Until the twentieth century, most of the tallest buildings in Europe were churches and cathedrals. According to sociologist O.F.G. Sitwell (1981), society expresses value and importance in how we build. Large and tall structures are a metaphor- the tallest are the most important. Back then, the tallest were spires on religious structures. Christian faith shaped and centred society, and pointed symbolically upwards.
Things have changed. This photograph of Tower Bridge on the River Thames was taken from the incredibly high tower which now dominates the London skyline- the Shard. Architecturally and from an engineering point of view, the Shard is amazing and dramatic. Sociologically and theologically it suggests that our priorities have changed. Human achievements and business take centre stage. It’s an important symbol of our age. Britain is still influential and VERY wealthy, even though recent austerity politics have increased the gap between the rich and poor- wealth is unfairly distributed.
Looking over the River Thames from such a height is fascinating. As the river winds through the city, time unfolds. Buildings from several centuries tell the story of a changing world. We can’t turn the clock back, but we can learn from our history.
Tower Bridge is impressive and imposing (more so from ground level!) and the trip across the top corridor between the twin towers is really worthwhile. Docks have been here since at least Roman times: many are now converted for residential or leisure use, many were destroyed in the Blitz during the Second World War. Life, commerce, leisure, travel- all have left their mark. Untold thousands of people live, laugh, work, and suffer in these buildings. Immense wealth and abject poverty sit within spitting distance.
History matters. If we ignore it, we tend to repeat the mistakes of the past. We should celebrate human achievements and abilities- but not past the point where we become proud and self-important.
You might like to use the photo as a focus for meditation on social values and how Christian faith communicates today. What does God say about life priorities?
In Genesis 11 there is the story of another Tower, symbolising the arrogance and assertiveness on humankind. We do reach for the heavens. Whether or not we understand what we reach for is another question. I dream of a society of humility, faith, and compassion. I wonder what that would look like… and what legacy we might leave when the next generations try to answer the same eternal question. Why are we here?