Notre Dame will rise again. Miraculously, some would insist, although that would detract from the efforts of the Parisian fire service which worked through a long and terrible night to douse the flames to save the cathedral’s essential structure.
Money will be no object in the restoration. Nor will it be a problem: within 48 hours, according to published reports, over one billion dollars had already been raised for that purpose, mainly from voluntary donations by corporations and wealthy individuals, and not all of them French. More, much more, money is on the way – and that is to exclude whatever the French government intends to stump up, which must be considered without limit.
All of which is heartwarming news – especially, though by no means exclusively, for Christians. Notre Dame is an architectural and artistic icon, a monument to man’s ingenuity, and I am hard pressed to find reasons to object to its restoration to former glory (although one prominent architect has called on the authorities to design a new structure, on the grounds that the old one – which he describes as a ‘palimpsest of time’ – cannot and should not be replicated but replaced, as parts of it have been over the centuries).
But as impressive as the rescue response has been, I found myself pondering what the founder of the religion would have made of it all.
The carpenter in him might have relished the prospect of all that work coming the way of his trade, but would this humble man, who dismissed any form of ostentation as vanity, have regarded Notre Dame as a suitable memorial to his – or rather His – and His mother’s memory, in the first place? In which case one must ask what would he have thought of all that money being spent to restore it when billions of people around the world were in so much more need of it? What would Jesus of Nazareth have spent the money on: rocks or people?
The answers, based on the character of the man described in the Bible, are self-evident. To put it mildly, He would have frowned on both the building and the repairs as appalling – needless and inappropriate extravagances that fly in the face of everything he ever taught. Devout Christians, Catholics in particular, will no doubt find such a notion unthinkable and blasphemous. Cathedrals like Notre Dame, and St Peter’s in Rome, and Westminster Abbey in London, and all the other vast medieval edifices erected to the Glory of God – whatever their artistic and historic significance – reflect more the vainglorious impulses of their sponsors than the imperatives of the faith.
Blasphemous such thoughts may be, but on any objective interpretation of the teaching of Jesus, as recorded in the Bible, they are inarguable.
Does that mean I am arguing for leaving Notre Dame in its present state of disrepair? The rational atheist in me argues for precisely that. But there is that other part, sentimental and transcending rationalism and animus towards religion, which recognizes that history must be served and preserved.
One final thought kept occurring to me: what would the late Christopher Hitchens have made of it all?