Notre Dame: Sacred Spaces and Secularity

In the barrage of opinion pieces, pictures of friends’ newborns, and goofy memes that flash across my Facebook newsfeed, never giving the mind very long to settle on a single subject, it was striking to encounter when mindlessly scrolling the same news story four times in a row from different media outlets. Fire was attacking the famous Notre Dame de Paris. 

Before long, reactions from former tourists and future visitors, art historians and architectural experts, religious leaders and politicians poured forth, most of which expressed the common sentiment that this event ought to be mourned. These commentators, however, offer quite different perspectives as to why this qualifies as a tragic misfortune. Submitting their counter perspectives, the detractors soon followed, those who highlight the disparity in response to the fires of black church in Louisiana or scoff at the billionaires pledging millions while inequality between the wealthy and poor surges

One might leave it at that: People have their varied opinions, and that’s their prerogative. But such an attitude does not satisfy the reflective individual, especially the Christian seeking to live faithfully to the gospel. Am I blowing this fire out of proportion and failing to recognize racial, social, or economic inequality? Can I really view a fire, in which no lives were lost, as a great tragedy? If this is such a tragedy, what meaning do I think this particular structure possess such that its loss is so deeply felt? 

By categorizing the varying public responses to the Notre Dame fire, one may create a framework to filter the cacophony of voices broaching the subject. Unearthing the underlying currents behind these perspectives would go further. It would reveal how Western society conceptualizes, and has disenchanted, spaces once held to be sacred and could provide Christians with a hermeneutic for properly making sense not only of the Cathedral of Notre Dame but also of any space that might be regarded as sacred, holy, special. Ultimately, that is the discussion which the recent fire stirs or ought to stir up: How can a particular space be imbued with special meaning or become sacred?

The Enchanted Sacred

In opinions surrounding the Notre Dame fire, one is bound to come across the term “sacred.” But the concept of the sacred today does not quite follow the concept as understood by late medieval Catholic worshippers, those who would have prayed, confessed, and observed the Eucharist in Notre Dame originally. They held, if only on a subconscious level, that objects could inhere meaning. That is to say, the special significance attributed to a particular object came not from the meaning granted it by the mind of a human agent but from the thing itself. 

My guitar, dubbed “The Rev,” for example, holds special meaning to me (hence, the name) not because of any inherent quality but because I have assigned meaning following a series of specific circumstances, namely playing in a multitude of worship services for over a decade. But it fails to exerts a real power upon me. If it affects me, it does so only because my mind has assigned it meaning such that I feel a comfort and confidence with it that I do not feel with other instruments.

While something like this might have held true for medievals as well, still, they more often than moderns believed that a thing might, in a sense, radiate its meaning, exerting a causal influence directly upon the one who drew near. A thing might not be a mere object, but an agent with affective power. Something like this appears more often today in fantasy, such as the Ring’s growing influence over Frodo on his journey to Mt. Doom. As Charles Taylor describes, before the Enlightenment “the line between personal agency and impersonal force was not at all clearly drawn” as it is in the twentieth century (A Secular Age, 32). Rather, we might be brought “into [an object’s] field of force” in a real, potent sense (33). And an object, like the Bread and Wine or relics of saints, that impinged on us — another Taylorian term — by or toward the grace of God, one that was invested with power from the Spirit, might be called holy, sacred.

In a similar vein, a space or structure might exert its power, radiate its meaning upon the visitor. To step into that parish church or cathedral was to step out of the ordinary. In that place, heaven kissed earth, eternity bloomed in the temporal, infinity permeated the finite — not so much figuratively as in reality. A moving spiritual experience that one might feel on a mountainside during one’s solitary devotional time differs categorically. Simply by stepping into that sacred space, one more closely approached the throne of the majesty on high.

While this enchanted view of the sacred existed in medieval Europe, it lingers still. Some current voices sound symphonies of the sacred, this notion that objects and spaces inhere meaning and can exert their influence by drawing us “higher up and further back” (Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Engaging God’s World). Why would the loss of the Cathedral of Notre Dame be so devastating? Why is its current, battered state so lamentable? Because we have lost, or nearly lost, a space in the physical world in which mere humans might approach the Unapproachable! This view of the sacred might help to explain one reason some desire to see the cathedral restored.

The Disenchanted Detractors

On the other hand, many today live in what they see as a disenchanted world. They perceive things or places in the world more along the lines as I perceive my probably-too-much-beloved guitar. Their take on what the Cathedral of Notre Dame is metaphysically diverges fundamentally from the enchanted sacred position. If what it is is not a physical space set apart for special communion with God, conferring spiritual and eternal benefits, its loss is less striking and its restoration less urgent.

But while an essential component, disenchantment alone is not enough to account for the critics mentioned above. Again following Taylor’s “existential map” of the secular proves instructive. Relating the story of secularization — how belief in God became just one option among many with exclusive humanism as a justifiable position — would be to reproduce Taylor tapestry in full, but a few threads may enlighten our specific scenario.

Throughout the Medieval Ages, there were multiple levels of or different speeds to Christianity. Priests and monks could live the Christian life more faithfully but do so on behalf of the laypeople who in turn supported the clergy’s physical needs. Slowly the work of reform attempted to level the spiritual playing field. Everyone, it was thought, was called to live a holy, morally upright life. 

From one end, the Protestant Reformation, particularly the Reformed, advocated for the priesthood of all believers, that all are called to the same vocation of glorifying God. The notion grew next to this that all occupations, all things could be sanctified. From another end, the neo-Stoicism of the Renaissance increasingly emphasized human will in controlling oneself and one’s society. On top of that, humanist thinkers began to see the world less as an organism with intrinsic value but as a mechanism with instrumental value. That is, they viewed the world as manipulable toward a self-imposed end. 

From these threads, then, emerged a position that abolished the sacred/secular divide. Following the Reformed thread, all things could be sacred. Following the humanist thread, all things were secular. And whether by the sanctification and empowerment of the Holy Spirit or by the exertion of one’s own will, the belief that the society could be reformed or “civilized” grew as well. Indeed, for many this became the primary goal toward which we can work. 

Thus, when confronted with two options — the restoration of a building or the reformation of a society — those tracking these threads will choose the latter. Their rationale might reverberate with Reformation themes or humanist tones, but even more likely, those threads have unwittingly intertwined in their consciousness. A seemingly unbreakable chord now formed, that people might choose the mere structure over humanity, to utilize their vocabulary, might strike them as appalling or even immoral.

The Secularized Sacred

While some sound symphonies of the sacred, others echo lighter themes of the sacred, one that has been tamed, humanized, rationalized. These voices cannot seem to shake the fact that certain spaces seem special in a deep, serious way, and the language of the sacred returns in their vocabulary — but with a twist. A space might be labeled as sacred because of its spiritual history, the space imbibing in some vague spiritual way the prayers and structural restoration of the saints. Or else, “what makes them sacred is the intention with which we enter them.”

In both cases, the sacred has been secularized in a purely immanent frame of reference. Such spaces become saturated with piety from us and reciprocate by emanating that spirituality back to us, not from some otherly, transcendent source. While attempting to reconnect to the sacred past, these voices in reality harmonize with the secularizing tendency which begins and ends with humanity. Conclusions drawn from this perspective will be as diverse as the members of its choir and will produce more discordant sounds than sound arguments.

A church like Notre Dame has perhaps stood for so many years that it has imbibed more prayers and praises than the average place of worship. Or, again because of its age, it has acquired the blood and sweat of countless artists, stonemasons, and laborers. (How this spiritual absorption occurs is another question altogether.) Thus, its loss constitutes a real loss of the sacred, at least in part. Then again, if human intention generates the sacred, we might, with enough conviction, locate any place within this special realm. Why, then, view Notre Dame as particularly sacred, more than a country chapel or even the marketplace? Could it have gained its status by a privileged class, unconsciously encouraging us to disparage smaller, younger but equally sacred spaces? The incongruity here is startling. This not uncommon approach, with feet planted in humanist secularism while attempting to step back into a mystical world, leads to whatever view one desires and does so with an air of a rediscovered spirituality.

The Enchanted Symbol

A final voice includes fewer notes of the sacred but with that idea still hauntingly present, a shadow of the past conception now couched in the language of symbol. Notre Dame symbolizes [fill in the blank]. By raising it to the status of symbol, one acknowledges that the structure stands in relation to a quasi-transcendent reality. It signifies or represents something beyond itself. In that sense, this perspective joins voices with the old notion of the sacred, if only slightly, for its meaning comes not from human intention. Seemingly, its meaning is not bestowed upon it by us since it instantiates something from without on its own merit. 

Nonetheless, the medieval notion presupposes that the sacred is objectively real; it is holy whether or not anyone recognizes it as such. The symbolic, on the other hand, attains its meaning and any causal influence subjectively through our own understanding of the reality it supposedly represents. I have been discussing these kinds of spaces generally but also particularly with the Cathedral of Notre Dame. A few recent examples with the latter should be illuminating.

Notre Dame has a rich history. Revolutionaries converted it into the Temple of Reason. Napoleon chose there to be crowned. Joan of Arc was canonized within its walls. It has fallen into disrepair and, thanks in large part to Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame which romanticized the dilapidated structure, been restored with a number of modifications. It endured two world wars relatively unscathed, protecting numerous artifacts of spiritual and aesthetic quality. Just on these merits alone, some believe it is worth saving once again. 

But some go further: it symbolizes the whole movement of History. In particular, it represents Humanity — our artistry and engineering; reason and ingenuity; fragility, perseverance, and resourcefulness. History and Humanity — these are the quasi-transcendent realities which possess the cathedral. Of course, one recognizes Notre Dame to be instantiations of these realities only insofar, for example, as one views history in Hegelian terms as a kind of organism struggling towards an ever-changing synthesis. If you see the metanarrative of history differently, you might not relate Notre Dame to History. Likewise, your understanding of the human condition might differ from that presupposed in these symbolic narratives. As such, you might not attach the same level of meaning to this particular structure as others.

The same could be said of the other common symbolic narratives — that Notre Dame has symbolized the power of the Catholic Church, that it symbolizes the current state of the Church, that it stands at the heart of France and binds the people together in a way that faith no longer does. One’s understanding of religion or nationhood informs one’s perception of the symbol.

Still, where a shared understanding or a common imagination exists, an object or space, because of its inherent qualities — aesthetic skill or geographic location, for example — may be charged with meaning from the outside, so to speak, and impinge back on the beholder, forming him or her in the direction of the common imagination.

The fire at Notre Dame might indicate just this. As French commentator Anne-Elisabeth Moutet put it, “There’s a muscle memory of Catholicism in France and it came back” despite the nation’s avowed secularism. Notre Dame as symbol sparked a religious ember, reminding some of their spiritual past. For them, to lose this symbol is to lose that greater reality.

Filtering the Noise

Certainly, more issues swirl around and collide in this particular event than we might have initially recognized. Surveying the range of voices responding to the unexpected Paris fire fosters understanding that we might better appreciate diverse perspectives, which promotes constructive dialogue. Though the reflective, faithful Christian does strive toward this end, sympathy, unchecked by truth, turns to sentimentality and potentially acceptance of serious error. Which voice regarding the sacred, then resonates most closely with biblical truth so that our dialogue aims toward real human understanding and flourishing? Can some places truly exert a kind of holy influence over us or bring us closer to the Almighty?

[Disclaimer: While I attempt to let Scripture speak on its own, theology requires “thinking God’s thoughts after him” to quote Herman Bavinck, an arduous and complex task that more easily occurs within a certain framework. Mine is a Reformed perspective, which I hold to be the most biblically faithful one while realizing that others might interpret the text differently but with no less piety.]

To begin, something like the enchanted appears in Scripture, especially the Old Testament. The ground surrounding the burning bush, Mt. Sinai as Moses received the Law, the Tabernacle and later the Temple, the Ark of the Covenant, blood of the Passover lamb, water to cleanse impurity, a coal from the altar of God. All of these objects or spaces inhere meaning and affect the one who approaches. In all but the last three cases, to make contact in an unworthy manner actually results in death or destruction because the presence and holiness of God rests so extraordinarily on that place (e.g., Exodus 19; Leviticus 10; 1 Samuel 5-6). In the latter two cases, the objects are suffused with power to atone for sin and purify the unclean so that one might draw near to God. All of these, then, can rightly be called sacred or holy in addition to enchanted.

In the New Testament, the enchanted world seemingly persists. When the bleeding woman touched Jesus’ garment, healing power goes out from him (Mark 5:24-34). Handkerchiefs that contacted Paul likewise healed the sick (Acts 19:11-12). These objects possess agency to effect real, physical change. But a few notable developments occur around Jesus’ death and resurrection which alter that which is properly sacred.

As Jesus gave his last breath, the curtain in the temple, separating the Most Holy Place from the rest of the temple was torn in two (Matthew 27:51), unleashing what we might term concentrated holiness. Subsequently, the people of God, united to Christ, now constitute the temple of God, in whom the Holy Spirit resides (1 Peter 2:4-5; Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Corinthians 3:16-17). The sacred extends further than stone walls, not bound by object or location, but inheres in a people, who can approach the throne of grace confidently and directly in Christ (Hebrews 4:16; 10:19; Ephesians 3:12). 

Furthermore, New Testament writers teach that the structures of the sacred in Old Testament — those physical objects and spaces impregnated with spiritual power — were “a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:17; cf. Hebrews 8:5; 10:1). These typologies find their fulfillment in him. Therefore, one does not enter a temple, a physical sacred space to approach the presence of the Father. Rather, one steps into Christ, uniting with him, the true Temple. 

The New Testament seemingly does not eliminate the notion of the enchanted, but it does reorient our understanding of the sacred because of Christ’s person and work. When regarding spaces like Notre Dame as sacred in the pre-Reformational sense, the tendency to over-adore that space can naturally arise in the visitor, who views the space as holding the presence of God in a unique way as the temple did. The movement of the biblical story, however, suggests that the temple moves from a building to a people, and we would do well not to reverse that narrative arc.

The disenchanted detractors, however, have not quite followed the trajectory of the Bible’s teaching here either. Reformational understandings of the sacred, as noted, became entangled with the neo-Stoic project of remaking oneself and one’s society. The Reformers did want to see holistic gospel transformation in the lives of believers — all who place their faith in Christ — and, especially in the case of Calvin’s Geneva, whole societies. But the goal was not the transformation as such. Transformation results from reconciliation with God in Christ, the primary objective. The humanistic entangling twists the goal and consequence, turning the consequence into the goal itself. This reorientation often de-emphasizes our need for the forgiveness of sins in order to spend eternity with God, a theocentric perspective, and raises instead the need for justice, equality, and healing, an anthropocentric perspective. The detractors place material well-being over spiritual well-being or else reduce the spiritual into the material. Thus, they disvalue spaces like Notre Dame in ways that may not be entirely appropriate.

Another kind of detractor picks up on the biblical language more keenly. If the people of God become the temple of the Holy Spirit in Christ, then why value a particular location so highly? Is it not true that the sacred emerges wherever the people of God gathers? Touching any special objects or entering consecrated spaces or times don’t lift you any closer to eternity. Well, yes and no.

Certainly, the people of God constitute a “holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9) in their gathering, but the Bible nowhere encourages a disembodied spirituality centered on mystical contemplation alone. The “secularized sacred” overcorrect on this point. Attempting to rescue the sacred and the spiritual, they follow a humanistic tendency while flirting with pantheism: Our intention can transform anything into the sacred, a new kind of paganism.

The embodied spirituality of Scripture manifests differently. God grants certain physical aids, charged with meaning in the enchanted sense (or approximate to the enchanted sense), to unite us with Christ so that we may have fellowship with the Father. Firstly, the Word of God functions as a seed that drives us to sprout into the kingdom of God, to be spiritually born again (1 Peter 1:23-25). Indeed, without the hearing and receiving of the Word, faith remains an impossibility (Romans 10:14-17). That will strike many as a more cerebral than physical encounter, yet all human communication requires the physical, unless telepathy has developed in some portion of the population. The heard and read Word does have a certain affective power about it.

Secondly, and perhaps more persuasively, God has ordained two specific acts to work toward our uniting to Christ that most closely resemble the enchanted sacred: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The participatory language of Romans 6:3-11 and Colossians 2:8-15 regarding baptism and of John 6:50-59 and 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 regarding the Lord’s Supper suggest the real spiritual efficacy of these objects in conferring grace when received in faith. These truly are holy rites. Other objects and acts in the New Testament take up this work in a secondary manner as well, such as anointing with oil, laying on of hands, and congregational singing. Something about these resembles the enchanted sacred of the Old Testament as they inflame faith. 

The New Testament on the one hand enlarges the sacred — anyone, place, or thing can be made holy — while at the same time modifying those means which engender holiness. Sacred physical spaces specifically do not find much ground for continuance after the revelation of Christ. The physical temple in Jerusalem gave way not to cathedrals but to those united to Christ, wherever they might gather. 

This, however, does not preclude symbols from being infused with real meaning as mentioned above, a kind of “enchanted symbol.” In fact, it makes perfect sense that a particular space which regularly received the gathering of the faithful might acquire a symbolic status, especially if the inherent aesthetic qualities of the space readily lent themselves to a spiritually symbolic interpretation. If the structure signifies, say, the majesty of God or the suffering of Jesus or the victory of the empty tomb, then that symbol might be working toward our primary goal, reconciliation with God in order to share in his abundant life. Once that symbol has taken root in the imagination of a particular group, it could then impinge upon them the meaning it has in a sense soaked in.

Notre Dame, in my view, is not a sacred space, but it is a powerful symbol. Does that which it symbolizes direct us toward God or toward realities that comport with biblical truth? Perhaps. But if that were true, we would have to make a case that its aesthetic characteristics are in fact fitting with and give expression to certain biblical ideals. At least we now know what to ask of any space that hints of the sacred. Rather than dismissing the space as sacred outright because we reject the notion of an enchanted sacred, or rather than assuming that human intention can consecrate any space in a pantheistic sense, we can recognize that particular spaces can take on meaning which helps to direct us toward reconciliation with God.