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The church in the attic
Open societies are more prosperous ones. Who knew? How the past reflects on the present in a not so flattering way.
This past weekend was Pentecost. Monday was also a holiday and I attended a baroque concert in the Singelkerk, a Mennonite Church, which was constructed back in the day as a schuilkerk, a clandestine church. I was reminded of another schuilkerk a few blocks from where I live in the center of Amsterdam, Onze Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Lord of the Attic), which is now a museum, one of my favorites of the many very fine second-tier museums in the city. As you explore the lower floors of the house, you see the typical Dutch home immortalized in so many paintings from the 17th C. Climb one more flight of steep and winding stairs and suddenly the building reveals its historical secret: you emerge into a tiny clandestine Roman Catholic church, complete with alter and organ, with two wooden balconies perched above. It is miraculous that it was so constructed, and equally miraculous that it has been so immaculately preserved until today.
What makes Onze Lieve Heer such a potent symbol for the current moment is that it harkens back to a time when our societies had a more robust and self-confident sense of liberal tolerance. When in the 1580s the Spanish rulers undertook a ruthless campaign to erradicate Protestanism in wealthy, prosperous Flanders, waves of merchants migrated northward to Holland. This provided a powerful economic impetus that propelled Amsterdam into the glories of the Golden Age, the period of around a century when the city and the surrounding Seven Provinces became the center of global economy, enjoying tremendous prosperity, still visible in manifold ways in the present day.
To be sure, this tolerance had its limits; practioners of other faiths could not do so openly, hence the clandestine churches and other restrictions. It was an early precursor to Clintonesque “don’t ask, don’t tell” if you will. But that less-than-enthusiastic tolerance of yore seems much preferable to today’s shrill grandstanding about inclusivity and diversity, while at the same time the censoring and shutting down, the “cancelling” of anyone who dares disagree with bien pensant opinion.
Simply framing the issue in terms of modern capitalism, the liberal tolerance of the time made fantastically good economic sense. Sadly, as our liberal democracies become increasingly illiberal and undemocratic, it’s a lesson we’ve been unlearning. I have no doubt the arc of human development tends toward the progressive, that good ideas prevail over bad, but it seems we are embarking upon another Dark Age, and things will most likely get worse before they get better. May this one be measured in years, not decades or centuries.
Below is another photo of the interior of Onze Lieve Heer that gives a sense of how artfully this high-ceilinged church was squeezed into the narrow confines of the German merchant’s town house on the Ouderzijds Voorburgwal.