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.