Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris was more than a building. It was a unifying force across time and across the planet. Planning for the cathedral was begun in 1160, but it took 185 years before it was opened in 1345. Let that sink in.
Imagine a modern building project begun in 1835 and not yet open for business in 2019.
Consider generations of workers, architects, donors and artists who poured time, talents and treasures into a church where they would never worship.
They were building not for themselves or their children — not even their grandchildren. They were looking seven and eight generations down the road.
Most likely, moderns would have halted construction long ago. Those kinds of resources would have been diverted into a million box churches of wood and plaster.
Stones that withstand the weather of centuries do not comport with a culture capable of changing centuries-old truths like yesterday’s laundry.
Not only is the permanence of the stone construction a marvel to behold, more astounding still is the permanence of the ideas behind the stones.
Notre Dame would never have been built if the children and grandchildren of those who laid the foundation decided to transform the faith of their fathers in fundamental ways.
Yet that is exactly what modernism aims to do. The most noticeable transformations have come in the area of sexual ethics.
For decades counter-cultural forces have been working to remake marriage. They have been largely successful. Marriage as a permanent and exclusive union of a man and a woman is no longer protected by our courts, taught by public schools, or even understood by society at large.
But marriage is only the tip of the iceberg. Western culture is undergoing seismic change in other areas as well.
Any experienced teacher will tell you that respect for authority has declined precipitously in recent decades.
Disrespect for authority is not limited to the classroom or to the parent-child relationship either. The evening news not only reports, but even encourages insubordination at every level of government.
Truth-telling is another casualty of our culture of endless change.
Of course, people have always been tempted to lie to advance their personal interests. And people of all times and places have fallen to this temptation.
What marks our time as different is that even when people are caught in open lies, they often escape any real punishment and persist in them as long as there are people who still want to believe their lies.
As a result, modern culture is rapidly losing the principled ethic of telling the truth even if it causes personal loss. In its place is an ethic of “say anything.”
The result is a widespread distrust of news outlets, politicians and corporations. Meanwhile, marriages are broken by lies and false promises and our children learn that speech is not for discovering the truth but for projecting power.
Among all these recent changes, none is as alarming as the recent emergence of murder as choice.
For decades, ethical questions about the beginning of life and the ending of life have revolved around the definition of human life.
Euphemisms like “tissue,” “vegetable” and “fetus,” have been used because they can plausibly deny humanity, leaving open the possibility that destroying it remains ethical.
In recent months, however, that has changed. From Virginia governor, Ralph Northam’s, comments on public radio to the passage of New York’s draconian “Reproductive Health Act,” we are beginning to see public support for the killing of those who are openly admitted to be human beings.
What does all of this have to do with the stones of Notre Dame? Simply this: architecture in stone is meant to proclaim a God who does not change. An unchangeable God creates a stable and unchangeable world. Without that foundation, every single point of human ethics is up for grabs.
As the almighty and immutable God of Christianity has been incrementally driven out of culture, He has not left behind a purely secular and non-religious vacuum. Nature abhors a vacuum.
Modernism has replaced the Christian God with an evolving god. Our culture is not losing religion. It is changing religions.
The god of the new religion does not say, “I am the Lord, I change not” (Mal. 3:6). Rather, it asks, “how shall I change to suit your mood today?” It builds not in stone, but in plastic. It writes not in Scripture but in the ether. It doesn’t create anything but is itself forever being created.
This sort of god is not capable of building another Notre Dame. It may have the technical know-how to make precise duplicates of what was burned, but it could never have created the beauty and majesty out of its heart and mind.
By the same token, this secular deity is incapable of creating any coherent and sustainable ethic either.
New atheists have been attempting for several years to build a convincing ethic in the absence of an unchangeable God.
People like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have been trying to give solid non-religious reasons why all people should love, protect life, be truthful and be faithful. They have failed miserably.
These ideals resonate in every human heart because every human heart was created by the one God who does not change.
Love is not a product of evolution, but of creation.
Aspirations toward love may remain in a culture cut off from its creator, but they are merely remnants of a lost culture.
They may even remain for a long time — like stone ruins of an ancient cathedral. But an ever-changing God can never build a culture of love, any more than it could build a cathedral like Notre Dame.
We are increasingly becoming a culture that lives and works among the stones of an ancient cathedral with no understanding of how those stones got there.
Last Monday’s fire that gutted Notre Dame left such a pile of stones in the middle of Western culture.
Within a few days of the fire, it was reported that a billion dollars had already been donated to rebuild.
That is a hopeful sign. It remains to be seen, however, if the stones will be rebuilt into a living and worshipful cathedral or into a sterile museum of what once was.
Whatever happens, there is one image of hope that will forever be seared into my mind.
As the sun set on Paris and the conflagration was captured by a circling drone, there was transcendent beauty in the midst of the ashes.
The bright flames were doing more than consuming centuries-old treasures. They were also emitting a blazing light.
Architects of the 12th century — whether by accident or by design — made a structure that, when ignited eight centuries later, would pierce the night with a bright red cross for all the world to see. That’s the love that made our world. That’s the love that can remake it again.
Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.