Last week I wrote about the problems with the "church in the round", in particular how the location of the celebrant at the center causes a de-emphasis of the importance of the altar as authority over the congregation. In this post I'd like further at the symbolism of the church in the round and how it relates to the eschatology of the Church.
The form of the circle symbolically is one of gathering and binding together. All points of the circle are equally distant from the center point of the circle, being "held together" by that point. The only direction that can be seen in circle has is either inwards or outwards. One cannot really talk about a top or bottom, or front or back or a circular form, at least without reference to something outside the circle itself. Also since it has no real sides like any polygon, one can think of the circle as having an "infinite" number of sides. The circle symbolically then has the nature of completeness and "perfection" as well as infinity. Thus we can see why throughout almost all of human history, the circle is symbolic of divinity. Indeed in Christianity we see an ancient symbol of the trinity, of three intersecting circles is deep with that same meaning.
But this nature of completeness and perfection of the circle is deeply problematic in the design of a Catholic church. The reason for this revolves around the idea of eschatology. Eschatology, as Dr. Denis McNamara explains in his excellent series on the Catholic Architecture, is the teaching about the eschaton, or simply about the end of the world. Christianity, in contrast to the ancient pagan religions, proposed that not only did Christ come to earth to die for our sins, but also that he will come again at the end of times, and that there will be an end of time. The Church has always looked forward to the Second Coming, and thus has always taught that the people of God are marching toward that end, where the work of Salvation will finally be completed. The Church, through the liturgy of the Mass, teaches about the perfection of Heaven and the world to come, but also gives us a "foretaste" of Paradise. When we receive the Eucharist in Mass, we receive Christ truly and thus partake in his perfection in Heaven, but we still remain in this world, fallen as it is, so it is we still are left wanting more.
But when the circular form is used in a church, the symbolism of the circle conflicts with this teaching. The circle as said before, has a notion of completeness, of perfection and infinity. We lose the sense that there is something lacking, which we are heading towards, namely the perfection of
So when we have a church in the round, symbolically it communicates that this church where we stand, is complete and perfect just how it is. Coming to church, being in communion with the people we see "face to face" is all that we need, and there's nothing beyond.
When you couple this with a de-emphasis on the authority and importance of the altar, as we saw in the last post, that notion of community alone becomes even more overwhelming. We begin to lose the sense of being on the pilgrim's path toward salvation, and begin to think that just seeing friends and simply "being nice" to them is all that there is to the Church.