flavor. There is the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, Texas, which began as a local congregation of the predominantly homosexual Metropolitan Community Church. Until recently there was the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, an enormous glass auditorium designed by the modern and then postmodern architect Philip Johnson. The congregation that occupied the Crystal Cathedral, an offshoot of a traditional Protestant denomination, first met at a drive-in movie theater, then worked its way up to a building that could accommodate the church’s signature events—holiday pageants with Bible animals and ladies suspended from wires, impersonating angels. In 2012, following the church’s bankruptcy, the building was purchased by a Roman Catholic diocese that plans to make it a cathedral in the traditional sense, thus completing the spiral from old to new to old again.

The term “cathedral” comes from the Latin “cathedra,” a word for a bishop’s chair. But even if your church doesn’t have bishops (and few American churches do), you can still have a cathedral. Detroit alone has sixteen of them: the Abundant Faith Cathedral, the Christ Cathedral of TRUTH, the New Beginnings Cathedral…

That last name, New Beginnings, is the most appropriate. It’s true, American Christianity always wants to keep its contact with the past. A pointed arch, a pungent passage of scripture, the very word “cathedral”—these are things too valuable to be left behind. But a church that doesn’t promise new beginnings can never prosper in America. American theology has always presented a demand for motion. Even when church people attempt a wholesale return to the past, to “traditional values,” something strange always happens.

So it was with the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The planners wanted a building that would replicate the past. But which past? And how should they replicate it? They had to decide, and they did. First they decided one thing; then they decided another and another and yet another. What they got was a monument to volatility, to uncontrolled revision, to a vitality that never achieves stability or even apparent harmony. It’s an image of American Christianity throughout its existence, the picture of a religion in continuous revolution.

American Christianity: The Continuing Revolution argues that American Christianity is now and always has been a triumph of unpredictability. It also argues that American Christianity’s history of change cannot be adequately explained by political or social conditions; by the rise, progress, tragic conflicts, and comic aspirations of that darling of the social historians, the “middle class”; or by the grand ideological narratives of intellectual historians. The only way to explain it is by reference to Americans’ strange and incalculable ways of reaching out to God, and to their churches’ strange, incalculable, but generally successful ways of reaching out to them. To say this is to admit that there is no theory that can really account for the evidence: no coherent story of American Christianity’s origins and variations, deaths and resurrections; no all-embracing epic, myth, or intellectual romance of American belief.

That idea will seem strange and unwelcome to many people who have a stake in the subject. It contests the normal assumptions of the social scientist, for whom religion is secondary to the forces at work on it, social forces that can be quantified and conclusively analyzed. It may appear to contest the assumptions of devout believers, for whom Christ’s Church is primary and the only “forces” truly at work are the ones that God exerts miraculously on its behalf. It will certainly be unwelcome to those people, on both the religious right and the religious left, for whom the story of Christianity miraculously coincides with the stories deduced from contemporary political assumptions. The idea is unsettling even for the author, a student of literature who enjoys finding coherent explanatory patterns in the texts he studies.

But American Christianity is not a text. It is something even more interesting—more colorful, more troubling, more amusing, more challenging, more emotionally demanding—than the greatest, strangest poem. It demands appreciation for itself as a structure that is always visible but always mysteriously shifting its form, a structure that cannot be finished because, in a way, it was never really started: no one agreed on its plans, and no one agreed on the revisions of the plans. Everyone just built.

To put this in other words: if we want to appreciate what we see around us, in the religious (or antireligious) attitudes of our friends or of ourselves, we should stop trying to explain what nobody ever saw: the undeviating “faith of our fathers” that is said to be “living still” in our national life. Many people think this faith has always existed in America and always will exist. Others think it once existed, but it has gone to eternal death, the victim of relentless “forces.” Many others fear, or rejoice, that it will soon return. But fortunately or unfortunately, that cathedral of unchanging stone was never there to begin with.

Excerpt from American Christianity: The Continuing Revolution by Stephen Cox (Copyright 2014, University of Texas Press), used by permission of the University of Texas Press.