PARIS, FRANCE - APRIL 15: Smoke and flames rise from Notre-Dame Cathedral on April 15, 2019 in Paris, France. A fire broke out on Monday afternoon and quickly spread across the building, collapsing the spire. The cause is yet unknown but officials said it was possibly linked to ongoing renovation work. (Photo by Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images)

History Burning Before Our Eyes: The Tragedy of Notre Dame and the Soul of Modern France

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
April 16, 2019

History burned before our eyes. One of the most important architectural achievements of western civilization endured catastrophic damage from a raging fire. The victim of this great tragedy was Notre Dame Cathedral—a nearly 900-year-old masterpiece in the center of the city of Paris.

Notre Dame’s iconic image is more than a feat of architectural genius; the cathedral stood as an essential monolith of French identity, western civilization, and the central role of Christianity in the development of European identity. This story teems with worldview and theological significance, which will be absent from much of the major media coverage.

Construction of Notre Dame began in 1163. This marked the emergence of Gothic architecture—a style laden with theological meaning as it communicated the transcendence and glory of God. Gothic architecture is designed to make a person entering through its doors to feel infinitesimal; indeed, by pointing to the greatness and magnitude of God, mankind ought to sense their own smallness as they enter the grandeur of a cathedral like Notre Dame.  The message sent by Gothic architecture within the Christian tradition is clear: “This building is about God, not about you.”

Paris fire authorities believe that the fire began as an accident, mostly likely caused by the current renovations of the cathedral. Accident or not, yesterday marked a tragic loss to a treasure of architecture and a symbol of western civilization. Indeed, the story of western culture cannot be told without the cathedrals of Europe, especially the cathedral of Notre Dame in the heart of Paris.

In order for a cathedral to be a cathedral, it requires the presence of a bishop. Indeed, the word cathedra means a seat or chair—the seat of a bishop’s power and authority. A cathedral may be large or small, and most are large, but a cathedral is designated by the presence of a bishop. And, when Notre Dame was built, a bishop was indeed a prince of the Roman Catholic Church.

Most importantly, the fact that a cathedral like Notre Dame would for centuries dominate the skyline of the city points to the central role of Christianity in providing the worldview that made western civilization possible. The basic structure of Christian thought became the superstructure of European culture, providing its morality, basic truth claims, understanding of the cosmos, and language of meaning.

Yet, when the French Revolution swept through the streets of Paris, it sought to eradicate the Christian heritage of France. On October 10th, 1793, the revolutionaries marched into Notre Dame and replaced the statue of the Virgin Mary with a statue to the goddess of reason.

A society framed, forged, and entirely founded upon the Christian worldview purged itself of its Christian vestiges. The French Revolution pursued a radical vision of a secular worldview governed not by religious belief, but the Cult of Reason.

But the Cult of Reason was not enough to hold even a revolutionary movement together.

When the French Revolution dethroned God, it plunged French society into utter chaos and confusion. By definition, secularism cannot hold itself together. It is inadequate to establish a civilization and to order a society.

Thus, in 1794, the Cult of Reason was replaced by the Cult of the Supreme Being. This in no way marked a return of the French to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—they did not return to the Trinitarian God. Instead, the French created a god in their own image. They created a new cosmic deity as a necessary check upon revolutionary passions.

Then, in 1801, Napoleon reestablished the Roman Catholic Church as the state religion in France. The church, however, remained subservient to the autocratic and totalitarian regime of Napoleon. He did not want to grant the church autonomy in his empire; but, he understood the church’s value as an institution of morality, which was necessary for a well-functioning society. By the early twentieth century, the major church buildings of France would be declared to be the property of the French government—and that includes Notre Dame.

Today, the charged ruins of Notre Dame do not belong to the Roman Catholic Church—they belong to the French government. The Catholic Church uses the cathedral for its religious purposes, but it does not own the cathedral. This fact also has significance as we analyze yesterday’s tragedy.

As the images of the cathedral streamed across televisions around the world, the audience also witnessed mourning from the French people who witnessed the loss of a national symbol. Most of the French onlookers viewed the cathedral as an important relic of a bygone era. They saw it as a symbol of French identity. Most of the Parisians quoted in major media sought to distance themselves and their most revered cathedral from any theological identity. The French held the cathedral as a romanticized ideal of the glory of France, not the glory of God.

Indeed, when the French President Emmanuel Macron issued his statement, he mourned the loss of a national treasure—a statement devoid of theological reflection or the significance of the cathedral within the nation’s Christian heritage. Moreover, The New York Times recorded the statement of a French actor who watched Notre Dame burn. The actor said, “It’s not about faith, Notre Dame is a symbol of France.” It can’t be more explicit than that. This cathedral, once a monolith to the Christian faith, a monument to the glory and transcendence of God, is now nothing more than a material symbol of French nationalism.

France is now an overwhelmingly secular society, and often aggressively so. This is particularly true of the nation’s cities. Paris is a radical symbol of that secularization, and Notre Dame is a symbol of patriotism, not of theism.

As evangelicals think about yesterday’s tragedy, we ought to mourn the loss of the Notre Dame but from an entirely different worldview and perspective than the French. Christians understand the purpose of a cathedral—not as a symbol of national pride, but as a place of worship. The great gothic cathedrals summoned those who entered to contemplate the eternal, the transcendent, the glory of a holy and infinite God. Cathedrals stood as the theological center of western civilization. The Christian worldview was not just an option in medieval Europe, it was the only worldview, and it governed every sphere of life.

Evangelical Christians looking at the burning of Notre Dame mourn the absence of the gospel within that great building, even as we feel the loss of such a powerful symbol of historic Christianity. Notre Dame is a place of Catholic worship. Evangelicals fundamentally disagree with the sacramental design of the church and its elevation of the Catholic mass. We do not design our own church buildings to follow the same pattern. Our church buildings, rightly designed, demonstrate the centrality of biblical preaching and the identity of the church as the gathered people of God, bought by the blood of the Lamb.

Nonetheless, we do mourn the loss of this great architectural marvel, which stood as a massive testament to the centrality of Christianity in western civilization.

Indeed, the Protestant Reformers themselves would have mourned the loss of this great cathedral—a symbol of the Christianity they sought to reform.

The church historian in me cannot help but grieve the momentous losses of this tragic fire: a 16th century pipe organ is now destroyed, the largest stained-glass windows in the history of Christendom have melted. Perhaps the saddest moment came when the iconic spire at the center of the cathedral crumbled as the fiery inferno engulfed its structure. That spire pointed to the heavens and the cross at its pinnacle pointed to the sovereign reign of Jesus Christ.

Notre Dame will be rebuilt, promised President Macron, and the historic towers and vaulted walls still stood. But Parisians now look at their national monument with broken hearts. They saw so much of their national identity consumed by unforgiving flames. But, those who view the world through the lens of Christian truth did not see less.

Indeed, we see so much more.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me using the contact form. Follow regular updates on Twitter at @albertmohler.

Subscribe via email for daily Briefings and more (unsubscribe at any time).