What does a cathedral mean in 21st century Europe? E.J. Dickson, writing in Rolling Stone yesterday, identified the central challenge facing France in rebuilding Notre Dame. Eight centuries ago, a devout people spent 182 years building a magnificent testament to faith in an explicitly Catholic country. In 2019, the devotion that motivated the building of that great monument, to say nothing of the technical knowledge and political-religious apparatus that enabled its construction, has eroded. How can we expect a faithless people to build a cathedral that gives glory to a God in whom it no longer believes?
Patricio del Real, an architecture historian at Harvard University, celebrates the erosion of faith. “The building was so overburdened with meaning that it burning feels like an act of liberation,” Del Real observes. In a sense he’s right. The theme of liberation defines Western modernity from the Protestant Revolution all the way up through the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. Liberalism liberates. It begins by severing ties to institutions, such as the Church. It proceeds by denying the ideas that those institutions embody, such as religion itself. Then it deals the final blow by rejecting the very premises on which those ideas rest, such as our very capacity to perceive, reason, and know reality. According to this liberated culture, nothing can be known for sure, and everything must be tolerated.
Liberation tolerates no limits, be they political, cultural, religious, or even natural. Nevertheless, all that carries meaning is exclusive. A cathedral is a cathedral, at least in part, because it isn’t a mosque. England is England because it isn’t China. A man is a man because he isn’t a woman. Yet the impulse toward liberation demands we be all things to all people. It eschews the particular for the generic. It cowers from making any particular claims. Liberation from meaning leaves us skeptical of truth itself, comfortable only to acknowledge “your truth” and “my truth,” confident only in the reality of subjective feeling rather than objective fact.
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” as the poet John Keats observed. Beauty is particular too. Particular features make us fall in love—the texture of one’s hair, the color of one’s eyes, the shape of one’s smile. Beauty is not generic, bland, and clinical. It isn’t all things to all people. The Cathedral of Notre Dame in its endlessly intricate detail was beautiful. Modern office buildings are not.
French president Emmanuel Macron has promised to rebuild Notre Dame “even more beautifully” than before. To do so would mean to reverse the course of modernity and burden ourselves with meaning. The West will only burn and never build so long as it cannot believe.