On Restoring Notre Dame

Plenty of money has already been raised for the reconstruction and restoration of the damaged Notre Dame cathedral. And plenty of discussion and debate has already ensued about all this. Should it be rebuilt? Are we moderns even capable of making such a structure again? Are we wasting money on something that could be better spent elsewhere?

As to that last question, yes, many folks are talking this way. As but one example, a gal just sent me the following question in an email:

What would your response be to the following? (apparently written by a Catholic woman). For ourselves (we’re not Catholics) we hope very much that Notre Dame will be rebuilt, though we fear it will be harmed again.

“Please don’t donate to rebuild Notre Dame. The church is worth $30 billion. Donate to help Puerto Rico recover. Donate to get the people of Flint clean water. Donate to get kids out of cages. Jesus didn’t care about stained glass. He cared about humans.”

(We think of Jesus being anointed with expensive oil by a woman who was rebuked for so doing by Jesus’ disciples.)

We would be very grateful to hear your thoughts, Bill.

To which I replied:

Thanks *****. Yes of course one immediately thinks of John 12:1-8! The simple truth is, if Christians would prefer giving to the poor, great. If they want to give to Notre Dame, great. If they want to give to both, great. If they want to give to neither one, well, that is their prerogative I suppose! But I may well write an article on all this, so stay tuned.

This then is the article – which I had been thinking of doing anyway. Her query just spurred me on further – and faster. But I will look at some of the other issues being raised here as well. As to the matter of spending vast sums of money, the John 12 passage does have to be kept in mind. It says this:

Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint a of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

Some Christian lefties and social justice warriors today might think that Jesus was being rather cavalier about the poor, and may have had his priorities all wrong. Well, I will stick with Jesus on this one. Yes, we should be generous with our wealth, and we should seek to help the poor and needy.

But as I wrote in some earlier pieces, I believe that God is also a God of beauty, and that he has blessed us with the gifts of art and artistic abilities. Some believers may sniff their noses at great works of art, including great cathedrals, but not me. See here for more on this: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/04/17/cathedrals-catholics-and-christianity/

And here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/07/28/art-and-the-christian/

So there is a place for the funding of the arts. As to some of the other questions, including how the modern secular West can even cope with such a project, that too is worth exploring. I did say this earlier about the anti-God culture we now live in:

Whither Paris and the cathedral? French President Macron has promised to rebuild. Several French billionaires have already pledged hundreds of millions of euros. 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.

And as many have pointed out, the cathedrals in France (including Notre-Dame) have been owned by the state since 1905. Thus we already have those who are urging that the cathedral be rebuilt – but as some new dumbed-down multicultural, multifaith monstrosity. Consider what we find in one article:

“We will rebuild the cathedral to be even more beautiful,” Macron said. But what shape will the cathedral’s renovation take? Who will decide which alterations “improve” on the original? The answer came earlier today, when Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced an international competition for architects to submit proposals for “a new spire that is adapted to the techniques and the challenges of our era.” As the litany says, “Good Lord, deliver us.”

Increasingly, secularists are demanding a voice in the reconstruction of a Roman Catholic cathedral and sanctuary. While some want the cathedral restored to its original condition, others say the government should reimagine Notre Dame as a multi-faith monument or a tribute to European secularism. Rolling Stone reports that John Harwood, an architectural historian and associate professor at the University of Toronto “believes that it would be a mistake to try to recreate the edifice as it once stood.”

Oh dear. Hands off! Leave it alone. I would rather it stay in ruins than be transformed into something unrecognisable, modern, secular, trendy, and anti-god. American commentator Rod Dreher has just written on these matters in his latest article, “The Past Is Another Country”.

He quotes two other authors that deserve to be heard here. The first is Alan Jacobs. He said this in part:

Today I found myself thinking that someone should perhaps inform French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe that the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris is a church. How dare he — and so many dead-to-beauty architects — talk about this glorious place of worship as though it were a mere artifact of culture?

And yet … this Catholic cathedral is not owned by the Catholic Church. It is owned by the French Ministry of Culture. “A mere artifact of culture” is what it legally is. As far as I can tell, Notre Dame de Paris is a place of worship by sufferance only. If the government of France wants to leave it in ruins as a testimony to the evils of colonialism, homophobia, and clerical sexual abuse — which seems possible — or to rebuild it as a shiny new monument to the evils of colonialism, homophobia, and clerical sexual abuse — which seems slightly more possible — it can do so. If the government of France wants to turn it into a disco, then into a disco it shall be turned, with a giant glimmering disco ball hanging from the rebuilt roof.

I have no idea what the Ministry of Culture will decide to do, but I seriously doubt that Catholic Christians will have any real say in the matter….

The second writer Dreher features is Andrew Sullivan, the sort of conservative, self-described Catholic homosexual. I of course have argued against his views on things like homosexual marriage in the past. But on the issue of Notre Dame he does make some good points:

Along with so many others, I found the images of the destruction of Notre-Dame close to unbearable. For some, it represented a simply appalling loss for global culture. For others, a kind of torment for the idea of France, its history, its soul — even in thoroughly post-Christian times. I could not stop myself from seeing it as a metaphor — for the near-extinction of Christianity, the metaphysics that underpins so much of the West’s distinctiveness and coherence: its defense of the individual soul as inviolate, for example. It remains an open question whether liberalism, broadly understood, can survive the loss of its metaphysical foundations….

But it also reminded me of the question of beauty in modernity. By which I mean: Can our civilization ever create anything of comparable beauty to Notre-Dame, or indeed the archipelago of cathedrals across Europe, stemming from the middle ages? I can’t see it. The core criteria for creating modern architecture — even if it is not brutally ugly or mediocre — are usefulness and cost. Beauty — even if it is formally considered in architecture — is usually subordinate. Even if you survey modern cathedrals, there is a lack of detail, and an absence of the kind of skill that enabled the twelfth century to construct marvels beyond our capacity. We have technique in abundance; we have technology that would have appeared as magic to the designers of Notre-Dame; we have wealth beyond measure in comparison. But even the architectural baubles of our new religion — think of Apple’s new headquarters, for example — contain nothing as complex or as overwhelming or as awe-inspiring as the rose stained glass window of an eleventh century masterpiece….

Dreher closes his piece by reminding us of what the moderns did to Coventry Cathedral which was destroyed by German bombers in 1940. He says of the new version of events (see the accompanying picture): “The Nazi barbarians destroyed a medieval cathedral. Christians replaced it with Our Lady of The Department Of Motor Vehicles.”

Yes quite so. We “enlightened” and “progressive” moderns may think of the Christians of long ago as being much more barbaric and unlearned and uncivilised than we are. But if their ability at building lofty cathedrals is anything to go by, they were lightyears ahead of us, and we are the real barbarians.

So let Notre Dame be rebuilt – but ONLY if we can even remotely approximate how it was first constructed.

[1693 words]

12 Replies to “On Restoring Notre Dame”

  1. I fear the cathedral will not be rebuilt with glorifying God as its main objective. I’m fairly sure I could gamble my house on it if I was so inclined. So far I have not encountered any plan to rebuild it as close as to the way it was although early days yet. The last idea I heard is to replace the roof with a series of different sized glass pyramids. Satanists would love that I’m sure never mind the Masonic connections that can be attributed to the use of Pyramids.
    No, unless the cathedral is rebuilt to the glory of God then the building will be just that – a building. Sadly, a building that will constantly reminder us that God is no longer glorified or welcome. At least, not the Christian God.

  2. You’re absolutely right, Bill, to remind your readers that “God is also a God of beauty” and that “He has blessed us with the gifts of art and artistic abilities”.

    Moreover, your view on God being the inspiration of beauty is fully sanctioned by Scripture.

    See especially Exodus 31: 1-6 and 35: 31–36: 1, where God, after specifying the design for an earthly place of worship, spiritually endows particular craftsmen with artistic skills to enable them “to execute all kinds of work… whether in gold, silver, copper, or cutting stones to be set, or carving wood, for workmanship of every kind”.

    As in your post above, Auguste Meyrat, in his recent article “Rebuilding Notre Dame requires rebuilding the culture that created it”, contrasts the architectural and artistic legacy of Christian civilisation with the often dismal creations of our present age.

    He observes: “Whatever can be said about the material progress of the modern secular era, it can also be said that it does not build cathedrals like Notre Dame” (The Federalist, April 19, 2019).

    How true that is.

  3. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_world%27s_tallest_buildings
    tells us that for most of Western history, the tallest buildings were churches, giving expression to man’s aspirations towards heaven. That lasted until 1894 when a commercial building took the prize. Since then humanistic commercialism has held onto that title very firmly.

    Even though Notre Dame de Paris doesn’t figure in the record books, it seems that it will suffer from this tide of secularism, UNLESS God’s people give strong voice to a realistic restoration of the spire rather than allowing an artistic and spiritual travesty to occur

  4. As long as it’s not influenced in any way by Vatican 2, the serpent building adjacent to St Peter’s basilica in Rome.

  5. There is much beauty in Spence’s Coventry Cathedral, except for the acoustics.

  6. My faith in politicians has taken a big hit after reading this:

    Morrison, whose political instincts are Howard-esque in their sharpness, knows this (religious freedom/culture wars) is one subject he has to drop to improve his government’s chances of re-election.

    Take his comments on controversial homophobic footballer Israel Folau, who is deeply religious.

    When Folau first denounced gay people in April 2018, Morrison (then treasurer) said Folau was a “good man”, and that he had “shown a lot of strength of character in just standing up for what he believes in and I think that’s what this country is about”.

    But more recently, when Folau took to Instagram to proclaim hell awaits homosexuals (among a long list of other types of people, including several this column identifies with), Morrison whistled a different tune.

    “I thought they were terribly insensitive comments and obviously that was a matter for the RA and they’ve taken that decision,” he said.


  7. Dear Bill another timely article. I recall reading a compilation of Prince Charles’ speeches, one of which condemned modern architecture. I am not sure if Prince Charles shares the same faith as his mother, as documented in the short work ‘The Queen and the King she serves’ (I think that is the title). But his comments would indicate modern mans inability to construct an befitting edifice, irrespective of desire. It my opinion there is little possibility of any resemblance to what once was being constructed. The scar should remain as a reminder to protect what you have.
    Edmund Burke once said ‘the price of freedom is eternal vigilance’
    Great article Bill encouraging wonderful conversation.
    Cheers Mark Bryant

  8. Several years ago I was preparing to travel interstate for my grandmothers funeral, and was talking to a trusted friend about the number of old churches in the area where she lived. While these were nowhere as grand as Notre Dame, he made an observation that I remember still – there was a time when the construction of church was in itself an act of worship. Where we see an empty building, the heart of God is to see the return of the thriving and life-changing community that it once was.

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