Modern Architecture, Islam, & the Indispensability of the Trinity

From time to time the Orthosphere publishes essays submitted by readers. This essay, by frequent commenter Dale James Nelson, is our first. It is particularly apt for Maundy Thursday.


On March 16, at his Miscellany, Dr. Bruce Charlton posted a brief entry under the title A Soul-less Building vs. a Soul-Destroying Building. He wrote, “A building that actively sucks-out your soul is worse than a building which is a desert for the soul.”

Reading Dr. Charlton’s entry, I remembered part of an essay by Roger Scruton, The West and the Rest, published in 2002. If you’re like me, you tend to skim or skip long quotations in blogs.  Please do read the following passages from Scruton. They speak to Dr. Charlton’s point about architecture – living spaces, work places – that nurture the soul – or that, as is the way of modernity, starve or damage the soul.

…The appearance of Arabia has been permanently altered … — and altered, in the feelings of many Muslims, for the worse. Concrete high-rises dwarf the minarets, domestic alleyways give way to pretentious boulevards or jerry-built slums, and the hideous, unfriendly style of international modernism overlays and extinguishes the delicate fabric of the Muslim city.

It may seem quixotic to emphasize the role of architecture in the present conflict. But we should remember [hijacker-pilot of American Airlines Flight 11] Mohammed Atta’s nostalgia for the old town of Aleppo and reflect on what has happened to the face of the Middle East under the impact of Western architectural norms, which have a symbolic significance at least equal to that of Western dress and Western manners. Architectural modernism was introduced with fanfares of globalist propaganda by the Bauhaus and by Le Corbusier, who envisaged their new style of architecture as both the symbol and the instrument of a radical break with the past. This architecture was conceived in the spirit of detachment from place and history and home. It was ‘the international style,’ a gesture against the nation-state and the homeland, an attempt to remake the surface of the earth as a single uniform habitat from which differences and boundaries would finally disappear. …

In the Middle East …. the landscape and cityscape have been mutilated beyond recognition. It was Le Corbusier who showed the way. Having failed to persuade the French authorities to adopt his plan to bulldoze Paris north of the Seine and replace it with militarized towers of glass, Le Corbusier worked on successive French governments, including the Vichy regime, to implement his insolent plan to raze the old city of Algiers, capital of Algeria, which was then a French colony. He succeeded at last, and after the war the bulldozers moved in, with catastrophic results. …

And if we wish to understand in full the resentment of Palestinians towards Israeli settlements on the West Bank, we should not neglect the visual damage that these settlements have caused, introducing modernist styles and materials, sweeping roadways, and ubiquitous light pollution into a landscape that had worn its biblical aspect for centuries, with star-spangled nights above stone-built villages and historic cities like Jenin.

It seems that some of the violence inflicted by Muslim terrorists on Western targets is an expression of their resentment and their fear of the soul-injuring quality of the modern architecture that has been imposed on them by Middle Eastern city planners influenced by modernism.

The fact is that the soul is nourished by common graces available to all people. These include natural beauty; wholesome relations between man and woman; the family; beautiful visual and musical art, and many more. You do not have to be a Christian to experience these blessings; the Lord “maketh His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (St. Matthew 5:45).  But much modern architecture works, as if deliberately, against the sources of soul nourishment that I have just mentioned.*  This was not true of traditional Islamic architecture.

However, I do not intend to pit horrible Western modernism against Islam if Islam is taken to be a “way to God” of equal authority with orthodox Christianity.

What is good in Islamic tradition derives from common grace plus such elements of Biblical revelation as it retains.

What is specific to Islam is dreadfully false: e.g., its rejection of the doctrine of Trinity; its rejection of the two natures in Christ; its rejection of the Atonement; its rejection of Holy Baptism (a rejection necessary for Islam because Holy Baptism is in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; and yet we know that “Baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21)); and its rejection of the Eucharist (a rejection necessary for Islam because it cannot countenance the faith that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God, crucified, and giving His flesh and Blood for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26)).

Traditionally-minded people, including orthodox Christians, may be moved by the beauty of Islamic art and devotions as opposed to the squalor and soul-violation of modernity. A gathering of men kneeling on beautiful prayer carpets is a more pleasing sight than a crowd of tattooed art connoisseurs staring at plastic skulls garishly painted by Damien Hirst.

But while much in the Islamic milieu may, for this life, nourish the souls of Muslims, its distinctive “revelation” is not a saving one. One is not saved by contemplating the divine Unity or by ascribing to It all sovereignty and majesty, or by obeying holiness laws ascribed to Its prophet.

Salvation and redemption require the true God, the Holy Trinity – the Trinity that Islam decisively and irrevocably rejects.

Note that I say salvation and redemption require the Trinity – not simply that salvation and redemption require adherence to the doctrine of the Trinity as an article of faith.  Why is this?

Most people like the saying, “God is love.” This axiom, however, can be true only if God is truly Three Persons, between Whom subsists perfect love from eternity. If God is only one person, He cannot be love because love requires a person who is loved and who can love in return.  God does not have to create someone in order to realize a potential for love; if that were the case, perhaps we would say “God became love.” But God is love because, from eternity, the one God is a Trinity of loving Persons.

This, Islam rejects with abhorrence.

Salvation and redemption actually require the Holy Trinity also because only if God is the Trinity can God the Father make God the Son a curse for us, and only thus can He Who knew no sin be made sin for us; and only if God is the Holy Trinity can the Holy Spirit then impart to us a saving relationship with this Sacrifice of God to God.

Islam could never accept the idea of God the Father laying upon God the Son the wrath due to sinful mankind. Islam evidently appropriated from Gnosticism the idea that a “phantom” was crucified, while Jesus (Isa) was slipped off to heaven unscathed.  It’s as if Muslims think that, in the Old Testament prefiguration of Christ’s sacrifice, the scapegoat was not really forced into the desert (Leviticus 16:10); it just seemed that that it was; actually the Israelites abandoned a sawhorse in the desert and called that the scapegoat.

Rather, the core of the Gospel is attested in passages such as these: “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the Law, being made a curse for us, for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone that hangeth on a tree.’”  Also: “For He [the Father] hath made Him [the Son] to be sin for us.” Christ “knew no sin,” but took upon Himself our sin, “that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (Galatians 3:13; 2 Corinthians 5:21). “He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).

Therefore the Danish composer Thomas Kingo wrote as follows in his Eucharistic hymn “O Jesus, at Your Altar Now:”

My soul, your spirit now expand
That e’en a servant’s lowly hand
May freely here the pledge bestow
That God has cursed Himself for you.

Again, in Ernst Homburg’s hymn “Christ, the Life of All the Living:”

Thou hast borne the smiting only
That my wounds might all be whole;
Thou hast suffered, sad and lonely,
Rest to give my weary soul;
Yea, the curse of God enduring,
Blessing unto me securing.
Thousand, thousand thanks shall be,
Dearest Jesus, unto Thee.

Only the Father can give the Son as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (St. John 1:29, Isaiah 53:6). Moreover, only the Holy Spirit can open and regenerate our stricken hearts to give us faith in this Jesus. The New Testament has nothing to say of a “divine spirit” who rushes about giving people access to a divine being who somehow transcends the particulars of the Christian revelation (which is what the “Spirit” must do if other religions are somehow equally ways to God).  Rather, the Holy Spirit’s business is ever and only for Christ’s sake. If the Spirit sometimes works through the bits of Truth to be found in places where the Christian revelation is not proclaimed, still it is only by and for Christ, and for the renewal of the whole creation in Him, that He thus works.

The blessings of common grace are real and do nourish souls living in this world, but only saving grace, which means the orthodox gospel of Christ, can bring redemption and eternal life to anyone. If anyone is saved, he is saved by Christ; he is, in fact, a Christian, even if the Holy Spirit has had only a tiny bit of the Gospel with which to work in him. We do not have all the details about such things. “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this Law” (Deuteronomy 29:29). It is not for Christians to puzzle themselves about such possibilities, but rather to “go… and teach all nations , baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them whatsoever things [Jesus has] commanded.”


* I think it was Jerry Mander, in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, who observed how modern offices are such “hot” places as regards sexual awareness. He argued that the senses are starved in them – there is nothing worth looking at…. except that attractive member of the other sex over there.  Lustful thoughts immediately begin to seethe.

20 thoughts on “Modern Architecture, Islam, & the Indispensability of the Trinity

  1. I am by this essay reminded of a Daniel Larison essay from around 2007 in response to this one from David Brooks. Says Larison:

    They [progressive globalists] are cosmopolitan in reaction against the definitions of their own native culture, but many of them usually find very little of value in foreign cultures that extends beyond exotic food and textiles. They are the ones alienated from their homes, but they cannot truly be at home anywhere else, either. Trying to belong to the whole world, they find no place for themselves anywhere. This makes them rather obnoxious and domineering, as they seek to make everyone else just as rootless as they are-and so they advance policies of “openness” and “integration” that are aimed at nothing so much as breaking down cultural, ethnic and religious lines and dis-integrating nations. This sort of cosmopolitanism is almost entirely negative. In the West, it comes partly from a rebellion against any distinctive forms of Western and Christian identity and partly from an attempt to identify the creations of our civilisation with the universal aspirations of all people. These are the people who never think that they are harming other people by attacking their cultures and traditions-it is always an emancipation. “Look, we are making you more open and worldly! You should thank us!” The natural, normal reaction of most people to throw things and shout abuse at such “benefactors” is the “unpleasantness” that [David] Brooks describes.

    These people are legitimately cosmopolitan in that they would like to think that they are not citizens of any particular place. To be a “citizen of the world” is the epitome of meaningless, oceanic detachment from your origins and your home. It has never been clear to me why someone should become more like this the more educated he becomes, since the more education you have the more likely it is that you realise how wildly abnormal this sort of detachment is.

    Thanks, Dale, for this thoughtful and poignant essay.

  2. If you go back five hundred or a thousand years, the biggest and most beautiful (not always to be confused) structures made by man were either palaces or churches. Men worked for the former and worshipped at the latter, and the same buildings were built to inspire nobile efforts. Today, our largest structures are office buildings and hotels; in the former we toil for the benefit of someone else, and in the latter we worship leisure, the principal objective of our time.

    I think much of the angst of modern man can be explained in comparing the “best” architecture of today with, say, the year 1500.

  3. It seems that some of the violence inflicted by Muslim terrorists on Western targets is an expression of their resentment and their fear of the soul-injuring quality of the modern architecture that has been imposed on them by Middle Eastern city planners influenced by modernism.

    Oh, my, this is a fantastic piece. If you want to understand why Middle Easterners are angry, check this out:

    Arab Hell Hole

    I thank God on my knees for the vastness of rural Canada.

      • Kristor: “Samson, where the hell is that? Or rather, where in Hell is that?”

        It’s a level from Doom II.

      • Bohemund,

        CLEAN-UP??? Have you been to Cairo? or any third world places? These cities in their “glorious” ugliness are the direct result of a population growth without any limits… Oh the miracles of modern pharmacology…. here you have the real creators of this ugliness.

        In my younger days, I was, as a student of architecture, like most of us, smitten by the likes as Corbusier… Oh was I ever misguided…

        …and what concerns the “Mirages” in the Arabian desert, like Dubai, they are play-grounds for outlandish architectural designs. Experimental labs for unusual engineering feats and in total headed for ruin. They are just the modern equivalent of all the ancient ruined places in that part of the world.They are the modern palaces that will end in dust… they are not sustainable, the are Potemkin’s villages writ large

      • In my younger days, I was, as a student of architecture, like most of us, smitten by the likes as Corbusier… Oh was I ever misguided…

        As a young student of philosophy, I was smitten by logical positivism.

        I suspect the appeal in both our cases was the same. The apparent rationality and modernity of the approach…

      • It is that the building materials look that colour…. there are no paints and little stucco being applied.

  4. Samson, where the hell is that? Or rather, where in Hell is that?

    Ha… the first or second circle, at least.

    OK; but so is this:

    Well, probably all cities have a small, attractive business core, and a lot of places we’d think of as armpits have a beautiful historic district. For instance, check out this picture of Khartoum:

    But these areas are designed by, and for, the 1%.

  5. The issue of architecture was one of the first things that made me aware that something had gone wrong with Western culture. Melbourne was built beautifully right up to about the 1950s. So the modernist assault after that was especially obvious.

    A Melbourne poet of the early 1900s, Frank Wilmot, wrote this about his forebears who created the wonderful parks lining the Yarra River:

    “When I was but a little boy, I took all things for granted;
    Gardens flowered in natural joy, groves were easily planted.
    But now I know that from men’s infinite loves
    The peace comes on the Yarra’s autumn groves;
    Only by prescient love and infinite care
    Rich shadows move upon the river there.”

    Wilmot thought (wrongly) that the beauty of the architecture and gardens would remain to inspire future generations:

    “These gardens, these towers shall abide
    In their power of changeless peace,
    In their moods of changing light,
    Mid tides of time and the arrogant caprice
    Of law and regulation they will abide
    With eternal truth and loveliness and pride
    Of breathing Spirit! surely, these will abide!”

    He assumed that no-one would reject the loveliness of what had been created – but he was wrong. Patches of it remain, but for the most part it’s been built over by concrete boxes.

    • Melbourne is easily one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited, with a degree of expanse and openness and yet retaining a human scale. It does not have the historical grandeur of a European city, yet neither does it have their claustrophobic closeness.

      The glass and concrete boxes are not part of that beauty, of course.

  6. Is modern architecture a financial issue – is it simply cheaper to build nondescript boxes? If there’s no large price discrepancy, then you can be *sure* the change has been wrought on purpose.

    • Samson… In order to build Versailles you need a king. In order to build Chartres, you need faith. If you lack either, you will build what Walmart needs…

      …and cubicles for the rest of humanity!

  7. Pingback: The symbol of the Holy Trinity « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality

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  10. Actually, Mohammed’s activity began as a ‘general monotheist movement’; his intent was to remind the masses of such: ‘there is no God, but God’ (i.e. pure montheism with no partners or associates). Ergo, the concept of the trinity is still a running controversy even within certain Christian circles today.

    Take note that Islam means: submission towards God & consonance with His metaphysical & natural laws integrated with humanity. That’s it (no more; no less). Nothing can be more axiomatic.

    Listen to what Christian scholar Bart Erhman (et alia) has to say about Christianity’s many self-inflicted wounds (i.e. numerous doctrinal issues). The trinity was an administrative legal creation, which has created much debate & bloodshed within the early Christian period.

    Though I’m not a Moslem: Islam is simply restoring the axiom of monotheism through-and-through. The prophet Mohammed punctuates this simple reality in light of the temporal & metaphysical. Hence, it’s an ego-free reality. Finis.


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