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Truth in Advertising

July 10, 2016

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large — I contain multitudes.” ― Walt Whitman

Now and then I like to remind myself why this project has engaged me for the last thirty years, give or take a few. And, in the spirit of “Truth in Advertising,” it seems only fair to admit what has driven it for more than a third of my life.

The working title for this project has been consistent for most of its length: “Building the Social Gospel: American religious architecture, 1880-1920.” On its surface — and from the bulk of entries here in the project blog — it is about the Akron-Auditorium or Combination Plan that was popular among Methodism and other mainstream denominations during the forty years that straddle the turn of the twentieth century.

If you’ve been following here, the two components are clear enough: 1) the “Auditorium” was a post-Civil War response to the explosion of urban population brought about by two factors: mass movement from rural areas to cities for wage labor, and equally large scale immigration from Europe; and 2) a revolution in religious education known as the “Akron Plan.” About 1880 someone recognized the benefit from combining these two architectural ideas. The Akron-Auditorium or Combination Plan was born. What may be less clear is the theology that drove a large part of what I claim was a genuine American architectural innovation.

The Social Gospel

Some years ago I presented a paper at a history conference at the University of Wisconsin—Oshkosh. It was hosted by two charming senior faculty who wondered (during the pre-conference cocktail party) what could possibly be said about the Social Gospel that had not already been said. They were of an older generation who were uncomfortable with the notion of “material culture”; that is, the idea that concepts—big ideas—can (and often do) have physical consequences. Yes, the Social Gospel seems to have been exhausted as an academic topic; indeed, schools of theology may think of it as passé. I humbly disagree.

For those unfamiliar with the Social Gospel, here are a few highlights:

  • Its authors were theologians Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch.
  • The Social Gospel is also closely related to the Progressive Movement—with parallels in political science and economics.
  • At its heart is the idea that the formerly vertical relationship between God and Mankind should be recast as a horizontal relationship with Jesus; his nature was understood as Brother of Mankind, rather than as Son of God.

Each of these is a well traveled path. My intent is exploring their physical, i.e., architectural consequences.

What some readers may find interesting is my own religious orientation: on the seven-point Dawkins Scale—the spectrum of belief from Pure Theist to Pure Atheist—I’m about a 4.5. That is, I place myself between “Pure Agnostic” (the exact center of the scale) and “Weak Atheist.” If a god exists, its nature is so vastly different from human kind—and so unlike the Judeo-Christian concept of “the Sky Guy”—as to be unknowable. If a supreme being does exist, it will be as different from us as we are from protozoa. As you might imagine, I do not fit comfortably in FaceBook discussion groups, where Atheism is often absolute; half of a binary pair.

So my fascination with religious architecture is as someone looking from the outside inward. Churches do not interest me as a “believer.” they do, however, in the socio-economic framework of Liberal Christianity and the Progressive Movement. Socialism and Atheism do not disqualify my work with religious architecture; they afford me a high degree of objectivity.

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