By Alison Jasper, Andrew Hass, Bashir Saade, Fiona Darroch, Zhe Gao
Critical Religion at the University of Stirling

Flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral as it burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. Massive plumes of yellow brown smoke is filling the air above Notre Dame Cathedral and ash is falling on tourists and others around the island that marks the center of Paris. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

The fragility of religion was all too evident the night of conflagration in Paris. That fragility was first and most spectacularly seen in its material form. For however we may choose to define religion, it is bound inextricably with the physical, the tangible, the sensate. And so it is susceptible to devastation as much as to decay. We may be able to fight against the decay – and the restoration project of Notre-Dame would have been perpetual – but devastation can strike any time, whether by human hands or by an act of God. As the flames ascended the wooden beams of the cathedral’s spire, onlookers watched as the materiality of religion was brought palpably home, brought flagrantly to the ground. What might have happened had the flames reached, and consumed, the famous relic of the Crown of Thorns? Here Good Friday would have come four days early. Black Friday would have become Black Monday, as the ashes floated skyward, and the charred remains were swept into the bin. Religion, so often perceived to rest upon immutable truths, was here all too transient.

Fragility was thus seen in the onlookers themselves. Damage to, or loss of, a landmark building by fire undoubtedly creates a palpable sense of grief over and reflection upon the significance of that space. Parisians, so adamant, with so much pride, in their secularized policy of Laïcité, stood in disbelief, many in tears, as their religious heritage suddenly became real to them. “I am not religious, but…”, said many on camera. That “but” spoke of what few could articulate, but many felt deep within: religion’s lingering importance, its meaningfulness, but fragile in its very inability to mean what they once thought, as set in binary opposition to secularity. The proudly secular gazed dumbfounded at the loss – the loss of the distinction, the all-too-easy classifications of public and private life into categories such as religious, political, cultural, economic, and secular, as much as the loss of their city’s “heart and soul”.

France is a country whose politicians have proudly marketed it as a place where the secular and religious occupy distinct spheres of life. This binary is a direct product of European modernist ideals of progress; the ability to section one’s religious self from one’s secular and modern self has been one of Europe’s defining symbols of civilisation. But this binary is an invention of European modernity which serves to advance, it is believed, the political, economic (and imperial) success of these nation states on the world stage.

The overwhelming response to the damage of Notre-Dame, captured in President Macron’s speech, in the prayer and hymn vigils held outside the burning building, as the flames engulfed Paris’s night sky, in the public responses captured by journalists, and emphasised most powerfully by the (so far) 800 million Euros of donations from the world’s wealthiest businesses and individuals, exposes the fragility of these classifications. For many the fire brought a cultural loss, an artistic and architectural loss, for Notre-Dame is a defining symbol of Paris’ cultural achievement. But there is no escape from the fact that Notre Dame Cathedral is a ‘religious’ building within a ‘secular’ country. The public, political and media responses to its damage are a reminder of the futility of our attempts to divide ourselves as ‘religious’ or ‘secular’ beings; it is a reminder that we are human beings who channel our relationship with the (non-material) world through our architecture, artworks, and treasured objects.

In a sense, Notre-Dame is one of the many traces of a glorious order that was fought and gradually cast out. From this fight emerged the modern yet shaky religious/secular dichotomy. The fight pitted the forming nation-state against the Catholic church. Both these types of regimes involved different kind of authoritative instances, power relations, and most importantly community imaginaries. Notre Dame was “monumentalized” in order to strip itself from its Catholic past, but in this case, instead of reaching an older past or point of origin (such as the Greek or European reclaiming of “Greek antiquity”), Notre-Dame came to represent a “secular” time, suspended with no origin and no end that was constantly displacing its “real” past. As a result, the Church had to reinvent its past over centuries, as its institutional apparatuses and political clout underwent profound change to fit the modern category of “religion”.

The confusion over the recent events stem from the fact that the physical traces carry in themselves the older order at a symbolic level. Battles over symbols are battles over meaning that push for different forms of belonging. In such situations, vows of allegiance become an urgent attempt at delineating community boundaries. It is a fight where secular (or religious) France could ask again: are the Muslims with us? The indeterminate nature of who could ask this makes the question all the more urgent. On social media, one could see that some were rejoicing at the sight of the destruction. Debates quickly unfolded on social media, some talking of a “religious outsider” conspiracy, some pointing out that the very construction of Notre-Dame is not really that “French” after all, as it draws upon an “Islamic heritage”. What are the “properties” of this French community? Are we all part of one community?

Some interesting discussions emerged in the Chinese internet world in relation to these questions. While the vast majority of Chinese people felt grief for this tragedy, some view this event as ‘karma’ (报应). In other words, the fire can be understood as one of the effects of those bad things done, especially to China, by the French. The historical background of this way of thinking is the looting and destruction of the Old Summer Palace, known in Chinese as Yuanming Yuan (圆明园), by the Anglo-French expedition force in 1860 during the Second Opium War, a time when China had just stepped in the so-called semi-colonial and semi-feudal era. From their narrow nationalist perspective, therefore, the Notre-Dame fire is something which embodies the principle of justice (transcendental or otherwise), if not something worth celebrating. It is not difficult to imagine why this kind of reaction would emerge. Although the Old Summer Palace has been completely destroyed, the ruins of it have been retained intentionally, in order to remind Chinese people of the colonial history of humiliation and to conduct patriotic education. Yet most Chinese people feel disgusted by this kind of theory. Their thoughts are that, in spite of the colonial history, what was ravaged is something which belongs to the common cultural heritage of all humankind. The Catholic background is not the focus of Chinese people. It seems that for them the cultural implications of the building and the event of its damage are more important than their ‘religious’ implication.

The Chinese reaction brings into relief, then, the confusion or blurring of the boundary between the material and the spiritual, the religious and the secular. In terms of critical religion, the various reactions, within and without France, go to show how the binary distinction between what are perceived as categories of religious and secular things in the world fails get to the heart of things. Where ‘religion’ is defined by self-identifying secularists in relation to institutions that foster violence or irrational belief, they will be disconcerted to see people weeping in the streets overcome with emotion at the loss of a ‘religious’ building. On the other hand, Christians may also regard these tears with a certain scepticism, wondering whether they are matched by a willingness to follow a Christian life or whether they are produced by undirected effervescence – mere mood music. In both cases, we rely on stereotypical or misleading categorisations that blind us to the fact that our world is thoroughly imbued with powerful meanings that go well beyond any calculation in literal or strictly material terms. They blind us to the fact that powerful symbolic realities can and do exist outside of conventional institutional formulations, and are found in relation to nations, economies, and civic values to places, spaces and physical constructions, and even to gendered perspectives.

In the case of Notre-Dame, the female personification – as seen in its very name – is drawn from its Christian origins, where Our Lady is Mary, conventionally, the idealised mother who is untouched by the sufferings and ecstasies of embodied sexual relations. A great danger, as feminists point out, lies in identifying with ‘her’ uncritically, as the image serves to support the objectification of women within patriarchal culture. . Nevertheless, as female personification she can also powerfully reflect the symbolic reality of the material, embodied feminine that very much sits as the beating heart of human concerns, even religious concerns, which impels and empowers us to restore what is broken.

So fragile then is religion in the modern West. For Christian Europe, it cannot sustain the numbers to fill its pews, but it cannot countenance the loss of its heritage. The American sociologist of religion Robert Bellah (1927-2013) had said near the end of his life that, where religion is part of human evolution, “nothing is ever lost”. These might be words of comfort as the restoration teams line up, yet again, to restore Notre-Dame to her former glory. But these words might also point to a more difficult phenomenon: if religion persists, it persists in frailty, perhaps as it always has conceptually, as it certainly has materially, and, following upon the high point of the Christian calendar being celebrated at the time within the walls of Notre-Dame de Paris, as it is featured in the Passion of Easter.