The Notre Dame Fire: Civilization Burning
April 15, 2019 the great cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris burned. The orange monster rose and fell over the middle of the great church, eating the consumable guts of the building, spitting out red embers and belching out columns of smoke that could be seen for miles. Residents of Paris gathered to gaze and gawk. This cannot be happening. Hot embers fell on people’s heads. Hundreds of millions of people around the world watched on television. This was not just a fire, but the dying of at least part of history. How many buildings do we have that were built with 13,000 oak trees that started growing more than a millennium ago? How many buildings do we have that are symbols of the very meaning of civilization? Notre-Dame de Paris is a church building, but also a landmark of civilization whose construction was started 858 years ago, taking 200 years to build. When its construction began, Paris only had 100,000 residents. The stature of the building must have been overwhelming.
At the beginning of a television series on the meaning of civilization, historian and broadcaster Kenneth Clark stood outside Notre-Dame and asked “what is civilization?,” and went on to say that it is hard to define in abstract terms. “But I think I can recognize it when I see it.” Then he turned to face the cathedral and said, “I’m looking at it now.”
Notre-Dame is one of those rare ancient buildings that depicts the convergence of the spiritual and the temporal orders at the headwaters of a new era. In this case, civilization in the West. April 15 we learned that our symbols of civilization are fragile. They can go up in flames at any time. And so can civilization itself, if we do not maintain it and understand the ever-present threats of chaos around us and within us.
What do the great cathedrals represent? There are many answers to that question, but here is one way of looking at it. The cathedral had a vertical focus. Churches are built to facilitate worship. The pulpit and the altar and the spire depict God’s saving act for us broken mortals. The cathedral’s artwork depicts biblical characters and themes. Cathedrals were the Bible illiterate people who had no Bible could “read.” Then there is the horizontal dynamic. A church is a gathering place for the people of God. They stream to it from the surrounding neighborhoods, and so enjoy a connection with each other, the basic movement that forms community and society. So we can imagine standing back from the cathedral with an imaginary line going vertically up to the heavens, and a horizontal axis going out to the surrounding community. Join these axes together and you have, of course, a cross. You also have civilization.
This is how Christian faith formed the basis of civilization in the history of the West, and why Christianity has been, for millennia, a civilizing force—when it is not corrupt.
We need the vertical connection, and the horizontal. Human beings disconnected from their creators are mere animals. Disconnected from each other, humans are animals that kill each other. God’s saving acts in the world are to reconnect us with himself through the saving mission of Jesus, and to reconnect us with each other as the family of God. Vertical axis, horizontal axis. That’s what a cathedral represents.
When churches are at their very best—of any size, any domination, in any country, at any time—they proclaim and reinforce the truth that God has offered reconciliation and healing through his Son Jesus Christ and calls us out of society into a new family empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit. When enough of that happens with enough people, a city or a region or a country can become more civilized. In history, Christian faith, when authentic, inspired the development of education, medicine, law, government, science, and art.
But civilization cannot be taken for granted. It is not fireproof.
When I saw Notre-Dame burning what came to my mind was the great loss of this symbol, but also the fires burning up our civilization today. Philosophies that deny the possibility of truth, the abnegation of morality and ethics, the devaluing of community and the descent into lonely isolationism. Churches settling for superficial sentimentalism and church leaders trading integrity for fame. Government leaders forgetting the very idea of selfless service. The laziness of crude social communication. There are dozens of fires smoldering among us, and none of us know when the monster will flare up and make us less civilized.
The word in the news yesterday from the French fire officials was that they may not be able to save the cathedral. That it would collapse in upon itself. But then, a most amazing outcome. The ancient wood was all cinders, but the stone outer structure remained. Even the three spectacular rose windows, the historic organ, the pews where the people sit, and the shiny cross in front. Then, a pledge to rebuild was announced.
It is not too late for civilization, though fires are burning. Some people are cultural arsonists who want to bring down the ancient structures. Others in positions of power and influence just don’t see beyond their own lifetimes.
A mason who worked on the beginnings of Notre Dame in AD 1160 knew he would not see it completed, nor his apprentice son, nor his son, nor his son. They all worked on something that God and the world could see 200 years after it was started. The most important things we work on in our lives will never be completed within our lifetimes.
And the most important things we will build are not buildings.
[This essay was originally published on The Brook Network]
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