With the cause of the blaze that took down much of Notre Dame still uncertain (accident, arson, terrorism?), many commentators have already noted the deep symbolism of the event. While smoke still rises, many are asking if this is not a fitting picture of France in particular, and Europe and the West in general.
With irreligion reigning supreme, and Europe being the most secular continent on earth, is not this tragedy a very graphic picture of what has been happening for quite some time now? Sure, around half of the French population still claims to be Christian in various forms – but that would largely be nominal at best.
The secularist malaise has certainly penetrated France where it matters the most: in politics, the media, education and law. That the common man may still pay some lip service to Christianity counts for little. Several centuries of the assault on faith has borne noticeable fruit.
Of course, we look to 1789 as a major beginning point of all this. The ravages of revolutionary thought and action in Paris and beyond are well known. Diderot could famously declare that “man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”. And that is just what happened.
Thousands of clerics were executed (perhaps as many as 5,000), with many tens of thousands forced to flee. Churches were closed, looted, and destroyed, and church properties were confiscated. People were forbidden from wearing crosses, church bells were not allowed to ring, religious processions were banned, and a secular war of terror was effectively unleashed on the French people. And of course, the very same cathedral in Paris was desecrated by the militants with a Goddess of Reason set up in its high altar in 1793.
Move ahead to 2004 and the Constitution of Europe. Hugely significant – and certainly ominous – is the fact that the 70,000-word constitution does not once mention the term ‘Christianity’. What future is there for a free Europe which has spiritual and cultural amnesia, forgetting its very foundations, ignoring its very roots?
Raw secularism will never satisfy the human soul nor provide the social and moral glue needed for a successful and vibrant culture. It is as G. K. Chesterton put it in his 1908 classic Orthodoxy: “The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them. The Titans did not scale heaven; but they laid waste the world.”
Not surprisingly, therefore, we now see Islam filling the void in Europe with all the disastrous results which follow such massive shifts. As mentioned, the exact cause of this fire is not at this point known, but we do know some other things with much more certainty. For example, France and Europe have experienced countless attacks on churches in recent years.
As one report states, “A dozen Catholic churches have been desecrated across France over the period of one week in an egregious case of anti-Christian vandalism. The recent spate of church profanations has puzzled both police and ecclesiastical leaders, who have mostly remained silent as the violations have spread up and down France.”
Another news item puts it this way: “A spate of thefts and vandalism in French churches has led to calls for the government to act. Recent incidents have included a fire in Saint-Sulpice church in Paris, human excrement smeared on the wall in Notre-Dame-des-Enfants church in Nîmes, southern France, and vandalism of the organ at Saint-Denis Basilica outside Paris, where all but three of France’s kings are buried.”
These are just a few of many cases that could be mentioned. And don’t forget that in 2017 police discovered that the jihadist cell responsible for the attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils that left 14 dead and more than 100 injured were also planning attacks on the city’s busiest tourist areas. This included driving vans packed with explosives into another majestic cathedral, Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia.
We also know from 1400 years of Islamic history that Christians and churches have both fared rather poorly indeed with millions of Christians killed and who knows how many Christian churches destroyed. With massive immigration and effectively open borders in many European countries, along with failed multiculturalism policies including cluelessness about the political ideology of Islam, all this is just a ticking time bomb.
When the horrific Christchurch shooting took place, the New Zealand leader and others around the world did all they could to express solidarity with the victims, including wearing head coverings and having Muslims pray in Parliament. One wonders if the favours will now be returned.
Will there be mass marches of concerned Muslims on the streets of Paris and other capital cities in Europe demanding an end to the violence against churches? Will Macron and other European leaders all start wearing Christian crosses in solidarity with the French Christians?
Will Muslims also wear crosses to show their support for their grieving Christian friends? Hmm, I won’t hold my breath on any of these things. But we do know that some Muslims have already been rejoicing over the Notre Dame blaze, just as some Muslims danced in the streets after 9/11.
But let me return to where I began. 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. But let me offer some concluding words, not by Christian thinkers on this, but by two well-known Jewish commentators.
Dennis Prager was surely right when he wrote: “The symbolism of the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral, the most renowned building in Western civilization, the iconic symbol of Western Christendom, is hard to miss. It is as if God Himself wanted to warn us in the most unmistakable way that Western Christianity is burning — and with it, Western civilization. Every major Western (and one major non-Western) social and intellectual force has conspired to rid Europe of Christianity and the civilization it produced.”
Or perhaps the shorter but no less potent tweet by Ben Shapiro can be run with here: “If we wish to uphold the beauty and profundity of the Notre Dame cathedral, that means re-familiarizing ourselves with the philosophy and religious principles that built it.”
Bill Muehlenberg is a Melbourne cultural commentator.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.