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Notre Dame at Easter

Why did the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral this week evoke such horror and grief in those of us who are neither French nor Roman Catholics? The answer is, I think, simple: it was beautiful. Moreover, its beauty was something that we may have lost the capacity to create. The philosopher Sir Roger Scruton has argued that it is an essential human need not only to see, but to create beauty[1]; hence our profound sense of mourning at the tragedy in Paris.


Notre Dame was beautiful; and it was created by a civilization that valued the beautiful. One clip shared again and again on the internet this week has been from the 1969 BBC TV series Civilization. In it, Kenneth Clarke stands before Notre Dame and says “What is civilization? I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms, yet”. Then he turns and looks at the cathedral, “But I think I can recognize it when I see it, and I’m looking at it now”[2]. A society becomes a civilization when it is no longer focused on the purely functional, on eating and drinking and finding shelter, but aspires to the creation of seemingly useless beauty; to the creation of things like Notre Dame, or JS Bach’s Mass in B Minor.


The medieval civilization that built Notre Dame aspired to that because it was a Christian civilization, which we may call “Christendom”. It knew that all beauty is a pointer to the transcendent beauty and excellence of the triune God, who created a useless world, a world he had no need of, to display his beautiful perfection. The builders of Notre Dame believed that, and also believed that they were created in the image of God; hence they aspired to be what JRR Tolkien called “sub-creators”, and on the own, lower level create works of beauty like him, that would lead the eye and the mind back to the creator. It is no accident that gothic architecture both strains towards the skies, and is open to let in the light of heaven. CS Lewis argued that this can help us understand why God created the vast, empty reaches of the universe; they are supposed to affect us as a great gothic cathedral affects us, with a sense of God’s grandeur and our smallness.


Of course, even something like Notre Dame is tainted by human sin. A Protestant like me will be painfully aware that much of what went on it was false religion: the mass, and the veneration of saints and relics; we will have mixed feelings about the preservation of what was claimed to be the crown of thorns. Others will point to the grinding poverty of peasants under the ancien regime, whose labour paid for the great building. Others will point to the fact that it was in part a temple of French royal power, a display of the wealth and power of the nobility, and that these things lead to the French Revolution, in which so many churches were desecrated. All these things are true, and yet a thing of beauty like Notre Dame still tells us something important about ourselves: that we are not made merely to eat, drink, breed, and die. We were made for what the medievals called the beatific vision: to see the perfectly, infinitely beautiful God, and contemplate and enjoy that beauty for ever.


It is this Christian civilization that is coming to a slow and painful end. This is why many people saw in the collapse of Notre Dame’s spire a symbol of the collapse of Christendom. That collapse can be seen in modern architecture, much of which is deliberately ugly, especially brutalist architecture. This reflects a view of the world that does not see mankind as created, but as the product of a blind process of evolution that is driven by man’s material, physical needs. In this worldview, life has no higher meaning than the functional; all man needs to do is to satisfy his material needs, and is reduced to the level of an animal. This has left 21st century civilization- if it can be called that- almost incapable of creating great beauty; indeed to do so would seem to many artists to be inauthentic and dishonest, because they believe that life at its roots is ugly, and there is no beauty beyond it. Yet modern architecture has proved to be dehumanizing and soul destroying; we cannot live with it. Its failure points us to truth about ourselves which we have denied and the medievals believed: that we were created to see and enjoy a beautiful God. Rod Dreher has warned of the ominous statements coming from the French government and from modern architects that Notre Dame should be re-built “more beautiful than before”, and that the new spire should reflect who the French people now are[3]. Given the ugliness of much of what our culture has made, it might be better to leave Notre Dame as a semi-ruin, a reminder of what was.


The collapse of Christendom was not an accident. At the time of writing, the cause of the fire, whether accident or design, is unknown. But the collapse of Christendom was arson, in part. It was deliberately set on fire by elites who wanted a moral freedom that turned out to be soul-destroying slavery. Ironically, this deliberate secularization has been strongest in France, where the principal of laicite states that Christian symbols, and indeed the symbols of any religion, have no place in public life. Therefore, one may see a degree of hypocrisy in the reactions to the fire, not only in France, but elsewhere: we want the beauty of Notre Dame, but we don’t want the God to whose glory it was built.


Some Christians see the collapse of Christendom as something to be welcomed; I am not one of them. Along with much dishonesty and hypocrisy, much beauty and grandeur has been lost, and we are edging ever closer to a brutal totalitarianism that revels in banal ugliness.


How then should Christians live? One of the most powerful pictures of the last few days was of the devastation inside the cathedral. Amid the devastation, light shines of the cross that still stands on the altar[4]. That takes us back to the paradox of the Christian faith, which we remember at Easter: at the heart of all the beauty revealed to us by God, is the ugliest act imaginable, the torture and execution of Jesus Christ. Without that, we would be forever cut off from God, unable to see his beauty; and amid all the ruin of Christendom and the ugliness of the modern world, the cross stands as a sign of hope. It reminds us that Jesus Christ went into the depths of darkness, ugliness, and despair to lead out those trapped by them. Then he triumphed over the ugliness of sin by rising to the life and beauty of God. The civilization that built Notre Dame was built on the belief that this was true; it was built on the cross. European Christian civilization may be ruins, and there is little that we can do to rebuild it. But among its ruins we can find the cross, and see there the beauty of the work of Christ; and in it find the hope that we will rise to see the beauty of God. Notre Dame was beautiful; Christ is more beautiful still.


Stephen Walton




[4] – Unfortunately we can’t include the pictures on this page for copyright reasons.