This past week the world learned of the fires that burst aflame in the Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris. There have been a lot of responses across the spectrum, both amongst religious and non-religious folk.
I myself have been interested in the response of religious folk, Christians especially. In particular, I came across a social media post in which, on the day of the fire, someone responded with a paraphrase of Acts 17:24: God does not dwell in temples made with hands.
From this post, and my subsequent interaction with the person, what he was basically saying was this: “God doesn’t care about buildings. There are more important things, spiritual things, things of the Spirit.”
Something of that effect, as far as I can make out.
And, you know what? Not too long ago I would have argued the same exact sentiment. Even more, at base level, I can understand what was meant by this post. Truly God’s work is much bigger than a specific building – whether a nearly millennium-old, magnificent cathedral in Paris or a small, cement-brick building in Lusaka, Zambia.
But I think we’ve gotten off track. I’d argue we’ve been duped into believing a kind of half-truth – that the spiritual is much more important than the physical. This has led to our disdain of a beautiful gift of God. Honestly, I believe we’ve swung the pendulum so far that we could be embracing a type of gnostic dualism if we aren’t careful.
You see, a few centuries ago, things changed in the world. I am no great historian, nor philosopher, but I am aware that people like René Descartes and the Enlightenment changed things for the western world (which is now changing things across planet earth).
“I think, therefore I am.”
This mantra of Descartes set in motion a sweeping movement across multiple generations to primarily embrace the internal and slowly dis-embrace the physical.
The church even bought into it as well. But we fancied it up and called it “spiritual.” But it was still internal. It has affected everything we are and do.
It was all about the spirit and not about the body.
Heaven is a spiritual, ethereal place (perhaps “up there”) with no physical, tangible component to it.
We abandoned regular, liturgical rhythms of the church like weekly participation in the eucharist, the physical bread and wine in which we would meet Christ. Once a quarter was fine.
Water baptism was preferred, but never required to enter the community of God’s people. What mattered is what had happened in the heart.
Remember, I used to hold to these “internal” ideas as well.
And this is where Notre Dame comes in. We have left behind our buildings as having any significance in our faith formation. The church is God’s spiritual people; the building means little to nothing. We can meet (“have church”) anytime, anywhere, etc.
Of course, in a sense, that is true. But the fruit of such thinking – seeing the faith as primarily about the spiritual, seeing our final goal as a disembodied heaven, believing church happens anytime and anywhere, and now mixed ever more with our modern technological advancements – has led to our abandonment of the beauty and sacredness of place.
I’m currently reading a book by Dr. Jennifer Craft, Placemaking and the Arts: Cultivating the Christian Life, and it spends some time addressing this very reality much better than I could. She’s putting to words what I have been pondering about the evangelical faith for the past few years.
We have basically abandoned all things physical, all things tangible.
Place is no longer important. Or at least we think it isn’t.
But in doing so, we have deserted a major element of our faith.
Our faith is one that engages all five senses – hearing, seeing, touching, tasting, smelling. All of them!
This is why God created the world and declared it good. The good world is something we hear, see, touch, taste, smell.
This is why Christ became a real Jewish human being in the first century. He is one we hear, see, touch, can even taste and smell.
Here is an interesting point to consider. We, humans, actually love space and place. It’s just that we channel it into the “secular” much more than we do the sacred.
Why do we love our favorite restaurant with our spouse? For what it means and what we encounter with the food, the setting, the atmosphere, the live music or quietness, etc.
Why do we love certain vacation spots? For what they mean to our family, the memories, the sand on the shore, the mountains in the background, etc.
Why do we feel homesick when we’ve been away from home for weeks, months, years? For what that space means to us with the familiarity, smells, tastes, sights, etc.
This is something Craft argues up front in her book. We already enjoy and treasure place, but we have swallowed the half-truth that place doesn’t matter when it comes to our faith.
So, back to Notre Dame and the quoting of Acts 17:24: The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.
Yes, God does not live in temples. Though I think we’ll do well to consider the larger context of what Paul is addressing with the philosophers in Athens. But this is not to say God cannot be encountered within physical structures. Of course, he can! And he does! This is why we have the good earth. This is why we have the human Christ. This is why we have the word not simply spoken but written down. This is why we get into the baptismal waters. This is why we eat the bread and drink the wine weekly. And this is why we deem a specific place the gathering of God’s people.
I agree places can lose their significance. I believe edifices can be erected and God is never present. This happens for me in darkened auditoriums with a multi-light production on Sunday.
But none of this changes that God is encountered in real place.
Though I was never able to visit Notre Dame, even after living in Brussels, Belgium for five and a half years, I have visited many breathtaking and beautiful buildings that provided a true sense of God’s presence. To see, touch, hear, even smell these places has helped me encounter the living God.
I think God meant it that way.
I believe God inhabits place.