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The cathedral of the world

A twenty-first-century theology, based on the concept of one light and many windows.
By Forrest Church
Winter 2009 11.1.09

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stained glass (timchen/iStockphoto)

(timchen/iStockphoto)

Imagine awakening one morning from a deep and dreamless sleep to find yourself in the nave of a vast cathedral. Like a child newborn, untutored save to moisture, nurture, rhythm, and the profound comforts at the heart of darkness, you open your eyes onto a world unseen, indeed unimaginable, before. It is a world of light and dancing shadow, stone and glass, life and death. This second birth, at once miraculous and natural, is in some ways not unlike the first. A new awakening, it consecrates your life with sacraments of pain you do not understand and promised joy you will never fully call your own.

Such awakenings may happen only once in a lifetime or many times. But when they do, what before you took for granted is presented as a gift: difficult, yet precious and good. Not that you know what to do with your gift, or even what it really means, only how much it matters. Awakening to the call stirring deep within you, the call of life itself—the call of God—you begin your pilgrimage.

Before you do, look about you. Contemplate the mystery and contemplate with awe. This cathedral is as ancient as humankind, its cornerstone the first altar, marked with the tincture of blood and blessed by tears. Search for a lifetime—which is all you are surely given—and you shall never know its limits, visit all its transepts, worship at its myriad shrines, nor span its celestial ceiling with your gaze. The builders have worked from time immemorial, destroying and creating, confounding and perfecting, tearing down and raising up arches in this cathedral, buttresses and chapels, organs, theaters and chancels, gargoyles, idols and icons. Not a moment passes without work being begun that shall not be finished in the lifetime of the architects who planned it, the patrons who paid for it, the builders who construct it, or the expectant worshipers. Throughout human history, one generation after another has labored lovingly, sometimes fearfully, crafting memorials and consecrating shrines. Untold numbers of these today collect dust in long undisturbed chambers; others (cast centuries or eons ago from their once respected places) lie shattered in shards or ground into dust on the cathedral floor. Not a moment passes without the dreams of long-dead dreamers being outstripped, crushed, or abandoned, giving way to new visions, each immortal in reach, ephemeral in grasp.

Welcome to the Cathedral of the World.

Above all else, contemplate the windows. In the Cathedral of the World there are windows beyond number, some long forgotten, covered with many patinas of dust, others revered by millions, the most sacred of shrines. Each in its own way is beautiful. Some are abstract, others representational; some dark and meditative, others bright and dazzling. Each tells a story about the creation of the world, the meaning of history, the purpose of life, the nature of humankind, the mystery of death. The windows of the cathedral are where the light shines through.

As with all extended meta­phors for meaning, this one is imperfect. The Light of God (or Truth or Being Itself, call it what you will) shines not only upon us, but out from within us as well. Together with the windows, we are part of the Cathedral, not apart from it. Together we comprise an interdependent web of being. The Cathedral is constructed out of star stuff, and so are we. We are that part (that known part) of the creation that contemplates itself, part of the poem that we ponder. Because the Cathedral is so vast, our life so short and our vision so dim, we are able to contemplate only a tiny part of the cathedral, explore a few apses, reflect upon the play of light and darkness through a few of its myriad windows. Yet, since the whole (holographically or organically) is contained in each of the parts, as we ponder and act on the insight from our ruminations, we may discover insights that will invest our days with meaning and our lives with purpose.

A twenty-first-century theology based on the concept of one Light and many windows offers to its adherents both breadth and focus. Honoring many different religious approaches, it only excludes the truth-claims of absolutists. That is because fundamentalists claim that the Light shines through their window only. Some go so far as to beseech their followers to throw stones through other people’s windows.

Skeptics draw the opposite conclusion. Seeing the bewildering variety of windows and observing the folly of the worshipers, they conclude that there is no Light. But the windows are not the Light. They are where the Light shines through.

We shall never see the Light directly, only as refracted through the windows of the Cathedral. Prompting humility, life’s mystery lies hidden, beyond knowledge’s most ample ken. The Light (God, Truth) is veiled. Yet, that we can encompass with our minds the universe that encompasses us is a cause for great wonder. I humbly stand in the Cathedral of the World trembling with awe.

Some people have trouble believing in a God who looks into any eyes but theirs. Others have trouble believing in a God they cannot see. But that none of us can look directly into God’s eyes certainly doesn’t mean God isn’t there, mysterious, unknowable, gazing into ours, gazing through the windows of the Cathedral of the World.


Reprinted with permission from the late Rev. Dr. Forrest Church's final book, The Cathedral of the World: A Universalist Theology (Beacon Press, 2009). Church introduced this image in "Universalism: A Theology for the Twenty-first Century" (UU World, November/December 2001).

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