It’s strange, the articles around Notre Dame cathedral that I’ve read in the news of late.
They want to remind you, these articles, that this cathedral is of architectural importance. The place is a cultural gift, they insist. The heart of France. Very important to history because of Victor Hugo and various architectural features and what it means to Parisians and to people who visit.
All of these things are of course true. I don’t object to them in that regard. But it is also true – in a profoundly obvious sort of way, one would think – that a cathedral, by very virtue of its being, is about God and faith and religion. Yes, yes, many cathedrals have been built–and rebuilt, and expanded–by aristocracy and royalty and a whole slew of corrupt and very important people. Many cathedrals have even been inhabited and governed, over the ages, by wholly un-Christ-like people. It’s not all saints and glories, to be sure.
And yet! To erase God and faith from the discourse around a cathedral is a bit like looking at a shop full of ovens, and flour, and loaves, and insisting “This place is so important to the authenticity of the neighborhood!” without ever mentioning that it’s a bakery, that it was built at the very least with a vague feint toward the making of bread.
I know that France prides itself on being a profoundly secular society, but this reporting isn’t just from France – it’s here in America. Any number of thinkpieces have reassured me of the importance of Notre Dame while managing to entirely talk around its purpose as a place where, you know, God is worshiped, and where references to Him are profound and replete. When I have seen mentions of God, or of Christianity in general, they are almost all negative: don’t donate money to the cathedral if you think it will go to those people, reify this monument as a secular triumph rather than a religious symbol, and so on and so forth.
Well, this is where the Enlightenment got us, and what many people consider a triumph: we believe everything is from us and for us alone. If we can only carve God and religion out of it, secularists think, we’ll be in good shape, without realizing that the philosophy leaves us with nothing more than a hollow-edged reliance on…what? The noble human spirit?
Excuse me while I take a glance at the current news, and my history books, to remind myself of exactly how noble the human spirit is.
I have an acquaintance who prides herself on her atheism. She is as zealous in sharing her beliefs as any Christian convert. Frequently, she likes to declare to anyone within earshot the virtues of secularist philosophy. “I don’t believe in any higher power,” she told me once. “I rely on myself. I empower myself. I believe in my own ability, and in the ability of humankind, to achieve progress and to evolve.” She, too, participates in that philosophy and draws from the darkening well: everything is from us and for us alone.
When she told me this, my only initial thought was, Have you seen humankind? Are you never utterly depressed that the best thing you can think of to put your faith in is yourself?
It’s a hollow world, to me, in which we call a cathedral everything but what it is, and when we consider ourselves – the people responsible for a whole history of monstrosities, for destroying each other and the very ground beneath our feet – the best we can hope for or hope in. When we bend language, history, narrative – all of it – to our will in order to supplement our belief that we can fix the world, build a heaven for ourselves, that we are our best everything.
I don’t share that belief, of course.
But I think often of those who do, and I ache.