"But is it a church that's supposed to be a library, or a library that's supposed to be a church," said one student to the others.
My walk followed them for about a block and I tried to listen in. By the way they were talking, I assumed they were not architecture students, so I was interested in what non-architects were saying about the neo-gothic edifice. I almost inserted myself in their conversation at one point, but was too timid to do so.
What was going through my mind was this . . .
If I had to pick from your two options, I would say the latter: it is a library that is supposed to be a church. That is to say, in a post-Christian society and secular university setting, it is a replacement for the church as a house of worship. As such, it is, in both style and veneration, a cathedral to knowledge--a secular humanist's temple to reason and knowledge. (Compare this also to Yale's mammoth neo-gothic Payne Whitney Gymnasium as a cathedral where the human body is worshiped.)
But, I wanted to add, as a Christian, I was reminded of a passage from the Bible:
I imagine that the portal of the Sterling Memorial Library could have the same inscription Paul found in Athens, and that I could say the same thing to many students. Yale is, after all, an environment that breeds and encourages the religious pursuit of knowledge, reason, and objective reality. But "Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God . . . his understanding no one can fathom." (Isaiah 40:28, NIV)
Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.
Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being." (Acts 17:22-28, NKJV)
God, therefore, is the source of all knowledge, and he urges people to call on him for true understanding. "Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know." (Jeremiah 33:3, NIV)
Book learning is just book learning, and Sterling would be an empty shell if it were not for God, "for the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding." (Proverbs 2:6, NIV)