In Whom Do We Place Our Trust?
A Reflection on the Re-Naming of the Sears Tower
By Rev. Robert Barron
The recent re-naming of the Sears Tower in Chicago speaks volumes about modern cities and their culture. Joseph Campbell, the historian of religion, commented that we can discern the dominant values of a society by looking at its buildings - more precisely, at which kind of buildings are most prominent. For instance, consider medieval Europe. It is easy to see that spiritual values were supreme because the towns and cities were, almost invariably, dominated by churches. Think of Thomas Merton’s lyrical description, in The Seven Storey Mountain, of the little medieval town of St.-Antonin in southern France. Merton recalls prowling through the narrow streets of this village when he was a boy, and remarking that all of the roads and alleys and avenues pointed, like spokes, to a central point where the little cathedral was situated. The symbolism was clear: every aspect of the daily life of that provincial village revolved around the liturgical rhythms of the church. Go to the city of Chartres, and you’ll see the same thing on a larger scale. As you approach the town, you see the famous Cathedral rising like a mountain out of the wheat fields, and once you’re in Chartres itself, you appreciate how the Cathedral broods over the place, determining the whole of its life.
Campbell points out that, in Renaissance period, a cultural change occurred and became visible in architecture. In many European cities, the church was still prominent but was rivaled by political buildings and the great palaces of the wealthy and powerful. Just think of the Farnese and Barberini palazzos in Rome which, in their sumptuousness and grandiosity, practically rise to the level of St. Peter’s basilica. What we see is a psychological and cultural struggle between the values of the spirit and values of a this-worldly political order. In the modern era, Campbell observes, the shift in cultural consciousness became more obvious and was, again, reflected in architectural priorities. In most modern cities in America, Europe, and Asia, the dominant buildings are clearly those of the great commercial enterprises. A visitor to Chicago, for instance, can’t miss the headquarters of major commercial and economic enterprises that tower over the city. But he would have to dig a bit to find the mayor’s office, and he would need a very special guide in order to find the cathedral of the Archbishop.
This month, it was announced that the tallest building in Chicago would no longer be referred to as the Sears Tower, but rather as the Willis Tower. The Willis company, it turns out, is a venerable, Britain-based insurance firm, and this means that the three tallest structures in Chicago—the Willis Tower, the Aon Building, and the John Hancock Building—are all named after insurance corporations. And thereupon hangs a tale, spiritually speaking. Let me, please, clarify, before I go any further, that I have absolutely nothing against insurance companies in general or these firms in particular. Within the overall context of a democratic polity and capitalist economy, they surely have a respectable place. However, I just can’t resist exploring the symbolic power of this trifecta of insurance buildings dominating the skyline of Chicago. If Joseph Campbell is right, then what is most important to us is finding the kind of security that insurance can provide: enough money to stave off the dangers of unemployment, illness, and natural disaster. Keeping ourselves physically safe and economically secure are the highest values in our culture. I’m sure many religious people would protest, assuring me that their relationship to God is of paramount value, but I might ask them to look at the actual patterns of their lives: how do they spend their time, where do they spend their money, how do they behave when threatened with danger? I would suspect that the “skylines” of the inner psychological cities even of most religious people would resemble the skyline of Chicago!
In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, we find these unforgettable and confounding words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount: “Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they?...Do not worry and say, ‘what are we to eat? and what are we to drink? and what are we to wear?’ Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all…But seek first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be given to you besides.” Notice how Jesus does not dismiss the reality and importance of concrete concerns, but at the same time notice how radically he relativizes them in relation to the Kingdom of God. What must always come first is our radical trust in the Lord, our surrender to his will and providential purpose. Within that context, we can indeed seek after the goods of the world, but spiritual sickness comes when we invert the relationship.
The fullest exemplification of this teaching is Jesus, nailed to his cross, stripped of every possible worldly security, saying to his Father, “into your hands, I commend my spirit.” Could you even imagine that symbol of total insecurity, abandonment, and trust in God looming over the skyline of Chicago or the inner skyline of your soul?