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The flames did more than destroy an 800-year-old landmark. It manifested the abandonment of Western history and culture, the collapse of religious morality, renouncement of objective truth and final judgment. It is the devaluing of purposeful beauty that transcends class, culture, and religion. The wounds suffered that day, amidst the smoke, the flames, and the ruins, are felt far beyond the mourners who wept at the sight. The omnipresent structure’s very architecture meant to raise the eyes upwards toward Heaven was now engulfed in smoke and flames rising into the sky; a final burnt offering to a culture that betrayed it.
In the days and weeks following the fire, the question to be answered was if there was anything left to be saved. For America, and the Western values on which it was built, the question is two-fold: is there anything left to be salvaged, and do we have the will to do it?
There is a certain advantage to an attack of destruction that girds the spirit to action. For the French, it was a massacre by fire seen from every corner of Paris elucidating the enormity of the loss. Had the Cathedral continued to plod along on its barely sustainable restoration project, it might have eventually deteriorated onto itself. The tears would be less of anguish than of the piteous eyes of a person mourning the death of an old dog – sad but ultimately expected and accepted.
Human response to loss is universal. The shock of Pearl Harbor and September 11 caused a collective call to action in America. I contrast, the slow deterioration of the foundations of our country has been met with little resistance. Piece by piece our institutions have been weakened. Our universities and public schools are teaching younger generations to foster contempt for our history, or, as in the 1619 Project, rewrite it as a nation worthy only of condemnation and eternal apologies.
Our media acts like court jesters, performing at the behest of their corporate keepers, mere entertainers for the audience’s amusement and captivation. Any real news is reported to advance an agenda or used as a club as in some deranged puppet show as analysts and experts make caricatures of themselves almost beyond belief.
The continuous attacks on religion, traditional values, and objective truths by radical leftists have taken the deepest toll on the American psyche. Generations have been conditioned into cultural socialism: the relinquishing of moral responsibility for ourselves and each other in favor of the state. Christian modesty and deference were taken for weakness, allowing anti-religious actors to flip traditional religious and orthodox views to be accepted as bigotry, conservative prudence as subjugation, freedom of worship and speech akin to violence.
America, just as on the Notre Dame Cathedral itself, classical and Christian beliefs are held in tension. The façade of rich stone-work carvings surrounding the cathedral tells the story of Christianity. It welcomes the gaze of intellectuals and illiterates alike, becoming the heroes and villains of the universal epic of humanity itself. America, with our comic-book superheroes, resembles the same threads woven through Western culture. They are the stories of the explorers, the inventors, the rebels, and the warriors. And just as Notre Dame celebrates the alchemist in one of its many alcoves, it is tempered by the ladder of a higher power. It is not the worship of pseudo-science, but a symbol of God’s power of transforming man’s sinful soul through grace.
But the COVID pandemic exposed the danger of blind devotion to scientific righteousness. Political tyranny masquerades as an earthly savior, contrary to liberal Western thought. The author Lionel Shriver has written extensively about ceding our religious institutions and social order to superficial cultural populism. It manifests itself in exercise classes replacing religious services, politics over devotionals, and personalities over truth. As we allowed government to be the sole institution to which we pledged our loyalty, we became unmoored from our anchors of family, friends, schools, neighborhood bars, and community hangouts. It’s easier to commandeer an unanchored boat.
Now, we are very nearly losing our humanity. We’ve been forcibly stripped of that which makes us human: freedom to worship, interpersonal relationships, in-class learning, freedom of expression – even the overlooked occasion of taking audience as we bear witness to the beauty and art around us through our great libraries, museums, and concerts. They are celebrated not in front of tiny digital screens, but through the full effect of intimate experience in a communal setting. The criminalization of personal interactions and the shaming of freedom are causing us to lose touch with each other. We were told that giving up our humanity is a servile sacrifice. But the hardening of the heart hollows the soul. Where those in power –on either side of the political divide – use an empty, fearful, chaotic world to enslave us in our inhumanity, those who know such troves exist to enrich each other spare nothing to save it.
The novelist Ralph Ellison wrote in Invisible Man, “Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.”
Notre Dame was 182 years in the making. It has survived plagues, wars, and despotic rulers. It is wounded, but not lost. In a similar way, America is built on centuries of western thought and ideas, all to construct this great nation. Are we going to set aside what politicians tell us is in our best interest, but believe will advance only their agenda? Are we going to invest our collective will into future generations to ensure their freedom, even as we are fighting our own battle of apathy? Surely an idea as beautiful, good, and right as America is worth saving from the oncoming fire, just as the great monuments within its shores.
We are still active participants in fanning the flames of liberty, not of ruin. We stand at the precipice looking out at a world that still needs a strong, deliberate, virtuous America. We should remember the words of the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus in 2008, “We shall not weary, we shall not rest, as we stand guard at the entrance gates and the exit gates of life, bearing witness in word and deed to the dignity of the human person-of every human person.”
We must go on.Published in