When I absorb the beauty of religiously inspired architecture I get the sense that there was something captured within deep religious moments of people long ago when they imagined how their feelings and thoughts inform the way these edifices should look. On a visit to Stuttgart Germany last summer I stood in wonder when I laid my eyes upon St. John’s church (pictured above), completed in 1876 according to what Wikipedia says is the Gothic Revival style. The church’s design is incredibly intricate and beautiful, and has a dark, austere, and grim medieval feel to it. When people say that the holy scriptures of the Abrahamic faiths are full of passages that are dark and harsh, as a way of indicating their dislike of these religions, I wonder if they’ve fully appreciated how, over the general span of human history, life was marked predominantly by hardship and uncertainty: strong rulers and deities were part of how people dealt with what has been called the “immemorial misdirection of life”. Take for instance what Robert Bellah says about divinity and kingship in Ancient Egypt:
“The king is the key link between humans and the cosmos such that the weakness or absence of the king is a sign of profound cosmic and social disorder; the proper functioning of the king is the primary guarantee of life and peace. Just as powerful beings of tribal peoples were violent as well as benevolent, and in ancient Mesopotamia one never knew what Enil might do, so chaos and disorder were never far from the consciousness of the ancient Egyptians”
Although we in a country like the United States may presume that monarchical governance should be consider an antiquated relic of the past, the remnants of history still have their impact on us. According to the historian Frank Prochaska, throughout our history as a nation “Americans have been highly susceptible to the transcendent glamour of hereditary kinship, and find little contradiction in saluting the stars and stripes one moment and bowing to the British sovereign the next”. Prochaska goes on in his book The Eagle and the Crown (2008) to say that “the newly-formed American nation looked across the Atlantic for time-honored traditions, family ties and possessions that would give a sense of inheritance to a people otherwise defined by their novelty. Expansion and rapid social change unsettled American citizens, leaving them uneasy about class but preoccupied with status. Titles, honor, and distinctions of rank alleviate the monotony of democracy”. Prochaska focuses on monarchy’s viability in shaping and giving meaning to identity and national culture, and perhaps what he refers to as its’ “transcendent glamour” is what makes stories about monarchy so compelling for audiences. Speaking on behalf of monarchy’s historical and broad sweeping hold on humanity, the historian SW Spellman says that the “imposition of rule by one speaks to a deep human need, a desire for permanence and meaning in a world of unpredictability and danger”.
It simply intrigues me, that in a Hegelian sense, history encapsulates experiences and practices that humans can’t quite shake off, even when we deem particular historical phenomena antiquated. Perhaps the stories and games within a genre like medieval fantasy provides us with a way not only to peek a bit into how our ancestors lived, but also acts as a sort of counter-weight to what we find as existentially unsatisfying about life in modern times. Imagine the conventional image we have of the heroic knight from medieval times: he lives in a world in which chain of command and hierarchical status dominates human life. He serves his lord the king, and all serve a Lord or Lords, as in the God or Gods that made up their mythological landscape. There’s something satisfying about that, the finding of a psychological settlement and comfort in knowing life’s clear purpose and meaning. Our 1960s cultural revolution represented an all out assault on authority. Its’ radical leaders and adherents left little to revere, to be loyal or obedient to, except the revolutionary ideals and tasks that sought to destroy so many established ways. In our world today, although extreme nihilists, epitomized by the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s film The Dark Knight, are a minority, there are still strains of influences that lead a lot of people to uphold somehow that they themselves are primarily the only ones they have to answer to or take orders from. The ethic of defiance seems embedded in our moral fabric. In such a world of broken respect and adherence to the ways of various hierarchies and authorities, genres like medieval fantasy provides a chance to partake in what life is like when its’ swayed more by deference to community and authority rather than the individualism and anti-authoritarianism in our culture.
When I think about how I as a Muslim can communicate the reason why I pray to a more secular minded skeptic of religion, it begins with my simple observation that there is something a lot greater out there than whatever is happening in the daily events of my life. Within the lush and untouched natural areas of the earth, like a forest, and out in the distance when we gaze out into the cosmos, there is the perpetual reminder that we should attend to the concerns in our lives with an eye toward the grander significance of things. When I place the temple of my head on the ground during prayer, I acknowledge this grander significance. When I think about the incomprehensibility of the vastness of time and space, the limitations and fragility I have as a human, these existential questions can be assuaged in having faith that God is there to glorify and give praise to.