the churches of Munich

On Sunday morning I took the train back to the center of town to see what I might have missed in my sleep-addled state the previous afternoon. The HofbrÀuhaus was my first stop off the train.

Granted, you might not expect even the hard-drinking Bavarians to be in their cups already by eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning. I walked in on the coattails of an Italian tour group who were being shepherded through downtown Munich’s most famous brand names, and snapped a few quick pictures. There were, in fact, one or two dour old men with beers in front of them, but by and large the scene was pretty dead.

In fact I expect most of Munich was still in church.

The Peterskirche (St. Peter’s Catholic Church) had just concluded their mass when I entered around half past eleven, slinking in the back along with the other tourists. I have rarely seen more shiny things per unit volume before in any church smaller than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Every dark, gloomy square inch of the Peterskirche was covered in things painted, carved, wrought or gilt. A display in the foyer showed that half of the church had been reduced to rubble in the Allied bombing raids of December 1944, so massive rebuilding efforts (and restoration of the artwork, I imagine) were necessary to return the church to its former glory. I dropped a bit of euro-change in their offering box on my way out the door.

The worshippers at the Frauenkirche (more properly Dom zu Unsere Lieben Frau, “Cathedral of Our Dear Lady”) were just beginning their noon mass when I wandered over, led by the tall towers and the tip-off from the visitor’s information center in the Rathaus. This space was tall, light and airy; the interior was more austerely appointed than the Peterskirche, but the sunbeams gliding down from heaven told more stories of redemption and quiet wonder than all the earthly gold in all the churches of Bavaria. It seemed unusually modern for such an old church.

I only got a couple of photos before the old security guard irritably waved me away. I wasn’t using a flash, but all the same, I could understand and appreciate the message: this is a church people actually use, a safe place to attune oneself to God, not (merely) a tourist attraction. At Notre Dame in Paris, a constellation of flashes would continue to erupt through the entire service.

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This incident led me to ask some of my scientist colleagues, later in the day, how the Germans took their religion: was it a more religious country overall, or were those few churchgoers simply more pious and/or reverent than in other European countries? This touched off a number of unrelated threads about religion in European life, with the general impression delivered that although German Christians might not actually have stronger personal faith than other Europeans, the church is stronger as a social institution than it is elsewhere. Bavaria is also an historically Catholic region of Germany, untouched by the Reformation, as with Austria; the Lutherans are all up north.

For the record, I’m not much of a churchgoer myself, but I love historic churches as great works of art, for the accumulated talent they showcase and the devotion they inspire even among scientists. In grad school I sang in the choir of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, meaning that as an agnostic materalist I was expected to help lead worship. In an episode of delicious irony, I lost my voice one Holy Saturday, and so ended up carrying the cross for the Easter Sunday procession. Other times I would go there to sit, pondering the eternal verities, simply because it was such a magnificent space.

While there’s plenty in the history of Christianity of which the faithful should justifiably not be proud, I still feel as though there should be some way of reframing the better parts of Christian heritage to be a force for good even in this ever more globalized, impious, and irreverent world. Christianity seems to have become almost a dirty word among political liberals (read: latte-swilling New York Times readers, of which I am a proud card-carrying instance) in the States; many, if not most, American religious figures you hear about on national TV (including our Republican legislators) are politically radical and socially reactionary. While it’s probably too much to expect most people of any religious persuasion to have a fully logically consistent worldview, I’m keen to learn more about how leaders of the faithful are trying to take Christianity forward, rather than trying to take the secular world backward. In previous years when I had the chance to find out more, it was because I wasn’t comfortable with my own uncertainty. I’ve since worked out more or less where I stand with the universe and am more curious on an intellectual basis. European Christianity seems like quite a strain apart from what I see in my home country, so there may be much to learn here.

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About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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