Is Notre Dame a religious site or a cultural site?
When Notre Dame Cathedral was burning 6 days before Easter the attention of the whole world was focused on it. The fire was spectacular and the results were unclear for more than a day. It now seems that the building itself can be saved, and even the stained glass rose windows and the pipe organ have been rescued. The fire was contained in the roof and rafters as well as the tall wooden spire above the crossing. The walls are apparently sound.
Within hours, wealthy French magnates and the French government pledged hundreds of millions of Euros for the restoration of Notre Dame. The total pledged is now more than a billion, which may be enough to do the job. This raised considerable discussion in social media. Why could Notre Dame attract such huge response while no other causes do that? In fact, France is experiencing a number of strikes and protests from workers who are underpaid, and those workers cried loudly as pledges for the church came rolling in while they were ignored. Others wondered why the Roman Catholic Church, with its untold wealth could not just pay for the work on its second-most important edifice (after St. Peter’s in Vatican City). The explanation from France is that after 1905 Notre Dame has been owned by France, not the church. It is rented to the Roman Catholics for a fee, and the church has the exclusive right to conduct religious services but must keep the building open for tourists and national events. That explains why the French government (and that means the French people) will be paying 10 million Euros for the reconstruction, but it does not explain why Notre Dame is so important that a billion people watched it burn and most of them were saddened by it, without having any religious concern at all.
The fate of the Church was not the issue. It was the fate of that building that mattered.
The Eiffel Tower is the icon of France, as the Taj Mahal is of India, Big Ben and Parliament is for England, and the Statue of Liberty is for the USA. But more tourists visited Notre Dame than the Eiffel Tower. It is more awe-inspiring and impressive. It has more historic significance, and is more expressive of human aspiration. That is the key as to why Notre Dame is probably the most important building in France even though it is not France’s symbol.
For most people, the alarm, shock and pain they felt while watching the cathedral burn did not have to do with religion, although without religion Notre Dame would never have been built and maintained for these past 800 years. It was a place of pilgrimage. Pilgrims flocked to pay homage to the cathedral’s most important artifacts, “the crown of thorns” planted on Christ’s head the morning he was crucified as well as a piece of the “true cross”, which were purchased (for a huge sum from the Latin Emperor of Constantinople, Baldwin II) and brought back to France by St. Louis. That attraction has diminished. Tourists are usually not pilgrims. The difference is important, and it is at the heart of the on-going debate about the relationship of culture to religion.
Clearly, we can have regard for a religious site in a way that is divorced from the way we regard the religion itself. Angkor Wat in Siam Reap, Cambodia is a cultural treasure so central to Khmer and Cambodian identity that it is on the flag of Cambodia. More than a million people a year visit Angkor Wat to marvel at the ruins (compared to 12 million who visit Notre Dame), even though all the Khmer temples are religiously ambiguous owing to the fact that they were alternately Hindu and Buddhist, and now are just archeological marvels. It takes a dedicated observer to eke out the religious content of Angkor Wat, while the cultural content threatens to be overwhelming.
Culture is the context for religion, and religion is the heart of a culture
The question, then, seems to become, “Culture may be able to do without religion, but can religion do without culture?”
The question is a false dichotomy. I am convinced that no culture does without religion. However, religion may not be contained in the manifestation of it that once was central. In fact, I submit that religion is never fully contained in any single form of it for any community that has grown large and older than three generations. Any living religion is constantly shifting. There are political entities that have denied religious affiliation, as both the USA and China have tried to do. That has not actually succeeded in either case, although one has to look harder at China to find religion operating nationally than at the USA where religion seems to dominate just about every political issue. The Maoist cult was, for a decade, the most fervent religion of the half century. No culture does without religion.
Religion is a transcendental affect, arising from a subconscious level and emerging as emotion. The first appearance is likely to be a blinding eruption. After that, an agreeable consensus develops in a community of people about how to express this affect, shared widely, and how to sustain it over time in ways suitable for such an ineffable transcendent. Then, before long, disagreements emerge over details involving moral controls and social hierarchies. Religion is a fluid and organic function, defiant of all attempts to contain it, no matter how persistent and confident religious functionaries may be, and they tend to be very persistent and confident, often dangerously so.
Obviously, then, no religion does without culture. Culture is to religion as the sea is to whales. The sea may do without whales, but it would not be exactly the same sea without them. Nor can whales do without the sea. They are distinct but inseparable. Religion becomes (inevitably, I think) the cultural heart of a people. Notre Dame is the cultural heart of France. It is a metaphor for France, symbolizing what the nation was when it was presumably at its best. And it is a cultural gem in the crown of Western Civilization.
Old nations have such a memory and memorials which stand for them, whether the religion that built the monuments is current or not. Every religion today is beholden to the past even when the past is elapsed. Pharonic religion has gone the way of the Delphic Oracle, but the shadow of the pyramids lays over Egypt and all its people, be they Muslim or Coptic Christian or something else. Greek Orthodoxy has acquired almost all its forms and rituals from Byzantium, but the Parthenon is the cultural metaphor for Greece, from which Greek religion and atheism alike have inherited attitudes, language, and a whole lot more, and without which one is not Greek.
Speaking of Byzantium, one of the best examples of the “cultural heart of a people”, as distinct from its current religious affiliation, is Santa Sophia in Turkey. Hagia Sophia is no longer the citadel of Byzantine religion and the chapel of the Emperor, nor is it any longer an Ottoman mosque. Still, if anything were to happen to that building every Turk would be sorely afflicted. Turkish identity would be assaulted. What it means to be Turkish is symbolized in Hagia Sophia.
Young nations and amalgamated nations do not yet have that. It is hard, in ethnically diverse nations like the Philippines and Indonesia to identify a single cultural heart. For the relatively new nation of Australia what is the cultural heart, Ayres Rock or the Sidney Opera House? Neither, I think; not yet. Nor does the USA, being both recent and culturally diverse, have such a cultural heart. Instead, for nearly 200 years, the nation has been trying to develop an entire city as its spiritual fulcrum. Washington is both the house of national government and a celebration of slippery national identity. In the process, a new religion has developed, a civil religion continually endangered by immigrating ethnic diversity. The long-term effect of this is too soon to tell. One thing is clear: conflict over American culture is distinct from how Americans deal with religious diversity in their communities, where dozens of religious institutions and centers of worship reside side by side in every city. It is at the intersection of religion and culture, when people think in cultural rather than religious terms, that dispute arises and sometimes erupts into violence.
Why is it important?
The fire in Notre Dame on Tuesday of Holy Week helped clarify for me that religion and culture may be overlapping and interdependent, but they are distinct. Then on Easter in Sri Lanka a squad of fanatical ISIS bombers attacked Christian churches and high-visibility hotels loaded with Easter tourists. In the first case the accidental destruction of the world’s number-one tourist attraction and French cultural demarcator evoked anguish and determination to restore the landmark, at whatever cost. In the second case the intentional slaughter of more than 350 people evoked outrage and plans for revenge, but no ideas about what to do to eliminate the plague of violence, or how we have gotten to the point we have no idea about what to do.
Reaction to these two events underscored how important and how difficult it is to remember it is a cultural war going on but religions have not opposed it. It does no good to drag out the trope that all religions preach peace and religion is not to blame for crimes against humanity. It is true that most religious people are nice. But religions, as we have them in the real world, are all guilty of failure to work effectively and relentlessly for the transformation of culture. Even when there have been counter-cultural efforts by religious groups, they have been merely tolerated by cautious religious authorities, and avoided by the majority. As a whole, it is impossible to deny that religions have failed to provide critical distance between their visions of fulfilled life in a peaceful world, and the aspirations of empire which postponed such visions in order to get a better hold on power first. Power is addictive. Empires never have enough of it to decide, “Now we can get on to the more important things of enabling everybody to have well-lived lives in a peaceful world.”
Cultural entities lack the outward perspective to reform. They are focused inwardly. They are dedicated to conserving and commemorating symbols of that which was awe-inspiring and impressive, historically significant, and presumably eminently expressive of human aspiration. They are abetted by a massive passive majority who hasten to deny involvement in violence or hatred. People with a new fervor for humanity are desperately needed, religious people. Only people with fire in their guts, fanned to religious intensity, can veer humanity back on course toward that which religions all say should be the destination.
You, your time has come.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.