Immanence: Architecture for Worship and Ministry Today
Torgerson, Mark A. An Architecture of Immanence: Architecture for Worship and Ministry Today. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2007.
Mark Torgerson, associate professor of worship arts at Judson College, has done extensive work on the contemporary Lutheran architect Edward Sövik. He intends this book as an aid to providing a variety of contexts for those thinking today about designing appropriate spaces for Christian worship across denominational lines. As the title indicates, Torgerson emphasizes divine immanence rather than transcendence as the starting point for design for worship, and his book is designed to provide a variety of historical, theological, architectural, and liturgical tools for implementing the goal of designing contemporary churches that reflect this basic assumption about the theological groundings of worship.
Torgerson begins with some helpful introductory observations about the relationship of physical setting to worship and the notions and experiences of the divine that shape and are shaped by that setting. He sets up the contrast between God as immanent and transcendent, and explains how such devices as scale, lighting, and symbolism can be utilized to evoke one or the other of these attributes, which always have been mysteriously complementary in Christian incarnational belief. From the beginning, however, Torgerson makes clear his belief that contemporary worship spaces should be designed to evoke a sense of immanence—“God with us”—in contrast with more traditional design, such as the Gothic, which was more suited to the sensation of transcendence. This assumption is axiomatic and not extensively explained or defended, and the reader must be prepared to accept his argument on this premise. Although much of what follows is useful for anyone interested in modern religious design, those with different theologies of liturgy may find this assumption problematic.
Succeeding chapters—each of them brief and organized into subdivisions around central points—provide further context for the emergence of this particular strain of design for worship. Torgerson finds theological roots primarily in liberal and neo-orthodox twentieth-century Protestantism, particularly in Bonhöffer’s “religionless Christianity” and disciples such as Harvey Cox of The Secular City. The author’s choices here may not be to everyone’s taste, and the work might have profited from the invocation of a broader range of theological sources. Perhaps more important for his argument is his discussion of the ecumenical and liturgical movements in both their Protestant and Roman Catholic dimensions, which have had a profound effect on the theory and practice of worship both within and across Christian traditions.
Chapters four through eight are perhaps the most useful, since they focus most directly on religious architecture. Torgerson does a good job explaining the basic theories, features, and practitioners of modern architecture, beginning with three major figures—Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, and Le Corbusier—who collectively designed only a handful of buildings for worship, but whose ideas on design were broadly, even pervasively, influential during the middle decades of the twentieth century. He identifies four basic principles informing the work of these architects—functionalism, simplicity, integrity, and contemporary expression—that were taken up by architectural theorists and architects more focused on religious design. Among the latter, he discusses the innovative European work of Auguste Perret, Otto Bartning, Dominikus Böhm, and Rudolf Schwarz. He then discusses a representative sampling of significant twentieth-century American churches such as First Christian in Columbus, Indiana (Eliel Saarinen) and Philip Johnson’s Crystal Cathedral. The extensive chapter that follows is on E. A. Sövik, whose idea of a “nonchurch” that is usable both for liturgical and other communal activities appears to be Torgerson’s ideal.
The final two chapters deal with an assessment of the impact of the ecumenical and liturgical movements on contemporary worship and religious building, stressing the convergence of worship patterns of Catholics and Protestants. He goes on to discuss the growing assault on architectural Modernism as the previous century progressed; the emergence of the pluralism and eclecticism characteristic of Postmodernism; and a renewed theological interest in divine transcendence, expressed architecturally though a sense of mystery rather than the extreme clarity characteristic of the International Style. He concludes with some practical advice on planning for religious building, as well as an appendix of relevant documents (e.g., from Vatican II) and a glossary of terms.
Torgerson’s work is accessible and practical, designed more for clergy and parishioners rather than scholars. Its main defect is a tendency towards oversimplification. The author’s contrast of immanence and transcendence as theological categories is not well developed and rather fuzzy. He also neglects the differences that, despite ecumenical convergences, nevertheless separate Christian groups and have implications for patterns of worship and church design. He does not differentiate Anglicans from Protestants—as many Episcopalians would today—and also does not explore seriously the very real differences between the worship style that usually prevail in mega churches from that of more liturgical traditions, whether Roman, Anglican, Lutheran, or Reformed. (The Crystal Cathedral, for example, differs in some very important ways from the Roman Catholic churches with which Torgerson juxtaposes it.) Given these caveats, Torgerson’s book stands out as an informative and provocative introduction to thinking about contemporary church design for those with a practical interest in the issue.
Peter W. Williams,
Miami University Oxford, Ohio