“One man’s beauty is another man’s fish house”

Two people of good faith are having a respectful disagreement, and I find this such a refreshing development in our church that I feel obliged to call attention to it.

Father Tim Schenck does not think that the chambered nautilus that now adorns the previously vacant pediment of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Boston is an appropriate symbol for the front of a Christian cathedral. He writes:

The nautilus is supposed to be a metaphor for spiritual growth, based on an Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem titled The Chambered Nautilus. I actually don’t mind the sculpture itself — if it was on the facade of a contemporary arts museum it might even entice me to go inside. But labeling it a symbol of spirituality feels contrived and as empty as one of its chambers.

But what really set me off was the artist’s description of his vision — a vision the cathedral community enthusiastically embraced. He says in the video that the cathedral is “not just a church for Episcopals.” Okay, ecclesiastical grammar aside, I understand the cathedral sees itself as a House of Prayer for All People (Isaiah 56:7) — a Biblical slogan popularized by the Washington National Cathedral. They live into this motto by offering a place of prayer for the local Muslim community on Friday afternoons and opening their doors to “all sorts and conditions” of people.

Yet, unless you first place your stake in the ground as the epicenter of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, a community of disciples following Jesus Christ, this slogan can easily delve into “A House of the Least Common Denominator for All People.”

The Very Rev. Jep Streit, dean of the cathedral, expressed his disagreement in the comments on Schenck’s blog:

In our video the artist remarked that he wanted to create art that was not “too religious”, which of course alarmed some people, as though he were articulating our new mission statement. He’s the artist, not the Dean. I simply thought he was trying to articulate, in his imperfect way, his experience of the Cathedral as a place with an expansive vision of God, “not just for Episcopals” as he put it.

We celebrate the Eucharist eight times a week, keep our church open all day for anyone to come in and pray, have a weekly meditation group and have welcomed and fed hungry people every single Monday for thirty years. I don’t worry that we aren’t Christian enough.

I was a little surprised at how closed people seemed to be to the nautilus as a symbol of our faith. It may not be an immediately self-evident symbol, but neither was the cross when it first was used. (“Why are these people glorifying imperial Roman torture instruments?”)

Of course now a cross is an obvious symbol of our Christian faith, it’s what everyone expects to see on a church . But isn’t God the One who surpasses our expectations, not just meets them? “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” Our nautilus is certainly a new thing. It may not be immediately clear exactly what a nautilus atop a cathedral means, but that ambiguity can invite thinking and conversation, much more than if we had done something less provocative, as evidenced by all the comments on Tim’s blog.

The nautilus works (or perhaps doesn’t work) as a symbol on many levels, but for me it is beautiful and inviting quite apart from any explanation or rationalization I or anyone might suggest. Of course everyone doesn’t agree with me: one man’s beauty is another man’s fish house.

What are your thoughts about the nautilus and about this exchange?

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