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The Meaning of Notre Dame- Issue #40

I watched the burning of Notre Dame in stupefied horror. I am not French, and not Catholic. But like
The Path Before Us
The Meaning of Notre Dame- Issue #40
By Matthew Lee Anderson • Issue #40 • View online
I watched the burning of Notre Dame in stupefied horror. I am not French, and not Catholic. But like much of the world, I had a deep and even romantic attachment to the place. My fondest memories of Paris almost all involve Notre Dame—not its interior or its splendid organ, mind you, but simply the structure itself. I have felt such an unalloyed joy from sitting in its shadow on a warm summer day, watching the boats go down the Seine while enjoying baguette and cheese—a meal of simple decadence, to offset the ornate lavishness of the view.
Sitting in its shadow, mind you, enjoying the pleasures of this world. Like many writers, I have been tempted to Make Much of Notre Dame’s burning. The tragedy crystallizes so much about our world: as an icon of a grand medieval synthesis of faith and culture, Notre Dame is irreplaceable. Its loss seems akin to divine judgment, its ruined ceiling an image of the decadence of a broken society that has turned its back on God. Which makes my own sentiments about the place the problem: we merely enjoyed the covering of its shade while luxuriating in self-indulgence. A more apt description of our late-liberal world is hard to imagine: our political order has lived within the shade of Christendom and enjoyed its hedonistic delights, only to see its source at last fall into ruins. Like the Prodigal Son, our order has borrowed its Father’s wealth only to squander it.* Whether we will return, and what we shall return to, is all. 
I have never been much good at crystallizing our history into moments, as this week seems to lend itself to, in part because I remain deeply dubious about the sweeping genealogies that stand beneath such prophetic utterances. While symbolic readings of contemporary events are the stock and trade of contemporary punditry, I lack the confidence to really go through with them. How far do the details matter, after all? Much of the Cathedral was saved, including the Rose Window and the organ. Does this qualify the lesson which we are to take from its burning? Does this mean the destruction liberalism wreaks is not complete, that we may even yet live within it and build things anew from it? 
But my own difficulties in such moments aside, there really is room for a theologian to consider history in just this way. Barth saw in the 1755 earthquake at Lisbon the great destruction of early modern optimism, which simply could not survive the trauma of some 75,000+ deaths. Yes, he saw that some 200 years after it happened. But he saw it that way because in an important way it was: Voltaire’s response to the earthquake in his 1756 poem set the tenor of the pessimism that would ultimately end in Schopenhauer: 
A caliph once, when his last hour had come, 
This prayer addressed to him he reverenced:
“To thee, sole and all-powerful king, I bear 
What thou dost lack in thy immensity—
Evil and ignorance, distress and sin.” 
He might have added one thing further—hope.

The differences between those events and yesterday’s matter, of course. Like the French Revolution, the earthquake at Lisbon definitively altered the course of history by being something more than a symbol: it altered Portugal’s destiny forever, and radically reconfigured the balance of power in Europe. And that is partially what gives me pause about seeing much within the destruction of Notre Dame: for all the importance of symbols and structures and architecture, their power is marginal next to the life and death and actions of real human beings. The loss of Notre Dame is a great sorrow: but the loss of the shadow in which we enjoy our pleasures exposes us directly to the heat of the sun, wherein we discover the stuff of which we are really made. What the fire at Notre Dame means cannot be known until it is rebuilt, or it is not. It is not divine judgment, not in its fullness, until the last trumpet blows. 
*The image here is Timothy Jackson’s originally, I believe.

Feedback on Reactionaries, Past and Present
The reader commentary has been better than the newsletter of late. Here are some highlights.
“My vote [for the difference between Lewis et al. and our contemporary reactionaries] would be that we no longer believe (with any degree of seriousness) in original sin, though perhaps that’s just another way of saying that we’re not Augustinian enough. (But even many of our Augustinians seem overly optimistic). But perhaps it’s *also* the case that we don’t believe with any seriousness in the idea of a moral law that is even plausibly available to ordinary humans. So (perhaps - I’m genuinely unsure here) many of us are whipsawed between an intuition that humans are naturally "good” but without any sure moral guidance but our desires. We have, in a word, become Rousseau, or maybe better, Robespierre carrying our Rousseau around.“ – A Very Smart Reader who is Doubtlessly Right
This is on similar themes.
I particularly enjoyed your issue #37, on reactionaries. I read Alan Jacobs’ newest book in January, and I could not shake it as I read this issue. Your question as to why figures such as Lewis and Tolkien managed to keep such a sober view of the reality around them, yet not descend into the “anxious shrillness” (a delightful description by the way) of our media prophets is really interesting. I also think it is really important. An important theme that can be explored from within Jacobs’ book is how Lewis and Tolkien’s social voices were shaped by their experiences in the Great War. I wonder if their service acted as a crucible to forge a sober realism about society, a sober realism that may not be easily attainable in a society which has worked itself to death to escape death and suffering? 
Please don’t hear me advocating for war or suffering; I just wonder if Tolkien and Lewis had an insight into the deeply broken nature of history and human interaction in it that our anxiously shrill modern prophets don’t have a grasp on. How can one view history soberly if one is triumphalistic, and how can one cease to be triumphalistic if one hasn’t sensed or experienced the deep antithetical nature of human history that these men experienced on the front lines of war? 
I think something like this has to be right. It’s much easier to believe in the absoluteness of a moral law if you’re fighting Nazi’s than it is if you’re trying to stop gay people who seem really happy and in love from marrying. But I suspect it’s also easier to be hopeful about victory in such a context, since the criterion for winning and losing is obvious–unlike our contemporary "culture wars.”
But there’s much more to be said on these themes, so I will save them for another time.
The Penultimate Word
“We manage to forget…death and then, all of a sudden, in the midst of our ‘enjoying life’ it comes to us: horrible, inescapable, senseless. We may from time to time acknowledge and confess our various 'sins,’ yet we cease to refer our life to that new life which Christ revealed and gave to us. Indeed, we live as if He never came. This is the only real sin, the sin of all sins, the bottomless sadness and tragedy of our nominal Christianity.” – Alexander Schmemann
Did you enjoy this issue?
Matthew Lee Anderson

Considerations from the intersection of theology, ethics and society.

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