Temples September 19, 2011

Star Foster at Patheos has a new piece up on Ephesus, which is best known in the West as an early Christian site but which was known in antiquity for its massive Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The history in Star’s article is good but what grabbed my attention was this musing on the religious implications of a people who built and rebuilt a grand temple, until they stopped.

the creation of devotional objects and buildings, their maintenance and their use in rites, are all merely outwards symbols of internal devotion. If the internal devotion is gone, the practice becomes rote superstition, and who is willing to invest in maintaining rote superstition? Are temples an investment in our devotion? [emphasis added] A reminder of what we already hold true and a sign to ourselves and others that we are faithful?

For the ancients, temples were a sign of devotion and prosperity. It was an investment in their own culture, values and future. Worth thinking about as our numbers grow.

Did the people of Ephesus say “Artemis has blessed us so we will build this temple for her and to remind ourselves to honor her”? Or did they say “we want to show everyone how rich and powerful we are, but we also want to look pious – we’ll build a temple to Artemis”?

Large ornate buildings are never a physical necessity. They are tangible statements about the values and priorities of those who build them. They are symbols of identity and pride. They can also be symbols of vanity. And they can be all of that at the same time. Look at examples from mainstream American culture: government buildings, corporate headquarters, shopping malls, football stadiums…

I don’t know why the Ephesians built their grand temple over and over again, whether it was gratitude or pride or vanity or some combination of all three. But I do know this – temples are a concrete expression of multi-generational thinking.

Until the modern era, large construction projects could take decades, even centuries. You don’t start building a temple unless you’re confident there will be people to finish it after you’re dead and gone. You don’t build a temple unless you’re confident there will be worshippers and pilgrims for years to come. You don’t build a temple unless you’re convinced the needs of future generations are as important as the needs of the current generation.

Should today’s Pagans build temples? Honestly, I think we’re a couple decades – and maybe a couple generations – away from having the the resources to devote to large symbols of status and pride. And even when we have the resources, the Druid in me would prefer they be spent on forests and groves instead of bricks and mortar.

But the fact that we’re even having this conversation means we’re beginning to think in multi-generational terms.

And that’s a very good thing.

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