April 18, 2019
Philip C. Johnson, Ph.D.
On Monday, April 15th, a massive fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris engulfed the church, destroying large parts of this more than 850-year-old icon of French history and Christianity. The tragedy’s poignancy is only increased because of its timing – it happened between Palm Sunday and Easter (Resurrection) Sunday.
French president, Emmanuel Macron, promised to rebuild the church. But that will take a while. At least a decade. We don’t build beautiful things much these days. The original took 200 years to complete.
French officials state that the fire was “likely accidental.” OK… I’ll go with that for now. Why should I think any differently? Am I allowed to think any differently?
Between 2016-2018 thousands of churches in France were vandalized, burned or destroyed. Who’s talking about this? Why is no one concerned?
But just for the record, and since we’re on the subject, churches in France are being burned and desecrated on a regular basis. Statues of Mary and Jesus are being beheaded and destroyed and yet, you rarely hear anything about this from the media. 875 churches in France were vandalized last year. Between 2016-2018 thousands of churches in France were vandalized, burned or destroyed. Who’s talking about this? Why is no one concerned?
But back to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Thankfully many art treasure and artifacts were saved – the 13th century rose windows, the special and beautiful stained-glass masterpieces have been saved as have other relics – each filled with their own stories, such as the supposed “Crown of Thorns,” the Tunic of Saint Louis and the copper rooster that sat on top of the collapsed spire. The Archbishop of Paris says that the Great Organ, one of the world’s most famous musical instruments (which still has some pipes from the Middle Ages), is safe. These items, other artifacts and priceless works of art will be taken to the Louvre for safe keeping.
I’m not a big fan of “religious icons” as I find them unnecessary for faith and a bit at odds with God’s issue with “images” as mentioned in the Ten Commandments. But I respect the freedom of belief and traditions of others – and respect the history and stories behind these items. Regardless, those things are important to a large group of people, so I’m glad that they were saved, if for no other reason than for their historic, contextual value to the Catholic church. This is not a week to argue over such things.
But as the smoke diminishes and the world reacts to this unexpected tragedy I find myself troubled by a couple of things:
First: The Joyful Reaction of Some Towards the Burning of a Church
France24’s Arabic Facebook page has truly appalling comments celebrating Notre Dame’s fire, thanking God for the fire and sharing their solidarity with – the FIRE.
The first thing that troubles me is the number of people on social media who either “liked” or clicked on a “smiley face” emoji in response to the burning of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, a symbol of Christianity and history. France24’s Arabic Facebook page has truly appalling comments celebrating Notre Dame’s fire, thanking God for the fire and sharing their solidarity with – the FIRE. I have read these and many other similar posts myself. On Al Jazeera’s English page there were over 7700 people who “liked” the fire and nearly 600 who responded with a “smiley face” emoticon. That was from just one of several posts regarding the incident. I cannot know for sure the backgrounds or beliefs of these individuals who found pleasure in destruction – but if you read the names, you’ll probably find that they are not Hispanic names… nor Swedish names… I’ll let you do your own research and come to your own, very obvious conclusions.
Why would anyone find joy in destruction? What group of individuals would rejoice in the burning of a church and the despair of a Christian community. I know that none of my closer friends from the Muslim world or other faiths would celebrate such a disaster. Neither would I have anything but sympathy when other faiths experience difficulties. It’s called being human.
But obviously, there were plenty who saw the burning of the Church of our Lady as a just and timely punishment from some god. That tells me a lot about those who posted such responses, what they believe and how they see the world. But of course we’re not allowed to discuss that, right? Or suggest that there might be a problem that needs to be talked out. The Media has taught us that we should just move on and pretend that nothing is happening and that any clash between cultures is probably the fault of the West – not a product of any other ideology.
My second concern: The ongoing decline of Christianity and Western Culture in Europe:
The symbolism of the burning of an iconic place of worship in connection with the luke-warmness of Christianity in Europe during Easter week is just a bit too “smash-you-on-the-head-with-a-brick” obvious. According to the Guardian’s survey, young people’s attitudes towards Christianity in Europe is bleak.
According to the Guardian’s survey, young people’s attitudes towards Christianity in Europe is bleak.
“The survey of 16-to 29-year-olds found the Czech Republic is the least religious country in Europe, with 91% of that age group saying they have no religious affiliation. Between 70% and 80% of young adults in Estonia, Sweden and the Netherlands also categorise themselves as non-religious. The most religious country is Poland, where 17% of young adults define themselves as non-religious, followed by Lithuania with 25%. 70% of young people in the UK identify with no religion.”
According to a Pew Research study, most people in Western Europe still “identify” as Christian – but it seems to have little impact on their lives, church attendance or values. Identifying as a Christian is not at all the same as actually committing your life to following Christ in a way that informs your choices, thoughts, decisions, values and purpose.
There is hope in other places – Christianity is growing in South America, Africa and Asia.
There is hope in other places – Christianity is growing in South America, Africa and Asia. And for the sake of frame of reference, the much touted growth of Islam as the worlds “fastest growing religion” needs to be understood in the context that 99.7% of that growth is due to high birth rates, only 0.3% is due to actual conversions. (Pew Research, 2017, 2018)
Without a common cause, common history, common values and a common belief people forget who they are, where they came from and what they have produced in the past.
But for Europe – the fount of Western Civilization – it’s as if they are committing religious and cultural suicide. And along with the decline of Christianity in Europe, cultural change and confusion has come. Without a common cause, common (and understood) history, common values and a common belief (even if there is freedom to practice one’s faith in various ways) people forget who they are, where they came from and what they have produced in the past. And Western Culture has produced more than any other culture in history.
As Ben Shapiro says in his book, The Right Side of History, (2019) the combination of Jerusalem and Athens is the foundation of Western Civilization and the reason why it has been so successful and has impacted the world like no other civilization. Jerusalem represents the aspect of revelation and faith in a personal God who created us in His image and wants a relationship with us. And Athens represents reason and logic – the responsibility for humans to know, understand and discover God’s ordered world. The combination links the science and advancement of man’s knowledge along with the purpose of man – to know God and honor Him. The result of that combination produced Western Civilization.
Only Western Civilization has championed religious freedom, freedom of expression, democracy, the abolition of slavery, universal human rights and the development of the scientific method.
While all civilizations have had their evils, only Western Civilization has championed religious freedom, freedom of expression, democracy, the abolition of slavery, universal human rights and the development of the scientific method. And through time, according to Mr. Shapiro, as Western Civilization matured, it “secured the rights of women and minorities, lifted billions of people out of poverty and invented most of the modern world.”
But it seems that we’ve lost both the Jerusalem and the Athens side of that equation – and replaced it with a new religion – the religion of humanism, or progressivism which denies faith, revelation and even facts, replacing them with feelings and the pursuit of power, disguised as “social justice.” And this is happening on both sides of the Atlantic.
David Horowitz, an admitted agnostic and the author of Dark Agenda: The War to Destroy Christian America (2018), seems to have a fairly good grasp on what’s happening both in Europe and in the U.S as we move away from our Christian heritage and embrace the ideology of “social justice.”
He says, “Injustice is not caused by an abstraction called “society,” as we on the left had maintained. Nor was injustice caused by oppressive races and genders, or solely by our political enemies. Injustice is the result of human selfishness, deceitfulness, malice, envy, greed, and lust. Injustice is the inevitable consequence of our free will as human beings. “Society” is not the cause of injustice. Society is merely a reflection of who we are. The politically correct, who think it is their mission to save the world, cannot fix the problems that afflict us, because the problems are our creations. Theirs and ours. Because the self-appointed social redeemers seek too much power, and do not understand the source of evil and injustice, they will only make the problems worse.”
That’s what you get when you abandon the foundations of Western Civilization -and the balance between revelation (God’s Word) and reason (sorting out God’s ordered world).
My encouragement for France – and for all of the Western World is this: It’s time to come home – it’s time to come back to a right relationship with God.
My encouragement for France – and for all of the Western World that grew out of the remarkable aftermath of the coming of the Redeemer for mankind is this: It’s time to come home – it’s time to come back to a right relationship with God. Singer and songwriter, Amy Grant, put it poignantly in her song, “After the Fire:”
“After the fire is over. After the ashes cool. After the smoke has blown away, I will be here for you… After the the stillness finds you, after the winds of change, all that is good and true between us, this will remain the same.
Slowly… slowly…we turn the page of life. Growing….knowing…it comes at quite a price…After your time of wandering, along this lonely road, there will be many voices, mine will say welcome home…”
God is calling us back to Himself. It’s time to remember that which is eternal. If nothing else, we have learned that the things of this earth do not last – so maybe it’s times to focus on the things that do last – a relationships with the Creator of the universe, our eternity and the foundations upon which we build and lead our lives.