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Cathedral Thinking for the XXI Century

Updated: Jun 18, 2023

What is Cathedral thinking?

Cathedral thinking dates back to the medieval times when architects were tasked with building cathedrals none of which would be completed in their own lifetime. The challenge they faced was how to use long-term thinking and engage with others such that there was a strong commitment to the shared vision. So how feasible is it really in the 21st century?

Have the changes in modern society affected our vision that we simply can’t pursue these kinds of ambitious, multi-generational projects anymore?

Why have we lost the ability to build cathedrals literally or figuratively?


We lost our ability to predict/see the bigger picture

Meaningful political change was almost unheard of in Medieval times. People looked to the past for guidance and clung tightly to tradition. This gave people very little reason to believe their lives will be much different from that of their children or their grandchildren. Whereas medieval folk looked to the past, we look to the future, which we hope will be better but know will be radically different. The rate of technological change has intensified to such a rate that each decade seems light years beyond the previous one. Whereas the difference between the years 1100 and 1200 may be considered negligible, the difference between 1900 and 2000 is enormous, even the difference between 2000 and today is almost just as substantial. We have an anxiety-inducing uncertainty of what the future holds; we only know that change will come quickly and that it will be disruptive, and this inability to comfortably predict the future—even ten years out—makes it risky to undertake long-term projects.


We lost our ability to think beyond our own lifetime

The perception of time was radically different back then. There were no clocks to relentlessly drive people, keeping them tightly on schedule. Instead, people lived by the natural rhythms of the day and of the seasons and in that temporal mentality thoughts of the future could flourish. People in Medieval times did not expect the future to be radically different, because they were more used to thinking about time cyclically instead of linearly. Nowadays we have fractionated time to such a degree that we have lost the ability to see it and feel it in its fullness.

The decline of Divinity

We lost a unifying purpose that motivates us as a collective

Religion has had an enormous impact, at it’s best religion inspired people with a sense of shared value and commonality to build magnificent structures and sensational artistic work in the name of “praising his eternal glory” not to mention the promise of eternal life. This singular thought alone fundamentally places a huge motivator in a person’s active choices as they directly impact their chances of an eternal life of heavenly wonder or hellish damnation. However, the advancement of science and reason has certainly put religion on its heels. This is not to say that the growing cult of individuality slowly migrating from the West has been any kinder. Even those people who have not essentially abandoned religion nonetheless now seek “spirituality” instead. Religion, relatively speaking in a global sense; is no longer a massive, unifying force that can channel the efforts of thousands of people toward a common cause, prompting them to give their treasure and talent to a project (cathedral or otherwise) that will persist through the ages.

So given all these major differences between then and now; does it actually matter why we do anything?

The Burgeoning understanding of Human motivation

Motivation is the process that initiates, guides, and maintains goal-oriented behaviors. It is what causes you to act, whether it is getting a glass of water to reduce thirst or reading a book to gain knowledge.

Motivation involves the biological, emotional, social, and cognitive forces that activate behavior. In everyday usage, the term "motivation" is frequently used to describe why a person does something. It is the driving force behind human actions. Motivation doesn't just refer to the factors that activate behaviors; it also involves the factors that direct and maintain these goal-directed actions (though such motives are rarely directly observable). As a result, we often have to infer the reasons why people do the things that they do based on observable behaviors.[1]

What can we do as a society today to better serve a future beyond our own lives?

This is a particularly concerning problem given that many of the challenges looming before us like climate change, AI creation, energy and water crises will certainly require thoughtful decisions that will address not just immediate challenges but also generational effects.

Vice president of Thompson-Briggs Developers, Johnathan Thompson leans on Author Dan Pink in his Ted Talk with three rich sources of inspiration that can be used in the service of motivation and revitalizing Cathedral thinking for the 21st century


Humans crave a sense of meaning, that we are part of something greater. Our modern life as it stands is devoid of that “sense of greater calling”. No political, institutional or geographical association seems to be able to offer a transcendent or sublime higher sense of purpose. What we need and crave is an unabashed call for purpose. Projects that tap into the heroic and aspirational sides of our humanity have the ability to bring us together as collaborators and we become the sum of our greatest attributes, together.


When people get the opportunity to put their talents to work, especially if it’s something they’re passionate about, great and magical results are reaped. Too often people will even work for free if it means they get to do something that they love and show off something they're good at. Also something interesting often happens when people are engaging their mastery, they will sometimes lose their sense of time. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term flow to describe that state that we enter when we are engaged in something that is challenging enough to necessitate our complete focus but achievable enough that it activates our reward system. Utilizing our mastery to engage flow states is an excellent way of freeing ourselves from our servitude to the clock and instead reengaging with purposes and projects that are more timeless in nature


When people have a greater sense of personal agency, when they are freed from top-down constraints they tend to think more creatively and act more enthusiastically. When we envision big Cathedral type projects we should certainly have an inspiring and unifying purpose at its core and we should paint a broad stroke vision of what it will ultimately look like but then allow each generation to complete their stage of the project however they see fit utilizing creative new ideas and maybe technologies that we can't predict from our place in the present. All that matters is that they reach their “save point” from which the next generation can take over and continue

let's try to get away from that instantly gratifying but empty calorie diet of pure profit and instead begin pursuing a more life-giving and soul nourishing diet that makes room for autonomy, mastery and purpose



[1] Nevid JS. Psychology: Concepts and Applications. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning; 2013.

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