Notre Dame’s tragic fire has inspired a global reaction as many grieve the damage to such a timeless, historic structure.
Yet Notre Dame is far more than that – it is a major expression of Western Christianity. It has housed the crown of thorns Christ wore on the Cross and numerous other spiritual treasures, and is filled with symbols and depictions of faith.
This event has prompted many to wonder aloud about the place of beauty in the Christian Church, or the lack thereof. It’s a question worth pursuing.
Let us start first with a gut check. Modern Christian churches have, by and large, cast the notion of beauty aside in building their places of worship. Coffee shops? Check. Big screens? Check. Cool logos? Check.
There’s a reason that people fly to places like France, Greece, and Jerusalem to visit beautiful old churches. We have some in America, but few are from modern times. Given the opportunity and the resources, most modern churches would rather build a massive auditorium than a structure such as the National Cathedral.
In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis famously defended the idea that beauty was a real, objective, observable phenomenon. He fought against the notion, from a textbook of the time, that to say something was beautiful merely reflected that our feelings were beautiful.
Why is this? Because beauty is an incarnate reality of an eternal truth.
This was confirmed by the Seventh Ecumenical Council, accepted by most Christians, which helped to stamp out the scourge of iconoclasm from Eastern Christianity. Iconoclasm that was inspired, in large part, by Islam.
In Islam, images are prohibited in worship. Instead, they turn to the Qu’ran and the Qu’ran alone – indeed, they believe it was divinely dictated directly, verbatim, to the prophet Muhammad.
Christians feel differently. We believe that the writers of the New Testament, for instance, were certainly inspired, but wrote in their own words (except for the quoted words of Christ). They knew God, and wrote down His truths.
And in the Incarnation, God became relatable and knowable – he took on flesh of our flesh. If smartphones existed, we could have taken pictures of Christ.
Smartphones didn’t exist, so some early Christians did the next best thing: they painted pictures, because they knew something of God and wanted to remember Him continually. The Church had a memory of Him. They built beautiful churches. They put up the Cross everywhere to remind the faithful of His death and resurrection.
These symbols of faith adorn most ancient Christian churches dating after the Edict of Milan, which legalized Christianity in AD 313. Prior to that time, the faith was illegal. After, Christianity quickly began to take over the Roman Empire and by the end of the 4th century, it had come to dominate much of life in the Roman Empire.
And as a result, Christians built houses of worship which were beautiful and adorned. Christians also gave to the poor and helped people in need, of course. Yet, that didn’t stop them from building beautiful churches in honor of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Indeed, consider John 12, where Jesus went to Bethany. This is where he had raised Lazarus from the dead after four days. In John 12:3-8, we read:
Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, who would betray Him, said, “Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it.
But Jesus said, “Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial. For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always.”
In worship, we join a heavenly chorus singing praises to God. Can it be denied that places such as Notre Dame encourage reverence and devotion to Christ by establishing an environment of holiness?
In the late 10th century, Prince Vladimir of Kiev wanted to unite the peoples of Rus, who would in later times form the nation we know today as Russia. He knew that religion was an excellent tool with which to do this. Vladimir himself had not been a particularly religious fellow in much of his life – he had 800 concubines – but even he recognized the powerful truth of faith in the world. But which would it be? Christianity? Islam? Something else?
Thus, he sent emissaries to different religious centers to investigate which faith could unite his people. They arrived in Constantinople in 987 and visited the great church of Hagia Sophia, since AD 537 the centerpiece of Eastern Christianity.
They reported back to Vladimir thus:
And we went into the Greek lands, and we were led into a place where they serve their God, and we did not know where we were, on heaven or on earth; and do not know how to tell about this. All we know is that God lives there with people and their service is better than in any other country. We cannot forget that beauty since each person, if he eats something sweet, will not take something bitter afterwards; so we cannot remain any more in paganism.
And so, the Rus adopted Christianity. Not in spite of beauty, but because of it. Russia is still a Christian nation, even in spite of many decades of atheistic government oppression, and Christianity there is resurgent at the moment.
After the fall of the Byzantine Empire, Hagia Sophia ceased to be a church. It became a mosque, and now is a museum. When it was turned into a mosque, much of the Christian artwork – pictures, icons, mosaics, and symbols of the faith – was destroyed or covered up. Today, Arabic letters, not iconography, adorn much of the inside of Hagia Sophia. Because, of course, Islam prohibits images.
And we return again to the question of why we have beautiful churches at all. What is the point?
Notre Dame, and other places like it, are special not because they are merely pieces of worldly artwork, or even because they somehow contain God Himself – the Apostle Paul tells the philosophers on the Areopagus that God does not dwell only in temples made with men’s hands. No, the people who built these churches did not believe that the churches, or the symbols of faith within them, were somehow God Himself.
Instead, they are special because they elevate the faithful into the presence of God more fully in the worship – and surely, that’s worthwhile.
This phenomenon, by the way, is not restricted to any particular branch of Christianity. I’ve been to extraordinarily beautiful Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox churches just as I’ve been to spartan ones of all three branches, too.
But in the wake of the tragedy at Notre Dame, let us ask ourselves why it is a tragedy. Why does it so affect us?
Consider, again, the point made by C.S. Lewis. Consider whether beauty is indeed a mere construct of the mind – or whether it is an infinite reality we can grasp, smell, taste, hear, and see.
As our nation and the West slide away from Christianity as a dominant cultural theme, let us consider the place of beauty in drawing both the faithful and the society at large back into the fold of God’s Kingdom.