Architecture and Theology

The Art of Place

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Murray A. Rae
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , December
     305 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Murray Rae’s book does an excellent job of demonstrating that architecture is a “poetic activity” that possesses, as he puts it, the “capacity to open up new ways of seeing the world” (2). He does not here attempt a sustained argument about the relationship between architecture and theology, and he deploys a variety of methodological approaches. Nevertheless, his book is a rich contribution to the growing interest in engaging the “built environment” with theology.

Sometime architecture serves for Rae as a text, as when he interprets the late medieval and Renaissance city—Rome specifically—as an eschatological image, a material image that reflects and embodies the inauguration of the Kingdom of God. And sometimes architecture serves for him as a heuristic device to discover new ways of thinking about theology. So, for example, he uses the norms of classical architecture to examine the relation between law and freedom in Christian theology. The rules of classical architecture, Rae argues, do not constrain the capacity for inspired creation but are the very ground of that freedom of inventiveness, as was the case in the construction of the Parthenon. In the same way, the rules of Torah, as a living tradition, do not merely confine but allow for freedom of interpretation and adaptation to new circumstances. So it was with Jesus, who, while bound by the Torah, exercised the freedom to interpret the law and adapt it to new circumstances, such as he did in the Sermon on the Mount. As with the practice of architecture in the ancient world, then, so it is for Jews and Christians—there are norms of tradition that serve to articulate a way of life defined by rules, but these create the space to creatively and freely apply such rules to new contexts. Rae’s use of architectural traditions of the ancient world opens up a refreshing perspective for understanding the relationship between law and freedom.

In the course of his exploration of how architecture might engage theology, Rae provides an effective critique of modernity and its emphasis on individualism and rationalism, its rejection of history and tradition, and its dualistic rejection of the material world. Critiques of modernity are, of course, nothing new, but Rae’s work explores the failures of modernity from a new perspective, that of the “built environment” and its rootedness in the material world. This is, quite literally, a more concrete, and more effective, way of exposing the bankruptcy of the modern sensibility.

Being fond of Eastern Christianity, I might have wanted Rae to give more attention to this tradition, one that is still largely overlooked in the West. Eastern Christianity possesses resources that, I think, would add much to Rae’s reflections. For example, in his chapter “Presence and Absence,” Rae explores how the Church of the Good Shepherd on the shores of Lake Tekapo in New Zealand, which conveys in its architecture a sense of the “present and yet still future kingdom of God” (211). In the same way, the architectural features of an Orthodox church, combined with its iconographic program and the liturgy itself, make the kingdom of God proleptically present. And in the chapter “Knowing and Dwelling,” Rae speaks eloquently about the connection between how “our efforts to know the world are closely entwined with our habitation of it” (153). This resonates nicely with the Orthodox emphasis on knowledge as participation (as opposed to knowledge as cognition). In Orthodoxy, knowledge is not simply rational or discursive, but participatory, rooted in the sacramentality of creation. Theosis, the process of becoming like God—becoming a “participant of the divine nature,” as 2 Peter 1:4 puts it—is firmly grounded in the material beauty of architecture, icon, and liturgy, which is, as Thomas Mathews says in Byzantium: From Anitiquity to the Renaissance (Yale University Press, 2010), an “environmental work of art.” Considering the theological aesthetics of Orthodoxy would, I think, enrich Rae’s project.

But as Rae acknowledges, he cannot cover everything. What his book accomplishes very nicely is to stimulate our thinking about the ways in which architecture can enrich the theological enterprise. His book succeeds admirably in enabling us to discover new ways of seeing the world and of doing theology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Claude N. Stulting, Jr. is Associate Professor of Religion and English at Furman University.

Date of Review: 
June 2, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Murray A. Rae is Professor of Theology at the University of Otago in New Zealand.


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