Our Western culture is on fire and not in a good way. In the midst of a pandemic, economic chaos, and continuous social deconstruction, the burning of Notre Dame paints a startlingly fitting image of the West.
The Memory of the Ideal
Architecture is the structured form of the Ideal; it is the culmination of human vision, ingenuity, and effort. Punctuating human history in many forms, shapes, and styles, it reflects the psyche of times past and present. Ancient ruins that lie scattered across the globe, serve as reminders of ancient ideals and Truths lying at the bottom of our own modern psyche: dormant, forgotten, and undiscovered. The architecture and art of the past has value that transcends time, having the power to remind us of our roots. Many in our postmodern day misconstrue the notion of Beauty to mean that it is entirely subjective, or even worse, only interpreted with projections of politically correct thought. Yet this is a great failing and goes against the nature of Beauty, which represents eternal value.
The late Roger Scruton put it best:
Beauty is an ultimate value—something that we pursue for its own sake, and for the pursuit of which no further reason need be given. Beauty should therefore be compared to Truth and goodness, one member of a trio of ultimate values which justify our rational inclinations.
One year ago, the world held its breath as flames engulfed the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. We looked on in horror and disbelief as a building that had survived wars, revolutions, and tyranny burned in flames of chaos. It was as if our very conception of the sacred and eternal had been subjected to random violence. Notre Dame has long stood as a symbol of Beauty for the world. Both the East and West flock to it for its stunning gothic appearance, its storied walls rising out of the Seine. It is a quintessential stop on any tourist’s trip to Europe. Everyone mourned its loss and for once it seemed that all news sources conveyed the same message. People who had never stood in its shadow or given much thought to it were struck by the tragedy and deep loss unfolding before them. However, this timeless symbol of France represents more than a nation of people or its history; the Eiffel tower or Arc de Triomphe are sufficient for that part. Notre Dame, on the other hand, plays a part in the world’s drama, beyond the small stage of France. It is an emblem and beacon of our Western and Christian ideological heritage.
Sacred and Divine Nature of the West
Normally, the loss of a beautiful building is a sorrow; in the case of Notre Dame, it is a crisis. This is not due to its age or the hardships it has survived that makes it so devastating. The heart of the tragedy is the fact that Notre Dame was not a normal building. Yes, like many structures in France it housed art, culture, and Beauty. A line of kings and emperors had been crowned under its roof. It had served as a gathering place for the people of Paris for 857 years. Yet, deep at the heart of the architectural ideal is something more ancient and sacred than all these accolades; Notre Dame was built for the Presence of the Divine. Its Beauty, innovative construction, and its material worth are ordered and brought together solely for the honor of God, not for man.
Walk the boulevards of Paris and you will see that tourists regard the Eiffel Tower in a sense of novel appreciation and wonder. Now turn and head east to watch these same tourists dwell in and around the cathedral. Note the difference. Their tone and manner changes from a familiar appreciation of the pleasant to a reverence and sense of humility for the eternal. Their nature is transformed because they behold something beautiful and true, something ancient, rooted deep within the stone and glass. The cathedral draws crowds of Christians and non-Christians into the shadows of its towers and the stillness of its interior because it reflects and echoes the lost and forgotten parts of the human psyche; the desire for the Divine and our need for Beauty and Truth.
A Sign of the Times
Our Western culture is on fire and not in a good way. In the midst of a pandemic, economic chaos, and continuous social deconstruction, the burning of Notre Dame paints a startlingly fitting image of the West. It truly is a sign of the times. The fire burns at the center of our ideological structures, slowly but aggressively charring ancient supports to the roof and the interior. The truths and values we have labored to discover and uphold over millennia are scorned and neglected by mainstream secular institutions. Our increasingly post-Christian culture functions as a cheap replacement for rich tradition that served as the moral framework for healthy society. Those in power seek to leave their mark on the reconstruction of the cathedral, to give their own “modern twist” to Beauty. In the same way, our people have forgotten the Sacred and Divine nature in our Western heritage. They have grown apart from the Ideal, Christ as the Logos, and the essential Truths in their own souls. In this separation, they have replaced God with their own ideal. They believe Beauty exists for the sake of their agenda, that it is a vain and subjective expression of the self. For them, there is no higher cause than social justice and fear-based protection for all humanity. Truth has been replaced with kindness and Beauty with vanity. As Flannery O’Connor aptly stated, “[where] tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror.”
Despite the threatening fire and the fragility of our position, hope remains constant. Amidst the destruction, several miracles occurred: the Host was rescued from the Tabernacle, the Crown of Thornes was recovered, the high altar remained intact, and the 13th Century Rose windows were rescued. Even the Coronavirus, in an odd way, is contributing by delaying the hasty agenda of the French government, increasing the likelihood the cathedral will be restored to its original state. These small miracles shine out in the darkness to beckon us to return to Christ as the source of the Ideal and remind us that all is not lost.
As heirs to Western thought and values, the onus is on us to continue to shine the truths and archetypal values into the lives of our neighbors. To remind them of those forgotten truths of our Christian psyche that are reflected in art and architecture. This daily task is increasingly and uniquely relevant given the unprecedented slowdown in our daily lives.
As the Resurrection reminds us, the dawn will come even when it seems all is lost. It will not happen as we imagine and certainly not in our own timeline, but we must play our part and remember, God holds us in the palm of His hand.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is a photograph of Notre Dame, taken April 15, 2019, and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. The photo is attributed to Wikimedia user Milliped (who does not necessarily agree with the views of this essay nor those of The Imaginative Conservative in general) and is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.