Church Foundation

When things fall apart in theology and church practice

‘… we have been given a perennially valid paradigm for theology in our Christ-centered trinitarian confession of faith, expressed in the classic ecumenical creeds of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon. When things seem to be falling apart in theology and church practice, then I would propose that we reclaim once again the strong name of the Trinity, because there we find a continuing framework of Christian identity, transcending the discontinuities and oscillations of history and culture’. – Carl E. Braaten, ‘The Cultural Captivity of Theology: An Evangelical Catholic Perspective’ (a paper presented at The Inaugural Margaret McKinnon Memorial Lecture on Christianity and Culture, Nepean Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia, Melbourne, 1997), 20.

The Parable of the Engineers

‘Once a corps of engineers was assigned to continue the building of a magnificent cathedral which had already been under construction many centuries and which had benefited from the devout labor of great engineers of many generations. Some of the new engineers, however, began to question the architectural soundness of the plans. They said that the plans had numerous errors and contradictions in them. When asked for clarification by some of their fellows, they pointed out that architectural styles were changing and that the plans erroneously presented older stylistic characteristics and contradicted current styles. In reply, a few engineers noted that this did not make the plans erroneous or contradictory in themselves, and that it was the architect’s business to draw the plans and the engineers to follow them. The majority did not agree, but they did not want to cast direct aspersions on the architect or abandon the construction. So they had recourse to a number of stratagems.

1. First, they argued that though the plans were erroneous and contradictory this was not the architect’s fault and should be attributed to his draughtsmen. (Intransigent engineers claimed that the architect was always responsible for his draughtsmen, but this argument was brushed aside.) Endeavours were thus made to ignore the “draughtsmen’s errors” while accepting the architect’s “true ideas” as conveyed by the draughtsmen’s plans. But since the only knowledge of the architect’s ideas came by way of the draughtsmen’s plans, this endeavour miserably failed and led to more radical suggestions. (It is perhaps worth pointing out that while these discussions went on, relatively little building was done.)

2. Then the engineers argued that the purpose of the plans had been misunderstood. They were not intended to be followed as such, but contact with them would increase the engineer’s inner sensitivity to true building methods. But one engineer’s inner sensitivity did not produce the same results as another’s, considerable confusion set in, and a tower collapsed.

3. A particularly brilliant engineer now suggested that everything in the plans was symbolic of the architect himself. However, it was soon discovered that if everything was symbolic and nothing literal, no engineer could determine the real meaning of any particular element in the plans. More disputes set in, and another section of the building crumbled.

4. Now the people for whom the cathedral was being built were becoming more and more agitated and many would not enter the half completed edifice at all because of the danger of falling stones, loose mortar, and buckling floors. Some were even crying for a new staff of engineers. This made the engineers terribly nervous and excitable, and finally some of them, to placate the mob, began to claim that there was no architect at all, that the people for whom the cathedral was being built were more important than anything else, and that everyone was in as good a position as the inaccurate draughtsmen to draw up plans. Oddly enough, this seemed to infuriate the people even more, for the latter apparently considered it self-evident that the plans, the great engineers of the past who had faithfully followed them, and the earlier work on the cathedral (the work done before the present confusion) all presupposed an architect. They began to become violent and even claimed that the engineers were destroying their cathedral and making a mockery out of the engineering profession.

5. At this point a very vocal engineer tried to convince the people that such efforts as he and the others were making were really acts of great heroism and that even though the plans of the architect were impossibly naive and had been hopelessly muddled by past draughtsmen and engineers, he himself could lead them through the maze by direct communication with dead engineers of the past, thereby proving the deathless value of engineering science. But instead of being considered a repristination of heroic, reforming engineers of early times, this engineer was regarded as an epitomal fool by virtually all of his colleagues and the great mass of the people. Only the media of communication featured him, for they quickly discovered that people followed his exploits with horror and fascination even as they did the latest scandals of famous entertainers.

Thus did the great cathedral eventually crumble and fall, killing not only the people who had loved it but also the engineers responsible for its loss. Pathetically, there were a few engineers who, right up to the moment of final destruction, still pleaded that the only hope lay in following rigorously the original plans, that the engineers must bring their stylistic ideas into conformity with the architect’s, and that deviations from their notions of style did not constitute genuine errors or contradictions in the plans. But their voices were scarcely heard amid the din of engineering teams working at cross-purposes to each other, and the deafening roar of falling masonry.

And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that cathedral; at it fell: and great was the fall of it’.

From John Warwick Montgomery, The Suicide of Christian Theology, 25–27.