Notre Dame, above and beyond ‘Western Civilization’

When news got out that Notre Dame was burning, I headed to Twitter.

I arrived there as the first reports of the blaze that was soon to destroy much of the roof of the Notre Dame de Paris were still only beginning to roll in: early enough for me to initially assume that the few images I was seeing, those of thick clouds of gray and sulfur-yellow smoke in the late afternoon sun, were a hoax similar to the image of the burning Eiffel Tower that briefly circulated during the Paris attacks of November 2015. Alas, a hoax it was not, and for the next several hours on Twitter I remained, my attention divided between live updates from the French capital and the snappy takes penned by various A- through D-list news personalities whom the nature of the medium at hand obliges to churn out such statements around the clock.

The fire burned and burned. A clock was ticking: there is only so much time we can uninterruptedly devote to a constant stream of commentary and information on the same topic before we grow bored or tired or both. One day, we may see news stories heralding the end of the world, but we will tune them out after five or six hours due to saturation.

As is often the case in these situations, and as it was with Notre Dame, the desire to attempt the most daring of intellectual gymnastics in order to make a fact, any fact, conform to the narrative du jour took center stage. This being the world of Twitter, some of the takes were truly moronic and included feigned confusion at the alleged American tendency to be “weird about old european [sic] buildings” and calls not to fetishize monuments celebrating oppressive ideologies. Some yelled into the great void of the internet, admonishing the world for expressing grief at the loss of structures that may have been adorned with gold, which may in turn have been brought from Europe’s colonies.

A second category — that that warrants far more extensive discussion and the most vociferous refutation — consists of statements that proceed from premises that are far less infantile but with wrong conclusions nonetheless. Here attention ought to be drawn to the remarks of such figures as the prominent American conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who commented on the fire throughout the day, first dubbing the Parisian cathedral “a magnificent monument to Western civilization.”

It is patently erroneous to say that any church is constructed as a monument to a civilization or anything of this world rather than to God, to the Incarnation; to Christ’s sacrificial death and His resurrection; to the gifts God deigns to confer upon us in the Sacraments; and, in the case of the Notre Dame de Paris, to its patroness.

If we consider the church as a mere building — that is, if we distance ourselves entirely from the way in which its builders in all likelihood thought of it — Shapiro’s assessment is true, as the cathedral’s walls have doubtless borne witness to much and have over the centuries been coated with layers of disparate meanings. Notre Dame Cathedral is a monument to Western civilization insofar as it served as the venue for such events as the Festival of Reason of Year II and the coronation of an emperor who wished to ground his legitimacy in popular sovereignty. The former was a heavy-handed mockery of the church that involuntarily housed it; the latter would have seemed absurd to ostensibly “Western” monarchs two generations prior.

But this is not what Shapiro is suggesting; indeed, he cannot suggest this. Shapiro’s concept of Western civilization seems to hinge on the assumption that a straight and direct Judeo-Christian line can be drawn to today from St. Paul and the Evangelists’ fusing of two hitherto parallel tracks, one traceable back to Abraham, or maybe Moses, the other to Socrates, et al. In turn, the Enlightenment can be either good, when it remains close — or at least close enough — to this line, or bad, when it deviates too far therefrom (much as did many 18th-century French thinkers and politicians).

If we assume that an unbroken continuum constituting the broad totality of “Western” tradition exists, we must acknowledge that at its heart lie profound tensions, if not outright ruptures. The sort of conservatism that underlies Shapiro’s worldview amounts to a set of suppositions that either flatten or obscure these in order to present an intelligible status quo that man can rationally deduce from the unfolding of history in order to present concrete policy recommendations. This is an appealing way of understanding the world, history, politics, and so forth, but it is deeply insufficient for two reasons, at least.

Firstly and most obviously, it predisposes its adherent to a simplistic understanding of history whereby the past not only points to the present, but is also to be understood as little more than the present but merely a few centuries older. Consequently, churches built between the 12th and 14th centuries can be intelligently presumed to constitute monuments to a civilization shaped by ways of thinking that men of the High Middle Ages could likely not even dream in.

Secondly, the above conservative worldview effectively dispenses with the continuing need for Revelation or supernatural faith. Both of these are at the core of the supposed Judeo-Christian tradition, but they were really necessary only at some foundational moment when postulates that cannot be deduced by unaided human reason were fused together with reason, virtue ethics, and so on to give humanity this line that it was to follow. Subsequently, faith was necessary only in instances when, for whatever reason, we drifted perilously close to a reliance on reason alone. Yet even then, it needn’t have been faith in an Almighty God to whom each man matters. Rather, the only faith that is required is faith in our collective ability to affirm the existence of God or at least His continued presence in history. Faith is thus reduced to a post-Enlightenment — post–Death of God — faith: a faith in the human capacity to believe in the supernatural.

Shapiro may be right: there might be such a thing as a Judeo-Christian civilization, or a Western civilization, and it may indeed be just the sort of intellectual and cultural continuum he believes it to be. But if he is right, it is precisely the civilization we see around us in the modern age and which each generation before us would see around itself. It owes just as much to the extended opening invocation of St. Augustine’s Confessions proclaiming the unknowability of God as it does to the elaborate gnostic attempts to reduce God to human categories; it owes as much to Luther as it does to all the Church councils, as much to the supposedly kinder Enlightenment of Locke as to the thinkers of the French enlightenment, whom modern conservatives tend to view with marked skepticism. The list goes on.

The Catholic Church is certainly an integral part of Western civilization or the Judeo-Christian tradition, but to say only this seems to miss the point. The Church also stands beyond it and indeed beyond history. That Notre Dame continues to be a church to this day (and that, each November, young women dressed in Roman garb do not dance around a Goddess of Reason sitting atop its altar) should be regarded as a monument to the Church’s continuing fortitude in standing athwart precisely this Western civilization so often lauded in modern politics.

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