We all watched the flames consume the historic spire of Notre-Dame on Monday, burning it down to its skeleton before it went crashing into the roof of the thirteenth-century cathedral. We waited for news about the relics and artwork inside and wondered about the state of the glass in the windows that had managed to survive two world wars, Napoleon, the Revolution, and the Reformation. And when the flames were finally extinguished, we watched with baited breaths as emergency officials picked through the sanctuary to determine the building’s soundness.
Some took this as an act of God, whose use of fire supplied a punctuation mark for the diatribe of liturgical, ecclesiastic, and even physical abuses that the Church has been mired in for the last several decades. Others immediately jumped to the conclusion that it must have been arson, connecting the dots from “fires in UNESCO sites don’t usually get that big that quickly” to “hasn’t there been a huge spate of church vandalization in France lately?” Most of us probably felt some combination of these feelings, but resigned ourselves to hoping for the best.
For those that weren’t Catholic, the responses were split sharply across two lines: those that felt the weight of sorrow (predominantly Christians, but also some Jews, as we get into below), and that that felt joy or ambivalence (atheists and Muslims). The more honest Jews, such as those that pointed out the ‘problematic’ Ecclesia et Synagoga statues that decorate the front of the cathedral, fell into this latter category as well. Those that felt joy revealed nothing about the state of the modern West that we didn’t already know: for the most part, Muslims still hate the Church, Jews still hate the Church, and atheists still hate the Church.
The former category is interesting. Yes, you have the sincere Catholics and Frenchmen who just witnessed one of the most beautiful churches west of the Rhine go up in smoke, but you also have the secularists on the bandwagon who recognize how valuable the cathedral was as an image and icon. These spiritually hamstrung opportunists can perceive the beauty of Notre-Dame only inasmuch as it’s complicated and old; for them, the majesty of the medieval church offers no obvious functionality, and we’ll get into the reasons for this colossal blind spot below. But in times of crisis like this, when the public opinion reveals the extent to which their brand of soulless “conservatism” remains confined to the elite, they’re forced to posture or risk losing their brand.
A perfect example of this is our favorite Los Angeles Jew, Ben Shapiro. I use his tweets as illustrations, but by no means is his reaction unique. Bill Krystol and the rest of the neoconservatives—perhaps most of the editorial board at National Review, as well—all essentially agree.
This tweet was what first caught my attention, though a subsequent tweet labels the values he’s talking about as “Judeo-Christian,” a made-up nonsense word that implies that there’s some shared overlap between the contemporary strains of Rabbinical Talmudic Judaism and “Christianity”. The truth is that there really is continuity in the ancient Hebraic religion of the Old Testament and the covenant in the new; that continuity is called the fulfillment of the religion based on prophecy with the religion based on the Incarnate Word, and it’s known as Catholicism. But to admit this would be to admit the correctness of Catholicism, something a member of modern Judaism can’t do. If he could, then he’d be Catholic.
So naturally, the term “Judeo-Christian” had to be developed. Let’s take a minute to pick it apart before we continue. What sort of values would Judeo-Christianity espouse? What sort of creeds, behaviors, and religious services would be involved? What is its social dimension? More importantly, how much did Christians and Jews even get along throughout most of history?
Well, we know that it was at the behest of the Pharisees that Our Lord was sent to be executed. We know that Our Lord told his apostles to prioritize the evangelization of the Jews before all others. We know that St. Paul, one of the most active of the disciples, was a proud member of ancient Judaism to such a degree that he relished in the persecution of the early followers of Christ before his miraculous conversion. So even at the genesis of the Church, we can recognize that the leaders of ancient Judaism rejected Christ as the prophesied messiah, that Christ deliberately sought to bring those members of that religion into his Church as baptized converts, and the extent to which Jews didn’t get along with the early members of the Church. The whole point here is to illustrate the clear distinction between the ancient Judaism of the Old Testament and the Church founded by Christ of the new. It was a reformation of the religion that the messiah brought; rather than a break or a revolution of it, Christ fulfilled the old scriptures and brought the law of Moses and prophecies of Elias (and his successors) into fruition. This fruition was sacrificed on the cross, and this sacrifice is an ongoing one that every Mass takes part in.
So with this in mind, it’s simply not possible to connect a direct line between the ancient Judaism of Moses and the contemporary Judaism of the synagogue. The cross stands planted at the terminal point in this development: the prophesied messiah had come. All of human history after the Fall, from the flood to the exodus to the infidelity of David—everything since the first man’s negligence lead to Eve consuming that wretched apple—everything served to prepare the world for this event. The cultivation of the Hebrews, as told in the narrative of the Old Testament, details this in specific. The messiah that contemporary Judaism purports to wait for isn’t coming, since He already did. Their own services reveal an indulgence in the ancient roots of their traditions but without the substance that filled those ancient traditions: the sacrifices at the altar by the hands of consecrated priests. And there’s a reason for that. Judaism has no altars anymore, and it has no priests. It is a religion of learning.
We see this indicated best in the words of Rabbi Herman Abramovitz:
What interests me for the moment, however, is what became of the altar in Jewish consciousness after the destruction of the Second Temple. The Rabbis transposed it metaphorically into another sacred key: the Jewish home. The altar became the table at which the family gathered to eat its common meals. It is the consumption of food which connects the two institutions. Thus Rabbis Yohanan and Resh Lakish in third century Palestine conceived it to be a locus for reconciliation. “In the days of the Temple, the altar served to atone for us; now it is our table that atones for us (B.T. Hagiga 27a).”
The conversation around our surrogate altar is to be illumined with flashes of eternity. According to Rabbi Shimon: “Whenever three people dine at a table without any words of Torah, it is as if they had consumed the meat of the dead [i.e. a sacrifice to a false god] (Pirkei Avot 3:4).” Again the link between the Temple and our table is alluded to. A meal stripped of Torah remains a purely physical activity.
The altar exists at home; it is personal. The altar is transformed into the family’s eating table; sacrifice is consumed by the very ones considering it sacrifice. The Torah, the textual history of the Hebrew peoples given form by divine revelation, exerts a connection to the divine; history provides a context that renders the meal a commemoration, a reminder, rather than a supernatural experience. There’s a logic to it, and there are clear dots that can be followed that connect the offerings submitted to the temple by the priests and the emphasis on rabbinical teachings today, but those are predominantly historical dots rather than theological or moral ones.
But now contrast this with not just the Church, but with the religious practices revealed in the Old Testament. The altar existed in the Temple; it was public. Sacrifice was offered in various forms—incense, meat or meals, etc.; it wasn’t consumed by those who offered it. The offerings were devoted to God, unseen but known by his perpetual sustaining of the world; it was not the Torah that made them real but a lived experience of penance.
So what caused the change? The destruction of the second temple, surely. But that isn’t enough to render a radical theological shift away from an altar built to God and toward a table built for men. Even taking the temple’s destruction into account, the shadow of the cross stretches over it, too. To be sure, there is a continuity brought across ancient Judaism and the contemporary world, but it doesn’t take the form that many would like to purport.
To his credit, Shapiro gets into the cathedral’s burning on his show here, and he gives Catholicism at least some credit by admitting that it was built by Catholics and not by a nebulous bunch of Judeo-Christians.
What Shapiro’s take reveals isn’t simply a bald-faced lie, because it’s clear that he knows exactly what sort of civilization built Notre-Dame and I do believe he’d be willing to intentionally spin that a little in order to sell his brand. But what would be the point of the lie if he didn’t expect people to believe it in the first place? The lie reveals that modern education is, in fact, wholly secular education—and that the modern public landscape is likewise a wholly secular public landscape. These Intellectual Dark Web dweebs and their alt-Lite cohorts—the self-appointed saviors of Western Civilization—will posture on about the importance of “Judeo-Christian civilization”–and even “Christian civilization”, which at least has an ounce of credibility to it—but not one of them will be spotted leaving a confessional booth before Mass, or reciting a rosary, or even receiving communion in hand (much less on the tongue).
What is “Christian civilization” in the first place? What is Christianity when robbed of its sacraments and reduced to an ideology? Is it simply a collection of philosophical beliefs? Then why was so much blood spilled over complicated theological concerns regarding Trinitarian and Christological doctrine? Is it actually a convenient political position? Then why does its moral foundation rest on “that which pleases God” rather than “that which pleases our neighbors”? Is it rather the most convenient and best explanation for the world? Then what purpose does the staggering collection of texts written on the interior life serve?
When those neocons and opportunists speak of their Christian civilization, they’re always referring to the civilization that came into full swing during the secular Enlightenment, in which time the contradictory values of classical liberalism and utilitarianism, based predominantly off of Protestant heresies, came to fruition after centuries of conflict with the Church. Or they pick the beginning of Western Civilization as being immediately after the Reformation, ignoring the centuries of medieval rule guided by the one Church. In either case, it is a civilization whose organizing principles place it, most charitably, at odds with Christianity—Catholicism—if not outright positioning itself to reject the Church outright.
The reason for picking either of these dates is simple. The Reformation kicked off the decline the sacramental society—one in which public life not only encompasses the religious doctrines of the Faith, but in fact is fully defined by it. Once the Reformation reaped its whirlwind across the continent, religious pluralism became an entrenched aspect of western civilization in a manner that even ancient Rome never really had to deal with. The problem of religious pluralism paved the way toward the embrace of a secular, ostensibly neutral religious position in order to preserve and protect public life—which usually meant the markets. This became one of the cornerstones of liberalism. I use the term ‘ostensibly neutral’ because, as I’ve written about before, secularism is not a neutral position so much as a distinctly anti-Catholic position masked in neutrality.
So when they’re choosing between the Enlightenment and the Reformation, they’re choosing between the end of a sacramental Europe and the effective beginning of a secular one. They’re not talking about a Christian civilization. They’re talking about a liberal one.
Now it may sound counter-intuitive to refer to pre-Revolutionary France as a participant of a liberal civilization, and I get it. They weren’t, not ostensibly. But as with all political changes in regimes, the Revolution was the end result of a boulder that had been let loose from its foundations a few centuries before. With the Holy Roman Empire fractured beyond repair, it wasn’t until the guillotines of the Revolution brought a swift and summary terminus to the Ancien Régime that the end of a sacramental Europe was finally spelled out. It was written in the brooks of blood that started at the Defenestration of Prague and gushed in torrents across the cobblestones of Paris two and a half centuries later. The dismantling of an entire social world takes time. Liberalism was born of a tremendous shedding of blood, but because it was blood shed by men—like any other movement in history—it can be defined by blood, but it can never offer redemption through it.
The “Christianity” of the charlatans that promote a religious-less Western Civilization, or a religiously-neutral one, or one founded on a freedom of religion—that Christianity is one always at odds with itself, incomprehensible, confused, and drenched in the blood of both martyrs and heretics alike. They espouse modernity and liberalism foremost, and they favor a Christianity removed from the sacraments that keeps the Christ in Christianity. They’ll give all sorts of worldly reasons for rejecting the Church—corruption, namely, but ecclesiastical blunders, misunderstood theology, puzzling liturgical reforms, histories of abuse, etc.–but they’ll never give a reason that doesn’t ultimately boil down to a statement of pride: “Why doesn’t the Church please me?” Because that’s how modernism has taught them how to think.
Descartes had it only half right, back in 1637: “I think, therefore I am.” The problem is that this isn’t the beginning of the philosophical quandary. Existence doesn’t begin with “I”. It begins what what makes “I” possible. Any devolution into conforming existence to the rationalizations of “I” is a step away from the traditions and teachings of the Church that stretch back, uninterrupted, two millennia. It’s a step away from God.
All the same, what they are rejecting is the sacrifice. Calvary. The shadow of the cross looms over each of us, and men such as these turn away from it.
And so we reach the point of this diatribe: the fixation of Our Lord’s incarnation and sacrifice as the point around which history turns.
History doesn’t merely include the final sacrifice on the cross; history is itself defined by it. All actions of men—great and small—are defined by their position with relation to it, both temporally and morally. Without the recognition of Our Lord’s offering, history can be recognized only as an arbitrary sequence of events with no beginning and no end. It turns out to be instead so many narratives about the lives of great men have to be defined through the use of other narratives about their psychology, their lust for power, their overbearing mothers. Treating the events on Calvary that occurred two millennia ago today as simply another unfortunate accident is to believe without reservation that the world, and everything in it, is a loose collection of actions and information that can only be related to each other in localized and mysterious ways.
Ah, but you might reply, these psychological narratives explain a man’s character. His background explains his motivations. His family and childhood explain his desires. To know these is to know the man, and to know the man is to know history! There’s no need in fixing everything that has ever happened or will ever happen to a single event!
The error committed here is the classic problem modernity constantly commits: material explanations are wholly unequipped to answer teleological questions. To know the man is not to know his background, or his childhood, or his psychological state. These are things you can use to predict a person’s behavior, but predictive assumptions do not knowledge of a man make. To know a man is to befriend him in the fullness of love, as Our Lord calls upon us to do through Him. Understanding his background is a matter of guess work, and using this information as a means to anticipate—or explain—his actions is a short-sighted tactical ploy that ultimately serves only yourself. Knowing a man is not backwards-looking, searching his past to explain his present condition or predict his future actions, because his future actions aren’t intrinsically bound by his past. Knowing a man is forward-seeking; only this can respect the man’s freedom of will as it’s brought into focus by his experiences and intellect.
Why has modernity tried to convince you otherwise? Because modernity has no interest in the will. The will cannot be free for modernity also to be legitimate. Sexual licentiousness and other temptations of the flesh, the thirst for domination, apathy in the face of adversity—these are the rotted fruits that modernity has to offer the soul. Liberalism has informed us that there is no one authentic religion, so if such is the case, belief is simply a hobby for the delusional, and no certain claims can be made about the afterlife. In the mean time, use your wage-slavery jobs to earn money made worthless by usury in order to pay for your geek toy hobbies; anesthetize yourself with the boredom of video games, contraception, and pornography; go to sleep in the evening with the hope that you’ll finally be promoted to middle management so you can have someone else to boss around for a few more years. You’re a slave, but it’s not your fault, modernity says. You didn’t really have a choice. Advocates of modernity prefer you to be miserable, predictable, pathetic machines impulsively grasping at what few treats are thrown at you.
This is because it is with the will that we can orient ourselves toward God. He fills us with divine grace so that we may partake in Him, but we must first orient ourselves toward Him. With these two things in mind—that modernity seeks to stifle the will through the temptations of the flesh and appeals to personal vanity and power, and that the will is the part of the man capable of turning his being toward God—it should be clear what modernity’s fundamental principle really is. It’s not about human progress, or alleviating temporal suffering, or respecting other cultures. It’s not even really about attacking the Church, although that’s its most threatening manifestation. It’s an attack on every human soul on Earth. I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to guess what sort of thing would be interested in that.
So with this in mind, why does modernity seek to sever the continuity of history by removing from it the very linchpin around which history turns? The answer should be clear by now. If you can reduce the importance of Our Lord’s sacrifice to being just another day in history, you can reduce all of history to trivial repetitions of curiously coincidental events. This divorces man from his past by confusing his experience. It makes his present incomprehensible by confusing his intellect. And it makes his future meaningless by confusing his will. If a man’s will cannot know, by use of his intellect and experience, which way to go, then he will default to indulging in the worldly impulsive satisfactions of his most base desires.
The sacrifice marked the turning of the Old covenant into the New. It made apparent that those who would not follow Him would be placing themselves in rejection of not simply everything He stood for, but everything He was responsible for—and that includes the nature of reality itself. To reject Christ is to reject the only thing capable of making both the world and yourself knowable.
Calvary marked the turning point in history. And in fact, it marked the last one. The only events of comparable magnitude include the Fall and probably the flood. But it’s of the most importance because it offers us redemption from the errors of the Fall, and because it happens to be the most recent one. It would have to be, because after redemption is granted, all we have left to do, in history, is to grasp it, to turn ourselves toward it, and to prepare ourselves in body and soul to receive it. There won’t be another turning point in history of this magnitude. The next time we have something like it, history will end.
So think of all this as we near the end of Holy Week, on this Good Friday. Consider it as we continue forward in a temporarily Notre-Dame-less world. Remember the illiteracy of the pundits that can’t even recognize the purpose of a cathedral, the namesake of this particular one, and the real tragedy to behold as it becomes, at least for now, a place of renovation rather than salvation. The tragedy isn’t that we lost a monument to Western Civilization. Western Civilization, so conceived, is dead and buried. The tragedy is that we lost, for now, one of the foremost beautiful places of adoration and worship that still had roots firmly entrenched in the sacramental kingdoms of the Old World. And the bigger tragedy is that so few of those poised to inherit it seem to even notice.