Making Sense of Notre Dame

I spent a weekend in Paris last autumn, and one of the highlights of the trip was visiting Notre Dame. I shuffled slowly around the cathedral, admiring its intricate artistry and genius craftsmanship. So I was shocked and saddened earlier this week to witness a massive fire tearing through one of the most historically significant buildings in the world.  As an evangelical, I may disagree with central aspects of Catholic doctrine, but that doesn’t hinder my appreciation of Notre Dame’s beauty or its cultural significance.

Even more shocking than the fire itself, however, was the reaction of various people to the Notre Dame fire, ranging from the tasteless to the intolerant.  One example was Michael Sherlock, an atheist author who responded to Richard Dawkins on Monday.  Dawkins shared a picture of the cathedral’s spire ablaze, saying, “This is terrible news. One of the world’s outstanding architectural treasures.” 

This was, for most people, a totally uncontroversial statement.  Dawkins is an ardent atheist, but he can still appreciate the Catholic Church’s beautiful architecture and the cultural and historical value of one of the greatest landmarks in the world. But in response to this tweet, Sherlock said:

“You are being far too sentimental over a religious building that is the symbol of a plague on our planet. Yes, it was pretty, but so what? We could build a prettier, less sinister monument in its place – a monument that symbolises the future, not the past.”

The irony here is that Sherlock sees himself and his allies as being able to construct a “less sinister” monument in the place of the cathedral.  But what could be more sinister than this response to the destruction of such an iconic building? It is deeply disturbing when the devastation of a house of worship is not only tolerated or viewed with apathy, but is actually celebrated.

Despite some ‘bad takes’ like this, most of the responses toward the fire have been positive. France has promised to rebuild.  President Macron announced yesterday evening that he wanted to rebuild the cathedral in time for the Summer Olympics (which Paris is hosting) in 2024.  This seems like an incredibly ambitious target, with many experts saying that the reconstruction could take decades.  Almost $1 billion has already been raised by various companies and individuals around the world to fund the rebuilding efforts.  This is reassuring, as the government realises that this building is not only a place of great religious and spiritual significance for Catholics, but also affirms its status as a globally iconic landmark. 

But surely the much greater source of comfort is that, as beautiful a building as Notre Dame is, it is not in and of itself the ‘Church.’  Jesus has promised to build His church.  He says in Matthew 16:18,

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

This means that we can have full confidence that nothing – whether fire, or opposition, or even hell itself – can ultimately threaten the existence and vitality of the Church.

Much has been made of the symbolism of the Notre Dame fire.  Some commentators have suggested that it’s an ‘omen’, representing the decline of the Church and even the fall of Western Civilisation itself.  There may be some truth to this, with rampant secularisation spreading through Europe in much the same way as the fire tore through the Paris cathedral.  But there is a danger in overstating what this event actually represents.  Although it may seem like there is much to lament about the contemporary Church, it’s actually growing rapidly around the world, particularly in Asia, Africa and South America.  It’s not hard to find reasons to be encouraged if we just look closely enough.

In Ephesians 2:21-22, Paul portrays the Church not as an awe-inspiring cathedral, but as a temple made up of ordinary saints:

“In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” 

It is awful to witness the destruction of such a splendid building. But in all of this, the key point seems to be that the temple of God is not confined to beautiful, ornate structures, as magnificent as they are.  Rather, God chooses weak, lowly and frail human beings to serve as his temple here on earth.   I sincerely hope that the Catholic Church does repair Notre Dame, and receives all the assistance necessary from the French government.  But as dark a day as Monday was, Christ will continue to build his church, with or without spectacular buildings.

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