In Philip Larkin’s poem “Church Going,” the narrator peeks into a church, apparently at random, while on a bicycle ride. He shuffles in, feeling sheepish and wondering about the “brass and stuff” crowded about the altar. He wonders what will happen “when churches fall completely out of use,” and when marriage, birth and death become wholly unmoored from religious faith. While expressing no inkling of belief, the poem ends with a paean to the church as a site of moral education and heritage, albeit one that is no longer meaningful for the disenchanted visitor. “Bored” and “uninformed,” he makes his way back to the lonely world outside.
Published in 1955, the poem still captures the uncanny way the word “church” seems to pull a sentence into the past tense. This is true on the personal level, for me at least. Despite all I now know as a longtime student of church history, that round syllable immediately conjures childhood memories of a Lutheran church in central Florida. I remember belting out hymns, and ringing bells with tiny gloved hands. I remember donning an absurd gown to quake down the aisle as a wise man on Christmas Eve, and I remember wriggling to the front of the line for the Easter Sunday pancake breakfast.
My nostalgia for the church, both personally and as a social institution, began soon after I left home and went to college. It was not really prompted by a lessening of “belief in God”: a concept that has always been opaque to me. My church had been a space of gathering and community, not a space in which to assent to propositions about what did or did not happen in a place and time I could scarcely imagine. In my case, and I suspect in others’, too, what may look like a loss of faith is better described as a transition in the sorts of communal spaces one wants to inhabit. And in college, I longed to inhabit a world of high, or at least middlebrow, culture: the world of my professors and the New York Times—a paper that, as its executive editor recently admitted, doesn’t “get religion.”
In this new environment, the concept of “church” had quite a different meaning. Church became a relic of the past in a decline-and-fall story: a place that had played host to noble, if misguided, souls who believed that they lived in a coherent world—one worthy of a salvation that was, in fact, forthcoming. The church provided structure to the passing of their days and even their lives, playing host to christenings and marriages and, finally, funerals. This kind of plenitude (the story goes) is simply unavailable to us today. We know too much, are too cynical and wise. We can encounter churches as tourist sites, perhaps, but we can never recover the original meaning of those buttressed spaces.
Once upon a time, the world made sense, and the church was the antechamber to that meaningful universe. We disenchanted moderns, however, are forced to make our own way. Sociologists, philosophers and filmmakers alike have peddled some version of this story over the past half-century. It informs our perpetual nostalgia for the Middle Ages, either as a historical epoch or as filtered through the mythmaking imaginations of J. R. R. Tolkien or George R. R. Martin. Personally, I encountered it most powerfully in modernist literature, where artists and poets like Larkin have limned the God-shaped holes religion has supposedly left behind. James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man features breathtaking depictions of the Catholic Church of his childhood. In childhood, of course, they remained. The book is structured as a Bildungsroman that chronicles Stephen Dedalus’s conversion from the church of his fatherland to the temple of high art.