As the band Cinderella said in their 1988 hit, “You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.” That song’s refrain started playing itself in my head as I watched the flames shooting up from Notre Dame cathedral last week. Anyone who knows Europe knows that Notre Dame is one of the great living symbols of European culture. And this has remained true even after many Europeans seem to have forgotten the origins of their culture.
To mix and stretch metaphors, the silencing of the bells of Notre Dame is a wake-up call for Europe and the West. The symbolism of this conflagration, and the reaction to it, piles one layer of meaning upon another to a dizzying height. I ask your indulgence to examine just a few of these symbolic associations.
Firstly, the fire started at the base of the spire that reached up almost 200 feet above the roof of the cathedral, in a great gesture of humanity looking upward for, and giving recognition to, a higher level of meaning above and beyond the earthly cacophony of Parisian streets and city life. Such is the nature of cathedrals: They “reach to the heavens” literally and figuratively.
Of course, the vast majority of Notre Dame is made out of stone; it cannot burn and it will last for thousands of years. And that was exactly the point. One hopes that the symbolism of this design concept has not been lost on we, the citizens of the First World. To use an apt, but frightening turn of phrase from contemporary military strategy: The burning of Notre Dame was a strike that has engendered “shock and awe” across all levels of society, and not only in France. More than a billion dollars has already been raised for the repairs. Prior to the fire, it was not easy just to cover the costs of routine maintenance.
Bear with me, the following point is not a non sequitur: One of the stumbling blocks halting ratification of a formal Constitution for the European Union has been that the document, as it stands, makes no reference to (the) role of Christianity as a foundation for European culture and government. In 2005, France refused to ratify the EU Constitution. The EU Treaty of Lisbon was ratified in 2007, but there is still no Constitution per se. Clearly, Brussels (shorthand for the EU’s bureaucracy housed there) does not want to recognize religion in any way, shape or form.
Yet, in about 10 days, a billion dollars of private money was pledged to repair and restore Notre Dame — and a campaign to encourage small-size donations from the general public hasn’t even started. I hope (and even pray) that Notre Dame’s restoration may lead to a restoration of recognition for the all-important role that the Christian religion has played in the creation of European and Western culture.
Just to mention a few items. Some are prone to say that democracy and human rights began with the ancient Greeks, but as a scholar of Classical civilization, I am here to tell you that is not really true. Vast numbers of people living in ancient Greece and Rome were not citizens and had no rights — in fact, a huge percentage (30% to 50%) were slaves. Slavery was put out of business around the Mediterranean and in Europe by the Roman Church through a series of decrees starting in the 400s. The secular Roman Law code, in and of itself, would never have shut down slavery. It took Christianity a thousand years, but it finally did succeed, and it played the leading role in defeating slavery.
The first hospitals, the first schools and the first universities were all accomplishments of Christianity and the Church in Europe. The creation of our modern conception of human rights comes from a priest named Bartolome de las Casas (1484-1566), who worked his entire life to defend the indigenous peoples of the New World. The 20th-century Labor Movement that resulted in widespread betterment of workers via unionization was closely linked to Christianity, especially through the work of the famed lay Catholic activist and journalist Dorothy Day (1897-1980). Historians have long recognized that modern science came out of developments in the late Middle Ages in the so-called “Cathedral Schools.” More generally, modern science comes out of the conviction that we can “read God’s book of Creation” by studying the natural world and mathematics in greater and greater detail. Most other cultures, including the Greeks and Romans, did not have such a conviction — to them, the world was governed by the random whims of gods and/or the random movements of tiny bits of matter that they called “atoms.”
Somebody once said, or should have, that when we lose touch with our roots, we lose touch with our selves. We have to know where we have come from to know where we are and where we are going. We used to call the West “Christendom,” and that was a useful word. It really did, and does, reflect an important aspect of the historical reality of who we actually are and why the phrase “Western Culture” has had a definable and recognized meaning across many centuries. Probably the two most powerful symbolic representations of “Christendom” are St. Peter’s Basilica (the Vatican) in the heart of Rome and Notre Dame in the heart of Paris.
It is no accident that so many of the great cities of Europe have been built around great and lasting religious architecture, great buildings that have taken, each one of them, hundreds of years to complete. Each cathedral is a living, breathing monument to the complex, comprehensive, community-building mission of Christianity during the past 2,000 years. That is a long time. Very few (if any) other institutions have lasted even half that long. Regardless of how religious, or non-religious, we may choose to be, the fact remains that the Christian religion has made us who we are on such a deep level that it is even possible for many of us to “forget” this fact. But forgetting about something doesn’t mean that something doesn’t exist.
So, when the bells of Notre Dame begin ringing again, they will ring, I think, with a new significance. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” It can be hoped that the restoration of Notre Dame, especially her spire reaching up into the sky, will call us back not only to hearing those wonderful bells, but to hearing the reverberations of our Christian traditions, which have provided the solid foundation stones upon which our entire civilization has been built and stands.
But the spire has to be rebuilt from scratch. A competition has been announced to find a new design — it probably will not be an exact replica of the original. How supremely fitting. The foundation, the walls and their glorious flying buttresses still stand strong. It is up to us, at the beginning of Christendom’s third millennium, to decide how we will, at this point in time, continue to reach toward heaven, while building on the stones put in place by our ancestors. That’s exactly what has to be done.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part-time in Mexico.