Like many people around the world, I watched this week with genuine sadness and even horror as I saw the great cathedral in Paris burning: Notre Dame of Paris was on fire, and the world feared the very worst regarding its fate. Photos, videos, and news articles swarmed social media by the hundreds, with thousands and even millions of views and shares. Footage of the flaming 19th-century spire falling has been watched over and over, and Parisians wept and sang the “Ave Maria” as what has been called an icon of their culture was being incinerated
And of course millions and millions of comments have been made about this. Some said that this was a symbol of the death of Christianity in Western Europe. Some were ready to find the blameworthy, pointing to a rash of church desecration and arson in recent months in France. But there was one comment that stood out to me among all the others. It said this:
This should have more significance to an atheist than to a believer. It is a secular and historic loss but not a spiritual one.
In other words, for a post-Christian Europe, this was a loss in cultural terms, rather like a museum burning that held artifacts from a cherished past but whose actual beliefs were not taken very seriously. For an atheist, this loss is irretrievable, because this world is all there is. But for a Christian believer, losses like this really should not matter. This world will pass away and be succeeded by a new one. The spirit is what matters, not any material thing. After all, it’s just a building, right?
Right? Wrong. Well, there is of course a sense in which this way of thinking is right. Yes, the Church can go on when a church building is lost. No, the Church as an eschatological reality is not bound by particular buildings. Yes, the Church is composed of those who are in Christ and does not have buildings as members.
But none of that logically should lead one to conclude that a burned church is “not a spiritual loss.” What underlies this sense that a burning church is not a spiritual loss for the Christian is a truncated and possibly heretical understanding of what Christian spirituality is actually about. It is the sense that holiness has nothing to do with physical objects.
So even if one builds a stunning monument to human faith and ingenuity and creativity like Notre Dame, it is still just a building that happens to be being used for prayer. One can pray anywhere. It ultimately does not matter if it’s in a building where prayer has been offered for centuries or a movie theatre where all manner of entertainments are offered on weekdays.
But this is simply wrong. Why? It’s because matter matters. And the reason that it matters is because of a very core dogma of the Christian faith: that God became man. And when God became man, because he became fully man, he took on a human body. He did not merely wear it as a kind of clothing but actually took it as his own. It became his own flesh and his own blood. God himself became material for our sake, even while remaining fully God. This means that the presence of holiness—of divinity, even!—is possible in materiality.
The denial of the importance of materiality in Christian spirituality betrays a kind of Gnostic dualism, suggesting that man’s real identity is merely “spiritual,” by which is meant non-material. But man is himself both body and soul, and because Jesus Christ is both God and man, that means that he also, while remaining God, is body and soul. A genuine Christian spirituality envelops and transforms the material; it does not ignore or discard it. And further, because mankind is created in the image of his Creator, man is also himself a sub-creator, called to engage the creation with his own creativity, in imitation of the creative Creator.
It is because of these truths that, as soon as it was legally possible—and even in some places before—the Christian revelation inspired man to create an explosion of Christian art—music, architecture, iconography, literature, textiles, etc. These material things are the creating song of God being taken up by man and sung into the creation.
Can these works of men’s hands be misused and turned into idols? Of course. But that does not mean that materiality doesn’t matter and can’t be sanctified. Even the bronze serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness got turned into an idol by the Hebrews, but before that happened, it was a conduit for the power and presence of God, one that God himself had ordained. Matter was created by God, and in his divine foreknowledge, it was created by him knowing that he would use it to become his own dwelling and even his own body.
This is why it matters when churches burn. Yes, Christianity could go on without Notre Dame, and it certainly will. (Happily, it seems that much of the building was saved. And of course we can be sure that it will be rebuilt.) But what places like Notre Dame demonstrate is that the Incarnation was not a mere temporal event to satisfy divine justice. Rather, the Incarnation remains active and continues to be expressed in mankind and in what he is inspired by the Spirit to create in response. And in what is created to God’s glory, God himself chooses to dwell and to make himself known.
So, yes, it is a spiritual loss when a church burns, especially a church that speaks so eloquently of the love and majesty of God. It is true of course that for many of us, Notre Dame of Paris is not “our” church in the sense that we are not Roman Catholics, and it is a Roman Catholic church. But I am very much a believer in the idea of St. Justin Martyr which he called the spermatikos logos, the “Logos in seed form.” In that teaching, St. Justin says that, wherever we see the truth of who God is, even outside the boundaries of the Church, we can affirm that. And so even with the disagreements I have with the Roman Catholic Church, I think that we can see something very clearly of who God is in that building.
And so while it is not Christianity nor Christ that went up in flames in Paris on April 15, a voice speaking of our Lord was certainly muted, at least for a while—and that certainly is a loss.