The New Jerusalem’s Lesson in Symmetry

The church is at an inflection point. According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 80 percent of Americans say religion’s impact on public life is declining. In a separate study, Gallup reports that only 45 percent of Americans now belong to a house of worship, down sharply from 70 percent in 1999. The reasons for these downward trends vary, but clearly many are losing faith in institutional religion. In an increasingly fractured world, metaphors for the church — the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the family of God — no longer resonate as they once did. Re-engineered bodies, broken marriages, and splintered family systems don’t carry the same sense of permanence. Amid these sweeping changes, the image that may still anchor us is in architecture: the church as a foundation, house, holy temple, or city.

In a sermon delivered 143 years ago, Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal priest and bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts, drew on the imagery of the New Jerusalem coming down to earth from heaven as a way to imagine the good life. His architecturally rich sermon, “The Symmetry of Life,” has enduring implications for how we think today about Christian discipleship, leadership, and activism.

The Symmetry of Life

Brooks’ “Symmetry of Life” message, later published as a book, is based on John’s vision of the heavenly city in Revelation 21:16: “The city has four equal sides … its length and width and height are equal.” To Brooks, the marvel was not in its precious building materials — jasper, sapphires, emeralds, onyx, rubies, and gold — nor in its grandeur and strength, but in the city’s symmetry. In Brooks’ estimation, without equal attention to length, breadth, and height, “no life becomes complete.”

A descendant of distinguished stock — on his father’s side, John Cotton, the most well-known minister of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Samuel Phillips Jr., founder of Phillips Academy, on his mother’s — Phillips Brooks graduated from Harvard College in 1855. A staunch abolitionist, he first served as a schoolteacher but was quickly fired. This disappointment prompted him to enroll in divinity school at Virginia Theological Seminary. After serving as a rector in Philadelphia and Boston, he eventually became the preacher and overseer of Harvard College where in 1877 he earned his doctorate in theological studies.

When Brooks died at age 58 from diphtheria, the Harvard student newspaper printed a memorial that called for a new building on campus in his honor. Money poured in, resulting in the dedication of the Phillips Brooks House in 1900. This new structure — dedicated to “piety, charity, and hospitality” — accommodated a reading room, offices for five religious societies, a chapel, a lecture hall, and space for the college’s social services committee. The building still stands on the northwestern corner of Harvard Yard and now serves as a center for student public service.

In Brooks’ teaching, the length of one’s life represents not chronological age but “the line of activity and thought and self development.” In length of life, Jesus is the perfect paradigm demonstrated by his “onward reach,” his “struggle to an apprehended purpose,” and his commitment to connecting “self-knowledge to his work.” For Brooks, length of life is the discovery of one’s true vocation. “Whatever I am to do in the world must be done in this direction … as if a star woke to some subtle knowledge of itself, and felt within its shining frame the forces which decided what its orbit was to be.”

When one pursues length of life vigorously, a second necessary dimension emerges — breadth, or lateral care for others. Drawing on images of rapid industrialization in his time, Brooks declared, “Even the railroad track, hurrying to the Pacific, must leave something of a civilizing influence on the prairies which it crosses.” When a career or vocation is pursued nobly, one is “brought into sympathy and relationship” with other human beings. When vocation is not pursued loftily, “other human beings with whom they come in contact” are “like the wooden rounds … upon the ladder by which they climbed to their own personal ambition.” Without breadth, we’re tempted to step on others.

To Brooks, the third dimension of life is the one that holds everything together — height is a posture before God, “reaching upwards towards something distinctly greater than humanity.” Accordingly, this “reaching of mankind towards God” must permeate all of life and “not be a solitary column set on one holy spot.” All realms of life are to be God-facing, not just Sunday services and holy rituals.

Martin Luther King Jr. preached a version of Brooks’ “Symmetry of Life” sermon on multiple occasions, including during his 1954 candidacy visit to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Atlanta. Drawing on the same verse in Revelation, King declared, “The new city of God, the city of ideal humanity is not up one side and down on the other; it is not an unbalanced entity; it is complete on all sides.”

Six years later, King likened the “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life” to Jesus’ articulation of the greatest commandment in Matthew 22, to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself:

Love yourself if that means rational, healthy, and moral self-interest. You are commanded to do that; that is the length of life. Love your neighbor as yourself. You are commanded to do that; that is the breadth of life. But never forget there is a first and even greater commandment. Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind. That is the height of life. When an individual does this, he lives a complete life.

Length, breadth, and height work together in perfect harmony. They complete the cube of the heavenly city revealed in the Book of Revelation. Symmetry brings coherence to architecture, as do melody, rhythm, and meter to music; rhyming schemes to poetry; shared movement to dance; and chiasm to Hebrew literature.

Here are three other lessons we can glean from Brooks’ teaching.

Symmetry Demonstrates Interdependence

In a world where differences are elevated above shared aspirations, it is essential to remember that we don’t live and work in isolation. A web enfolds all of life. We like to believe we are self-made, but that conviction is illusory. In King’s words:

You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom, and you reach over for a bar of soap, and that’s handed to you by a Frenchman. You reach over for a sponge, and that’s given to you by a Turk. You reach over for a towel, and that comes to your hand from the hands of a Pacific Islander. And then you go on to the kitchen to get your breakfast. You reach on over to get a little coffee, and that’s poured in your cup by a South American. Or maybe you decide that you want a little tea this morning, only to discover that that’s poured in your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you want a little cocoa, that’s poured in your cup by a West African. Then you want a little bread and you reach over to get it, and that’s given to you by the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. Before you get through eating breakfast in the morning, you’re dependent on more than half of the world. That’s the way God structured it.

A profound sense of interdependency should lead to humility. Most will agree that if the church embraced more humility, it would produce disciples who are more generous and life-giving, offering to serve rather than demanding to be served.

Symmetry Limits Injustice

While humble leaders more naturally consider the needs of others, individually and corporately we are all tempted to follow selfish pursuits. In 1960, drawing on Brooks, King equated the good life to pursuing vocation with “cosmic significance” and “with all the strength and all of the power we can muster up.” Accordingly, if our role is to serve as a street sweeper, we should “sweep streets like Michelangelo carved marble … like Shakespeare wrote poetry.” Such images are often heralded in the movement for faith at work as capturing the true essence of biblical vocation, but they can lead to injustice when not mediated by other vital commitments. 

To King, length without breadth is self-protective and non-inclusionary, relegating “persons to the status of things.” Emphasizing length over breadth negates the interrelatedness of life, the “single garment of destiny,” and our “inescapable network of mutuality.” Length without breadth often leads to racism, sexism, ageism, tribalism, cronyism, terrorism, and so on. Remembering the symmetry of life is a countervailing force against these all-too-familiar patterns of wickedness.

Symmetry Serves as a Kingdom Metric

Finally, length, breadth, and height provide a healthy metric for measuring impact—a balanced, well-calibrated, and straightforward scorecard. But rather than assessing performance through the symmetry of Revelation 21, the church is too often seduced by the asymmetry of Babel in Genesis 11: “Come let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we make a name for ourselves.”

British historian David Bebbington is well known for his enduring definition of Evangelicalism, now known as the Bebbington Quadrilateral. Rather than length, breadth, and height, Bebbington identifies four equal dimensions of Evangelicalism: Biblicism (high regard for the Bible); Crucicentrism (belief in the atoning work of Christ); Conversionism (belief in the need for humans to experience spiritual transformation); and Activism (belief that Christians must be active in sharing their faith and holistically serving others). Healthy Christians and the churches to which they belong respect and pursue all four.

One is left to wonder: If Christians held these symmetries with uniform emphasis, could the exodus from the church be reversed? I believe the answer is an emphatic yes. We need authentic leadership and a church that is not a stage for performance or celebrity. We need a community — a well-proportioned city — dedicated to service and whole-life change. While the New Jerusalem is a marvel to behold as Revelation 21 reveals, its greatest treasure may not be in its jewels, strength, or stateliness, but in the lesson of symmetry it offers.

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