In this article, I wish to ask those who profess a religion whether they are worshiping God or themselves. In arguing my thesis, I will use my understanding and reading of houses of worship in their architectural form and language.
It is my reading of the houses of worship in this country that the expensive and beautiful structures are literally for the vanity of man, not the worship of God. People can lie – politicians, lawyers, professors and even judges. But architecture does not lie.
Look at the languages of the houses of worship. Each house of worship is different from the other. Is God not the same? Are morality and human values not similar? Are human decency, compassion and kindness not attributes of good men and women looking for the salvation of their souls? If so, why the difference, the stark alienation, between one and the other?
Most houses of worship are also expensive. Extremely expensive. They tax the people for money, yet why are these buildings put up? So that one faith can show up another and say my minaret or steeple or tower is taller than yours? My dome or roof is bigger than yours? My tiles are shinier and more exotic than yours? Does God need such buildings in the first place? Does God need a house to take shelter from the rain? So, who are these huge edifices for? For man. For a vain man who says his faith is better than that of another.
Now let’s look at the fences. Most fences in the design of the houses of God are high, sometimes ornate, and they go all around. I wonder who the fences are designed to keep out. The poor? The destitute? The homeless? And why not? The homeless can sleep in rat-infested alleys. The children of the poor can take shelter under the bridges of the highways that the BMWs, Mercedes and Camrys of the clerics drive over. Who cares about these people?
Should religion not care?
At the time of big festivals, men and women of faith sing, pray and mingle with each other with exotic meals while scraps are given to those in the alleys, under the bridges and in makeshift homes. The houses of God are too beautiful, too clean, too much like hotels for the likes of the homeless and the poor.
Religion is for rich men and women to donate money to rich clerics who say they speak on behalf of God. If religion is for God, should not the architect be thinking about spaces for the homeless and the destitute to stay? Shouldn’t Mr Architect or Madam Designer design these spaces so that when the congregation comes to embrace the spirit of God, they can look in the hungry eyes of the children and at the torn clothes of the poor? Why so clean? Why so devoid of pity and unselfishness in concrete, steel or timber? Were there no instructions from the clerics to the architects? Or perhaps the architect never understood that religion was for God. They may have understood that it was for those who signed the cheque.
Why can’t the languages used in the houses of God be similar? Is it because of history? So what about history? There is no sacredness in history and historical forms. The books of God never specified such columns, such beams, such spanning systems or such measurements of rooms and spaces. All these are man-made.
So why do we retain them? Why not rethink the house of God as a place to celebrate the humility of man under His Divine Mercy? Does God not know everything about our different races, cultures, rituals and beliefs?
Does man know everything about his brothers’ race, religious rituals and values? If he does, then he is God, The All Knowing. But blasphemy! Man is not God. But then why does he stay in his own community? Why does he not mix with others of different faiths to fill in the vast gap of ignorance?
Shouldn’t houses of worship have spaces to share with other faiths? Perhaps there could be a cafeteria or a book shop, or a gallery that displays each faith’s understanding of their own ignorance. Why the fences? Why the massive gateways? Wouldn’t it be more welcoming if the houses of worship were as easily accessible as the five-foot walkways of Taiping or Penang?
We say we are a nation that believes in God. But I think those who do not believe in an “institutional” God are better off as human beings than those who cling to the idea of differences and identity.
My understanding of religion and the search for God is simple. In order to experience spiritual communion with the Almighty, I understand that the door to be opened is the door of compassion, understanding, patience, tolerance and kindness. Without these doors, man does not worship God but himself and his identity of race and “religion”.
Man always wants to be different – in style, in fashion and in his God. To be worshiping the one God of all man is not stylish. It is unfashionable and… well, boring lah. But architecture does not lie. Man can lie and his actions betray him. They betray him all the time. But the buildings bear the imprint of man, and of his true selfish and arrogant nature.
In order to move forward, this nation and its people must rethink their religion as religion, once again, for God. Not for selfish identity or vain piety. Have I made the wrong assessment of religion and believers of the different faiths? Perhaps. But architecture never lies.
It is about time that we rethink our religion in the context of nation building, for that is where the critical key to the door of higher spiritual communion lies. Let us rebuild our faiths and our houses of worship to invite in our fellow citizens of other beliefs, and the precious poor and destitute that will be the witness to our salvation in the hereafter or the next cycle of life.