And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.
For thou hast made him but little lower than God, And crownest him with glory and honor.
We have now so far been to three cathedrals -- St Paul's, Canterbury, and Coventry -- and each of these visitations have stirred within me a number of divergent and even conflicting theological and anthropological thoughts, all of which are ultimately resolved within me by an overwhelming and deeply resonant sense of spiritual awe and wonder.
The most immediately identifiable conflict I have within me is perhaps more taught than it is natural -- in other words it is more of a thought than an intuitive feeling. It comes from my Baptist forbears' conviction that the Temple is not an edifice but a Person, and Church is not a building but a people. Rejecting all the majesty and mystery of the medieval church, the Baptists and Congregationalists who joined together to build the first church I pastored built a simple and unembellished meeting house where 175 years later some old timers still spoke of "Sunday go to meetin'" and never Sunday go to church. For these early 19th century Protestants, the church met in the building, but was never the building itself; and I'm sure they could quoted chapter and verse from Revelation where John said he saw no Temple in his vision of heaven because God Himself will be the Temple.
But it's not just Puritans and Separatists from centuries past who cast suspicion on the temples humanity has made for its gods. From another very different spiritual tradition, the 20th great century Jewish mystic Abraham Joshua Heschel himself, in a widely influential reflection on the meaning of Sabbath contrasted the difference between sacred space and sacred time, locating the human need for holy space in the lower order of spiritual evolution. "The primitive mind finds it hard to realize an idea without the aid of imagination," Heschel wrote, "and it is the realm of space where imagination wields its sway. Of the gods it must have a visible image; where there is no image, there is no god.
To speak of something as "primitive" is not in itself to say anything negative. It does, however, imply an undeveloped and even infantile state. Heschel's thesis was clear -- a religion in need of temples is for a humanity only just born.
Heschel's critique of temple religion is, of course, as old as the Jewish Prophets. And it was a very similar statement that got Stephen, the first Christian martyr killed, when in the shadow of the Jerusalem he dared to say that God does not dwell in houses made by human hands and quote the prophet Isaiah in saying, "Heaven is His throne and the whole earth just his footstool," [my translation].
All of this is, of course, true. God surely cannot be held in a house or temple or even in the whole earth or cosmos. And yet, there is something within me -- something "primitive", to use Heschel's term -- which is attracted to or perhaps by spiritual space. The loft and grandeur of these cathedrals draw me like a moth to a flame. There is awe and there is wonder, and there is a sense that art and architecture were dreamed for such a sacred calling as this. Just as all things take place, so holy things take holy places. And these cathedrals, though built and maintained by fragile and sinful men, are still nonetheless holy indeed.
So I am thinking again and more deeply about the the book of Revelation and John's vision. It is true, there is to be there no Temple because God Himself will be our Temple. But it is also true that there will be no sun and no moon because God himself will be our Light. In other words, our needs there in heaven are going to be different from our needs here on earth -- both physical and spiritual. And that brings me back yet again to the folk wisdom of my pastor Charlie Johnson which I mentioned a few days earlier, "This ain't heaven -- it's church."
This ain't heaven -- it's earth.
Where stars and sun and moon light our way,
Beckoning us on to believe there is such a thing
As Very Light of Very Light
And Temples Made with human hands lift our eyes
To behold with primitive men
A glory too great for marble and stone
Yet humble enough to meet us there, nonetheless