Across Fifth Avenue, Rockefeller Center and St. Patrick’s Cathedral confront each other. Aesthetically, the contrast is endlessly fascinating—the soaring monoliths of NBC Studios and the glittering Gothic symmetry of the cross-topped towers both certainly please the eyes.
But the standoff here is symbolic and spiritual as well as spatial. While St. Patrick’s soars up towards heaven, an image of Christ and His sacrifice that reconciles Man to God, Atlas’ chiseled abs and muscled thighs exalt autonomous humanity’s power to manipulate an uncreated world to achieve progress. Is the staring match across Fifth Avenue indicative? Are the divine and human, the heavenly and earthly, necessarily in conflict?
The New York Times certainly seems to think so. In a piece on the ongoing restoration project at St. Patrick’s, the Times queried, “Will New Yorkers who disagree with the cardinal’s conservative stance on social issues be able — or willing — to distinguish St. Patrick’s as a civic landmark that stands apart from church teaching and archdiocesan politicking? How interested will anyone be in giving money to a landmark restoration project at a time when many basic human needs are going unmet in the city?”
The assumption is that orthodox moral convictions and a commitment to worshipping and glorifying God with a beautiful building are practical and logical anathema to serving “basic human needs.” Religious believers have been known to buy into the notion of conflict, too, asserting that devotion to God requires a distrust of science or an insulation from popular culture.
But wiser than falling into extreme other worldliness or into asserting that beauty and charity are incompatible would be to follow both of Jesus’ commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself”.
A enactment of this command can be seen elsewhere in New York at Columbia University’s Low Library. Low is modeled after the Roman Pantheon but shaped as a Greek cross, symbolizing the union of the world’s highest wisdom with God’s redemptive work. The façade’s inscription proclaims: “For the advancement of the public good and the glory of Almighty God.”