Our grief at Notre Dame burning reveals the power of beauty
But truth can be heard in ugly places too
A man in uniform stands looking on as a ‘temple’ is destroyed, with the sky unnaturally darkened framing his view, and sums up the feeling of the moment:
“Everything is collapsing”
That’s what a police officer said when describing the fire tearing through the iconic Notre Dame cathedral in Paris today. It’s a sentiment often shared by Christians describing not just the church in Europe, but society at large.
there’s something profoundly humanising as we, together, across the spectrum of belief, or nationality, mourn the apparent destruction of something beautiful – not just because it is religious and so connects us to sacred truth, but because beauty has the capacity to transcend – or cut across – other barriers we might set up in our world.
It’d be easy to take the Notre Dame fire, and our reaction to it, as something bigger and more symbolic than it is; and to co-opt the fire to fit all manner of narrative. To ask why people suddenly care about church buildings when they’ve long evacuated from ‘the church’ as the community of believers. To ask why in what philosopher Charles Taylor describes as our ‘secular age’ our instinct in these moments isn’t to jump to the hard secularism that celebrates the destruction of an archaic, oppressive, symbol, but to embody the ‘softer’ secularism that realises that in our modern age where we’re in danger of reducing life to something like biological machinery as part of a bigger technological or economic system, we actually need some sense of beauty and transcendence, or we’ve really lost something significant. Our transcendent ‘symbols’ like these grand pieces of religious architecture are like lodestones that hold us, and connect us, to some deeper truth.
Beauty does that too – whether in art, humanity, or nature. So there’s something profoundly humanising as we, together, across the spectrum of belief, or nationality, mourn the apparent destruction of something beautiful – not just because it is religious and so connects us to sacred truth, but because beauty has the capacity to transcend – or cut across – other barriers we might set up in our world.
I come from a tradition (I’m a Presbyterian) that reacted against an apparent idolatry at work in these grand cathedrals; their opulence in the face of human poverty, their ability to distract from the substance of the Gospel, their reinforcing of an ‘institutional’ Christianity where ‘church’ is a building or an event. But I’m increasingly convinced that the swing to utilitarianism in how we approach church and architecture – our understanding of the formative power of space; that habitats shape habits – reflects and reproduces a thin understanding of creation, both a devaluing of beauty and the arts, and a corresponding devaluing of the human body and the human person.
“Notre-Dame is our history, our literature, part of our psyche, the place of all our great events, our epidemics, our wars, our liberations, the epicentre of our lives.” — French President Emmanuel Macron
It’s not just protestant iconoclasts like me who have issues with what Cathedrals might symbolise about truth, and particularly the truth of the Gospel; Cathedrals in recent times both here and abroad aren’t just synonymous with wealth that is disconnected from justice, but they have been the setting for some heinous, dehumanising abuse of people made in the image of God. It’s not the secular masses who ignore Mass in a cathedral that have desacralized these spaces, but the sacrilege of abuse, whether of power, or worse, of children.
And yet, despite this ugliness, despite how easy it is for form to overpower the content of the Gospel message, there is still something transcendent about beauty, and Notre Dame, and buildings like it, still occupy our collective hearts, not just our landscapes, so we still, collectively, grieve when beauty is destroyed. My feelings watching pictures from Paris this morning are similar to my feelings hearing about ISIS destroying artefacts in Mosul, or as I read about the almost simultaneous fire in the Al-Asqa mosque in Jerusalem. There’s not just grief because beauty is being destroyed in flame, but because for many, if not for all, there’s something sacred about this beauty. French President Emmanuel Macron, in promising to rebuild Notre Dame, summed up the rationale behind the collective grief by pointing to the role the Cathedral plays in the French imagination, or in national soul: “Notre-Dame is our history, our literature, part of our psyche, the place of all our great events, our epidemics, our wars, our liberations, the epicentre of our lives.” The Vatican described it as the “symbol of Christianity in France and in the world.”
But perhaps the symbolism of these places goes beyond simply the power of beauty. Perhaps we’ve already lost something of the power of Notre Dame by disconnecting it from the Gospel story its cruciform (cross shaped) floor plan, is oriented towards. The steeple that collapsed this morning, like in most cathedrals, was positioned at the point where the horizontal and vertical arms of the cross intersect. The building was ‘cross centered’ at its highest point… something not captured when we now speak in hushed terms about its beauty or symbolic power.
Macron’s analysis, and our collective grief, are all ‘true’ responses to the tragedy, it does affect us all, because of the role this building has played in stories that have shaped the human story beyond the borders of France, but it is, perhaps, a limited account of Notre Dame’s story, such that even a beautifully rebuilt Notre Dame will not be all it could be if its symbolism is limited to what Charles Taylor describes as the purely ‘immanent frame’ – the here and now. If the beauty of Notre Dame does not just transcend different human stories, but link us to God’s story, then it falls short of its created purpose. Because it’s possible that sacred spaces, like Notre Dame, function the way the beauty of the world is meant to, according to Psalm 19 or Romans 1, they’re a vision of creation oriented towards its created purpose – to reveal the divine nature and character of God – and so to not just shape how we understand God, but how we understand ourselves as those made in his image. It’s interesting to ponder whether we Australians could collectively imagine cold, utilitarian, camps for refugees if our collective imaginations were shaped by life giving and beautiful spaces that trained our hearts and minds to see not just the beauty of God, or his creation, but our fellow human.
Ultimately the beauty of a cathedral is limited if all it does is reveal that we humans, made in the image of a creative God, are capable of imagining and creating beautiful things in and from the world God made; that we have, as Dorothy Sayers described it ‘the mind of the maker,’ if Notre Dame just one ‘sacred space’ in a world that increasingly wants to divide reality along ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ to keep the sacred from encroaching on real life, or if it is just confined to re-presenting our history and our small stories to us, rather than God’s story. There’s a certain secular mindset that wants these symbols to remain forever present, forever unchanging, in the skyline, while never darkening the doors of the church; it wants the symbols, or forms, of Christianity to remain as part of our collective fabric, while the content evolves and is updated according to modern sensibilities.
The beauty of a Cathedral won’t save, even in its symbolism. A restored Cathedral won’t stop society collapsing. It’s interesting timing, this fire, coming during ‘Holy Week’; the week where Christians around the world will gather as the church, in various buildings, to celebrate the destruction and rebuilding of another temple, the body of Jesus (John 2). There was a man in uniform standing by as that temple collapsed, a Roman centurion, he had his own testimony when confronted with both the ugliness of the destruction he witnessed, and, one suspects, the transcendent beauty of what was happening as the sky darkened to mark the event:
“Surely, he was the Son of God.”
It’s in that testimony, and the resurrection of that temple, that we find hope in the ashes of the tragedy and destruction we witness in our world. For the Christian there’s more to the story than ‘everything is collapsing’, there’s the resurrected Jesus promising ‘behold, I am making all things new,’ secured by the Easter event, a story that should be told in the most beautiful spaces possible, but also in the ugliest, because it is a story of hope.