The Church Is (Not Just) a Building: Some Thoughts on Notre Dame

Like many of you, I spent a long time watching yesterday’s terrible fire at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. I’m still sorting out the feelings, trying to understand why I felt as sad as I did — knowing that others took it far harder…

One of many times I’ve photographed Notre Dame on trips to Paris…

First, it’s always painful to see the world get a bit less beautiful. I’m not as overwhelmed by Notre-Dame de Paris as I am by Notre-Dame de Chartres or Saint-Chapelle. But especially as it stands in the midst of — and as a symbol for — my favorite city in the world, Paris’ cathedral is a lovely work of art. It’s an enormous relief to wake up and find that the towers, rose windows, and organ survived.

But Notre Dame is not just art. It’s the collective offering of Christian artisans who sought to worship God with stone, wood, and glass. Seeing Notre Dame and other Gothic cathedrals always reminds me that when the Bible first records God as filling someone with his Spirit, it’s not a preacher or priest, but a craftsman. Like many artisans to come, Bezalel is given “ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft” (Ex 31:1-5).

Second, I grieved the potential loss of something historically significant — not just for Catholics or Christians, but Parisians, the French, and millions of others around the world. Just last Thursday in my World War II class, I mentioned that churches were often victims of strategic bombing. “Is nothing sacred?”, I asked (quoting from a clip I showed in the French Resistance film Army of Shadows). In a slide show that included the ruins of cathedrals in cities like Coventry and Dresden, it was reassuring to be able to tell students that cathedrals like St Paul’s and Notre Dame escaped with relatively minor damage. So to see the latter survive the worst violence of the 20th century, only to be set ablaze by mere accident in the 21st… well, that was a lot to stomach.

As when I read of the fire that destroyed Brazil’s National Museum last fall, I thought yet again about how hard it is to be a historian. In a world where wood burns, metal melts, stone crumbles, and glass shatters, how can we hope to preserve evidence on material as flimsy as paper and human memory? So learning that so much of the cathedral survived made me think again about the miraculous endurance of at least some vestiges of the past. (And made me thank God for the genius of anonymous medieval builders.)

But in the midst of that sadness and relief, I have to admit that I felt cold where others felt deeply.

I didn’t watch those images and lament the symbolic collapse of “the West” — or hope that it would somehow rise from the ashes of a cathedral whose loss inspired a reversal in supposed civilizational decline. Some see Notre Dame as a gleaming monument to Christendom, but I don’t yearn for the days when Christianity was fused to European empire. I just finished teaching the medieval unit in Bethel’s Christianity and Western Culture class. As I showed images of Notre Dame and other Gothic cathedrals, I had the usual complicated feelings that I always have for a period in European history that is overlooked and overly admired, brutal and beautiful, devout and depraved.

Statue of Pope John Paul II outside the south transept

But then I’m never comfortable associating the church with a building, however beautiful or venerable. Cathedrals can also stand as monuments to the hollowness of a Christianity that judges itself by worldly standards of wealth, power, and status. Such a church can be a whitewashed tomb: beautiful on the outside, but decaying and dying on the inside.

Moreover, knowing how literally decrepit Notre Dame has been throughout much of its history, I wondered again about the wisdom of investing so much money in the construction, renovation, and reconstruction of religious edifices. Hearkening back to my eight years on a church leadership team, I remembered questioning why we had to spend so much of our budget on building debt, upkeep, and other expenses, rather than ministry and mission. So I can understand why many church planters don’t necessarily aspire to build “their own” church. Even now, there’s the part of me that wants to ask whether it wouldn’t be better to spend millions of euros on feeding the poor, healing the sick, resettling the refugee, teaching the young, and evangelizing an increasingly secular Europe than rebuilding something that is technically owned by the French state and draws many, many times more tourists than worshippers.

Yesterday I couldn’t help but think of the first verse from a hymn from the early Seventies: “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people” — a people who have “received the Holy Spirit and told the Good News through the world to all who would hear it.”

In Holy Week, we can look at Notre Dame and think of Resurrection, but we should also remember Jesus’ Passion week warning that even the Temple was doomed to collapse. Christ’s Church was to be built in a different way: “Come to him, a living stone,” wrote Peter, “and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house…” The church is a people built on the foundation of a Person.

But… the church is also a building. As embodied creatures, our experience of God and his work in the world cannot be disconnected from how we occupy and structure space and engage our senses. I never feel God’s presence and transcendence more keenly than when I worship and pray in a Gothic cathedral. I never feel more a part of a church catholic — both everywhere and everywhen — than in a church as old as Notre Dame, built over the course of multiple generations for the sake of still more generations to come, from every corner of the world.

So while I worship in a different kind of structure and space and will always wonder what its cost says about our priorities, I’m sure I’ll contribute to the rebuilding of Paris’ cathedral. And I’ll hope that the new Notre Dame enjoys new vitality as a center of worship and prayer — not just a church building, but building up the church.