A month ago I sat in front of the television the better part of the day and watched as the roof and spire of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris were ravaged by fire. The entire structure, the beautiful windows, and the immense organ whose notes have been measured to reverberate for a full six seconds at the midrange of the scale — all of it was at risk of destruction.
The shock was immediate as the world looked on. As I watched the fire progress, there was among the people of France and around the world a growing sense of foreboding and sorrow as it appeared that it could all be lost. The cathedral represents one of the spiritual and cultural centers of western civilization. It is irreplaceable.
I feel that way every day as I watch Donald Trump go about his work attempting to destroy American democracy. In fact, the cathedral is an apt metaphor for our constitutional democracy.
Like the great cathedral, we think of our democracy as indestructible. We call America “the most powerful nation in the world” based not so much on military might as on the moral foundation of our people and constitution. Yet the constitution, much like the cathedral, is structurally delicate.
The cathedral’s walls take their strength from a web of buttresses that appears gossamer and insignificant in comparison with the weight it bears. The ceilings are made of perfectly balanced stones that rise to peaks, resting much of their weight on a single stone or point at the apex. The entire structure stands on a principle of counterweight. A great cathedral will stand for centuries if it is left undisturbed. However, the structural imbalance that could be caused by the loss of the attic beams in a fire such as this one could bring it all down.
Similarly, our constitution depends on a system of counterweights; in the case of the constitution, a web of consensual trust and obligation. As citizens and leaders, we accept a responsibility to obey the rule of law, even when it limits our own freedom, happiness, and, especially, our grasping for wealth.
I don’t think much of the idea of patriotism, father/motherlands, or blood and soil allegiances. But I am quite attached to the system of government that sprang up here from the Enlightenment in the 18th century. It has worked well for those who were included in the consensus of free men who got to vote and run things for the benefit of the polity. But they sometimes governed at the expense of others. The new constitution recognized slavery and rewarded slave states with favorable apportionment in the legislative branch. To this day, the constitution remains effectively silent on the rights of women.
Yet in spite of its obvious faults, over our history we have expanded the reach of the rights and privileges of citizenship. And we accepted those who wanted to come from other countries and play a role in America. We asked only that they participate in the social contract and obey the rule of law. We offered a working definition of freedom to a suffering world.
But today the alarms are going off. There is a fire raging in the attic. The well-cured oak beams of enlightenment ideas are being torched while the tourists at floor level are too distracted to hear the alarm. They are entertaining themselves with cell phones and bumping around to get selfies with the treasures and relics.
Citizens are ignoring the alarms. The Saturday night massacre is repeating itself when the president and cabinet officers assert that they have no obligation to respond to demands of Congress. They press ahead trusting that they have packed the courts enough, gerrymandered congressional districts enough, and sufficiently suppressed the registration and voting of people whose interests, if expressed by fair voting and representation, might compromise their own.
Then the president and his friends lock arms with authoritarian governments around the world accepting any help they can secure from them to win a return to power while shouting out their expressed hatred of the generalized “other”, the free and critical press, the constitutional limits on their power and, then, even their disdain for the very people who spew the administration’s vile slogans and vote them into power.
The cost of our fecklessness in opposing the group in power in Washington today could well be the extinction of the species we think of as being at the top of the food chain. Wrapped in an armor of science and faith we thought humanity was more or less guaranteed species immortality, at least until some astronomical cataclysm consumed our host planet. But that is now shown not to be the case.
We are doing the work of destruction with no need of a black hole encounter or a collision with some random meteor. If humanity has any claim to species immortality it may be for a very few whose ark of salvation will almost certainly require more cruelty than we will be able to blame on God. If there are any genetic remainders of humanity, they will some day write crude histories citing our downfall as punishment for our sins. Only this time the sins may relate more to plastics, automobiles and concrete than to personal misbehaviors. They will cite our profligate, uncontrolled consumption and trashing of the garden as our original sin.
A few years ago I read the whole Christian Bible top to bottom with its incorporated Jewish wisdom and histories. I had run across a re-ordering of the canon in what was claimed to be a historical-chronological sequencing of the material. Through it all, the Jews learn to love God, then they lose themselves in the world; they are punished, regret their sins and learn again to love God. Repeat. There is destruction and salvation, over and over. And then, there is crucifixion and resurrection.
The only comfort I could take from the reading was that, although we do it to ourselves again and again, as a species we somehow send enough genetic material forward to be able to write poetry about the experience. In the end, what we get is poetry – poems of creation, destruction and resurrection.
And that’s the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper. Maybe T. S. Eliot will be cited as a prophet in another bible in the next re-build of humanity after the planet ingests and re-issues as harmless the poisonous material we leave behind. With a little bit of luck and maybe some godly intervention, it will be stuff good enough to make a new garden with a new lady and gentleman, another tree of the knowledge of good and evil, another serpent, another fruit and another shot at civilization, this time with kinder ways of living together and wiser ways of consumption.
Our faith is always in resurrection and renaissance. There will be another round of creation and original sin. And there will be time spent wandering in the wilderness. But then there will be the part about resurrection. That is what keeps us going.
The day after the fire in Notre Dame was extinguished the donations began to pour in. There were official promises to rebuild it; to bring it back to life; to allow the organ to once again reverberate inside its walls; to let the light pour in through the windows and wash over the souls inside; to bathe them once again in the frequencies that are more than music and light. As the people who build cathedrals know, they are the voice and glimpse of God.
Notre Dame will endure and prevail over a fire in the attic; America will endure and defeat the malfeasance of Donald Trump.