On April 15, 2019, the world watched in horror as the unthinkable happened—the iconic Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris went up in flames, and over 800 years of history disintegrated into billowing clouds of ash and smoke. But the singular tragedy of that cathedral stirred me to ponder a larger question: Did the physical fire represent a more metaphorical one? Might it perhaps signify the destruction of an entire way of thinking—the multi-generational, long-term mode of thought often referred to as “cathedral thinking”?
As if to confirm this fear, on the very same day of the fire, French president Emmanuel Macron expressed an ambitious determination to see the cathedral restored within five years (“coincidentally” in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics). And no sooner was the fire out than a call was issued for a competition to redesign the spire, with architects swiftly tweeting or Instagramming their proposals in a feverish jockeying for position.
A structure that took nearly two hundred years to build, but we act as though five years for a major rebuild is perfectly sufficient. Where is the mentality that led us to Notre-Dame in the first place? Where has our cathedral thinking gone? And can we somehow bring it back?
Although “cathedral thinking” may be an unfamiliar phrase to some, we can easily recognize its core concept. To summarize: in the Middle Ages, the architects and builders of a cathedral like Notre-Dame would enter into the project knowing that they would not live to see it completed. It was not unusual for cathedrals to require 200 years or more for completion, so the generation that broke ground and laid the foundations would pass away, leaving their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to continue the work.
Cathedral thinking takes the long view. It means pursuing an ambitious goal or idea that might require several generations to complete. It means laboring in the present in service of future glory. It’s a mentality that allowed humans to achieve some of the greatest, most spectacular projects in history.
But where is this kind of thinking today? Most of us intuitively recognize that our current Western culture is not hospitable to cathedral thinking. Speed, convenience, instant gratification, immediate return on investment—these are the hallmarks of our modern world. To us, a five-year plan to rebuild an ancient cathedral, or investing in a ten-year treasury bond, is what we mean by “long term”. We seem to have lost the capacity to think generationally. We have lost the ability to build cathedrals, literal or figurative.
Can we rediscover this long-term of way of thinking? I think there is a glimmer of hope, which I will introduce and expand upon shortly. But before that, I think it necessary to answer another question: What happened? What were the “fires” that burned away our capacity for cathedral thinking? Let me suggest three reasons.
The Paean of Progress
When examining the Middle Ages, we find a period of great consistency. Over hundreds of years, there was remarkably little social or technological change. There was instability, to be sure, as armies waged war and plagues ravaged towns and royal dynasties rose and fell. But on the whole, a person living in the mid-twelfth century (about when construction on Notre-Dame began) had no reason to expect that life for their children or grandchildren or any distant descendants would be noticeably different from the kind of life they themselves experienced. And when people live in such a static environment—when they expect the world to basically remain as it is—their time horizon can stretch far into the future.
Things began to shift around 1400 with the advent of the Renaissance, which was succeeded by the Age of Exploration and the colonizing of the Americas, then the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, and finally the Industrial Revolution. With each new phase, the rate of change began to pick up speed, inexorably accelerating to an almost breakneck pace. Each century saw more astonishing changes than the last. (Consider our own situation—the last 20 years have seen such substantial change that it’s hard for us to remember what it was like a mere two decades ago!) One consequence of this acceleration of change is that it shrinks our time horizon. Whereas in the 1100s one could confidently assume that the world would remain recognizable in the next century, it would be the height of folly for someone living today to assume such knowledge of even the next decade.
Our future is changing too rapidly for us to predict, which makes it exceedingly difficult and often risky to undertake long-term projects. So instead we focus on the short term, where we feel safer and more in control. But in doing so we are losing something: our ability to dream big, and to look beyond our own single lifespan.
The Curse of the Clock
For the overwhelming majority of human history, clocks and watches didn’t exist. Prior to such timepieces, people mostly lived according to the natural rhythms of life. They used the sun and the moon and the four seasons to mark time for planting and harvesting and feasting. Time for people in the Middle Ages was cyclical rather than linear, and there was little sense of hurry or of time “wasted”. And in such a relaxed temporal mentality, thoughts of the distant future can flourish.
But by the late medieval period, mechanical clocks began to appear, and that technology really exploded in the 15th and 16th centuries. Increasingly accurate timepieces were developed, and the early 1800s brought mass production of clocks and pocket watches. Through these innovations, our sense of time radically shifted. We could now count minutes or even seconds, which allowed us to break up our days into ever more regimented segments. We ceased to see time in a broad, cyclical way; instead, time became precise and linear, with each second ticking relentlessly on to the next.
In our modern era we are driven forward by that relentless ticking, compelled to waste not a single minute. We feel obliged to cram as much as possible into our day, rushing from place to place and task to task. We have become overwhelmed by time because we have fractionated it to an absurd degree, and in doing so we have lost any ability to see it in its fullness.
The Decline of the Divine
Religion in the Middle Ages was of enormous importance. The Christian faith of medieval Europeans united communities and provided a set of shared values. At its best, religion inspired people to serve a greater purpose, as made manifest in the building of magnificent cathedrals to glorify God. The builders of these cathedrals worked not for hefty wages, but in the service of an ideal—something greater than themselves. Of equal importance was the Church’s promise of a life after death, and this assurance of an eternal afterlife (contingent on the life you led while alive) was an enormous motivator for long-term thinking. Instead of living for the moment with the assumption that this life is all there is, people lived with an eye on the horizon and a sense of how their current actions would influence their ultimate fate.
But of course, the modern era has utterly eroded the unifying power and purpose of religion in the West. The Protestant Reformation exposed and then widened major cracks in the façade of the Catholic Church, and precipitated a splintering into numerous sects. The unquestioned authority of the clergy gave way to personal interpretations of doctrine, and religion quickly became a force more divisive than unifying. The Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution followed, and they, too, dealt powerful blows to religion, exposing and ridiculing much of its superstition and irrationality. By the turn of the 20th century, religion was a shadow of its former self.
We can see the effects of this transformation today. Fewer people are identifying with a particular denomination or even religion in general; instead of seeking religion they seek “spirituality”, a far more personal and eclectic form of faith. Meanwhile, the afterlife has become something of an afterthought—not only do churches rarely speak of hellfire anymore, they rarely speak of paradise! The rise of prosperity gospel is perhaps a quintessential demonstration of how churches have largely turned their focus to succeeding in this fleeting life, instead of taking the eternal view as they once did.
As you can see, things have drastically changed in the last few centuries, and it looks like the 21st century could represent a funeral for cathedral thinking. But is there a way to resuscitate our capacity to think long-term? While there’s no going back to the Middle Ages, maybe we can find a way forward.
I believe there’s hope, and it’s rooted in our burgeoning understanding of human motivation. In particular, author Dan Pink cites three rich sources of inspiration: purpose, mastery, and autonomy. Let’s look at how those three ideas can be applied in the service of long-term thinking.
First, purpose. Humans crave a sense of meaning, a feeling that they are part of a greater whole, a belief that their life will count towards something important in the end. Modern society is nearly devoid of such significance. Religion, as noted, has faltered, and while there are plenty of modern “-isms” out there—nationalism or internationalism, capitalism or communism—none of them can really offer us a sense of the sublime or the transcendent. Today’s self-centered, consumerist culture has mired us in irrelevance and burdened us with existential anxiety. What we need—what we hunger for—are unabashedly ambitious calls to purpose.
Look at how the Apollo program, though only about a decade long, excited us with its brave exploration of a new world. We threw ourselves into that endeavor emotionally and financially, with little regard for profit or personal advantage. We need projects that tap into the heroic and aspirational sides of our nature, because those are the projects that can make us think of ourselves as a unified whole—in the way that “Earthrise”, the famous photo from Apollo 8, reminded us that we are all inhabitants of the same fragile planet.
When we focus on purpose more than profit, and engage in large, inspirational projects, we start to think transpersonally, seeing ourselves as humanity rather than as individual humans. We think of our species rather than our tribes, and can therefore achieve that sense of unity and resolve that previously only religion could provide.
Next, mastery. While the architects and laborers who worked on medieval cathedrals were serving a purpose greater than themselves, they nonetheless reaped a personal reward: the satisfaction of demonstrating their mastery of a craft. When people have a chance to put their talents to work for a worthwhile cause, amazing things happen. People will sometimes even work for free if it means that they get to do something they love and are good at.
Think about how Wikipedia was built. Its page authors don’t get money for their work; their “wages” are the satisfaction of demonstrating to themselves and the world their mastery of a particular subject, and the joy of teaching others and sharing information. As a result, you have the world’s most comprehensive encyclopedia—a sort of digital cathedral—built by people motivated not by profit but by mastery.
Also, something interesting often happens when people engage their mastery: they lose their sense of time. Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi coined the term “flow” to describe the state a person enters when they are fully immersed in a task that is challenging enough to necessitate complete focus but achievable enough to trigger our neural rewards system. Think of when you’ve been engaged in a task or game that completely sucks you in, so that when you finally emerge you have no idea what time it is. Exercising our mastery and engaging our flow state is an excellent way of escaping our servitude to the clock so that we can instead pursue goals that are timeless.
Finally, autonomy. Dan Pink points out that when people are freed from top-down constraints, and therefore have a greater sense of personal agency—a kind of ownership of a problem and its solutions—they think more creatively and act more enthusiastically. I’m sure we can all remember instances in our work life where we were told exactly what to do and how to do it; those tasks suck the life out of us! Now contrast them with the times we’re given an interesting problem and simply asked to solve it or complete it as best we can; our response to those opportunities is radically different. But sadly, we seem to have lost confidence in our creative ability to figure things out—and even worse, we’ve lost faith in future generations to do so.
This can be illustrated with examples from American history. Consider that the U. S. Constitution, the backbone of our democratic republic, has about 4500 words, making it the shortest written constitution of any major government. The Founders were wise enough to create a document that enshrined important ideas while trusting later generations to figure out the details. Similarly, the Homestead Act of 1862, which transformed the American West (for better or worse), fills only two printed pages; now contrast that with the Affordable Care Act, which clocked in at over 900 printed pages. The authors of today’s legislative bills, instead of planting a core idea and trusting future leaders to tweak and modify the specifics as needed, are relying instead on lengthy, byzantine provisions in an effort to dictate not just the present but also the future—and the result is predictably unhappy.
How can we return autonomy to our society, so that it might benefit cathedral thinking? Ironically, it could involve harnessing our obsession with progress. If you’ve ever played video games, you’re familiar with the concept of “save points”: upon reaching a certain place or accomplishing a particular goal, you can save your progress up to that point. When we envision big, cathedral-type projects, we should inspire others with a worthy purpose, and offer guidance with a broad-stroked vision, but then allow each generation to complete their stage of the project however they see fit, utilizing creative new ideas and technologies that we can’t possibly predict in the present. All that matters is that they reach a “save point” from which the next generation can take over and continue the quest. By doing this—breaking up big challenges into smaller chunks—we can tackle even the most massive projects like combating climate change or colonizing other planets in our solar system.
Ultimately I think there is hope that cathedral thinking, like Notre-Dame itself, can rise from the ashes. We certainly need it to, because the challenges humanity faces, now and in the future, will require long-term thinking. While the radical changes of the last 600 years have burned away the structures that supported cathedral thinking in the Middle Ages, we have a chance to build a new scaffolding using our modern understanding of human flourishing. So let’s stop focusing so much on instantly-gratifying (but ultimately unsatisfying) goals such as pure profit, and instead partake of more life-giving and soul-nourishing pursuits that encompass purpose, mastery, and autonomy.
If we do that, we can build cathedrals once again.