Architecture of Sacrifice

Architecture of Sacrifice July 23, 2018

Architecture, Ruskin claims (Seven Lamps of Architecture), isn’t the same as building. Architecture refers to the specifically artistic features of a building, and the specifically artistic features have to do with adornment and not function: “Architecture concerns itself only with those characters of an edifice which are above and beyond its common use. I say common; because a building raised to the honor of God, or in memory of men, has surely a use to which its architectural adornment fits it; but not a use which limits, by any inevitable necessities, its plan or details.”

Thus, for instance, “no one would call the laws architectural which determine the height of a breastwork or the position of a bastion. But if to the stone facing of that bastion be added an unnecessary feature, as a cable moulding, that is Architecture.”

Sacrifice enters into architecture insofar as it expresses a desire to honor or please by offering something costly. Ruskin focuses on the question of whether sacrifice in this sense is a feature of what he calls “devotional” architecture. Is God pleased when we add costly, unnecessary features to buildings devoted to worship and prayer?

For Ruskin, the whole question turns on the relationship of the senses. The question is “whether the Bible be indeed one book or two, and whether the character of God revealed in the Old Testament be other than His character revealed in the New.”

He admits that there might be changes in administration in the worship of God, but insists that anything that pleases God in one dispensation will please Him always: “God is one and the same, and is pleased or displeased by the same things for ever, although one part of His pleasure may be expressed at one time rather than another, and although the mode in which His pleasure is to be consulted may be by Him graciously modified to the circumstances of men.” To say otherwise is to verge toward a kind of Marcionite division within God Himself.

Ruskin argues, for instance, that God always took pleasure only in the one offering of His Son. “God had no more pleasure in such [bloody animal] sacrifice in the time of Moses than He has now; He never accepted as a propitiation for sin any sacrifice but the single one in prospective; and that we may not entertain any shadow of doubt on this subject, the worthlessness of all other sacrifice than this is proclaimed at the very time when typical sacrifice was most imperatively demanded.” God didn’t become Spirit and seek worshipers in Spirit and truth; always, “God was a spirit, and could be worshipped only in spirit and in truth, as singly and exclusively when every day brought its claim of typical and material service or offering, as now when He asks for none but that of the heart.”

-So if it can be shown that God delighted in the costliness of offerings under the Mosaic order, it follows that He delights in te costliness of offerings even now. And, in fact, God delighted in the costliness of offerings:

“was it necessary to the completeness, as a type, of the Levitical sacrifice, or to its utility as an explanation of divine purposes, that it should cost anything to the person in whose behalf it was offered ? On the contrary, the sacrifice which it foreshowed was to be God’s free gift; and the cost of, or difficulty of obtaining, the sacrificial type, could only render that type in a measure obscure, and less expressive of the offering which God would in the end provide for all men. Yet this costliness was generally a condition of the acceptableness of the sacrifice. ‘Neither will I offer unto the Lord my God of that which doth cost me nothing.’ That costliness, therefore, must be an acceptable condition in all human offerings at all times; for if it was pleasing to God once, it must please Him always, unless directly forbidden by Him afterwards, which it has never been.”

Similarly, it was necessary that the animals offered had to be the best of the flock: “was it necessary to the typical perfection of the Levitical offering, that it should be the best of the flock? Doubtless the spotlessness of the sacrifice renders it more expressive to the Christian mind; but was it because so expressive that it was actually, and in so many words, demanded by God? Not at all. It was demanded by Him expressly on the same grounds on which an earthly governor would demand it, as a testimony of respect.”

Here Ruskin cites Malachi 1, concluding that “the less valuable offering was rejected, not because it did not image Christ, nor fulfil the purposes of sacrifice, but because it indicated a feeling that would grudge the best of its possessions to Him who gave them; and because it was a bold dishonoring of God in the sight of man.”

From this, “it may be infallibly concluded, that in whatever offerings we may now see reason to present unto God (I say not what these may be), a condition of their acceptableness will be now, as it was then, that they should be the best of their kind.”

Ruskin makes a similar argument for “architecture” – unnecessary adornments to building – in church buildings: “was it necessary to the carrying out of the Mosaical system, that there should be either art or splendor in the form or services of the tabernacle or temple?” There was indeed a danger of idolatry here, one that, Ruskin says, is evident in “Romanism.”

The simplest way to avoid idolatry would be to eliminate anything from a church building that might distract the worshiper from God, anything that might provide sensuous delight. But this wasn’t God’s method. Against the “mortal danger” of idolatry, God did not withdraw “whatever could delight the sense, or shape the imagination, or limit the idea of Deity to place. This one way God refused, demanding for Himself such honors, and accepting for Himself such local dwelling, as had been paid and dedicated to idol gods by heathen worshippers; and for what reason.”

The tabernacle was a covenant sign of Israel’s “gratitude to Him,” their “continual remembrance of Him.” This covenant sign too this form so that their gratitude and memory “might have at once their expression and their enduring testimony in the presentation to Him, not only of the firstlings of the herd and fold, not only of the fruits of the earth and the tithe of time, but of all treasures of wisdom and beauty; of the thought that invents, and the hand that labors; of wealth of wood, and weight of stone; of the strength of iron, and of the light of gold.”

Ruskin acknowledged that, when necessary, we must give up the costly adornments and time-consuming work of beautifying the place of worship. Providing a place of worship takes priority: “Do the people need place to pray, and calls to hear His word? Then it is no time for smoothing pillars or carving pulpits; let us have enough first of walls and roofs.”

But he didn’t think that the choice before his contemporaries was between devotion to church buildings and devotion to the poor, or between adorning church buildings and advancing the gospel. The choice was between adorning the church and adorning homes. Though he was “no advocate for meanness of private habitation,” he insisted that Victorian Christians had mistaken priorities: “I do not understand the feeling which would arch our own gates and pave our own thresholds, and leave the church with its narrow door and foot-worn sill.”

When church buildings are built, they don’t measure up to the standard of sacrifice. They aren’t expressions of costly devotion and love. On the contrary, Ruskin charges that “there is not a building that I know of, lately raised, wherein it is not sufficiently evident that neither architect nor builder has done his best.”

This is “the especial characteristic of modern work,” to give everything “constantly the look of money’s worth, of a stopping short wherever and whenever we can, of a lazy compliance with low conditions; never of a fair putting forth of our strength.”

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