Bishop Robert Barron once said in a video that “you can tell what’s dominant in a city by which building’s are dominant” (2009). In this sense, what a city worships is shown through its tallest skyscrapers. This became apparent to me when a few days ago I recently viewed the Manhattan skyline. I marveled the city’s towering skyscrapers and ostensibly flourishing development.
I had been interested in tall buildings since I was a kid. This time, with my binoculars and an iPhone, I was identifying the different New York City buildings. As my research continued I noticed a church was listed in the Manhattan skyline. On the wikipedia page “List of tallest buildings in New York City”, the Riverside Church is the only religious building cited in this skyline. A quick view of Manhattan easily overlooks the little church amidst the city’s soaring structures. It is strange that a church is featured in a page dedicated to New York City skyscrapers, but this reminds us of the time when cathedrals used to dominate the list for “tallest structure in the world”.
From 1311 to 1894, cathedrals claimed this prestigious title. The Cologne Cathedral and the Ulm Minster church in Germany where the last two churches to hold this distinction. For comparison both were just a few meters shorter than the Washington Monument. Since the topping out of the Philadelphia City Hall in 1894, governments, apartment complexes, insurance agencies, business, and trade centers headquartered their spaces in looming buildings and occupied the main attention of skyline views. While the heights of these structures are an incredible feat it gives us an insight on what is valued most, according to Bishop Barron. In Chicago, three of its four tallest buildings (the Willis Tower, the AON building and the John Hancock building/875 North Michigan Avenue) host insurance companies. New York City’s 5 tallest skyscrapers function, or will function to facilitate international trade services, host bank companies, and provide luxury apartments.
It is apparent that a majority of our modern work is focused on the worldly matters: housing a government, dong business, finances, etc. All of these tasks are necessary and noble in themselves. The high standard of living found throughout the world is deeply indebted to how our businessmen, scientists, engineers, politicians etc. Society’s flourishing is largely dependent on such. But the prioritization of such professions has led to the de-valuing of higher truths such as philosophy, religion and God.
Without an appeal to a higher law nor the transcendent reality, the financial, scientific, and political professions take the place of highest worship, and will often develop counter intuitively and against the good of human nature. Indeed, we often hear that society is growing increasingly secular and irreligious. This leads to widespread support and growth for individualism, consumerism, and materialism. It leads to a society values personal wealth above personal virtue, where we sacrifice our personal health and family for the good of our jobs, where we greedily and gluttonously consume resources to feed our insatiable impulses.
But, the financial, scientific, and political spheres need not be ignored and done away with in order to formulate a sustainably flourishing world. Instead, these disciplines need to be re-figured into their proper place and subordinated to support the higher truths and thinking found in philosophy, religion and God. In the gospel of Matthew 6:33 Jesus Christ does not say “Seek only the Kingdom of God”, but rather, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be given to you as well.” This suggests that we must value primarily and not exclusively the transcendent truths. But, secondly we must also value the economic, scientific and political disciplines.
This is not to say that tall skyscrapers should be done away with. Rather, this is meant to highlight how our societal values, largely shown through our highest skyscrapers can represent our increasingly secular culture, and the de-valuing of philosophy and religion. We need not do away with worldly professions. We should continue doing business, encouraging trade, upholding government, and creating new homes in order to support a society’s law, economy, and standard of living. But we must remember that they must be subordinated to higher truths. Until we have this proper orientation, can we have a genuinely flourishing city.
Bishop Robert Barron. Bishop Barron on the Willis Tower. Youtube.com. Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AhRcywjuZF0> (accessed December 9, 2019).