Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

A Symbol Between Heaven and Earth

Yesterday evening, Paris time, a fire broke out among the wooden timbers that support Notre Dame cathedral's exterior roof, and in the end the fire consumed pretty much the entirety of the roof. The vaulted stone ceiling beneath mostly survived. No one was killed, and while much was lost, much was preserved. As of this morning, hundreds of millions of dollars have already been pledged towards the rebuilding.

It's one of the oddities of modern technology that people around the world could watch on live video as the cathedral burned. Many feared the building would be a complete loss and expressed their feelings about this loss and its meaning.

I want to write about two particular reactions, because I think they throw a light on how we as humans relate to both the divine and to the beauty we create in this world in our attempts to honor the Good and Beautiful which is beyond this world.

First is the "fitting symbol" reaction which a number of people proclaimed, particularly while the cathedral was still burning and it appeared that the damage might be much worse than it thus far appears. This reaction was that the cathedral as a burned out shell would be a fitting symbol of what Christianity had become in the modern world. Some even went so far as to argue that the cathedral should not be repaired, because for a secular age to repair a sacred piece of architecture would be dishonest.

It is true that Christian beliefs permeated medieval and even renaissance Europe in a way that even those of us who are actively religious have a hard time doing today. This struck be when MrsDarwin and I were watching a production of Hamlet at the local college this last weekend. Hamlet is not any kind of paragon of faith and morals. Yet he accepts absolutely the idea that intentional suicide would lead to damnation and also the idea that if he kills his uncle at a moment when the uncle is repenting of the wrong he has committed, the uncle will be saved rather than damned (and since Hamlet wants his revenge to extend to the afterlife, he's intent on killing his uncle at a time when the uncle will be damned.) Admittedly, Hamlet's beliefs about judgement and afterlife are arguably simplistic, but it's significant that he holds to them without any real question, as if they are just how the world works, whereas in our modern world even many professed believers struggle with the idea of judgement and hell for anyone at all.

However, while it's true that Christianity had a centrality and acceptance in Medieval Europe which it does not now, the argument that it's somehow fitting that in our modern world a Gothic cathedral be reduced to a burned-out husk strikes me as being overly simplistic. Yes, there was deep acceptance of Christianity in Medieval France, but there were also a great many very bad Christians. Yes, the work that went into the cathedrals was in part of form of devotion, but it was also an employment and cathedrals served both as a way for the diocese to showcase its financial resources (which were often literally princely) and also as a draw to bring pilgrims and their money from far away.

To see cathedrals in their beauty as reflecting nothing but the purest faith is overly rosy, and to see modernity as not having sufficient faith to deserve a beautiful cathedral is to be too cynical. There are today still many people whose faith can be inspired by a beautiful church, an just as Abraham pleaded that Sodom not be destroyed if there were but ten good people in it, so we too should want to see the cathedrals continue to stand for the faith of the few, rather than destroyed for the unbelief of the rest. If cathedrals deserved to be burned for the unbelief of their people, then doubtless all cathedrals in all places and times would burn.

The second reaction of which I'd like to speak is the "a church is just a building" reaction. This is, of course, true. A church is just a building. There's a curious conundrum when it comes to preserving the material things precious to us. Firefighters risked their lives rushing into and onto this burning building to put out the fire and rescue relics and works of art from the flames. By doing so, they in some sense showed a willingness to give their lives to preserve a sacred and beautiful building. And yet, at the absolute level, we know that each human life is more precious than any building or relic. Even so, I don't think this willingness to risk oneself to preserve a thing of this world is misguided. A cathedral is not just stones. It is also a thing which makes concrete the work and love and belief of thousands. It is a work of art that serves as a sign. It is not of heaven, it does not, like a human being, possess the divine spark of a soul. And yet it is build to point us towards heaven and capture in some imperfect way a vision of the beauty and perfection that is God.

Thus, while Notre Dame is "just a building" it is also much more. Its value is not in the rocks and timbers themselves, but rather in the way that it points the humans who look at it towards contemplation of the beautiful and the divine. And its value is in the way that it records by its very being and construction the work and love of so many people over so many years.

We should not treat it as if it is itself a divine thing, yet we should treat it with honor and reverence because of the meaning that it conveys -- and it conveys more meaning than most other buildings.

1 comment:

Bruce A. McMenomy said...

I enthusiastically agree with all of this. Our art — religious art, obviously, but sometimes even what is secular in origin — can point to something beyond ourselves. It is the peculiar function of signs of all sorts that, while they may be mere artifacts, they can reach into and help shape the lives of others, both those we know and those we do not. Some may perceive the idea that we can accomplish anything that will outlive us as a species of pride, but I think, viewed properly, it entails the greater humility. This church building is only an example of a more general and profound truth. The fact that it took longer than any one person's lifetime to build in and of itself suggests that the truth it proclaims — even if imperfectly understood or realized — will continue to have significance after the builders themselves are gone. It's a gesture of hope that someone will perceive that truth even after we're around to press the case.

We spend our lives, long or short as they may be, chiefly doing things that do not, as you note, possess the divine spark of a soul — but if we didn't do so, would those lives have been better spent? The fact that our artifacts are intrinsically lesser things than we ourselves are should keep us humble, but there is also some consolation in the fact that they may have echoes far beyond what we originally had in mind.