Unbent, Unbowed, Broken

Unbent, Unbowed, Broken

April 2019 | Asides

Notre-Dame brought people together for a common purpose. The fire ravaged cathedral will rise again. This Easter, we should seek to repair our fractured society.

On Monday night, one of the finest examples of gothic architecture went up in flames. As a history buff, I looked on in horror as firefighters battled the fire, as a Christian I watched in despair as officials predicted the total destruction of the heart of French Catholicism.

In the end, Notre-Dame de Paris was saved although it appears to have been a close run thing. The celebrated roof built using a thousand year old timbers may be gone, but the structure is intact along with the famous organ and rose windows. Much has been made about the rescue of the relics the cathedral held, which include the crown of thorns. However, the most powerful testament of all was that taken on Tuesday morning when journalists joined President Macron in inspecting the damage.

No other image better captures the enduring power of the Christian faith than the shining gold cross standing tall amidst the burnt wreckage in the morning sunlight. That it should be so widely published in the most important week in the liturgical calendar is fortuitous timing. Easter is a story of despair and mourning followed by hope and rebirth. The world experienced that roller-coaster journey on Monday night and Tuesday morning as events unfolded in Paris. According to Christian doctrine, Jesus died on the cross so that man's sins could be forgiven, a sacrifice that is celebrated this Easter weekend. So the fire at Notre-Dame will give way in time to a more beautiful cathedral, although perhaps not in the timescale that Emmanuel Macron initially promised.

Already, the fire has had a powerful impact on the French people. Notre-Dame has stood for over 800 years at the heart of the French capital as a testament to the faith that has had such an important influence on European culture and history. On Monday night, the citizens of Paris returned that sentiment. They stood united observing the flames, while some prayed and sang Ave Maria as their cathedral burned. For a few days, the tragedy brought together a deeply divided nation, but already that shared unity is fraying. There has been much discussion about the 19th century spire, and whether the new spire should be a faithful recreation of the original or a new design.

With President Macron's delayed response to the Gillet Jaune protests due any day, it is likely this spirit of fraternity will be strained further. All across Europe there are deep divides between the winners and losers of globalisation. For the first time in the democratic era, questions are being asked not just about the policies and objectives of other social groups but also about the legitimacy and morality of the concerns that motivate their agenda.

Throughout European history, religion has played a central role in bringing societies and nations together. This has not always had positive consequences, but by providing the moral and ethical framework upon which the public sphere is founded it at least gave confidence that all factions had a shared sense of destiny under God. This has disappeared, just as the Internet has allowed interest groups across borders to form echo chambers of mutually reinforcing debate that had served to perpetuate conspiracy theories and delegitimise dissent.

There are multiple causes for this and no easy solutions, but a few lessons from the man whose death and rebirth we remember over the Easter holiday would not go amiss. The core message of Christianity is eternal salvation through faith in God and a neighbourly love for our fellow man. This is still relevant today even for a society that has abandoned its belief in God and rejected the doctrine of eternal salvation. We must look beyond our selfish desires, reach out to those we despise and seek to support our neighbours in their time of need. When we disagree with those neighbours about their needs and concerns, we should continue to be friendly and supportive even when we are clear about our disagreements. It is only by listening and understanding the perspectives of those we disagree with that shared challenges can be overcome.

We must accept many will follow lifestyles we disagree with, be that due to different cultural backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses or social groupings. That is their right, and we must respect their ability to do it even when we disagree with their choices. At the same time, we should be firm in our own beliefs. We must hold ourselves to higher standards than society demands. If our beliefs are challenged then defend them peacefully, but be careful of interpreting genuine criticism as a personal attack. That is the path to discord and social breakdown.

Christians are taught that any sin can be forgiven by God and that in the Kingdom of Heaven repentant sinners are celebrated. So it should be in the kingdoms and republics of earth. When people come together for a common purpose they can achieve amazing things. Notre-Dame has stood for nearly 900 years as a home for the Christian faith and a testament to human ingenuity. It will continue to stand for the next 900 years, not just as a tourist attraction but as a working cathedral in which Mass will be celebrated daily. That is an outcome we should all celebrate, regardless of our religious beliefs.

Written by Alan Chatfield