A reporter once asked German theologian Dorothee Sölle, “How would you explain happiness to a child?” “I wouldn’t explain it,” she answered. “I’d toss him a ball and let him play.” In 100 years we’ll know why Sölle was right.
If you have kids (or grandkids), you know they love to play with balls. One of my happiest memories was playing pitch and catch with our sons. The joy never got old.
Adults often forget the mystical wonder of a ball. It’s not merely an object. It’s an icon. A ball is a sphere—the shape the ancients believed reflected the universe as well as the Divine. Spheres picture God, an idea found in the Christian tradition.
The church has a long history of spherical thinking since the 3rd century. The 16th century Italian Dominican Friar Giordano Bruno described God as “an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”
This is why spheres abound in church architecture. Older Christian traditions, including early Western ones, represented the cosmos in the curved roundness of the ceiling of the apse, or of the dome of the church. We find spheres in the tympanum (the semi-circular decorative wall surface over a church entrance, door or window). These spheres were supposed to shape us.
Churchill said we shape our buildings, then they shape us. Worshippers would be immersed in these built environments of domes and circles, often without explanation as to what they signify. That’s good anthropology, as the soul delights in particular in what it learns indirectly. Too much explanation kills inquisitiveness.
So does bad architecture. Tragically, over the last few centuries, spheres began to disappear. Iain McGilchrist attributes it to the Enlightenment, with its love of straight lines (more efficient). Icons and images were dismissed as “cultish.” Church architecture became utilitarian (any gym will do) and about “efficiency” (domes are expensive). But with the loss of the imagination came boredom.
I speak from experience. A few years back, I was asked to launch a Friday morning discussion at a nearby golf club. The topic was faith and God. It was geared for men who didn’t go to church. They were good men and I asked them to describe God in one word. Most said boring. They didn’t find any happiness in God.
They didn’t get bored playing golf. In retrospect, maybe we should have gone golfing. We’d have been chasing an image of God for 18 holes. They’d probably have enjoyed the experience more than a discussion.
The Westminster Confession says the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Many Christians don’t seem to enjoy God because they’ve had God explained ad nauseam but have never felt they’ve touched him. Experience trumps explanation – reality that might be recognized a century from now. Richard Rohr suspects that, over the next 100 years, the church will return to the sphere as the central image for God. I hope he’s right. Only then will more folks know why Dorothee Sölle was right.