The Cathedral lies ruined - does Christianity?

Peter Collier

People outside Christchurch or New Zealand may not have heard of Joe Bennett. He is a well-known identity in Christchurch and regularly writes quirky opinion pieces for the local Fairfax newspaper, The Press (he has written a book, for example, called Where Underpants Come From, chasing the origins of where his undies were made).

Bennett has also become something of a folk hero because his house in the boutique port village of Lyttleton was condemned by the authorities and Bennett was ordered to leave. However, he resisted the authorities claiming he knew better than they about the dangers facing him in his property and that he had a right to choose to stay. He won.
Bennett likes to say that he drinks from the bar of public opinion on Saturday nights, rather than from the echelons of power. His opinions are particularly those of Baby Boomers and readers of The Press but that is, nonetheless, definitely the bar he drinks from. Which means that his suggestion about a memorial on the opinion page of The Press on the day of the anniversary of the February 22 quake is particularly significant for Christchurch. It is both a barometer of the bar of public opinion and also an indication of what might happen from here.

His suggestion for a memorial to make the Christchurch quake something for the people of Canterbury is neither new nor radical. He says it is up to the families who have lost loved ones to design memorials which they regard as appropriate for their family members, and for the public purse to fund these. Few would argue with this. However, in terms of commemorating the earthquake itself, Bennett’s simple suggestion is that the cathedral ruins ought to be the memorial. Bennett suggests the city ought to purchase the ruins, make them safe and leave them as a memorial. This has been one of the four oft-made suggestions regarding what to do about the cherished cathedral (demolish and rebuilding partially or completely being the other obvious alternatives).

Rebuilding discussion

What is radical about Bennett’s opinion piece is that he imbues the suggestion to leave the cathedral as ruins with monumental significance (pun intended): ‘The world abounds in ruined places of worship. Consider the great slabs of Stonehenge, the jungle-shrouded temples of the Incas, the towering columns of the Parthenon. All were built to gods we’ve no longer got, gods created by people to explain the world’s mysteries. Gods begin, in other words, as bad science. They become institutionalised and are used as tools of government. Then they wither and go away, and only their buildings remain. Yet how evocative those ruined buildings are. So, 20, 50 or 200 years from now I like to think that our descendants will stand in what was once Cathedral Square and sense what happened here. And then they’ll look around and see a fresh and quirky city – a city emulating nowhere else on Earth, a city built both by and for a people free of dogma – and they’ll smile. ‘

Bennett’s argument is very powerful and, in my guess, may well win the day over the discussion about the cathedral ruins.

His argument is also significant in that it shows how the arguments and assumptions of the secularists are now those of the establishment. It is they who get to write the opinion pieces on the most significant days in the Fairfax newspaper (the Fairfaxes, who established the media conglomerate, were a largely evangelical Christian family, and owned or part-owned the Fairfax media company from 1841-1990). Furthermore, the views of the secular atheists are now no longer simply being expressed by the elite but by the person who ‘drinks from the bar of public opinion on Saturday night’, and in a suitably powerful and evocative manner. On this most significant of days, then, it is worth making three comments about these views.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the view of the secular atheist/agnostic is a view which is blinded by its own sense of superiority and arrogance. The secular atheists likes to think they sit above all others who have any ‘religious’ viewpoint to explain the world’s mysteries. Everybody else has ‘bad science’; not them. Everybody else has ‘dogma’; not them. Everybody else uses institutionalised dogma and uses it as a tool of government. Not them. They are blinded to the fact that they, too, have beliefs which they cannot justify rationally (they can no more answer the charges ‘Prove God doesn’t exist! Prove God hasn’t made himself known!’ than theists can prove the reverse charges; atheism cannot justify rationally the basic assumption of science, namely, the repeatability of events). The irony is so monumental it is embarrassing. Here is a secular humanist, with all his assumptions and beliefs, arguing dogmatically for his beliefs to triumph in the public square, supported by the local newspaper which shares his dogmatic view and supports politically on the same page those who share his view. And all the while blindly attempting to agitate for a time when this no longer happens!

The second point, which may perhaps be more important than the first after all, is that the failings of the secular atheist/agnostic belief system are conveniently and (in Bennett’s case) sentimentally explained away. Having spoken about his pet dogs and contrasted how he has acted when he has buried them and how they will act when he dies, Bennett writes, ‘We differ from dogs partly because of our vanity: we assume that what happens to us matters. And partly because of our emotions: we are the only beasts that laugh or cry. And partly because we have a sense of time. Like all creatures, we can live only in the here and now. But unlike them, we hold tight to the past.’
This is a most positive spin on a most soul-destroying philosophy. Simply consider the question: does our life matter, or are we actually kidding ourselves? If life does matter – then it can only matter if a God or gods exist. Given that Bennett later appears to reject belief in the existence of a God or gods as ‘dogma’, then we must assume that we cannot know if life matters at best, or at worst, that it does not matter at all.

The great irony of this, of course, is again the very event behind Bennett’s article. It is being written on the one-year anniversary of the death of 185 people. The whole reason for publishing his article is the assumption that human life does, in fact, matter. I have said before that on February 23, 2011 in Christchurch, there were no practising atheists. The reason is that on that day everyone, and in particular, our agnostic authorities, was insisting: people matter most. The priority of the relief efforts was to be focussed firstly on people.

But this is a completely unjustified position for any atheist or agnostic to hold. If a God or gods have not existed or at least haven’t given humans some worth greater than other beings, then humans do not matter more than anything else. The atheist would be entirely within their rights to say on February 23, 2011, that “clipboards matter most. We must give priority to them”. The sheer revolting offence of this suggestion highlights the horrendous nature of the dogma of the secular atheist/agnostic. Bennett masks this by saying that in comparison to dogs we are vain. Yet even still the offence remains: is vanity the best reason we can come up with for memorial services? I haven’t heard anyone say to victims’ families that they are simply being vain to remember their loved ones.

City of Christ?

The third comment to make on Bennett’s article is by way of correction. Bennett writes, ‘[The cathedral ruins] would remind us of the founders’ wish to build an ideal Anglican city. They failed. Christchurch today is not a Christian city, if it ever was one, still less an Anglican one... We have become a secular society ... Our founding fathers were merely of their time. They were sons of the British empire. That empire existed to make money, but it excused itself with God.’

I largely agree with Bennett’s comments here. However, I would wish to make at least two important corrections. First, you can’t serve God and money. Consequently the British empire, while perhaps having a veneer of religion, frequently opposed the true Christian ministry taking place within it.  Second, the ruined cathedral in Christchurch would remind us of only some of the founders’ views to build a High Anglican city. Cathedrals, and especially ones like Christchurch’s, represent the work of Anglicans who had an Anglo-Catholic theology. That certainly does not represent the theology of all Christians, nor even all Anglicans; evangelical Christians in particular. If their theology is represented in any way historically in the founding of Christchurch, it is perhaps by the names of the three public squares in the city: Latimer, Cranmer and Ridley (now Cathedral) Square. Ridley, Cranmer and Latimer were three Anglican bishops, and Reformers, who were all burned at the stake by the Catholic Church for their Protestant views. They are each heroes to evangelicals for their commitment to reforming the church by the word of God. Latimer, in particular, was the ‘preacher of the reformation in England’. While it is true that there are ruined places of worship the world over showing the withering and dying of false religion, the word of God does not wither and die. It remains, spreads and flourishes.

Today, the Anglican Church in Latimer Square is simply a vacant block; there aren’t even any ruins. And yet the ministry of the word which was centred there for decades flourishes more and more across the city. The congregations of St John’s, Latimer Square are bulging with Cantabrians longing to hear the word of God; there are several other Christian ministries across the city, both Anglican and not, which have grown out of this church. And on February 17, a mere five days before the quake, a course aimed at training people to proclaim the Bible as the Word of God was established at the appropriately named Latimer Square. It now meets elsewhere and has grown since it began.

The word which Latimer preached, and which some among the Christchurch city’s founding fathers so treasured that they named the city’s squares after Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer, does not lie in ruins. Under God we pray it will be a key aspect of the rebuilding of the city of Christchurch. In 20, 50 and 200 years from now, I suspect people will see more clearly that this word has done anything but lie in ruins. Rather I suspect it will be shown to be what it has always been: living, active, powerful, unstoppable and eternal.

Peter Collier lives in Christchurch and is director of the Tim Training Course.