Cathedrals, Catholics, and Christianity

The destruction of an 850-year-old cathedral in Paris has resulted in a number of questions being raised. Some of them I have explored in my two earlier pieces on the Notre Dame fire. With so many churches in Europe being attacked – including by means of arson – one still wonders what the actual cause of this blaze was.

For example, there are questions about how this happened (yes I know that renovations were underway), and why it seemed to take a while before actual firefighting took place. And we do have the Islamic State cheering this on as “retribution and punishment.”

But the fire has also once again raised some other, older controversies. It always happens. Some folks have a hot-button that seems to be easily triggered and they are ever ready to go on the attack. So I have already had a number of folks – including some rather cranky Christians – even attacking me on various fronts.

There have been three main types of criticism levelled at me and others who have written about this – all from various sorts of Protestants. And all these oft-heard criticisms I have dealt with in the past, but it seems I must once again do so.

Just bear with me then as I yet again respond to these critics. This includes those who have said the destruction of this cathedral is really no big deal because it is a Catholic structure; it is their business, not ours; and it is just a lousy building, so who cares?

One: Catholicism and Protestantism

I guess some folks are either new to my site, or they just do not pay much attention to what I have already written on this matter. I have said countless times now that I prefer that sectarian fights be taken elsewhere. There exist zillions of web sites where each side seeks to bash the other to death, so it need not be repeated here thanks.

As I have also said numerous times, I am unashamedly an evangelical Protestant and have very real theological differences with my Catholic friends. However, all three main streams of Christendom (Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant) adhere to the basics of the faith as found in the early Christian creeds (the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, etc).

The mark of real cults is to deny the core beliefs: the Trinity, the deity of Christ, etc. The three main faith groups do not do this. But see more on all this here:

So I am willing to work with these other believers, at least on various issues and in the general culture wars. And that leads to the second commonly heard criticism.

Two: Co-belligerency

It bothers me when some folks say they don’t really care if other faith traditions are attacked. Freedom of religion tends to be of a piece – when one Christian tradition is attacked, all will be attacked. If Catholic churches are attacked or destroyed today, it is likely that Protestant and Orthodox ones will be tomorrow.

So I will stand for all, even though I may have some theological differences. When we glibly stand by and say ‘I don’t give a rip if they are attacked – they are not of my tribe,’ we are showing a very narrow perspective on the very real wars we are in.

The truth is, the secular left is working overtime to shut all churches down and to silence all believers. But far too many folks seem to think that as long as their own little patch of turf is defended, to hell with everyone else. That is a very foolish position to hold on to.

We undermine our own position when we think this way. It is the old Martin Niemoller situation once again being repeated. As the German Lutheran pastor and Holocaust survivor famously said of the Nazi regime:

In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.

We need to be thinking in the same terms today. But I have written many times on this matter of working together when and where possible, so see these four representative pieces if you want more detail on all this:

Three: Art and architecture

The criticisms here have been of a twofold nature. One is a rather cavalier and philistine view of art in general, and the other is the claim that buildings don’t matter as we worship God in our hearts. As to the first matter, I love art and the beauty that can come from it because I love God and the beautiful artist that he is.

I am deeply moved by great works of art – be it architecture or paintings or sculpture or poetry or music or literature. I believe that if they can be so inspiring and amazing now in a fallen world – even though made by fallen human beings – imagine what things will be like in the next world. I believe we will still be creating things and enjoying various forms of beauty then (God himself being the chief object of beauty).

But sadly too many Christians seem to have zero appreciation for the arts, and what a wonderful gift of God they are to us. Let me quote from one earlier article I wrote in defence of art – one that mentions another great cathedral:

Many evangelicals do not think much about art at all. They either ignore it, dismiss it, or have little to do with it. There are various possible reasons for this, which I will not here enter into. But let me offer just one example of this. It has to do with a trip through Europe many years ago. I was in a van with a number of other young evangelicals, travelling from Holland to Spain. While driving through France we were near to the world-famous Chartres Cathedral.

This 750-year-old structure, with its glorious flying buttresses and amazing stained glass windows, is one of the great works of art in all of human history. This magnificent building took some six decades to build, and is one of a number of grand and glorious cathedrals scattered throughout Europe. They are a testimony to an age in which appreciation for spiritual realities was far more pronounced and widespread.

To simply view one of these cathedrals and/or to stroll through one can be a moving religious experience. The grandeur, wonder and glory of these amazing structures say much about the God of beauty and wonder who inspired them. So to be so close to this world-renowned church was getting me and a few others quite excited. But most of the travelling companions were not in the slightest interested. One of them said words to this effect: “Oh, that’s just some Catholic Church isn’t it?”

This not only displays a bit of sectarian bigotry, but it certainly displays a woeful, philistine attitude. Here we had one of the greatest works of art in human history, and all we got from most of the others in the car were yawns, if not disdain. So, the result? Sure enough, we kept on driving. So I never did get to see it. One day I will have to go back with those who are a bit more enlightened and culturally savvy. That lot certainly was not. It seems they had zero appreciation for the arts, for culture, for history, or for beauty.

Or as I wrote in another piece:

The great European cathedrals, of which Chartres is a sterling example, were more than just magnificent and beautiful pieces of architecture. They were quite significant for the common man, with the tall, soaring structures lifting both eyes and hearts to heaven. Indeed, in an age of illiteracy for so many, the biblical stories came alive in the stained glass windows and sculptures and statues. The biblical stories and themes are visually on display, bridging the present world with the world to come.

But many of my critics have gotten all bent out of shape about Notre Dame. They say it is just a catholic building and means “Our Lady” (the English translation of the French). And they go on to say that Mary cannot save us and a building cannot save us.

Um, of course! I never said a word about a building or Mary saving us. If those critics had bothered to read what I wrote on this they would have seen that I dealt with this already. As one Catholic that I quoted from said: “Notre Dame has fallen, the way everything in the earthly city must. She will not rise from these ashes as she was. Catholics take comfort in the belief that our Church will stand firm.”

So even Catholics know that buildings alone are not sufficient. As to the claim that ‘It’s just some dumb building’ and Christians have no need of them, let me say the following. Sure, we need no buildings at all. We worship God inwardly and can worship corporately with other believers anywhere – in the woods, in the desert, on the beach, etc.

But that is not the issue. It is always nice when believers can meet safely and out of the elements to worship. It is not mandatory (witness the persecuted church elsewhere) but it is convenient at least. There is nothing wrong with meeting in a building as such.

Whether they are plain and unadorned buildings or more fancy structures, they are not wrong in and of themselves. Sure, some folks can worship the building and all its trappings instead of God. And some folks can confuse going to a building with being a true believer. But those are different matters.

But this too I have written about before. See more on the issue of art and the Christian in these three pieces for example:

In closing, let me state that I am fully aware that there are some Protestants who utterly hate Catholics and condemn them all to the flames. Of course in just the same way there are some Catholics who utterly hate Protestants and condemn them all to the flames.

I have little time for either group to be honest. My take on this is as follows: there are many Roman Catholics who are born-again believers who I fellowship with now and will do so for all eternity. Also there are many Protestants who are not saved and will not be spending eternity with me.

But this sort of discussion I have had far too often already. I for one as an evangelical Christian mourn the loss of a beautiful work of art: Notre Dame. Yes it is just a building, but it is a majestic and beautiful building. But as I wrote in my second article on the fire, there is without question much more in life that has also been destroyed:

While far too many priceless treasures have been irretrievably lost, the cathedral can be rebuilt. It will once again rise above the Paris skyline. Much more difficult to replace is the hole in the soul – both in the lives of individual Frenchmen, and in the nations of Europe. So penetrating and so successful has been the secularisation of Europe that any sort of major spiritual renewal will be a very big ask indeed.

But if you still want to hate on me and regard me as an arch-heretic for saying what I did above, well, so be it. I will continue to do what I am called to do, and will simply ignore these sorts of critics.

[2000 words]

15 Replies to “Cathedrals, Catholics, and Christianity”

  1. Spot on Bill. Some of the most beautiful art works are those created to venerate our Lord. As humans I guess we struggle to express adequately how much we love the Lord. Our places of worship and art can for many provide a “vehicle” to do that. In the past whole communities have gathered together to raise money for artwork, building, bells, steeples and so forth to do just that, to express in a tangible way to God and the community, their love for Him. I appreciate God doesn’t need those expressions but as believers I believe we should have a burning desire to lift up our Lord in worship through any way we can, including art. I guess it is the same as most things, it is the motive behind the creation of the artwork/building and whether that lines up with Scripture that is important. Now having said all that, I never could get used to the Gargoyles, they gave me the creeps 🙂

  2. One of the reasons for most of the art in the great Catholic cathedrals and other Catholic churches (Orthodox) in Europe is that most of them date to before the invention of the printing press. Ordinary people couldn’t afford Bibles and books or were illiterate. The art told the stories of the Bible and Jesus in ways they could understand. The same goes for the celebration of the many Holy Days, they were ways of teaching without books.

  3. Thanks for a reasoned response. As someone raised in a staunch RC home by parents who believed and prayed and explained their faith I have maintained a healthy respect. I can only agree with your comments that they “… adhere to the basics of the faith as found in the early Christian creeds…” and that this sets ‘Christians’ apart from the cults and other spiritual paths. The world has nearly lost a cultural icon, built to the greater glory of God – not what I would do today, but appropriate in its day and absolutely beautiful.

  4. Is the structure 750 or 850 years old? You use both dates in this article 🙂

    According to the Wikipedia article construction began in 1163, was largely complete by about 1260, but didn’t actually finish until 1345.

    When was the last time a church took anywhere near that long to build? 🙂

  5. Bill,
    I visited the Notre Dame Cathedral in 2004, and I am now reminded of the beautiful detailed artwork, as it had Christ Jesus and the 12 Apostles at the entrance. My daughter visited Paris in December 2019, but she only saw this building from a distance. I would have made sure I had re-visited this magnificent cathedral if I had known it would be destroyed by fire. However, this event reminds me that we don’t know the hour when Christ will return, so we should be ready. I have witnessed the beauty of Christ uniting Orthodox Christians and Catholics together, as a Catholic woman had searched on the internet and found our evangelical Anglican Bible study group because she was unable to find a Catholic Bible study near her home. Thanks for your Christian witness on-line as it has been a real blessing to me.

  6. Hi, Bill,
    There was a time in history when people did things for a reason and purpose such as building those magnificent cathedrals…it represented their view of God…when one walks into one of those buildings, the first thing most people do is look up…many complain about the beautiful decorations and appointments because of the poor…but the poor, many of them, were pleased to give sacrificially because of their love of God…Concerning hatred for Catholics, I have never understood how anyone could hate people just because they practice their Christian faith differently…to respect another’s faith brings all kinds of criticisms, “compromiser, middle-of-the roader, quisling”…but a wise person told me at the beginning of my life with the Lord fifty years ago, the God would always be found in the balance…the balance of His Word, the Bible, gives us a sane. clearheaded view of God and how we are to practice our faith…Jesus was the greatest example of that…truth is more visible when it is not shaded with hatred…being zealous for the faith is not the same things as the fanaticism that causes people to kill, steal and destroy others who differ with them…God bless you

  7. But they’re just buildings, eh?

    Isn’t it interesting how when young evangelical couples get married they don’t invite you to their humble suburban church but switch to an Anglican cathedral or church so they can have a nice backdrop of a glorious old fashioned church with stained glass, etc.?

  8. Hi Bill
    A little off the actual subject but I understand the RC Church does not own the church building anymore but is owned by the Government now – do you know if this is fact. Maybe that is the reason why it was left so long to renovate it.
    Andean you believe an EX Aust PM asking the Govn. to allow a tax deductible donation to give towards the restoration seems so ridiculous when we have so much needs in our own country. That’s why he is EX PM

  9. Well said Bill. I would hazard a guess that for many of the craftsmen that put the designs into tangible form, a cathedral such as Notre Dame would have been the pinnacle of their life’s work and their greatest and most loving act of worship (not trying to romanticise the hard physical effort it would have taken).

    They may not have had the ability to compose a great hymn, or write touching sermons but they could turn an idea into a lasting testament to man’s desire to glorify God.

    Today, apart from the cost, the skills needed to build one are not that widespread. We tend to find other valid ways to glorify God.

    Though not an Anglican, I have been enthralled by a few visits to the finished St John’s Cathedral in Brisbane. It has a grandeur that gives a small hint of God’s true glory and displays an attention to detail that points to the devotion of the builders to God and I think also encourages a humility that despite the majestic work, God is still far greater and worthy of our worship.

  10. When we read the description of the Temple that Solomon built it quickly becomes clear that art was used by God to display His greatness and glory… the Temple was stunning. 1 Kings 7 describes one artist, Huram, who created Temple furnishings as “extremely skillful and talented.” (NLT) By contrast the first churches in the NT were humble home-churches. God was glorified in both. Thanks for the level-headed article.

  11. Michael, all of the young evangelical couples I know stuck with their own humble suburban church, though one couple went with an outdoor wedding. While some of the Anglican churches may have nice traditional architecture that’s not the most important thing for a wedding.

  12. Dear Andrew,

    It is heartening to know there are evangelicals who are like that. I guess your couples don’t spend thousands of dollars on wedding photography either!

    From what I have seen here in Sydney they are the minority. You just have to go to one of the old Anglican churches in Parramatta on any given Saturday and you will see wedding after wedding starting as early as 9.30am and you will be lucky if one couple married that day is a regular at that church.

    The church I’m thinking about is All Saints Parra, they even advertise their church for B.Y.O.M. (bring your own minister) weddings and they don’t even have to be of their denomination.

    We are also very happy to allow other Christian ministers to take wedding services in the church, if you would like to have a particular minister who is a registered marriage celebrant.

    I was shocked when I first heard about this. But my Anglican friend explained it was cause the building was expensive to maintain and they needed the income from lots of weddings and they would only haveone wedding each Saturday if they restricted their “venue” (his words) to Anglicans only, and they would be lucky to have one wedding a month if they restricted it to regular congregation members only.

    That’s what some old beautiful churches have become – “venues”.

  13. Thanks for the reply Michael.
    I honestly don’t know what is spent on photographs. At a guess I’d say it’s full spectrum from Mum and Dad etc took most of them through to a foreign one I was involved with where the couple spent a full day or more having professional photos taken in various locations. I suspect that one was rather expensive, but it entailed cultural norms so isn’t a fair comparison to your typical Australian Christian wedding.

    I’ve heard of the conveyor belt approach to weddings but can’t say I’m familiar with it. Sounds horrible!

    The All Saints link was quite interesting. I do wonder if they’re opening themselves to legal troubles in the future though given the Australian government’s redefinition of marriage. Having to rely on wedding income to keep the church maintained though strikes me as ominous. Do they lose the building if they lose the revenue? It was interesting that the church places bows on the pews. The last one I was involved with saw friends and family spending several hours moving pews and decorating the church the night before or somesuch, and a similar effort returning everything to the way things were after the wedding.

    Happy Easter 🙂

  14. I love art (true art not the modernism or post modernism stuff passing as art! I swear a well known artist out there could probably have their son crap his FunPals or even his Pampers and then put some mystical weird sounding name on the whole thing and people would be stupid enough to bid tens of thousands of dollars for it. Someone might even be stupid enough to pay $1 Million for a load of poop in a diaper or pair of briefs) and I love good architecture (most post-WWI is no good and the less said about 25+ floor sky scrappers and steel and glass buildings the better) and I think Cathedrals are some of the most beautiful buildings out there. Smaller churches work great for effectively shepherding the flock but can’t compare in beauty to a cathedral. While in the Millennial Kingdom I would think smaller church buildings would still be more conducive to getting to word to people effectively I hope there are a number of cathedrals as they add beauty to life.

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