Altar to an Unknown God: In response to Alain de Botton

For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. Acts 17:23


Candida Höfer, Musée du Louvre Paris IX 2005

Candida Höfer’s photography of monumental spaces is one of my favorite examples of cultural decadence. Höfer, like Andreas Gursky, studied the architectural landscape with Bernd and Hilla Becher. Her photos expose interiors of libraries, museums and places of worship. The photos suggest that stockpiling, and aiming to immortalize cultural material is not only a self-indulgent tendency made noble via the claim to edification, but that the effort is becoming marginalized by a mobile, technologically interconnected society where it appears that no idea is ever lost and we can access almost anything, any time.

A recent BBC article by Swiss philosopher Alain de Botton, suggests that museums are poised for a revival. The author, a self proclaimed atheist, suggests that though we honor museum spaces with the same quiet reverence found in churches, we do not get inspiration from them. He suggests that the museum is not living up to its potential as the visual public sphere: “It should be a machine for putting before us pictures, photographs and statues that try to change us, that propagandise on behalf of ideas like kindness, love, faith and sacrifice. It should be a place to convert you.” He points to the advantage of churches “not to put pretty things in front of us, but to use pretty things to change us.” This is perhaps the great moment of truth in his article — the transformative power of divine grace via any media.

But de Botton continues by complicating his respect for the church: “The challenge is to rewrite the agendas for our museums so that art can begin to serve the needs of psychology as effectively as, for centuries, it served those of theology…to achieve self-knowledge, to remember forgiveness and love and to stay sensitive to the pains suffered by our ever troubled species and its urgently imperilled planet.” De Botton’s aspirational hope for the new museums of a secular utopia is based on fundamental misunderstandings of the Christian church. The church is not the source of self-knowledge, but rather of knowledge of God. It is not the place to remember forgiveness but to embody it. And while it is a site of love and response to suffering, it is not for an imperiled planet, but for a restorative community without earthly limit.

Museums are not boring because they fail to be churches, but because they are altars formed on a false understanding of churches as monumental tombs of anthropocentric tradition and legalism (for what better describes most national galleries). Museums do succeed in simulating the veneration within a church, but they fail in the object of veneration. Museums venerate art for arts sake, beauty as its own end. Even when museums present work about deeper truths, the most ticket sales that keep museums alive are generated from the fashionable blockbuster shows instead. And so each museum constantly turns over art, continually on to the next best thing. The problem then is not in the museum, or even in the exhibitions, but in the media impressionable audience that privileges values du jour over eternal ones. And then there is what we learn from the Louvre. The most visited museum in the world has a consistent, historic collection that suggests what inspires us is not new art objects or programming but simply basking in an ancient glory greater than our own.

The greater consideration then is not what museums should be but what churches are. De Botton’s title “Why are museums so uninspiring?” leads me to ask why are many churches perceived as uninspiring?  The church is a unifying site of eternal glory but has unfortunately come to signify all that is outdated, complacent and overbearing. There are many vital churches that serve as vehicles of renewing grace but many people still point to churches of empty ritual. Yet unlike museums, where the pressure of continued attraction is on a board and administration, the power and potential of church growth is not in its leaders alone. If we think only of “what can be accomplished” rather than “for whom our work is accomplished,” we lose site of what distinguishes a church from every other monumental building.

Rachel K. Ward is author of All for Nothing (Atropos, 2010). Visit her daily blog here and follow at Twitter here.

Rachel K. Ward :
  • Eric

    It is clear you’ve never even thought of what it might mean to be an atheist today.

    • Rachelkward

      Well I have devoted thought and prayer to that position. We may be living in a moment today, long after the 19th century legitimization of atheism, with an abundance of information and plurality in accepted opinions, that makes it far easier and more fashionable to take the perspective of atheism than ever before. But it is also a difficult and strong willed position to take, a genuine resistance that from my perspective leaves want for greater mystery and truth that reason cannot provide.

      • Eric

        I don’t know how you could know that atheism is a “strong willed” position to take. Assuming having a strong will (as opposed to the Xn virtue of a weak will, apparently) is problematic, how would you know this is what atheism entails today. In fact, for many atheism makes more sense of the world we have today and so does not require any act of will. Instead, it seems prevalent among thoughtful Xns that they must exert their wills in order to stay within the fold, even when their thought would lead them outside. Moreoever, most atheists I know, and de Botton’s own example is included, do not resist mystery, whatever that means. Instead, many admit and appreciate the mysteries they encounter. Just because human reason can’t explain everything, has its limits, etc., does not mean we have to conceive of the ‘beyond’ in terms of God.

        All this to say is that the caricature you present is not accidental, but central to how many Xn theologians think atheism. Just as you cannot know a religion until you feel at home in it, so you cannot know atheism until you abide in it–until in your “thought and prayer” you identify with Christ on the cross.

        • Rachelkward

          Agnosticism is the lack of will that you describe, suspending the decision. Atheism requires a conviction, a will toward final decision. What you describe as sustenance of mystery is also closer to agnosticism than to complete disavowal. But to say in your conclusion that you cannot know a religion until you abide in it, is another misconception of Christianity, which is known by Christ, not the structure of religion. Many people prefer to abide in the man made structure of religion with legalism and generalized spirituality, which de Botton describes in his new book.

  • John

    This reference provides a comprehensive assessment of the meaning of art, whether so called religious or secular (especially since the European Renaissance), and its relation to culture altogether.

    Unfortunately the cultural and Spiritual significance of the author/artist is completely unacceptable to both atheists and those who presume to be religious. See for instance:

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