There is something about architecture that never ceases to fascinate us. How we live in our environment, particularly what we build and how we do it, that says a lot about ourselves. Whether we think of great medieval cathedrals with spires reaching to the heavens, futuristic structures of glass and metal, functional box-like apartments, or ‘earth houses’ that are seemingly integrated into the natural environment, architecture speaks to aspects of our self-image: green, functional, visionary or religious.
John’s vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 draws heavily on the Book of Daniel’s vision of a restored post-exile Jerusalem. It’s a triumphal vision of the union of God and humanity. Where Daniel saw his new Jerusalem as a symbol of a restored Israel under God, with the Temple as its focus, John sees the New Jerusalem as a renewed humanity dwelling with God. There is no need for a temple, cathedral, church, mosque or synagogue – because humanity is the temple in which God dwells.
It is an architecture of the Spirit, an architecture of union, where the structures of religion – built and human – are literally irrelevant because God’s purpose has been achieved. We are living in the reign of God.
That is John’s vision. It is not now, nor has it ever been, our reality. It is a dream to which we must aspire, for which we must continually work – though, ironically, we must never imagine that we can achieve by our own efforts.
Human history, literally littered with the corpses of millions who have died in successive failed attempts to attain utopia by our own efforts, warns us against such arrogant aspirations. Those who have tried have been at best deluded, at worst ruthless cynics who have manipulated human dreams in pursuit of unattainable perfection. And the innocent have always paid the price.
What then can we do? Do we give up on utopia and wait for God?
I don’t think this is a valid or justified option. Giving up is endorsing the status quo. We need the dream of a New Jerusalem even as we recognise that its fulfilment is beyond our efforts. We need the dream to inform our rational and realistic discernment of what we can do. We need to do what is both right and possible.
The world we make, the human, ecological and built environment we leave behind, is the architecture of our spirit: it tells future generations what we held most important. Will what we leave behind be a foretaste of the New Jerusalem – or a memorial to our greed and folly?