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April 16, 2019

Notre Dame: Metaphor for Western Christianity

A cathedral that stood for nearly 900 years is a symbol in more ways than one.

Monday of Holy Week was a particularly poignant time for Notre Dame Cathedral to burn. Fire destroyed the roof and spire, as well as much of the interior. It’s difficult to see such magnificent Christian architecture go up in flames, yet no lives were lost, even with the building full of worshippers, workers, and tourists.

Standing at the center of Paris since the foundation stone was laid in 1163, this monumental Gothic cathedral took more than 100 years to finish, and it was perhaps the crowning achievement of an age when Christians prioritized enduring beauty to reflect the eternal glory of the Creator. To be sure, there were also other motivations for such grand enterprises, and external beauty does not cover internal rot. But building a place of worship meant to last for centuries is, sadly, a lost art.

The first question on everyone’s minds was whether Monday’s fire was set deliberately, though authorities have said it was an accident amid a multimillion-Euro renovation. Already this year, however, vandals have attacked numerous Catholic churches across France, destroying various objects within them or harming the buildings, including by setting two of them on fire. According to The Daily Signal, “In 2017 alone the French government recorded 887 attacks on Christian artifacts or churches.”

It’s unclear if any of these attacks have been attributed to Muslims, but given the rise of radical Islam in Europe, it’s not unthinkable. France, where at least one-eighth of the population follows Islam, has the Western world’s largest number of Muslims. And, of course, other deadly attacks in France have been perpetrated by radical Islamists.

Yet far more important than the burning of Notre Dame is the metaphor it creates for Western Christianity. Once the center of Christendom, Europe has descended over the last two centuries into a secular, post-Christian — and often anti-Christian — malaise. Arguably, Europe was always more culturally Christian than doctrinally Christian, but now instead of the church being the center of society, government is. Nominal Christians have exchanged the truth of Scripture for the lies of self-worship. They’ve rejected God’s authority, substituting their own feelings.

To most of the French, Notre Dame itself had become little more than a popular tourist attraction, and most of their mourning has nothing to do with losing a symbol of Christianity but rather a cultural museum of national pride. Jesus himself might have called it a white-washed tomb.

The resulting vacuum in Europe is being filled by Islam, which aims to supplant Christianity and become the world’s dominant religion. Europe is far down the path that America has begun to tread. But such Christianity hardly needs an external enemy when it’s already committing suicide.

Notre Dame, then, is not just one cathedral up in flames; it’s all of Western Christianity. Still, there is always hope. Christians and Christianity itself never find perfection in themselves — in fact, that’s the point. Fallen humanity needs a Savior, and we celebrate His sacrifice and resurrection during this Holy Week. Indeed, that the Notre Dame cross survived the fire may just remind us that hope, renewal, and redemption remain, by God’s grace. After all, Christ promised that “the gates of hell shall not prevail” against His church.

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