The Demise of Church

In his book The Feeling of What Happens explaining how the brain works and what is consciousness, Antonio Damasio writes in the concluding chapter: “I began this book by invoking birth and the moment of stepping into the light as suggestive metaphors for consciousness. When self first comes to mind and forevermore after that, two-thirds of every living day without pause [wakefulness], we step into the light of mind and we become known to ourselves. And now that the memory of so many becomings has created the persons we are, we can even imagine ourselves walking across the stage under the light.” (emphasis mine)

Light seems to be life. The light of the sun, that sun up there, is as described often, a source of life. Life itself we might conclude.

We have followed the light, sleeping when the light went down, rising when it rose. Then came artificial light, well efficient artificial light, not just the weak flame to attempt to read by or that would take us to our bedchamber if late retiring or the amassing of great light, at great cost, for special occasions, a ball perhaps. With efficient artificial light, especially electric light, humans could flip a switch and create all the light they wanted and so order their day as they wished, not as the constellations governed.

In a reversal, theatres shut down the house lights. The audiences under full light were having too much of their own way talking, calling out to the stage, making wise cracks or often, think of the plays of Singe in the Abbey theatre, protesting what was on stage. Turning down the house lights quieted the audiences’ running the show. With lights down in the house, and focused only on the stage, the audiences were able to focus on the stage activity, put themselves into the fiction, see themselves as from outside with the intent that in that way a play could transform one, shift one’s self-centred focus, reach into one’s soul. This could only be if the subject of the play -ah, the audience, you see, as subject- only if the audience could get outside of itself, its opinion, bravado and self-sufficiency, and submit to what something outside might have to say to one. It’s the same for counselling or education, for examples, that only when the subject of these can let go self-sufficiency and attend to the process, defer to the process, can anything of learning, insight change, and growth happen.

It’s been said that the beginning of the demise of church, or at least an acceleration of the demise, occurred when electric light was introduced into sacred space. Consider that before electric light, the light was the daylight coming through colourful stained glass, windows not lightbulbs the source of light. On special occasions such as for Tenebrae, flames would sporadically light the space, the overall effect being darkness pushed back but slightly by a warm glowing flame. Lots of candles meant lots of sparkling lights inside the darkness.

With electric light, everything is lit, well lit and with advancing technology, the architecture became more and more a fully lighted space, indoors as if outside. When relying on stained glass, then a bright day would give a different light inside to the light of an overcast day or stormy dark clouds. Electric light made every time predictable, indifferent to the day outside.

Perhaps the demise effect referred to is just that, that the connection of the sacredness of the space shifted from the world out there, the larger world, the natural world, the world humans have little control over and so felt dependent on the gods to contend with the world, focus on the world then, as a theatre audience would in turn focus on the stage.

With full control of the source of light in sacred space, light inside church – known to be human-generated light- then perhaps the work of the sacred space is also more human, less seen to be the work of the larger universe. The light in church is constant where before electric light, the light in church varied with and was subject to the influence of bigger forces, the weather of the day.

Psychologically this knowledge of and identification with the human source of light now used in sacred space, I don’t believe is insubstantial.

Along with the arrival of electric lighting is the demise of mystery. Church some might say has become more entertainment, more liturgist and congregants in play than liturgist as mediator of the mysterious and grander other, pointer to the other, as in architecture seen as the light coming through the window in the east end, the grand stained glass source of light in the sanctuary, as the focus of the church space. Today, one finds if a dominant window at the front, that the church has put little spot lights outside pointing up at the window to make it light up in the dark, as if the sun was pouring in, as if, but feebly so at the best of times.

Church more than ever is personality-centred on the ministers standing there in the chancel, presenting, dare one say, offensive to the clergy, but let it be suggested, a liturgical show to keep the congregants pleased with the hope of being good enough to attract new members, expand the congregation, be the presider over of a full house, feeling then that one, the work of clergy, mattered today. Sorry clergy. But as much as religious people hate their work being seen as performance, a pejorative for them, it is a performance, academically speaking for anthropology and Performance Theory studies, so is the suggestion of this observation, that lost in it all is the representation of light as majesty, light of the day, light we were born into, our consciousness, experience of natural light that tells of a greater light, replaced by light incandescent, or if on the cutting edge, LED, light emitting diodes, a very human, self-sufficient light, the light of a shopping mall or living room, if you would.

As much as Antonio Damasio writes about stepping in the light of mind to be known to ourselves, so it has been suggested before electric light did church allow for a stepping in the light of soul for the divine source to be known to us, for our minds to have consciousness and our souls to have faith.