Wednesday, March 30, 2011

American Christianity

In my very sour moments (too frequent these days) I think that so much Christianity in America is infantilized adults praying to a great Santa Claus in the Sky who carries a sack of toys in one hand and a whip in the other. If we're good children and obey Daddy, then our wishes will come true. Sometimes, I think "Jesus is Lord" and "Jesus is My Personal Savior" are just different ways of saying "My Heart Belongs to Daddy."

As for Prosperity Gospel, it's a cargo cult with Christian trimmings.

How else to explain why so many Americans keep the Bible and Atlas Shrugged on the same shelf?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Cold Spring

Brice Marden, Cold Spring

I don't know what it's like where you are, but here in the frosty Big Apple, it's cold, especially for the end of March. The temperature for the rest of the week will barely squeak above 50F in the middle of the week before going back down into the 30s and 40s with the wind blowing. At night, it's down into the 20s. I have a space heater working in the kitchen this morning. Crocus and daffodils bravely peek above the frost. Robins, Cardinals, and Mockingbirds sing the song of Spring while shivering in the wind. I saw a young couple yesterday bundled up against the cold with jackets, caps, and scarves, and wearing shorts at the same time. Now there's optimism.

I'm afraid we may have another cold wet spring followed by a broiling summer. Temperatures barely make it into the 50s all the way through May, and then suddenly in the middle of June, it's 95F. I could be wrong (I hope so). Last year we had a beautiful and pleasant Spring.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Florence: Building the Cathedral

The Cathedral of Florence with the Baptistery

Every city has its centerpiece, the building or set of buildings that gives the city distinction that expresses the city’s identity, pride, and convictions. New York has a number of centerpieces. One of them was the World Trade Center destroyed in the catastrophic terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Today, it is being rebuilt in what is currently the nation’s largest construction project. The new World Trade Center will be unique among the world’s monuments, a combination of commercial enterprise and public commemoration. There will be a memorial, museum, and park that will all belong to the public, but by far the dominating feature of the new WTC will be the office towers. When completed, they will be the tallest buildings in the city. And what exactly are they? They are office space for rent, and that’s all. They are a source of rental income for their owners, the Port Authority. For the businesses housed in them, they are practical working space and a source of distinction to attract attention in large and competitive markets. They have no other meaning. However, the larger forms of at least 2 of these buildings are supposed to tie them into the memorial below, to expand upon the commemoration of the dead and to further affect how September 11th is remembered and understood. What were once markets with rented shops inconspicuously attached to the public monuments and spaces of a Roman forum now overwhelm and dominate the public center of this new project.

The final proposed design for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center. The September 11th Memorial is in the park in the foreground.

The new World Trade Center under construction today.

These towers will express the true collective convictions of the city, its real religion, what its inhabitants really believe (despite what they may say they believe). Saint Patrick’s and Saint John the Divine may call themselves cathedrals, but the corporate towers that dominate the city are New York’s real cathedrals and declare the conviction that built this city, a belief in the transformative power of money. That belief raised the tallest towers in this city, and still drives all of its enterprises. Money is the real god of New York. It may not be a transcendent god, but it is a god nonetheless. It is very powerful, works real miracles, and it is a jealous and demanding deity. It has its priesthoods, its creeds, and its competing cults. Money promises a kind of salvation, and it punishes those who do not give it due worship. Our banks and office towers are that god’s temples, our true equivalent of the cathedrals of old. Like the cathedrals, they are our sources of civic pride and identity, our urban centerpieces. They are giant reminders of what we really believe with all our souls, with all our minds, and with all our hearts. In the case of the new World Trade Center, that god grudgingly allows its priests to remember their dead, permitting them a memorial ever so reluctantly. Money, like the living things of the earth, wants to forget the dead and move into the space they left behind. But we human beings who serve that god have our needs that must be met.

Florence Cathedral from the south.

The great Cathedral of Florence is the centerpiece of that city, the focus of the convictions, identity, and pride of the city, as were all medieval cathedrals in all cities.
The early Florentines certainly had as great a respect for money as any New Yorker, but Christ was still the official god of the city, and still God in the hearts and minds of almost all of the city’s inhabitants, both rich and poor. Nevertheless, the Florentines’ discovery of money’s transformative power played a role in the shaping of this cathedral. Like all cathedrals, it is a monument to who rules the city, a testament to their wealth and power, and to the city’s pride as much as it is an offering to God. The city’s two most powerful guilds would assume custody of the city’s two holiest buildings. The Arte del Cambio, the banker’s guild would take on the responsibility of maintaining the Baptistery, the oldest and most important religious building in Florence. By the middle of the 14th century, the Arte della Lana, the wool manufacturer’s guild, would assume full responsibility for the construction and maintenance of the new cathedral. The new cathedral and subsequent enrichment of the Baptistery would be testimony to the power and enterprise of these two industries that created the new wealth of the city and supplanted its traditional nobility.

The Cathedral of Florence was more than just a big success trophy for the Florentines. The Cathedral, like all medieval cathedrals, was the successor to Solomon’s Temple, the house of God on earth. As such, it was the most important building in the city. Like all medieval cathedrals, Florence’s was a vast image in stone of the Celestial Jerusalem, which would descend out of the sky at the end of time according to the Christian Scriptures. It was an image of the City of God and testimony to the promise of the final victory over death and the final reconciliation of heaven and earth. For this reason, the cathedral of a medieval city (including Florence) was unlike any other building in the city. It referred to things not of this world (New York’s corporate towers are giant versions of the tenements that have always made up the bulk of the city’s buildings since the 18th century). The Cathedral is an image of the mystical Body of Christ; “The stone which the builder’s rejected has become the chief cornerstone…” The stones are the faithful and love is the mortar that holds them together. The Holy Spirit dwells in them all together as God is believed to dwell within the building. This encyclopedic age believed that the study of any and all things was ultimately a branch of theology since all things pointed to their Creator. Florence’s Cathedral, like all other medieval cathedrals, is a model of the cosmos as people at that time understood it. Things like the stars and planets, the labors of the year, the useful and liberal arts all had their place on the cathedral.

Florence Cathedral from the rooftops of the city.

Jean Bondol and Nicholas Bataille, The Descent of the Celestial Jerusalem, from the Angers Apocalypse tapestries, circa 1375 - 1390

The base of the campanile (bell tower) of Florence Cathedral showing relief sculptures of the labors of the months and the useful and liberal arts carved by Andrea Pisano and others, including Lorenzo Ghiberti. Today, copies replace all of the original sculptures, which are housed in the Museo del' Opera del Duomo (The Cathedral Museum).

Andrea Pisano, Astronomy from the Campanile reliefs

Andrea Pisano, Sculpture, from the campanile reliefs.

For all of those years that Florence was a backwater town on the Arno, overshadowed by the great port city of Pisa, by Lucca, traditional seat of the Tuscan Grand Dukes, and by Siena, the Baptistery was the city’s cathedral church. In the 13th century with the rapid expansion of the city, its dramatic new wealth and power through textile manufacturing and banking, the Baptistery began to seem too small to serve so large and so rapidly growing a city, or to contain its ambitions. By the end of the 13th century, the Florentines decided to build a new cathedral next to the Baptistery. They decided that it would not be just any cathedral, but would be the largest in Europe, putting the cathedrals of their Tuscan rivals in its shadow.

Florence came very late to the business of cathedral building. The decision to build a new cathedral was made about 1292, and the first plans presented in 1294. Construction began in 1296. By that time, most of the great cathedrals of Europe were either completed or were well along in construction. Florence’s neighbors in Tuscany, the cities of Pisa, Lucca, and Siena already had great cathedrals standing complete, reminding the Florentines of the very recent good fortune of their self-made city. The Florentines decided to build a new cathedral that suitably reflected the sudden wealth and new greatness of their city. A new organization, the Opera del' Duomo (literally the Works of the Cathedral) was created to build and maintain the new cathedral. The Opera's first task was to appoint a capomaestro, a "head master," to design the building and oversee the work. The capomaestro would be assisted by a committee of maestri made up of the most respected and successful artists in the city. Architecture as a separate profession is a long way into the future at this point. It is something of a miracle that the Cathedral of Florence is as fine a monument as it is. It was not the creation of brilliant individuals, or of what we would call "team work." A series of committees who fought bitterly among themselves raised this building. Considering the design history of the rebuilding of the World Trade Center with all of its quarreling architects and litigious interested parties, perhaps not much has really changed after all.

The religious center of Florence with the Cathedral and Baptistery

The south side of the Florence Baptistery with Andrea Pisano's doors. Originally, they were on the east side facing the Cathedral. They were moved in the 15th century when Ghiberti's much more famous "Doors of Paradise" were installed.

The Baptistery, which served the city for so long as its cathedral church, would not be neglected in the construction of the new cathedral. It would be enriched with new bronze doors to replace the 3 sets of wooden doors on its entrances. Construction on the new cathedral was well along in 1322 when it was decided to replace the Baptistery doors. A goldsmith, Piero di Jacopo went to Pisa to study the great 12th century bronze doors on its cathedral by the sculptor Bonanus. Those doors were in turn modeled on the storiated bronze doors of Roman temples, now mostly surviving in literary accounts.

The 12th century bronze doors of the Cathedral of Pisa made by Bonanus of Pisa. These are the survivors of 2 sets of doors Bonanus made for the Cathedral.

Another Florentine mission went to Venice to look for a sculptor. Apparently Florence at the time had a shortage of sculptors experienced in working in bronze on a large scale. A great artist seems to appear out of nowhere in the historical records to take the job, Andrea d’Ugolino da Pontadera, better known to us as Andrea Pisano. Work commenced sometime in 1330. One set of doors appears to have been completed by 1336. By 1340, Andrea is capomaestro of the Cathedral construction. He disappears from the records after 1348, and it is assumed that he died in the Black Death.

Andrea was instructed to adorn the panels of this set of doors with scenes from the life of Saint John the Baptist, the titular saint of the building, and Florence’s patron saint. This was not a common subject in Italian art. All he really had to guide him was the mosaic cycle in the Baptistery dome. In addition, Giotto’s work in the Bardi and Peruzzi chapels of Santa Croce had just been completed making him a force to be reckoned with. Andrea decided not to try to compete with Giotto in terms of creating credible effects of pictorial space. That was simply not possible with bronze casting techniques of the time, and maybe not desirable. Instead, Andrea decided to emulate Giotto’s restrained sense of drama within a clear architectural framework. Andrea made the inspired decision to use a recent French import, the Gothic style, in his design. He placed the narrative scenes each in a Gothic quatrefoil frame that makes the scenes part of the doors instead of reducing the doors to a frame for pictures. The layout of the doors is a very refined version of the scheme of Bonanus’ doors on Pisa’s cathedral. Andrea disposes of Bonanus’ rectangular panels on the top and bottom of each door. In place of Bonanus’ heavy grid frame decorated with rosettes, Andrea creates a much more proportional framework with alternating gilded rosettes and studs, and with lion heads in the intersections.

Andrea Pisano's south doors for the Florence Baptistery. The door frame was added by Ghiberti in the 15th century.

Detail from Andrea Pisano's doors showing John the Baptist baptizing the multitude and Christ

Detail from Bonanus' 12th century doors for Pisa Cathedral showing The Nativity.

Like Giotto, Andrea thinks in terms of presenting a narrative pictorially. He presents the Baptism of the Multitude and the Baptism of Christ together, connecting them across the framework with consistent landscapes. He is at his best with his fine sense of emotional calibration and restraint in the narrative scenes. Elizabeth leans lovingly upon the newborn Baptist as the mute Zechariah writes out the name of the child.

Andrea Pisano, The Naming of the Baptist, from the Baptistery south doors

In contrast to the tenderness of that scene is the chilly and frightening restraint of the Presentation of the Head of the Baptist to Herodias. In anticipation of much of Donatello’s work, the setting plays a role in the telling of the story.

Andrea Pisano, Salome Presents the Baptist's Head to Herodias, from the south doors of the Baptistery.

The scene is set in an enclosed box of a room, almost claustrophobically close. Salome kneels with obsequious servility before her enthroned mother as she presents the head of the dead Baptist. Her mother looks, not at the head, but at her daughter with a gaze of domineering command. The emphatic diagonal of the figure group emphasizes the communication between mother and daughter. These doors with their narration would be there to challenge and inspire Lorenzo Ghiberti 7 decades later when he completed the remaining sets of bronze doors. They were recognized at the time of their completion, and ever afterward, as a prodigious accomplishment.

The new cathedral would be built just east of the Baptistery on the site of the ancient church to one of Florence’s 2 martyr saints, Saint Reparata. The church and surrounding buildings were vacated, but not immediately torn down. The foundations of the new cathedral were laid out and excavated among the abandoned buildings. Their empty shells were incorporated as scaffolding to build the new cathedral, and only came down completely after the nave vaults were completed. Their rubble was used to raise the floor level, burying the remains of the Santa Reparata church. The saint’s relics were moved to the east end of the choir of the new cathedral with the relics of Saint Zenobius, Florence’s sainted first bishop. In the 1960s, excavations under the floor of the cathedral revealed the extensive remains of Santa Reparata, which can now be visited.

The remains of the Church of Santa Reparata under the floor of the nave of Florence Cathedral.

The first capomaestro was the great sculptor and architect Arnolfo di Cambio, designer of the great Franciscan church of Santa Croce on the east side of Florence.
It is remarkable that the Cathedral of Florence is as fine a work as it is. As noted before, it is a creation of several very quarrelsome committees whose arguments frequently had to be settled with outside intervention. It appears that on a number of occasions, the Cathedral Opera, or its custodians, or the Arte della Lana, had to settle arguments among the maestri, usually by picking one design over the others and ordering the models and drawings of its rivals to be destroyed.

The magnificent nave is one such compromised design. Something of Arnolfo’s original intentions still manages to come through

Interior of Florence Cathedral

Tourists today sometimes complain about the plainness of the interior relative to the elaborate decoration on the outside. If Arnolfo had his way, it would be even plainer. The Italians did not share the French Gothic taste for soaring complexity. The Italians preferred a more conservative clarity of form and satisfying proportions. The four immense bays that make up the nave most closely reflect Arnolfo’s intentions with their splendid broad arches in the arcades, the widest of any European cathedral. The ribbed vaults that they support in the ceiling are the longest of any in Europe and are prodigies of engineering.

Nave of Florence Cathedral

Arcades and aisle of the nave of Florence Cathedral

Vaults of the nave of Florence Cathedral

The rest of the nave design is a compromise. A decision was made, with much dissension, to place an elaborate bracketed cornice right on top of the arches of the nave arcades. Instead of a tall clerestory with lancet windows, as seen in Santa Croce, it was decided to build a relatively low clerestory with ocular windows.

The façade of the cathedral that we see today is a creation of the 19th century designed by the architect Emilio de Fabris. It is a splendid monument to the Italian Risorgiamento, the birth of modern Italy when patriotic rebels ended centuries’ worth of foreign domination and division. Florence served briefly as the capital of united Italy until the resistance of Pope Pius IX in Rome could be overcome.

Facade of Florence Cathedral designed by Emilio de Fabris, begun in 1876 and finished in 1887

The original façade was never finished. The bottom quarter was covered in elaborate sculpture (most of which is preserved in the Museo del’ Opera del Duomo, the cathedral museum). The rest was bare stone. It is possible that the original design for the façade was for something even more elaborate than what is there today.

16th century drawing of the original state of the facade of Florence Cathedral before the construction of de Frabis' facade.

The exterior of the Cathedral is covered in a veneer of colored marbles, white, green, black, and rose, reflecting local building traditions first seen in the 11th century façade of San Miniato. The patterns simplify as the patterns rise up the flanks of the Cathedral, reflecting changing tastes over the construction period of the building.

South flank of Florence Cathedral

Detail of the exterior stonework on the flank of Florence Cathedral

The great painter Giotto served for a time as the Cathedral’s capomaestro, and is traditionally credited with the campanile or bell tower. In traditional Italian fashion, the campanile is a completely separate structure from the Cathedral.

Campanile of Florence Cathedral

Giotto's original design for the Campanile

What we see today only distantly recalls Giotto’s original very spiky French Gothic tower. The sculptor Andrea Pisano dramatically altered the design when he took over as capomaestro, and Francesco Talenti is mostly responsible for completing the tower and giving it its present form

The custodians of the new cathedral decided that the central feature of Florence’s new centerpiece would be a great dome, recalling the city’s Roman foundation, and unlike anything else in Europe. These custodians were so pleased with Arnolfo’s basic design that they later ordered the architect Francesco Talenti to almost double its size to its present proportions, dominating the nave and reducing it to a kind of vestigial tail.

Plans of Santa Reparata, Arnolfo's original design, and the Talenti design that was built.

Detail from Andrea di Firenze's The Church Militant and Triumphant from about 1365 showing what may be something like Arnolfo di Cambio's original design with modifications by Andrea di Firenze, who was one of the Cathedral maestri.

In his initial design, Arnolfo di Cambio approached a challenge laid down by the 2 greatest Tuscan cathedrals of the time, Pisa and Siena, placing a dome upon a traditional basilican church plan. In the case of both earlier cathedrals, the dome rises over the intersection of the nave and transepts. There is precedent for this in the large lantern cupolas that rise over the intersections of French Romanesque churches like Saint Foy to light their usually dark interiors. The builders of both cathedrals found that placing a Roman dome over this location was not quite the straightforward idea that they thought. Both domes in Siena and Pisa show certain design and structural modifications to make that idea work. The dome of the Cathedral of Pisa is not circular in plan, but an oval shape to make up for the difference in width between the transepts and nave. The Cathedral of Siena requires a hexagon of support columns, partially blocking each transept with a pillar.

The dome of the Cathedral of Pisa

Interior of the dome of the Cathedral of Pisa

Interior of the dome of Siena Cathedral showing the hexagon of arches supporting it.

Arnolfo made the bold decision to have a single large octagonal dome cover both nave and aisles and incorporate apse and transepts. The shape would be a huge version of the octagonal dome of the Baptistery, linking the Cathedral to Florence’s early religious history. He would combine a traditional basilican plan of nave and aisles with a centralized domed structure of a type that had not been seen since the fall of the Roman Empire. Where might he have seen such a structure? He probably did not look to the Roman Pantheon for instruction, but to later Imperial buildings like the Temple of Minerva Medica that now stands awkwardly beside the railroad yard of the Stazione Termini in Rome.

Ruins of the building long known as the "Temple of Minerva Medica," now thought by many archaeologists to be an immense garden folly.

In that building, a complex structure of radial symmetry rises in a sequence of transitional stages to a central dome, very different from the Pantheon’s simple dome rising on a cylindrical drum.

The domed radial apse of the Cathedral is the most original and influential part, rising in a series of stages from the street level to the dome itself.

Exterior of the apse of Florence Cathedral

Three segmented half domes over the apses of the cruciform plan serve as buttress supports for the even larger central dome. Nave, aisles, and transepts are incorporated into a single centralized structure. It is remarkable to think that this unified design was the creation of several architects beginning with Arnolfo, enlarged and modified by Talenti, and completed by Filippo Brunelleschi a century later.

Apse of Florence Cathedral with the high altar.

Apse of Florence Cathedral viewed from high in the dome

From the beginning, the builders of the Cathedral intended to construct the largest cathedral in Europe topped by the largest dome built since the Pantheon in Rome. After Talenti’s enlargement of the design, the dome would be even bigger than the Pantheon dome, the largest ever built up to that time. Construction proceeded rapidly on the Cathedral, pausing only with Arnolfo’s death and the search for a successor. The Black Death stopped construction of the enlargement of Siena’s cathedral, but it accelerated construction of Florence’s cathedral. By the middle of the 14th century, nave, campanile, and almost all of the apse were complete when construction abruptly stopped. It stopped not because of any crisis or disaster, but because of the hubris of the builders. No one could figure out how to complete the vast dome. No one knew a safe cost effective way to vault so vast, and so high, a space. The wide octagonal drum remained open to the sky for decades, threatening to make Florence into a laughing stock. It would have to wait until the next century, and for a very unlikely character, a failed sculptor, a goldsmith, surveyor, and self-taught mathematician to complete the dome, and save the city’s reputation.

The interior of the dome of the Cathedral viewed from the nave. Where we see Girogio Vasari's Last Judgment today was open sky for many years until Filippo Brunelleschi completed the Cathedral dome in 1436.

The full peal of the Cathedral's bells.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, 100 Years Ago Today

One Hundred Years ago today around 4:45 in the afternoon, fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the Asch Building at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in New York in the Greenwich Village section. One hundred forty six people died in the fire, the worst industrial disaster in New York City's history and the 4th worst industrial disaster in American History. While all involved agreed that the fire was accidental, authorities differed on the exact cause. Some blamed a discarded cigarette, others a spark from a sewing machine. To keep their workers from sneaking off the job for illicit breaks and worried about petty thievery, the factory's owners padlocked all of the exits during work hours. The exit doors were all padlocked during the fire, and the building's one flimsy cast iron fire escape collapsed under the weight of so many trying to escape sending dozens of people to their deaths 100 feet below. Women trapped on the floors leapt or fell to their deaths on the street below, some in flames as they plummeted. Horrified and hysterical crowds watching the disaster had to be restrained by the police with rioting threatening to break out among crowds gathering in nearby Washington Square Park.

The owners of the Triangle Factory evaded manslaughter charges, but were found liable in civil court. The plaintiffs were awarded about $75 per victim.

Most of the victims of the fire were young Jewish and Italian women from the Lower East Side, daughters from immigrant families. They worked 6 days a week, 9 hours a day from Monday through Friday, and 7 hours on Saturday. The conditions in the Triangle Factory were not exceptional for that time. It was common practice to lock employees in a workplace during business hours. The very lax safety conditions were also unexceptional by the day's standards.

So much is being said today about the fire and its legacy by far greater minds and by more eloquent people than myself. As the right to bargain collectively is being effectively repealed in the United States, the memory of the Triangle Fire takes on a new dimension of meaning and pathos. Frances Perkins, the first Secretary of Labor, and a witness to the fire, always said that the New Deal began in the Triangle Fire. This catastrophe propelled the organization of wage earners for their safety as well as for better wages. Political leadership in New York City and state began taking a serious look at the issue of worker safety in the workplace for the first time.

All that was fought for in the fire's wake is now under threat of repeal. We forget that so many things that we take for granted in our jobs, like our safety in the workplace and workman's comp, were not the free gift of benevolent corporate autocrats, but had to be fought for over decades, and sometimes after terrible disasters like the Triangle Fire.

The FDNY trying to fight the fire. Their ladders only reached up to the 6th floor.

Crowds gathering in nearby Washington Square during the fire.

Police helplessly watch victims still trapped above as bodies of victims who jumped or fell lie on the sidewalk nearby.

Police with victims of the fire on the sidewalk

Bringing the fire victims to a makeshift morgue for identification.

Family members filing by open coffins trying to identify their dead. The line of bereaved people waiting to get into the large temporary morgue on 1st Avenue stretched for blocks.

A funeral and protest march for one of the victims.

The Asch Building today. Now it is officially the Brown Building and part of the New York University campus.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"For This, For Everything, We Are Out of Tune"

Caspar David Friedrich, Wreck in the Moonlight.

THE world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

---Wordsworth, 1806.

Thanks Grandmere for sending this.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The End of Religion?

Mark Rothko, Number 10, 1950. The light of Heaven without the angels, or the saints, or even God.

There is a study reported in the BBC which finds that, if current trends continue, religion will be "extinct" in a number of Western countries. I suppose one could take all kinds of issue with the methodology of the study and its conclusions, but it remains true that religious affiliation (as opposed to religious belief) is very much on the decline in the West, including in the USA.
I think the hegemony of evangelical Christianity in American public life accelerated that decline in religious affiliation here in the USA. The hard right turn of the Roman Catholic Church, plus ongoing scandals together with the Church's poor handling of them are causing people to vote with their feet, even in historic strongholds of Catholicism like Spain and Ireland. The now conventional identification of the Christian religion with right wing politics, with the spiritual enforcement wing of supremacist political movements, adds to that decline.
The conservative churches themselves are feeling the decline. There are now about as many ex-Catholics as there are Catholics in the USA. All of the fundamentalist churches are having serious problems retaining members, especially among the young. It is more common than not for the children of fundamentalist parents to leave the faith that they were born into.

I'm not sure religious belief is really declining so much as changing. Conservatives always mock the idea of a "religious buffet," and it is easy to ascribe a kind of consumerist mentality to the growing population of religious "seekers." But so much has changed since the day when Martin Luther thundered "Here I stand! I can do no other!" For one thing, followers of faiths that Luther never heard of today live right next door to Luther's followers. Members of religions that Luther believed that it was Christian duty to fight against and destroy now live and work in Wittenberg just yards from the old Castle Church. Religious tolerance and the collapsing of historic distances have drastically changed the religious landscape, and people's experience of religion. Religions that long tried to kill each other now talk to each other. It's hard to imagine how such conversations could not change all participants.

There are two other enormous issues that are driving these religious changes, the ongoing scientific revolution (together with science's close sister, technology), and the experience of the Holocaust.

"Why should we fear Jupiter's thunderbolt when we have a lightning rod!" said Karl Marx. Indeed, why should we? We now have the old Mysterium Tremendum right at our finger tips with the press of a button. Today we can summon up all of those terrors described in Scripture as belonging to a wrathful Jehovah, and deploy them from planes and submarines. We can watch them on the teevee almost every night. Since the days of Isaac Newton, we've long known that the universe does not run by magic or miracle. Angels do not push the planets, gravity does. The picture that science presents of nature these days is not even the old clockwork cosmos of the Deists, but a much more fluid, dynamic, and uncertain model. If the cosmos looks like anything, then it's more like a great organism that grows and changes than like a clock. Our place in that cosmos looks more and more incidental with every new discovery. Not only is a belief in the transcendent becoming harder and harder to sustain, but even humanism becomes more of a leap of faith.

My friend David Kaplan complains about orthodox Jews clinging to the idea of an always just and providential God even in the face of the Holocaust. I think that historical event plays a much larger role in shaping modern attitudes toward faith and religious belief than most Christians realize. The idea of an all powerful God who protects and rescues the faithful described in so many of the Psalms died in the Holocaust. The concept of misfortune being the reward of sinners perished with the masses of people slaughtered like cattle by murderers who couldn't have cared less about the virtues and vices of their victims. David Kaplan points out that the Jewish orthodox idea that all the victims of the Holocaust were martyrs for their faith would come as a big surprise to the legions of secular Jews who perished in places like Majdanek and Belzec. It is hard to find a meaning in the Holocaust where God does not come off as either a nebish or a monster.

I resist utilitarian justifications for religious belief, but David Kaplan has a point when he says that religion is the only real defense left against the nihilism of the international market. That is an argument that certainly speaks to my inner Baptist preacher. Karl Marx reminds us that it is the nature of capitalism to reduce all values to values of use and exchange. It is important to remember that when Marx said that, he was not complaining. He was celebrating that transformation. Industrial capitalism strips us all of our ancient prejudices forcing us all to see clearly the reality of our situation, he said. Perhaps it is significant that a number of ideological capitalists now embrace that very same idea. Marx believed that this loss of "illusion" was a necessary step toward revolution. Ideological capitalists see that loss as a necessary stage in the creation of better producers and consumers. Maybe the banker and the cadre were always brothers under the skin.
I see that loss as loss. All the world is ultimately trash where nothing has any inherent meaning or value. All things exist for profit and pleasure, and when they no longer fulfill either, then all things are trash, including people. Why not cut down the last tree on Easter Island or keep a harem of child sex slaves or make dog food out of people? Why not loot the national economy for fun and profit and make suckers out of the nation's citizens? If the world and everything in it has no value apart from what's written on a price tag, then what does it matter? The line between crime and business becomes ever fuzzier all the time with cops and robbers trading places as profit margins go up. As John Updike once wrote, "Even three in the morning is lit up with the glow of money going rotten." That is the world that is being created for all of us to live in whether we want it or not. The people who own and run the world want this despite whatever we might think.

How do people stand against this? Taking a stand against this coming dystopia certainly does not require religious faith. Plenty of secular minded people are horrified by this prospect and will do all they can to resist it. At the moment, so many churches, by allying themselves with right wing supremacist political ideologies, are becoming the enablers of international capitalism rather than the resistance. So many priests these days are eager to play the role of the landlord's best friend that Marx once assigned them. Far from getting rid of religion, ideological capitalism sees it as an ideal enforcement agency, policing the desires and inner lives of people to keep them useful and productive.
And yet, religion could be a powerful force for resisting this aggressive nihilism, this dehumanization of the world's population. Like labor unions in progressive politics, religion comes with the institutional force that individuals or ad hoc groups simply don't have. I'm not convinced that this is a reason to become religious, but it is a reason to feel alarmed rather than to celebrate the demise of religious life.

I think the wisest and most prophetic thinker on the role of religion in the modern and post-modern world was that very secular thinker Hannah Arendt, who pointed out that while the traditional language and institutions of religion may well perish in the encounter with modern history, the religious impulse will probably survive, finding new languages to articulate that experience, and new forms of institutional expression. We may be witnessing that process now.