A few years ago, in a conversation with a self-professed ‘christian-atheist’, we discussed the topic of Christianity and culture, and especially the positive contribution that Christianity had made to Western civilisation. Christianity, he said, had been a good thing for the West, and perhaps the world, but not because it was true, rather, because it had contributed to our sense of ourselves.
Here was a strong human narrative, and a way of thinking which had produced wonderful art, music and architecture. Furthermore, it had helped us to gain a sense of meaning, of identity, and to develop moral responsibility towards others; it was, therefore, worth preserving.
And so, he told me, we should continue to tell the story. Whatever its truth, Christianity still had something to contribute to the seasons and rhythms of the year and to the stories we tell ourselves. Easter, for example, along with eggs and fertility goddesses, had something to say about new life and hope and the indomitable human spirit. Christmas, along with Santa Claus and merry making, still speaks of giving, of peace on earth, and being kind to one’s fellow man. And our great cathedrals, these should be filled with exhibitions and performances, with great art, with drama and music. They are an opportunity to celebrate human nature and everything about it which is creative, inspiring and challenging; and, among other things, this would be christian-atheism in action.
And what was wrong with that?
Well, what was wrong with it, as far as I could see, was that it took a central tenet of Christianity i.e. truth, and made it something of a lie, or at least a little-white-lie—like Santa Claus. So by way of reply, and I was quite serious, I said that christian-atheism could keep the creative and cultural glories of Christendom—all of them–he could have them. I, if I had to make a choice, was prepared sacrifice the art, the architecture and the music; the history and the illuminated manuscripts; the poetry and the literature; and with these, every the ritual of state–he could have them all–as long as I could keep Jesus and the truth of the story. It was, I suggested a fair trade: he would have his culture and his self-constructed story, and I would have truth, and reality.
If I recall correctly, the conversation petered out rather quickly. Perhaps he realised I wasn’t offering him enough.
you can gain the whole cultural world and still lose your soul
I should be clear, though, before I say any more. I am not against great culture, art, music or anything else. I am neither an iconoclast nor an iconodule, and in many ways my christian-atheist friend was right, Christianity has made a positive contribution to Western civilisation and we would all be poorer without the riches of our past—but my central point remains: you can gain the whole cultural world and still lose your soul.
And the images from Paris this week lend weight the the dilemma.
All the figures indicate the decline of Christianity in Europe, but it is nothing Christians didn’t know already by experience.
That 70% of 16-29 year olds in the United Kingdom identify as non-religious is evidenced by empty pews, a lack of basic (Sunday school) Bible knowledge, changing moral values, and popular votes in countries once as Catholic as France.
According to Stephen Bullivant, a professor of theology and the sociology of religion at St Mary’s University in London, which published the report, “Christianity as a default, as a norm, is gone, and probably gone for good – or at least for the next 100 years,”…
… and then Notre Dame burned.
And from the ashes rose a kind of remembrance. Society appeared to remember that while it was increasingly secular and atheist, and glady so, it was also a particular kind of atheist.
Europe may have stopped believing in God, but it hadn’t stopped believing in just any old God, it had stopped believing in the Christian God. And so, by definition, and by evidence of its sorrow at Notre Dame, Europe remembered that it is ‘christian-atheist’.
It may have banished God, but it still likes the idea of curating His house and furnishings. Who knows, it may even retell His story and then mourn because it is no longer true!
That Notre Dame has burned during what we commonly call Holy Week adds an additional sense of drama to the tragedy; but Notre Dame is not the only building to been praised during a week of holy celebration.
Following the events of Palm Sunday and the Triumphal Entry, Jesus and His disciples paid a visit to the Temple in Jerusalem:
Then as He went out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, “Teacher, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!”
The disciples, it seems, were impressed by its wealth and grandeur, and not without reason.
The Temple had taken eighty years to build; cedar trees from Lebanon were floated down the coast, and limestone was cut in quarries around Jerusalem—one of the stones on the Temple Mount was 44 feet long and 11 high, and weighed 600 tons–it is still there.
And, as the sun shines on the stones of Herod’s Jerusalem they can look as pure as driven snow, or so it has been said.
“Have you seen the stones!” they said.
And they looked at God’s ‘house’, and they saw the house, and they were entranced by human ingenuity. There’s a touch of the ‘christian-atheist’ about it all, and Jesus had to put them right.
And Jesus answering said unto him, Seest thou these great buildings? there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.
Notre Dame has burned, and one can understand the sorrow of the nation; but Europe has been burning the idea of God and rebelling against the reality of God for many years now, and there are few who grieve for Him.
And it exposes one of the many problems with christian-atheism. It’s all very well idolising and preserving the ‘stones’, but when all you have are the stones then the process of restoration and curation is just a prolonged rearrangement of stones. It exposes too, that we live in an ‘empire’ which can raise more money more quickly for the stones than bread for suffering, little children. Which puts one in mind of a verse form Matthew chapter 7; it’s verse 9.
And then, when the stones have been ‘thrown down’, like Ozymandias, it becomes clear that the whole thing is a “shattered visage”.
Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.