Monthly Archives: February 2016

Our Buildings Shape Us

Blind Faith (No. 8, 2016)
Weekly Devotional for February 25, 2016
Our Buildings Shape Us

“Churchill’s principle” is the cornerstone of Albert Borgmann’s
2006 comprehensive examination of foundational ethical values in America.
(See Albert Borgmann, Real American Ethics: Taking Responsibility for Our
Country: University of Chicago Press, 2006, pp. 3-12) Borgmann writes: “In
1943, when the House of Commons had to be rebuilt due to Nazi bombing,
Winston Churchill reminded the Members of Parliament: ‘We shape our
buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.'” Churchill was arguing
for rebuilding the meeting chamber for the House of Commons of the British
Parliament in the same layout that had existed for centuries. Other MPs
advocated building to accommodate a semicircular arrangement of desks or a
horseshoe configuration that would have space for the full membership. The
original meeting place had been a small church building with two sections of
benches facing one another. When that structure was replaced in 1852 the
layout was retained. The room was not large enough to seat all of the MPs.
Members of opposing parties sat facing one another as they engaged in debate
over governing the United Kingdom. Churchill’s argument was that these two
characteristics of the old Chamber – its inherently adversarial and intimate
character – played a critical part in how the House of Commons acted as a
legislative body. The architecture that contained the House of Commons
shaped the development of the two party system and its ability to govern.

Albert Borgmann cites the Churchill principle to explain the
impact of public and private structures on the development of essential
ethical values in American society. Two of his observations illustrate the
validity of the principle. He writes: “The [interstate highway] system .
induced people to behave in certain ways. They bought more cars, abandoned
public transportation, moved to the suburbs, forgot about sidewalks,
blighted the inner cities, drove to Disney World on their vacation, gained
weight, and spent a lot of time alone in their cars.” A good case can be
made that much of current American life has been shaped by the massive
interstate highway system built in the past 60 years. Borgmann also makes
more intimate application of Churchill’s principle, moving from the shaping
of social culture to the effects of the homes we build on our daily lives:
“If we are unaware of how the shaping of our household typically shapes our
practices, we can tell our children to do their homework, to stay away from
soda pop and snacks, to talk to us, and to practice their instruments till
we are blue in the face-it will only create frustration and resentment
unless our home is so arranged that doing the right thing comes naturally or
at least does not require heroic self-discipline.” Borgmann finds that both
the societal and individual “tangible settings” of life – public and private
buildings, institutions, voluntary associations, public spaces, homes, etc.
– that we choose to build continue to shape how we live our own lives and
our lives together. We need to take care and consider the consequences as we

Taking care how we build is an important cornerstone for the
performance of personal faith in God. Both construction with bricks and
mortar and formation of personal faith and communities of faith profoundly
influence how we live in relationship with God and other people. A well
thought-out design is essential if the completed structures are to reach
their full potential. Using quality building materials is important for
maintaining service and insuring longevity of the project after
construction. Paul reflected on his own life work and captured the range of
things to consider when building lives of faith very well: “I, like an
architect who knows his job, by the grace God has given me, lay the
foundation; someone else builds upon it. I only say this, let the builder be
careful how he builds! The foundation is laid already, and no one can lay
another, for it is Jesus Christ himself. But any man who builds on the
foundation using as his material gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay or
stubble, must know that each man’s work will one day be shown for what it
is.” (1 Corinthians 3:10-13 J.B. Phillips) “What it is” about one’s
spiritual building project, according to Churchill’s principle, will be the
qualities most evident in that person’s life. A major reason for lofty
expectations of this building project is that we are not left to accomplish
it as a DIY project. God is our general contractor and we are commissioned
to become faithful “subs” working along with God. God’s vision for the
building is clear: “God is building you, as living stones, into his
spiritual temple. What’s more, you are God’s holy priests, who offer the
spiritual sacrifices that please him because of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:5
NLT) We have an ambitious but achievable outline for what a life lived in
that building will look like: “The Spirit produces the fruit of love, joy,
peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, {23} gentleness,
self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23 NCV) Those are the qualities that are to be
shaped by building our lives according to God’s grace and the best
fulfillment of commitments we can make.

So, how are you shaping your building? Keep in mind that it will
in turn shape you. Getting the foundation set properly determines the
integrity of the whole building. Paul gives the specs for the most secure
foundation, which the grace of Jesus Christ. Any other foundation is subject
to malformation and deterioration. Some vague sense of spirituality is not
secure for building the abundant life that God’s Spirit seeks to inhabit.

Once the foundation is set and the building has begun, ongoing evaluation of
each phase of construction is helpful. Literally look around your house. Is
your living space configured more as an entertainment center, a sports and
fitness complex, a home office, or a conflict zone? What about your home
facilitates service to God and others, or prepares you for growth in grace
and in the knowledge of God’s love? How are your personal interests and
pursuits drawing you closer as a follower of Jesus? The habits you develop
and the equipment you accumulate for directing your life toward active
relationship with God will shape your life of worship and service.

As your life takes shape, what areas may need renovation? Home improvement
TV shows often focus on ways to augment efficient use of the space available
in the footprint of a house. Opening spaces often provide greater
opportunities for hospitality to everyone who is in the house. Other
renovations increase curb appeal or provide for activities that were not
possible before. Would you benefit from some revision to your Bible study,
or prayer life, or ministry involvement? And does the physical layout of
your own home and your church building enhance demonstrations of God’s grace
and invite others to share God’s presence in the world? Remember the second
phrase of Churchill’s principle: “. afterwards our buildings shape us.” Do
your tangible settings merely sustain a stagnant mediocrity of spirit, or do
they provide hope for growing joy and faithfulness to God?

Consider Churchill’s principle as applied to your own life and
the life of your community of faith: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards
our buildings shape us.”

– J. Edward Culpepper