A very rich essay by the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart in The New Criterion. Some of the reflections on the differences between the United States and France are well worth thinking about, but do read the whole thing. Here’s a bit:
A civilization’s values, symbols, ideals, and imaginative capacities flow down from above, from the most exalted objects of its transcendental desires, and a people’s greatest collective achievements are always in some sense attempts to translate eternal into temporal order. This will always be especially obvious in places of worship. To wax vaguely Heideggerean, temples are built to summon the gods, but only because the gods have first called out to mortals. There are invisible powers (whether truly divine powers or only powers of the imagination) that seek to become manifest, to emerge from their invisibility, and they can do this only by inspiring human beings to wrest beautiful forms out of intractable elements. They disclose their unseen world by transforming this world into its concrete image, allegory, or reflection, in a few privileged places where divine and human gazes briefly meet.
Such places, moreover, are only the most concentrated crystallizations of a culture’s highest visions of the good, true, and beautiful; they are not isolated retreats, set apart from the society around them, but are rather the most intense expressions of that society’s rational and poetic capacities. And it is under the shelter of the heavens made visible in such places that all of a people’s laws and institutions, admirable or defective, take shape, as well as all its arts, civic or private, sacred or profane, festal or ordinary. This is a claim not about private beliefs, or about the particular motives that may have led to any particular law or work of art, but about the conceptual and aesthetic resources that any culture can possess or impart, and those are determined by religious traditions—by shared pictures of eternity, shared stories of the absolute. That is why the very concept of a secular civilization is nearly meaningless.
This is also to say, incidentally, that a culture’s greatest source of strength is a source of considerable fragility as well. When the momentary thrill induced by the angels of Sacré-Cœur subsides, what remains is merely a certain poignancy: the realization that the emotional power of those figures, insofar as it cannot be accounted for merely by a trick of the light, emanates entirely from the past.
It has nothing to do with the future. Given the late date of the basilica’s construction, and given the realities of modern France, it is impossible not to see that splendidly overwhelming but very temporary act of disclosure as a valedictory performance, a last epiphany before a final departure, at the end of a cultural history that now shows no capacity for renewing itself. Civilization is a spiritual labor, an openness to revelation, a venture of faith, subsisting to a great degree on things no more substantial than myths and visions and prophetic dreams; thus it can be destroyed not only by invading armies or economic collapse, but also by simple disenchantment.
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Interesting, but it wasn’t just “disenchantment.” There was an active and successful campaign to discredit Catholicism in nineteenth-century France, and Parisian monuments were a part of it. The late French historian Rene Remond observed that the Eiffel Tower, built in 1889, was meant as a secular answer to Sacre Coeur, begun in 1875: a new landmark for a laic country.