The fire and partial destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris gripped the world in real time. The sight of the wood-and-lead spire collapsing gave us the same feeling of helplessness we felt on 9/11: the sense that something we always thought would be there was suddenly gone in a blink of an eye.
Many reasons have been offered for why the Notre Dame fire struck so many as a traumatic, tragic moment. There was the fact that it has been standing since the 13th Century, that it is one of the world’s most beautiful buildings, as well as a place where many have personally gone and created great memories. There were also those that viewed it as a sign of the fragility of Western Civilization, the collapse of Christendom, and even a reminder of mortality itself.
As a student of religion and a frequent visitor to Notre Dame, I felt both a sense of horror and depression. Horror about the world losing such a treasure, and depression because I truly could not picture a Paris—nay, a world without Notre Dame. But after the initial shock wore off and enough of the building was salvaged to begin a multi-year renovation; I thought more about what the partially-burned Cathedral can teach us Christians.
I found the first lesson to be that the church is fragile. Notre Dame may have looked like a stunning mass of stone and marble, but it suffered from corrosion throughout the building. Centuries of leaking lead, rain, and even pigeons had taken their toll and the 856-year-old building was in need of significant renovation.
The greater church is fragile too. When the church allows itself to get overly-politicized, becomes a self-protective institution, fails to stand up to issues of injustice, and becomes known more for what it is against than what it is for; the shine of the church is dulled, and our structure weakens. Bad things do happen in this world over time; not just outside the church, but inside the church as well. All of us Christians have to be on guard for the rust and rot that can form in our churches’ expressions of Christianity. As long as we are a part of this world, our Christian communities are vulnerable to erosion and decay.
A second lesson is that the church can be viewed as a monument from the past. Although, Notre Dame has an active congregation, the majority of people in Paris do not go to church at all and most visitors admire the Cathedral as a thing of the past—something not entirely relevant to today’s world.
Today, throughout the Christian world, many of our denominations and institutions are being challenged like never before. Our societies wonder if our Christian faith is relevant in the 21st Century. And in the same way that many entered Notre Dame with awe but walked out still without faith, a lot of our societies still don’t see the church as relevant. They see us keeping alive an ancient faith as opposed to one that is actively engaging and changing the world. There are still too many churches that prefer staying within our thick fortress walls, rather than demonstrate that in today’s overly-stimulated, media-saturated, and fast-moving world; faith is a road to sanity and meaning.
The third lesson is good news! The church has been renovated before, and it will be re-built and re-shaped again. Notre Dame’s steeple that we all watched fall, was from a massive renovation done in 1843 which brought a whole new appreciation to the building by the previously jaded people of France. The architects tried to honor the past, while adding new elegant touches like the now lost steeple known as la flèche. And even prior to the construction that began in 1160, the church had existed in the same location for several centuries in several different structures.
The church too, goes through periods of renovation and renewal. Whether it’s was the monastic movement of Western Christianity in the 4th Century, the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century, or the Holiness Movement and anti-slavery campaigns of the 19th Century; the Christian faith allows for critiques, self-reflection and new expressions of Christian truth. The Christian church played a critical part in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s as the life of Dr. Martin Luther King demonstrates so vividly. The church can have stone pillars of timeless truth yet be open to change and refinement; just like Notre Dame. In this temporal world that will bring temptation, corruption, blindness and other forms of spiritual erosion, renovation and renewal is a necessity.
Which brings us to the final lesson of the Notre Dame Fire: the church is resilient. Thanks to the work of the 400 brave Parisian firefighters and the brilliance of the original medieval architects, Notre Dame’s walls held, and the structure still stands. Today, there are over 2 billion Christians in the world, and our faith is still on track to be the most popular religion in the world by 2050.
Throughout the world, we are seeing Christian expressions, theologies, and missionary movements arising from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Within North America, the Christian church is starting to become more introspective regarding its witness and outreach and examining how effectively it is truly impacting our neighborhoods and society. Even in ‘Post-Christendom Europe,’ new community-based forms of the church are gaining traction and charismatic movements are growing even within the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. That means the church is not going anywhere.
We will see debates about the future of Notre Dame, particularly about how to use new technology and designs while still honoring the original design. This is the same conversation we are always having in the church as well. And those dialogues and debates can often lead to fire, brimstone, and a sense that the whole thing could burn down. But it never does. And had this particular version of Notre Dame been burnt down, a new one would have risen. Our churches function the same way. The whole incident at Notre Dame is not only a reminder of our mortality; but of our belief and commitment in resurrection and a new, better life.
About the Author: Patrick Nachtigall is the Regional Coordinator for Europe and the Middle East for Global Strategy and leads the Three Worlds Team. He is the author of 5 books on Christianity and globalization including "In God We Trust?: A Challenge to American Evangelicals" and "Facing Islam Without Fear: A Christian's Guide to Engaging the Muslim World" (also translated into German). He has an M.A. from Yale University and has been to nearly 80 countries examining the church in a variety of settings. Originally from Costa Rica, he has worked in Asia, North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America. He lives in the Black Forest, Germany with his wife Jamie and son Marco. He is available for consultations and public speaking.