Cathedral thinking: what it is, characteristics and examples
Cathedral thinking is a way of thinking related to contributions to humanity.
We do most of our actions thinking in the short term and for ourselves. For example, we may not want to recycle because we are too lazy to go to several different garbage cans to dispose of our garbage, or we may spend our entire salary on living well and taking care of ourselves.
Regardless of whether these are morally correct actions or not, it is clear that their consequences are not only going to be short term. Not recycling means polluting the planet more, while not saving money can be a big problem if, in the future, we have children and cannot provide for them.
Thinking in the long term is something we don't usually do, let alone thinking in the very long term, in a time when we will no longer be alive. Fortunately, there have been many who have thought this way, this type of psychological phenomenon being called cathedral thinking..... Let's see it in more depth below.
What is cathedral thinking?
Before explaining the idea of cathedral thinking, let's first understand how cathedrals were built centuries ago, in the Middle Ages. At that time cathedrals were projects that could take years to complete. Cathedrals such as Notre Dame, Burgos or Canterbury took several centuries to complete, something that was quite normal at the time and that architects were fully aware of when they laid the first stone.
Architects knew that they would never see their works completed, but they did not stop building them for that reason.. Despite knowing that they would die long before their designs materialized in fully finished temples, the artists did not do it to have a beautiful building made by themselves, but thinking that they would leave to future generations a strong, durable and beautiful cathedral that would leave a mark on all those who saw it. They knew that their work could be finished in hundreds of years, even almost a thousand, as in the case of Canterbury Cathedral, which took up to 900 years to complete!
The idea of cathedral thinking comes from this same idea. It consists of the ability to conceive and plan projects with a long time horizon, of several years, even decades or centuries.. It is about doing something with a very long-term vision, thinking of a time when we may no longer be in the same place or even alive, but when the people of that time may enjoy or benefit from the actions we have decided to take today. It also means considering whether the actions we take today may harm future generations.
Throughout history there have been many people who have thought in the long term, empathizing with future generations.This is closely related to the modern idea of intergenerational justice. In addition to the construction of cathedrals and other buildings such as castles, walls and bastions of various cities, we have historical events that took several centuries and have had an impact on how the world is today.
An example of this is the era of the great explorations, a period from the end of the 15th century to the end of the 19th century. The explorers of the Americas, Indonesia, Australia or Africa of several centuries went into the depths of unknown lands that they knew perfectly well that they were not going to discover completely, since it was humanly impossible. What they did was to be able to fill that big gap that was still on the maps and that, once one of those explorers could not continue, another would take his place and, thus, continue to complete the world map.
Today, exploration has taken off and entered space. First animals were sent into space, then human beings, and later the moon was set foot on. These have not been small steps for mankind, but they will come in bigger ones. Someday we will get to explore and colonize new worlds, events that would never have been possible if Yuri Gagarin had not dared to be up there or the Apollo 11 team had not set foot on our satellite.
But we don't need to explore new worlds to find people whose exploits serve to exemplify what cathedral thinking is all about. Let's think about families, all of them. The simple fact that parents save for their children's future when they are no longer around and that it also serves for their grandchildren is an example of this kind of thinking.. It is empathizing with people who do not yet exist, but who will come at some point and who, if they can be given the best of lives, it is an ethical imperative to contribute as much as we can.
Why we should start applying it
We could give many more examples of cases of cathedral thinking, both thinking of our descendants 100 years from now and of people who will not be of our blood, but who, out of pure empathy, we would like to have the best of lives. There are many small gestures we can make today that, if they are constant, can help the people of the future.
There are issues that are very topical but because we do not notice (or do not want to see) their consequences, we do little to change the situation.. Although the ideal is to think in the long term, in a world that rewards immediacy and where we want results and feedback quickly, sometimes we forget to think that things may take time to appear.
Climate change is a clear example of why we should start changing the way we manage and exploit resources today, applying cathedral thinking to ensure that future generations can have a healthy planet on which to live. Most adults today are unlikely to be alive when the Earth faces a climate disaster of sci-fi movie proportions, but it is no less likely that it could happen at some point.
Let's think for a moment about what will happen if we continue to consume and pollute the way we do.. It is true that the temperature will not rise 5 degrees overnight, nor will the polar ice caps melt like ice cream in summer, but what will the situation be like in 100 years? Will there be ice in the Arctic? Will the air be breathable? If our answers to these questions are rather negative, we should do something to reverse the situation. In 100 years we will not be alive, but our grandchildren will be, do we want them to suffer?
But we can also see an example where the future is now. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the world situation, causing an economic, health and humanitarian crisis that none of us who have lived through it will ever forget. What would have happened if someone, 50 years ago, had imagined that this could happen? What would have occurred to him or her as the most appropriate methods to avoid new contagions? How would he or she have avoided the negative repercussions on the economy?
If this cathedral thinking exercise had been done, the situation would be very different in countries like Italy or Spain. It would not be a panacea, but the mere fact of having considered the possibility that an aerosol-borne viral disease could cause a pandemic would have led to having warehouses with masks, methacrylate screens to spare, and also to finding ways for everyone to have food without having to leave the house and risk getting sick.
Future: better to do something today than to wait for tomorrow to come
It is clear that the future is unpredictable and unforeseen events can always occur that mean that many of our efforts have not been of much use. Bad luck is part of our lives, but it is not necessarily the end of our lives. Just as the builders of cathedrals did not always have good materials at their disposal or their workmen did not make the structure correctly, our attempts to ensure that later generations live better lives can be frustrated by events beyond our control.
However, it is better to do something today to it is better to do something today so that the future will be better than to do nothing at all and that generations to come will remember us as those selfish people who did not want to change their lifestyles for the sake of convenience. If we change our way of consuming resources, in a hundred years there will be a healthy planet to live on, and if someone had thought that there could be a pandemic in the future today we would not have the economic and health crisis that COVID-19 has brought about.
The main idea of cathedral thinking is to ask the following question: How are the actions I take today going to influence people years from now? If the answer to this question is that what we do today will harm or be of no benefit to future generations, then why do it? We should be more empathetic to those who have not yet been born, because there is nothing more cruel than condemning them to live in a world in which it is impossible to live.
- Cathedral thinking (n. d.) What is Cathedral Thinking. In Cathedral Thinking. Retrieved from https://cathedralthinking.com/
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)