A cathedral – or a car park?
Which is more beautiful?
I suspect most people will want to say, instinctively, the cathedral: but the habits of modern reason will make them think twice. What they will think they are meant to say is something like, “well, it’s all in the eye of the beholder.” Some people might think some or other cathedral is beautiful, some people might find aesthetic charm in a particular car park. Beauty is what we, individually, make of it.
Onto a second question: which of the two is more good?
But that, I suppose, raises a second question: good for what? Clearly, a cathedral is good for praying, a car park for parking cars. But this second question assumes that when I ask what is good, what I am really asking is what is good for some particular thing, or in other words, what is useful. What I might rather mean – and in fact, what I do mean – is which is more good in its own right? But the modern mind is very sceptical of that idea: the idea that there might be some absolute goodness. We tend to assume that what is good or what is evil is a matter of individual conscience, which collectively make up a group decision.
So, behind both of these questions – the questions about beauty and goodness – another question is hiding: and that is the question of truth. Can it ever be absolutely true to say this or that is beautiful, or this or that is good, just because it is; or is the truth of those statements always relative to the individual or the power of the majority decision?
To put it another way, do beauty, goodness, truth exist, or are they merely conventions invented and agreed on by human minds? Do ideas have a reality of their own, or not?
You might think that this is an idle question, one to leave to the philosophers. But you’d be wrong, and the history of the foundation of this school shows us why: why this question mattered then, and why it matters, urgently, today.
Our Cathedral School was founded in a time of war: the Second World War. As we learn in history class, that war was a war of politics with economic causes. But it was also an ideological war: that is, a war of ideas.
This war of ideas had been brewing for centuries. The French Revolution, the industrial revolution and the rise of Communism as much as Fascism were all symptoms of the seductive idea that we humans can redefine the truths of goodness and beauty by the sheer power of will. It was by the democratic will of the people that the Nazis rose to power. It was by the will of the people that millions of Jews, intellectuals, disabled people, gypsies, homosexuals and others were consigned to extermination in the death camps. It was by the will of the people that what was once considered evil was now considered good, and vice versa.
So it was that in the middle of the most technologically sophisticated systematisation of mutual extermination that had ever been seen, on 27 January 1942, this little, rather old-fashioned choir school was founded. Such a small act of defiance! As the march of progress stormed around in jackboots towards a brave near future of eugenics, concentration camps and nuclear bombs, here was a small oasis for a handful of children to live an ordered life, a life conformed the ancient routine and rhythm of Christian prayer, anchored in the stability of the Cross.
A pointless gesture, perhaps? A school won’t win a war. But we are talking today about foundations. And foundations have their strength in being laid low. If you cannot reach high enough to win the war, aim lower, and win a smaller battle. If you cannot save the world’s environment, aim lower, and start at home. If you cannot change society, aim lower, and help one homeless person, one lonely pensioner, one disabled child instead. To go high, you must start low. You cannot build a castle without foundations.
As Holocaust Memorial Day approaches on Monday, and we remember the human cost of people demolishing old foundations, even with antisemitism on the rise in this country today, it might pay us to revisit our foundations. Only you can decide on what foundations you wish to build. But this school is founded on the belief that truth, goodness and beauty are real and lasting, not subject to human whim: and that at the altar of Christ’s sacrifice, we are invited to participate in that reality, as he offers himself to us in self-giving love.