Analytic Theology

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What’s the Big Deal with the Lateran Basilica?

November 10th, 2008 by David Kronemyer · 1 Comment

DAVID KRONEMYER: On November 9, 2008 the Catholic Church celebrated the dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome. The Lateran Basilica is the Pope’s cathedral – surprisingly, not St. Peters. It is odd to have a special mass celebrating the Lateran Basilica. As the service progressed, it became clear the Basilica was an analogy about Christ (Christ’s body), and how is body really is the true church. At John 2:13 – 22 Jesus clears the sacrifice-vendors and money-lenders out of the temple. They asked, “how can you prove your authority to do all of this?” He responded, “destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” They said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” John continues: “But the temple he had spoken of was his body.”

While this is a good ending it is conceptually incongruous to base one of Christianity’s important narratives on something as flimsy as a physical structure. Buildings are prone to decay and destruction. While some medieval cathedrals survive, as do the pyramids at Giza, they are the exception. St. Peters has been rebuilt several times. Buildings are transitory. There is a huge gulf between the temporal and the eternal.

Buildings can direct people’s attention. In “The Origin of the Work of Art,” for example, Martin Heidegger postulates that the ancient Greeks were focused around the temple. This gave their culture coherency and purpose. Heidegger’s interesting observation flounders on several grounds, most notably the empirical fact that there only were a dozen or so Greek temples in the classic mode he envisions. Strangely Heidegger does not mention the temple of the archaic Israelites – the very one Jesus entered and then purported to transcend. Perhaps it was too close to the ontotheology Heidegger later went on to condemn. But, then, so were the ancient Greeks. They are every bit as foundational to the Judeo-Christian Tradition as the archaic Israelites. Much of the New Testament, particularly as distilled by John and Paul, is a rendering of ancient Greek concepts into Israelite theological terms.

If he wanted to be more consistent with his other work, Heidegger should have focused on the nature of the Greek temple as an object. A temple is more of a tool or an item of equipment than an ordinary thing, in that worshippers use it to achieve a certain result (reverence towards a deity). In fact this is one of the key features distinguishing religious relics (as things) from ordinary works of art. Icons can be works of art, but (if properly deployed) become transparent to activity. They are different than objects per se because they can be used for human purposes, not simply regarded. Things promote a separation of self and world, which the believer wants to collapse or eradicate. It would have been nice if Heidegger simply came out and said this rather than indulging in his usual obfuscatory prose.

Things also present a real problem for contemporary eelymosynary giving. Too often it is based on the concept of structures, not useful activity. People who donate to art museums and medical institutions want their names on buildings, laboratories, or even seats at concert halls. They insist on dedicating performances to themselves. “This lavatory brought to you by Joe the Plumber.” Art museums themselves are collections of things. Often donors are not particularly interested in undertaking useful works, such as opening artistic exhibitions to the public for their delectation, enjoyment and betterment, or curing intractable diseases. Like the Lateran Basilica, buildings are objects. This is exactly backwards.