A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

In advance of the release of his book Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal last year about how churches and religious buildings can serve as models for secular society in building communities and relationships.  “One of the losses that modern society feels most keenly is the loss of a sense of community,” he argues.  Botton finds that churches, through collective immersion in a shared belief and repetition of liturgical activities, help the individual to more easily develop new friendships and augment the community’s social bond.  Botton believes this is a worthwhile model for secular groups to emulate in order to stem the tide of social alienation in the twenty-first century.

I was reminded of Botton’s article when I read Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” a couple of weeks ago.  It’s a short story that finds two café waiters preparing to close their restaurant for the night.  The younger waiter is impatient to get home to his wife and eventually tells the last patron, a deaf old man who had recently attempted suicide, to leave.  The older waiter is in no such rush.  “I am one of those who like to stay late at the café,” he says. “With all those who do not want to go to bed.  With all those who need a light for the night.”

Botton is articulating a similar longing and desire fifty years later.  Hemingway’s waiter does not believe in God (“Our nada who art in nada…” he intones) but finds a deep unease in the dark of the night.  He finds himself attracted to the “clean and pleasant” café where the “light is very good.”  The same is true for Botton’s characterization of unbelievers who, despite their disbelief, find value in the rituals of organized ceremony.  Botton argues that the genius of grandiose church buildings and the Mass service lie in inspiring a bond of heightened purpose:

We leave [Mass] thinking that humanity may not be such a wretched thing after all.  As a result, we may start to feel that we could work a little less feverishly, because we see that the respect and security we hope to gain through our careers is already available to us in a warm and impressive community that imposes no worldly requirements on us for its welcome.

Botton evaluates the benefits and disadvantages of cathedrals and other locations for social gathering in an attempt to build the ideal contemporary and non-religious gathering space.  He settles on the following:

With the benefits of the Mass and the drawbacks of contemporary dining in mind, we can imagine an ideal restaurant of the future, an Agape Restaurant. Such a restaurant would have an open door, a modest entrance fee and an attractively designed interior. In its seating arrangement, the groups and ethnicities into which we commonly segregate ourselves would be broken up; family members and couples would be spaced apart. Everyone would be safe to approach and address, without fear of rebuff or reproach. By simple virtue of being in the space, guests would be signaling—as in a church—their allegiance to a spirit of community and friendship.

As the Catholic Church and other religious organizations define themselves in the twenty-first century, it would be wise to keep this model, as well as the café of Hemingway’s protagonist, in mind.  Botton does not specify who or what group should build this Agape Restaurant, but he seems to place the agency of creating these non-religious superstructures and ceremonies in the hands of atheistic organizations.  It would be beneficial for religious organizations to create similar buildings in an attempt to foster interfaith or inter-belief dialogue.  Such buildings would certainly not supplant traditional churches, cathedrals, temples, and mosques, but they could prove to be effective supplemental spaces to more effectively engage modern communities.

The goal of these new religious spaces would be engaging in a more open dialogue with people who long for greater communal belonging but have no allegiance to any faith tradition.  Conversion should not be a priority; tending to people’s spiritual, moral, and communal need, regardless of belief, is more important.  But providing a free dedicated space where anyone could feel welcome would likely be an effective new tool for religious organizations to spread their message.  Though Botton is correct that the grandiose appearance of many worship spaces instills a sense of wonder, this appearance can simultaneously be off-putting to non-believers who don’t feel welcome in this foreign, insular community.   Creating a supplemental space that features minimal religious iconography but emphasizes open and broad religious discussion and debate would be a boon to entice new people to re-evaluate their perceptions of what “worship” entails.  A stripped-down, warm, and simple architectural style for these new buildings could provide a stark contrast to older, more imposing cathedrals and temples which might disincentivize potential participants.

This is not to say Botton’s unaffiliated “Agape Restaurants” are not a worthwhile idea in and of themselves, since creating a theologically-neutral space would provide its own unique benefits to the community.   But the central concept is remarkably applicable to religious organizations as well.  Providing a modern, clean, and well-lighted space for all people to satiate their metaphysical and physical hunger is an admirable goal for all religions, a goal that could redefine how people come to believe in the twenty-first century.

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