Martin E. Marty
Last week the Associated Press reported that Pastor Robert Schuller has “stage four” cancer and The New York Times reported the destruction of the “Walk of Faith” on the grounds of Schuller’s realized dream, the Crystal Cathedral. That glass edifice, after its builders went bankrupt, passed into the hands of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange (California), which is “Catholicizing” the once proud non-denominational site. The Orange-men are trying to be gentle with the Cathedral’s old-time members and investors, but they cannot refrain from destroying the stones of its “Walk of Faith.”
The Times quoted the brochure used by the Schuller-era leadership to sell the memorial stones for the “Walk.” The purchase price of the stones would go into a “perpetual endowment fund,” the brochure promised, which would “keep the gardens blooming, the Cathedral glass sparkling and the waters flowing.” The principal would “never be depleted.” It all would “speak through the centuries.” Only decades have passed. And it’s all over.
Some who paid $2,000 for one of the 1,800 memorial stones feel cheated. Some are resentful: couldn’t the diocese have found a way to honor their donation, to use the stones, or to fit them into the Catholic context? Still others are angry with the Cathedral’s original promoters who, these donors contend, squandered money, made bad decisions, and fought as the venture went bankrupt.
We have to know that such memorial sites are very meaningful to seniors, who regularly visit them, bring fresh flowers—no balloons or plastic flowers allowed now!—and regard the sites and their intentions as sacred. Some of the offended have learned the lesson of all memorials—even the pyramids and the great temples of Greece, Rome, and Christendom will crumble and the names on them will be forgotten. It does no good to join those who see the outcome as “really crummy” unless we follow this judgment with: “it’s in the past and we have to move forward.”
Those of us who have crawled through cathedrals in Europe or visited cemeteries prepared for “perpetual” use in our young nation, have gotten to practice nurturing awareness of the past and, without trashing it, “moving forward.” Rather than use this occasion to heap one more time—there have been heaps of heapings against the Schuller endeavor and legacy—I want to signal a way to look at the past and “move forward."
Some readers may remember the three words that my colleague and mentor, David Tracy, impressed on me. They are “finitude, contingency, and transience.”
These three words come into play in the two news stories mentioned above. Finitude: Dr. Schuller will die, as will we all. Contingency: the ancients said that some statements were necessary (“we will all die”) and others are contingent. They may or may not happen. The Crystal Cathedral and the “Walk of Faith” could have lasted longer and fulfilled their original intentions were it not for this or that contingency, this folly, or that unforeseen circumstance.
But it is the third term in Tracy’s triad that especially deserves and demands reflection at a time like this. Transience: everything human passes. The stones of the “Walk of Faith” are available to the donors who will claim them, but they will eventually be dispersed, and soon, grandchildren of purchasers will wonder whose name that is on the stone in the garage.
People of faith learn, no matter what their tradition, that transience marks their lives. The more fortunate among them learn early on to pay respect to what has been, but they learn that to talk about “perpetuity” is folly.
Associated Press. “Former televangelist Robert Schuller diagnosed with cancer, daughter says.” Fox News, Sept. 6, 2013. Accessed Sept. 8, 2013.
Lovett, Ian. “Lasting Tributes Meet Early End in Bankruptcy: Memorials Removed at Bankrupt Crystal Cathedral.” The New York Times, Sept. 5, 2013. Accessed Sept. 8, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/06/us/parishioners-find-removal-of-memorial-stones-an-added-indignity.html?ref=romancatholicchurch&_r=1&.
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.
Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Marty Center Junior Fellow.