Generous Orthodoxy  

Friday, November 05, 2010

Should a mosque be a cathedral? or vice versa?

My parents spent almost a month touring Spain in the 1950s. Their glowing reports made a tremendous impression on me and my sister. I particularly remember their rapturous appreciation of the architecture of Muslim Spain--Al Andalus. They thought the Alhambra was one of the most wonderful things they had ever seen.

Reports come today of the Roman Catholic Church's push to have the Mezquita de Cordoba off-limits to praying Muslims and to remove the word "mosque" from the signs identifying this great building (a UNESCO world-heritage site) as a "mosque-cathedral." The Church argues that the magnificent example of Moorish architecture, begun by the caliphs as a mosque in the eighth century, has been a cathedral ever since the Christian reconquest of Spain in the 13th. Complicating the matter is the fact that Pope Benedict XVI comes to Spain this weekend, on his quest to strengthen Catholicism in Europe. The New York Times article can be found here:

The struggle between Muslims and Christians for this soul of this world-famous monument escalated on Good Friday this year when a group of Muslims came into the "cathedral" and began to pray loudly, resisting all efforts to eject them. Some Muslims are now seeking a space set aside for them in the building, much to the dismay of the Catholic authorities.

I had the great privilege of seeing Hagia Sophia in Constantinople some years ago. I consider it to be the greatest building in the world. However, this Christian church, built in the sixth century, was converted into a mosque after the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks. It remained a mosque until 1935 when it was secularized as a museum. Many of the additions and changes made by the Ottomans remain, and many of the Christian features, especially the gorgeous mosaics, were lost. I found this distressing.

In Rome this spring, I saw the Pantheon, by common consent one of the greatest buildings in the world and certainly one of the earliest on that list. I thought it was much defaced by the altar, crucifix, and other Christian objects placed inside. It is true that the building was saved, intact, only because it was made into a church--all the other Roman buildings in central Rome are in ruins--but it would be much better if the temple "to all the gods" were allowed to be itself.

All this is by way of saying that the former mosque in Cordoba ought not to be a battleground between Muslims and Catholics. It would be too much to ask the Church to give up its cathedral, but how much better than the current hostile standoff it would be if the Church (and Christians in general) respected the building's origins. It does not look anything like a Christian church by any stretch of the imagination.

Christianity does not survive and grow and win hearts by being militant. The failure to learn this has undone our efforts from the first centuries until now, when many congregations breaking away from the Episcopal Church have a stance of militant self-righteousness (and the same is often true, it must be said, for the loyalists). This is not the way of the Cross.

It is a difficult path to find. If we simply give in to all-inclusiveness, as the Washington National Cathedral (for instance) seems to be doing, the distinctive character of Christianity will be lost. Doctrine does matter. What makes the difference is the spirit in which doctrine is upheld, and above all the manner in which Christians conduct themselves in a world hostile to the Cross of Christ. It goes without saying (or does it?) that the Cross is not a symbol, least of all a symbol to be carried into literal battle. As a sign of victory over the powers of sin and death, the Cross is a reality about the way in which God gave himself up to evil in order to save the world through love.