Postcard From Paris: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
This week I am in Paris visiting some friends and taking care of some business matters. As I had the morning free, I took myself across the river to do some exploring. As almost always happens, I came upon some surprises.
There is now a large plaza in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. It looks plain and uninspiring compared to the massive high Gothic structure of the church that looms over the scene. They first cleared the plaza, which was once full of small buildings, in the 1860s and 1870s. As they cleared the plaza and dug down, they discovered ruins from the medieval and earlier periods. Yet, no extensive work was done at the time. This changed in the 1970s when there was a plan to dig down further for possible underground parking. As they excavated, they came upon Roman ruins from the third and fourth centuries. Much consisted of foundations for the ramparts and walls that the Romans had built to surround the small island in the middle of the Seine River.
In the archeological dig, however, they also discovered what had been a very small merchant’s house with a figure that had been scratched into the stone. Under raking light, it was a lamb with a cross – the Agnus Dei. Apparently, in the Roman era, a believer had lived in this house and had left a sign of his or her faith. It is a simple and almost insignificant expression of faith, with none of the grandeur of the cathedral that was to rise just twenty or thirty feet to the east almost a thousand years later. It was a sign of faith in a time of occasional persecution in which Christianity was but one of many options in the world of late antiquity. It speaks of a faith that was humble and lived out despite the pressures of the society at large in which this believer lived. By comparison, the Cathedral of Notre Dame speaks of a triumphant faith, ruling over the hearts and consciences of the populace of its time.
After visiting the archeological site, I crossed the river and took a seat in a cafe with a full view of the cathedral and attempted to reflect on what I had seen and what it might signify for our day in time. It seems to me that much of the effort of institutional Christianity today is directed toward regaining a position in society that has been lost (in the case of denominations) or in exercising a position of political power (in the case of some US evangelicals) in which society will be ordered by laws and legislation of which they approve. In each case, it is a desire to return to, or to gain, a position of prominence. It is, if you like, in each case, a form of triumphalism.
Yet, perhaps we should pause and consider the price of such power or prominence in society.
You see, for all the majesty of Notre Dame and its long history, France today is a nation of empty churches. There has been a wholesale rejection of the Church as a “ruling institution”. Yes, there are still believers and faithful clergy, but on any given weekend more Muslims in France will attend Friday prayers at mosque than Christians will attend church on Sunday. Moreover, a new phenomena has emerged in the last year, that of churches actually being attacked and vandalized – not by outsiders, but by radical elements of the political Right and Left. In short, it is a post-Christian secular society in which Christians have become a minority – simply one of many options in the world of late modernity.
It is a reality in much of western Europe and, I believe, may become the reality in the United States in the not to distant future. Evangelicals will be presented with a bill to pay in the post-Trump era, whether in two years or six. On the other hand, many denominations will be unrecognizable as faith groups in any way separate from the standards and mores of secular society at large. Each will struggle with significance in an increasingly post-Christian society. Whether we will end up becoming targets for our own extremes on the Right and the Left cannot be asserted with certainty, but incidents in recent years do not bode well.
So, perhaps we begin again, like our believer of late-Antiquity. Perhaps we begin again with a humble faith in which we gather with other like minded believers in house churches or small communities that we inscribe with the symbols of our faith. Places in which we hear again the message of the Gospels, learn the precepts of our faith and celebrate Christ coming to us in bread and wine, Body and Blood. We will not make headlines. We will not exercise power. We will, however, like that ancient believer plant the seed of the Church and, perhaps, it will grow once again.