Notre-Dame Collapses to Postmodernism

Cathedral Interior To Become Proxy for Modern Self

After the tragic 2019 fire that destroyed the spire of Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, I interviewed architecture expert, Dr. David Wang, about the significance of this Gothic masterpiece. In the two part audio conversation, which is available HERE and HERE, Dr. Wang explained about the spiritual significance of Notre-Dame cathedral and what he calls "architectural sacramentality."

Dr. Wang, who was head of the architecture department at Washington State University before his retirement, showed how an appreciation for sacramentality points to an important limitation in the process of rebuilding Notre-Dame. Our culture has lost more than the spire and roof of this historic cathedral, he explained; rather, we have lost continuity with the sacramental worldview embodied in this place of worship.

The contours of the sacramental worldview have been set forth with remarkable lucidity in Dr. Wang's 2020 book Architecture and Sacrament: A Critical Theory. Dr. Wang's basic thesis was incapsulated in a point he made during our conversation. Notre-Dame cathedral, he said, is an incarnation of a sacramental ordering of the world, a way of looking at creation in which “the small human being is in the embrace of an immensely larger immaterial reality, such that the small human being receives benefit.” 

The idea that a human can be embraced by a reality beyond himself is at the heart of artwork and literature within the tradition of the sacramental imagination. We find this imaginative tradition in the craftsmanship of those who designed and built Notre-Dame cathedral through to the stories of George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis. This is the same worldview that pervades the Psalms where the inwardness of the human person—with his complex range of emotions, confusions, and vulnerabilities—is transformed by the outwardness of transcendence.

But modern man recognizes no transcendence, and thus the journey inward must always terminate in the labyrinthine vacuity of his own interiority. For modern man, great artwork like Notre-Dame de Paris does not invite participation in a sacred order, but is simply one more tool for pleasant psychological states and personal self-discovery.

I had forgotten about my 2019 conversation with Dr. David Wang until this morning when I woke up to headlines announcing that the restoration of Notre-Dame’s interior will use modern art to help congregants take a journey of emotional discovery. Here is John Hirschauer, assistant editor of The American Conservative, from an announcement this morning:

"Father Gilles Drouin, an advisor to the archbishop of Paris, was charged with leading the restoration of Notre-Dame’s interior. His plans, leaked to the Telegraph late last month, would give the interior what Willimen had proposed for the exterior: a redesign that sullies the sanctity of Notre-Dame. According to Fr. Drouin’s plan, confessionals, altars, and statues would be supplemented or replaced by modern-art installations. New light displays and sound effects would create 'emotional spaces' and 'discovery trails' for visitors. Drouin said the changes would make the cathedral more accessible to visitors, “who are not always from a Christian culture.”

What is happening here is more than just tasteless anachronism. Rather, it is a clash of two competing understandings: the sacramental worldview vs. the postmodern "therapeutic" worldview. The latter worldview is one which Carl Trueman characterizes as follows in his book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self:

"Psychological categories and an inward focus are the hallmarks of being a modern person. This is what [Charles] Taylor refers to as expressive individualism, that each of us finds our meaning by giving expression to our own feelings and desires."

Carl Trueman discussed this inward turn last Wednesday during a guest appearance on The General Eclectic podcast with Rod Dreher and Kale Zelden.

Trueman discussed various pillars of our civilization, from gender to law, that are collapsing to the vandalism of expressive individualism. And now, in the ultimate act of sacrilege, the interior of Notre-Dame will be turned into a proxy for the interiority of the modern self. I'll leave you the words of Victor Hugo, whose association with the cathedral now becomes ironic on many levels:

“Vandalism has its newspapers, its cliques, its schools, its chairs, its public, its reasons. Vandalism has the bourgeoisie on its side. … There is nothing less popular among us than these sublime edifices made by the people and for the people. We hold against them all the crimes throughout the past to which they have been witness. We would prefer to erase our entire history. We devastate, pulverize, destroy, demolish out of national spirit. By being good Frenchmen, we have become excellent Welshmen.”

Further Reading

is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith 2020). He has a Master's in history from King’s College, London, and is currently working on a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is Blog & Media Managing Editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a frequent contributor to Salvo and Touchstone magazines. He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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