This essay was initially published on culture-voice.com
The thing about scaffolding is, it is not meant to be long term.
On this particular summer vacation as a teenager with my parents we were doing somewhat of an American history tour. We had been to Washington DC, Monticello, and Mt Vernon, among other places of historic interest. As we traveled it became a joke, for all of the buildings and monuments seemed to be under scaffolding. Needless to say, the pictures left something to be desired, as the beauty of the buildings themselves was hidden behind the temporary ugliness of the scaffolding which encased them.
The other day I was talking with a friend who was telling me about her current crisis in faith, as she put it. Things just don’t seem to make the easy sense that they once did. And somehow, in the midst of the conversation about faith, we got to talking about scaffolding.
As far as I can tell, scaffolding has two main purposes. At first, it exists in order to be able to build something. I am thinking here about architectural wonders such as the great cathedrals that were built throughout Europe. The scaffolding was what allowed the builders of these cathedrals to create these magnificent structures. Without the scaffolding they would have been left with something only as high or as grand as the ordinary human being could reach. With the scaffolding they were able to create something far above and beyond their own limitations.
The second purpose of scaffolding was the one I encountered in Washington DC. All those buildings had long ago been built, but were in serious need of repair and refurbishment. So, the scaffolding was put in place so that they might be restored.
In neither instance was the scaffolding itself the end result. It was simply a means to an end, a supportive structure that would allow for the creation of something far beyond the scaffolding itself.
Back to my friend, the crisis of faith—enter the scaffolding.
What if what we have taken to be faith is actually just the scaffolding? Sure, it is important. Sure, it has its place. But what if it is really meant to be in service to something much bigger, much grander, much more beautiful?
Before you condemn me as a heretic, let me explain.
Growing up in the conservative evangelical church I feel as though I was given all the answers, taught how the Bible made sense, learned how to argue my faith, told the difference between right and wrong, and learned that being a Christian meant that you did not do many things that ‘the world’ did do, such as smoke, drink, and have sex before marriage. So, growing up in the church youth group, my faith looked a lot more like a list of things you weren’t supposed to do, than anything life-giving. For my friend, now grown up and married with children, she had experienced the same sort of faith. Faith was that you did do certain things, like go to church each week, try to be nice to people, and live a moral life and also that you did not do certain things, like get angry, lie, or commit adultery.
Her crisis of faith came in when she stopped to look around and wonder if that was all there was. Because though the easy answers and clear list of right and wrong had served her well, they had gotten to the point where they were no longer enough. If that was all there was, then really, what was the point?
This, of course, caused her great alarm. Was she turning her back on all that she had believed? Was God not enough for her any more? Had she out grown her faith? She was nervous even to voice these things.
But what if the scaffolding of our narrowly defined Christianity was never meant to be the final point? What if this scaffolding of easy answers and lists of right and wrong was necessary for a time, in order for us to build a firm foundation and base, but was never meant to be long-term? What if in rejecting the scaffolding we are actually freeing the beautiful cathedral that longs to be exposed to the light of day and to the gaze of wonder?
On a trip to Florence, Italy, I saw some more scaffolding. This time it was on the Duomo, a beautifully ornate domed cathedral in the town center. More impressive than the cathedral itself though, was the story of its creation. When work started on the cathedral the technology to build a domed ceiling did not exist. But in what my guidebook described as the hubris of the time, they began construction anyway, figuring that by the time they got to the top they would know how to build the dome.
Hubris? Or faith? For isn’t this what we are called to?
We begin with the scaffolding, building the walls, not knowing how it will all work out, but trusting that when we get there, we will know.