Theologians of every faith debate the value of “faith” versus “good works”. What does it mean to be a good Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh or Jew? Is it profession of a set of beliefs? Is it being a good neighbour and friend, “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you”? And what does this have to do with parking?
"Lack of mobility in ancient times would have meant no choice for individuals in where or whether to worship."
In pre-industrial times, places of worship served, among other things, as a way to redistribute the produce of the surrounding land. Believers brought offerings of food, material and currency to the alter, and priests saw that it got used by those who needed it. No doubt there was some corruption, cheating, and greed, but these problems are not unique to churches or temples.
Lack of mobility in ancient times would have meant no choice for individuals in where or whether to worship. Tithing was often mandatory. People would have known who had a strong harvest in what year, and who needed the excess. Generosity and concern for the poor would have been recognized as the “good works” part of religion - sharing with the less fortunate. Waste and hoarding would have been hard to hide from neighbours’ view and would have been generally condemned. The local shrine, temple, church or synagogue became a place to exchange surpluses, supervised more or less well by the priests. Temple schools and libraries provided a similar venue for the exchange of ideas. For better or for worse, local behaviour would have been judged by local witnesses in context of local religion.
"Instead of “drive till you qualify”, it was “drive till your beliefs find a home”. Faith communities were able to coalesce around esoteric beliefs, rather than a local exchange of “good works”.
The 20th century saw the place of worship become unmoored from its neighbourhood. Centuries of missionary work, accelerated by globalization, brought Christianity to Korea, Buddhism to Sweden, Judaism to Australia, and Islam to Texas. Not only were worshipers no longer tied to their ancestral religion, they were free to shop for a particular denomination of a religion, by commuting across town. It became increasingly easy to unite people with fringe beliefs in one place, as everyone could commute, and parking lots grew and grew. Instead of “drive till you qualify”, it was “drive till your beliefs find a home”. Faith communities were able to coalesce around esoteric beliefs, rather than a local exchange of “good works”. Online worship services during the pandemic have probably continued the trend, as it is now possible to worship wherever you want, without getting out of your pajamas.
What will become of our places of worship post-Covid? These buildings often embody the pinnacle of art and architecture of their place and time. They’re also expensive to maintain, and many congregations are not replacing themselves with younger congregants.
"These places could take on new life, by reprising their ancient role as a centre for the exchange of “good works” at the centre of their own community."
Places of worship that are willing to re-situate themselves as a hub for the immediate community could contemplate offering space for continuing education, rehearsal and performance space, community gardens, farmer markets and newcomers centres. These places could take on new life, by reprising their ancient role as a centre for the exchange of “good works” at the centre of their own community. Because no sacred texts decrees “Thou shalt provide free parking”.
~JANET MARK WALLACE is a regular blog contributor to Walkable Ottawa