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The Gathering Storm

The Gathering Storm

by R. Mohler

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It was as if Western civilization was burning, right before our eyes. The great cathedral known throughout the centuries as Notre-Dame de Paris burned through the April night, and the damage was catastrophic. The majestic cathedral that had symbolized Paris for more than nine hundred years was a smoldering ember.

Notre Dame’s iconic image is more than a feat of architectural genius; the cathedral stood as an essential monolith of Western civilization, signifying the central role of Christianity in the development of European identity. Indeed, the very design of the structure itself marked the emergence of Gothic architecture—an architectural style intended above all else to communicate the transcendence and glory of God. Gothic architecture intends to make a person entering through its space feel small, almost infinitesimal. The seemingly endless perpendicular lines lead the eyes upward even as the magnitude of the space appears breathtaking. The message sent by the architecture of the cathedrals was clear—the cosmos is all about the glory of God.

The great cathedrals of Europe, and their successors elsewhere, were intended to make a huge statement of Christian identity for the entire society. For centuries, the landscape of Europe would be dominated by the cathedrals and their soaring towers and spires. The message would be clear.

The relevance of Notre Dame’s fire to the crisis of Western civilization was there for all to see, but few seemed to see it. The story of Western civilization cannot be told without the cathedrals of Europe. The fact that cathedrals like Notre Dame would for centuries dominate the skyline of European cities points to the central role of Christianity in providing the worldview that made Western civilization possible. The basic tenets of Christian theology and ethics constructed the superstructure of European culture, providing its morality, basic truth claims, understanding of the cosmos, and language of meaning. And all of that was burning, but the threat to the values of Western culture had already been burning for some time.

Notre Dame’s history chronicles the erosion of Christianity’s dominance over Western civilization. The gathering storm of secularism can be told through the narrative of arguably the most recognized cathedral in the world. More than mere bricks and mortar, Notre Dame’s story captures the sorrow of secularism and its corrosive determination to exterminate the influence of the Christian worldview.

A Tale of the Times

When the French Revolution swept through the streets of Paris, the radical revolutionaries sought to eradicate the Christian heritage of France. On October 10, 1793, the revolutionaries marched into Notre Dame and replaced the statue of the Virgin Mary with a statue to the goddess of reason.

And so, a society framed, forged, and founded entirely upon the Christian worldview tried to purge itself of all Christian vestiges. The French Revolution pursued a radical vision of a secular worldview governed not by religious belief, but by the Cult of Reason. But, predictably, the Cult of Reason failed—it could not maintain the revolutionary movement. When the French Revolution dethroned God, it plunged French society into “The Terror”—a mayhem of madness and murder. The revolution revealed secularism’s utter inadequacy to establish a civilization and order a society.

Thus, in 1794, what was called the Cult of the Supreme Being replaced the Cult of Reason. This in no way marked a return by the French to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—they did not return to the trinitarian God of the Bible. Instead, the French created a new god in their own image. They created a new cosmic deity they hoped would serve as a necessary check upon revolutionary passions.

Then, in 1801, Napoleon reestablished the Roman Catholic Church as the state religion in France, but he did so as a pointed maneuver. The church remained subservient to the autocratic and totalitarian regime of Napoleon Bonaparte as emperor. He did not grant the church autonomy in his empire; but he understood the church’s value as an institution of morality, which he saw as necessary for a well-ordered society. Napoleon viewed the Christian tradition pragmatically—a tool to maintain order rather than the foundation of a societal worldview. Indeed, by the early twentieth century, the French government even claimed ownership of the major church buildings in France, including Notre Dame.

It is the French state, therefore, which is to rebuild Notre Dame, not the Roman Catholic Church. Though the Catholic Church utilizes the cathedral for its religious purposes, it does not own the cathedral. Furthermore, the French are now engaged in a great debate over the future of the cathedral. Will it be returned to its formal grandeur, or will it now become a monument to post-modern confusion? More likely, it will be the latter.

When the storm of secularism thunders on the horizon, it often seems unassuming, undaunting, a mere change in the weather. But secularism will seduce a civilization away from the very foundations that it stood upon for centuries. The tale of Notre Dame points to the endgame of secularism: what was once a testament to Christianity’s centrality to the culture is now mostly a civic monument and symbol of French nationalism. Indeed, when the French president Emmanuel Macron issued his statement, he mourned the loss of a national treasure—a sentiment devoid of theological reflection or the significance of the cathedral within the nation’s Christian heritage.

This is no longer a surprising response, and the pattern is hardly limited to France. Something fundamental has reshaped our entire culture. In Europe, the process is now very advanced, and the dechristianization of European societies is now largely true in Canada, where the society is in this respect far more like Europe than the United States, which is right across its border. In the US, we can see the same process now in play, and accelerating. Eventually, this process will reshape the entire culture. It is happening right now, right before our eyes.

The Secular Advance

The West’s new cultural and moral environment did not emerge from a vacuum. Massive intellectual changes have shaped and reshaped Western culture since the dawn of the Enlightenment. At the heart of this great intellectual shift is a secular reframing of reality.

Secular, in terms of contemporary sociological and intellectual conversation, refers to the absence of any binding theistic authority or belief. It is both an ideology, which is known as secularism, and a consequence, which is known as secularization. The latter is not an ideology; it is a concept and a sociological process whereby societies become less theistic, and in our context that means less Christian in general outlook. As societies move into conditions of deeper and more progressive modernity, they move out of a situation in which religious belief—and specifically, belief in the God of the Bible—provided the binding authority that held society together and provided a common morality, a common understanding of the world, and a common concept of what it meant to be human. Secularizing societies move into conditions in which there is less and less theistic belief and authority until there is hardly even a memory that such a binding authority had ever existed.

The secularization of Europe has happened over the course of more than two hundred years. What began as a parlor game of the philosophers has now become the ideological engine of society. In Europe, events like the French Revolution were accelerants, but so were two devastating world wars in the twentieth century. For many reasons, America did not track with Europe’s secularization schedule. For at least a century, America resisted the secularization of Western society in ways that perplexed many in the intellectual class. In some Scandinavian countries, less than 2 percent of the people attend church regularly, whereas an estimated 40 percent of Americans at least claim to be regular church attendees. The vast majority of Americans at least say they believe in God. Those statistics have led many American Christians to believe that the majority of Americans share the same general beliefs about God, morality, and the meaning of the world.

Yet, there is one sector of American public life that has kept pace with Europe’s secularization—American universities. If secularization is ultimately about the evaporation of religious belief and its binding authority, then this process has certainly prevailed in the American university culture. The closer one gets to most American colleges or universities, the closer one gets to a secular public space—an intellectually secular place. Moreover, the engines of the culture are the intellectual elites. And where are they gathered in the most concentrated form for optimal influence upon the young? On the college and university campus. The intellectual class and the academic elites, representing a far more radical vision of America than what most of America understood, saw where the future lives—in the youth.

The secularization that America has largely avoided in the past is alive in its institutions of higher learning and has finally been unleashed on the nation through many successive generations of students who have had their worldview shaped by the secular, intellectual elites. Thus, the intellectual conditions of America are quantitatively and qualitatively different from those that prevailed in the culture just twenty years ago. The storm of secular thought, which has inundated the nations of Europe, has now spread over the Atlantic. We can now see the effects on our society, with a revolution in morality, ethics, and total worldview on the horizon.

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