Listening to post-earthquake conversations is fascinating because various unexpected stories are emerging. One trend I have noticed is the way in which, initially, many stories re houses and the effects of the earthquake went "New houses built on concrete pads have done badly; good ol' wooden houses built on piles have been brilliant;' but now, a month and many aftershocks later, stories are emerging of older wooden houses faring badly. It all depends, it seems, on factors beyond the actual general construction of a house: the specific character of the land beneath, the direction of waves of energy manipulating that land and so on.
Another story emerging seems to be some differences in approach to the future prospects of church buildings. The 'innies', we Christians who habituate church buildings can both entertain thoughts of rebuilding while envisioning that this might be a time for change. We are a pilgrim people, we have not always worshipped in buildings, we can worship God anywhere: let's be free to think outside the square and, if necessary, to break free from the past. But some 'outies', people at best irregular in church and at worst of the 'never step foot inside the doors' category, are saying, 'Our local church must be restored' or 'You must rebuild (emphasis on 'you').' What is going on?
I sense that church buildings are functioning in communities as symbols which are valued by local communities. Restoration of church buildings does not mean they are about to be repopulated by such observers. It means that the symbols need to be restored for the sake of the good health of the community. The earthquake is revealing a community commitment to this symbolism which active church members may not have understood previously.
What is being symbolised? Here I am guessing. This is my guess: churches represent values in our communities such as love of neighbour, being at peace with one another, life is meaningful rather than meaningless, the importance of knowing that somewhere in our community is a place of last resort which will reach out to the unloveliest among us, and, it is comforting to know that if I ever need to meet with God, there is a place to conduct the meeting.
I am sure a similar analysis of the symbolic value to the community can be done about other kinds of buildings in our city such as our Arts Centre (damaged), our Art Gallery and Museum (not damaged, as far as I know), and other heritage buildings, both commercial and residential.
A theology of buildings obviously needs to listen to the voice of God through Scripture. But there are other voices to take note of, and they may be channels also of divine speech.