The Cathedral: Mirror of the West, Then and Now

Notre Dame Cathedral at sunrise in Paris, France, April 17, 2019. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)We are not much interested today in building such expressions of transcendence.

The recent fires at the medieval Catholic cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris almost immediately were seen as a referendum on the West, even by those who are not Christians.

How at the supposed apex of Western technology, science, and affluence could a sudden inferno devour the spire, roof, and some of the interior icons of the nearly 800-year-old cathedral, itself perched on the bank of a river, and the survivor of centuries of desecrations, remodels, expansions, and repairs, when the arts of preservation, fire prevention and response, and engineering were supposedly backward by our standards?

Logically or not, many saw the fire as a curtain call for the West, or at least an eclipse of the ancient marriage of European Christian belief and scientific brilliance that together produced the most impressive and beautiful expressions of Western transcendence.

And now the second-most-revered church in the West smolders — something that neither French revolutionaries nor World War II bombers could accomplish.

In our smug era of high tech and conspicuous consumption, Western Europeans and Americans do not build Christian cathedrals anymore. Our challenge is simply to keep standing — at least sort of — what we inherited.

Others who are less blessed materially but more confident spiritually certainly do build. Indeed, some of world’s mammoth and most impressive churches today often rival in size and ambition the great cathedrals of medieval Europe. Yet they are 20th- or 21st-century creations. And they are outside of Western Europe and the United States — such as the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida (Brazil, 1980), the Basilica of our Lady of Lichen (Poland, 2004), the Cathedral of the Nativity (Egypt, 2019), and the Basilica of our Lady of Peace (Ivory Coast, 1990). How can poorer societies afford such monumental expressions of collective religious confidence, without much care that their Christian piety is neither nuanced nor ambiguous? (In contrast, monumental mosques, not cathedrals, arise in Europe, such as those of the past few decades in Cologne, London, Rome, and Rotterdam.)

Perhaps Europe and America will claim that they need no such monumental churches at this late age‚ either because they have a long history of building them all over Europe and North America, or because the abject decline in religious observance would make them empty shells upon completion. In a society where Facebook and twitter are to nourish souls, who needs naves and stained glass?

The more affluent, leisured, and technologically sophisticated a Western society becomes, the less apt it is to build a monumental cathedral — or for that matter any church at all. And the rub is not so much that there’s very little new construction, but that we no longer ever pay attention to what are currently seen as bizarre relics of a bygone and now-foreign civilization, and so we lack the skill to preserve them. Ancient European cathedrals are viewed mostly as sources of lucrative tourist income, but they are nonetheless usually shorted of necessary maintenance. So as much as we seek to kill the tourist Golden Goose, we still assume that its buttresses and domes are both useful and hard to finish off.

In truth, Western elites are no longer particularly good builders of even secular things, at least in the fashion of our impoverished Depression-era grandfathers who started and finished the Golden Gate bridge and the Hoover Dam within five years. At times, of course, we can rise to the occasion; the new One World Trade Center was in the end a stunning accomplishment. Hillsdale College is now finishing on time and within budget a huge 30,000-square-foot campus chapel that is cathedral-like in its size and iconography. But for the most part, we can scarcely maintain what others built long ago. Western capital is instead spent on private housing, pensions, social services, health, law, medicine, travel, leisure, and defense rather than invested in grand new dams, bridges, or freeways.

I write this not far from Fresno, Calif., where a concrete overpass stands scarcely a quarter built over the edge of the city, an unfinished testament to a failed, decade-long, $6 billion high-speed-rail line that will never be completed as envisioned; in our lifetime, we will probably never see a foot of track built on this route to nowhere, even if it’s far shorter than the original grandiose plans. The concrete pillars seem a sort of modern-day ugly version of Stonehenge. In a few decades, our youth will wonder who built these strange monoliths and for what superstitious purpose. Since the cancellation of the project a few months, ago, weeds and graffiti already dot the bases of some of the piers, reminding one of St. Jerome’s anguished early-fifth-century a.d. letter on the wastage in Rome in the age of growing barbarism.

Instead, the contemporary West is in an age not of builders but dismantlers. We topple statues by night and rename streets, squares, and buildings — now judged wanting by our postmodern, always metastasizing standards of race, class, and gender — to virtue-signal our angst over our preindustrial moral superiors. Most silently acknowledge that few of us could have endured the physical hardship, pain, or danger of guiding three tiny 15th-century caravels across the Atlantic or could have walked the length of California founding missions. Discovering the New World was difficult, but a dunce can topple Columbus’s statue. How many contemporary American monumental buildings will last for the next 800 years?

Our legacy is not spires or stained glass but nocturnal ropes around the necks of the bronze statues of dead people and the defacement or removal of names. In the inconsistency of our targeting, we lack even the uniform nihilism of the iconoclasts or the French Revolution mobs. Youth today pick and choose which hero of the past goes to the contemporary guillotine based not on recalibrating his shortcomings as modern sins, but on whether his Trotskyized disappearance will affect their own careerist interests. Rename Junipero Serra Street but certainly not the familial Stanford brand, so critical to the woke students’ post-graduation plans. All slave owners allegedly deserve damnatio memoriae, but not quite Mr. Yale, from whose profitable name edgy intersectionalists dare not divorce their carefully planned investment.

Still, even for those who shrilly, amid the smoke and cinders, profess a dislike of Notre Dame, and of the French past, a sense of loss lingers. Is it the frustration over something that they know is larger than themselves, a monument that they silently concede that they could never build or even properly maintain, one that antedates them and will outlast them and all their transient ideas? In their nihilistic angst, do they catch a glimpse of something higher and recall that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”?

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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