Scott Lencke: Space and Place: In the Aftermath of Notre Dame

Cathedral of Notre Dame. Photo by David Merrett at Flickr

Scott Lencke
Space and Place: In the Aftermath of Notre Dame

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 being 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 affected everything we are and do.

It was all about the spirit and not about the body.

Heaven was 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.

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 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 newly 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.

43 thoughts on “Scott Lencke: Space and Place: In the Aftermath of Notre Dame

  1. As I think about it more, I don’t see that this question is loaded in the least. It is a perfectly legitimate question regarding a real matter of ethics. That it may not be a question you like is another thing altogether.


  2. I don’t kiss icons, or drink from a common Communion cup, because I know that spiritual beliefs won’t protect me from the very corporal germs that others kissers and communicants leave before I get to the icon, or the Communion cup gets to me. Spirituality won’t protect me from real hazards in the corporal world. Just as, if I’d been around at the time, I wouldn’t have picked up Jesus’ “poop” and eaten it to be in closer communion with him. Don’t care if that makes me catholicker or not.


  3. And your heavy-handed implication that Scripture proves that my question could only be asked by a Judas-type is not loaded with all kinds of pious freight? B.s.


  4. Which reactions we are seeing in this thread.

    Some observations, in no particular order:

    1) Fundagelicalism is a primarily NEGATIVE form of Christianity. Thou Shalt Nots + It’s All Gonna Burn. Like the “Cult of Ugliness” you see on the outside, Am I Not Edgy?

    2) When The World Ends Tomorrow (at the latest) and It’s All Gonna Burn, DON’T expect anyone to build a Notre Dame. Don’t expect any long-term goals, only Sell That Fire Insurance. Don’t expect anything of beauty to result — that’s Worldly and Fleshly, NOT Spiritual — onto Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities it goes, Come Quickly LORD Jesus(TM).

    3) Remember the Heresy of Clericalism, that only Priests, Monks, and Nuns count? Well, the Reformation has come full circle; now Evangelicals call them Pastors, Missionaries, Worship Leaders, and other “Full Time Christians” but it’s still the same thing. They’re the Over-Spiritual Ones at the top of the pyramid, and all the rest of us can go to hell.

    4) And what happens to Compulsive Creatives (like me) in that sort of environment? You either lobotomize yourself with Devotions instead of Drinking or you run away at the first opportunity and never look back. There’s a reason after my time in-country I drifted into the RCC. A church that actually Respects and Patronizes the Arts — who’d a-thunk it?

    5) And what happens to those of us (also like me) with extreme IQs and a passion for knowledge? Same thing as Compulsive Creatives. Worldly(TM), Fleshly(TM), Unspiritual(TM), What Will You Say on J-Day? You have to infuse Judaism to retain any respect for learning and/or sense of humor. Otherwise there’s just The Party Line of SCRIPTURE and Soul-Winning and nothing else. Another reason to go over the Berlin Wall.

    6) Go to the “IMonk Authors & Artists” sidebar and click on Butterfiles in the Belfry, Serpents in the Cellar by J Michael Jones. The entire thesis of that book is how the divide between the Spiritual and Physical (which he calls Platonic Dualism) messed up the church for most of its history. (i.e. “Spritual Good! Physical BAAAAAAAD!”) He presents it a lot more coherently than I can.


  5. I know a You-Can’t-Win loaded question when I hear one.
    Had a LOT of experience getting Coup Counted at my expense.


  6. And your use of a Biblical reference to sidestep answering a legitimate question is hypocritical, given the way you habitually pillory those who do the same thing in the comments on this site.


  7. Give me a break, dude. Your comparison of a building with a person is meretricious. Jesus was a human being with a human body, and the needs of his person and body were being met in the text you’re referring to, albeit in an extravagant way. The question is: how much extravagance should a building receive in a world where the needs of human beings with their human bodies are not being met, extravagantly or otherwise?

    The question I asked stands: Would any amount to rebuild/restore Notre Dame be too much?


  8. “We have basically abandoned all things physical, all things tangible.”

    Remember the Gnostics?
    The goal of which was to become so Spiritual(TM) you ceased to be physical, let alone human?

    Like those Silicon Valley Zillionares expecting/planning to “upload their consciousness” into The Cloud at the Singularity? Leaving the Meat behind in Meatspace to live forever as a digital string of ones and zeros?


  9. You DO remember just which disciple it was who said “This could have been sold and the money given to the poor”, don’t you?


  10. Though I wouldn’t describe myself as Lutheran, I am member of and worship in a Lutheran church (mainline, ELCA), and I can tell you that many of the cradle Lutherans in the pews around me are far more formed by American evangelical culture, piety, and theology than by Lutheranism.


  11. So far 1 billion has been pledged to restore/rebuild the cathedral, and it’s being said that it may not be enough. My question is: Would any amount be too much? If that’s a Marxist question, then call me comrade.


  12. Good point Mule.
    In some circles of Christendom, Jesus as fully human exists only on paper.


  13. (1) Going with “God does not dwell in temples made with hands.” in a discussion about Notre Dame is simply changing the subject.

    If not Jesus-juking.


  14. Have you ever heard of a Heresy called “Docetism”?

    Docetism teaches that Christ was so God he wasn’t really human, He just APPEARED to be. i.e. Jesus was God and God was SO Spiritual He could not become physical.


  15. But I sense many evangelicals only see it as some kind of necessary step for *our salvation* rather than something holistically good and right.

    “Only some kind of necessary step” reminds me of a comment in some blog thread about Christian Dating Fails in connection with “Salvation by Marriage Alone”.

    The context was a woman who described one guy she went out with as “Looking for ‘a Wife’, and I was just the necessary piece of equipment.”


  16. In the midst of Deep Space and Deep Time, the Incarnation keeps an infinite God on a one-to-one human scale.

    The Incarnation means God Almighty had to squat behind a bush and take a dump at the side of some dirt road in Judea. Try saying that to Christians; you’ll get some “interesting” reactions.


  17. How did the Hebrews in captivity in Babylon worship God if they did not have access the Temple in Jerusalem where God dwelt. They adapted and began what became synagogues and kept the Torah alive . The rest is history as they say.

    Richard Herscberger , I think your description of what white American Evangelical Protestants believe the church is just not accurate. Why would the frustrating white evangelicals send missionaries to non white countries to spread the Gospel to those who could not be part of the church as they are not white? I found it hard to follow Stephen’s thoughts but I find it hard to follow Archie and Jughead, I would pick Veronica.

    Sola Scriptura would I think the frustrating evangelical viewpoint on what is scared as compared to the Catholic Church and I am sure most here know that.

    At its historical time and place in western civilization Notre Dame was an important and good addition to the Catholic faith and to the world. As usual we are using our privileged , educated , social and cultural perspectives to critique a world that got us this world we live in.

    Besides where would Charles Laughton live in there was Norte Dame? Great movie and a young beautiful Maureen O Hara was great.

    My earlier post never made it but if it does then I apologize the people here , the world, the UN and sane people everywhere for repeating some of my wandering thoughts.

    BTW, I think some of the frustrating evangelicals believe God lives in Trump Towers but that is as true as thinking he lives in any place that man built. I am joking, I am joking . Evangelicals do not believe it any more than they believe the church is them and their building they meet in. There is no Evangelical Tabernacle that is closed to members only, like Sam’s Club, btw of which I am a member, no brag just fact.


  18. I think the Lutherans see the Incarnation in a special way, if the writings of the Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflect the Lutheran theology of the Incarnation. Take a look at this:

    “Bonhoeffer on the Incarnation:
    “” We now know that we have been taken up and borne in the humanity of Jesus, and therefore that new nature we now enjoy means that we too must bear the sins and sorrows of others. The incarnate Lord makes His followers the brothers and sisters of all humanity. The “philanthropy” of God (Titus 3:4) revealed in the Incarnation is the ground of Christian love toward all on earth that bear the name of human. The form of Christ incarnate makes the Church into the Body of Christ. All the sorrows of humanity falls upon that form, and only through that form can they be borne. The earthly form of Christ is the form that died on the cross. The image of God is the image of Christ crucified. It is to this image that the life of the disciples must be conformed: in other words, they must be conformed to His death (Phil. 3:10; Rom. 6:4). The Christian life is a life of crucifixion.”
    (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)


  19. I don’t think it’s just evangelicals who see the incarnation as only a necessary step to produce a Christian’s Get Out of Hell Free card. I know many mainline protestants who view it the same way.


  20. Rootedness in a place vs. non-rootedness [for whatever reason, not a judgement] changes how people think about things like [mere] buildings.


  21. –> “…but I believe that God is wherever we put him.”

    Yep. And if you haven’t yet read it, I suggest perusing a copy of “An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith” by Barbara Brown Taylor. Excellent book on that idea that God is wherever we look for him.


  22. Two reactions:

    (1) Going with “God does not dwell in temples made with hands.” in a discussion about Notre Dame is simply changing the subject. No one said He did, if by “dwell in temples” we mean the ancient understanding of the god literally living in that building, like you and I live in buildings. So since no one ever suggested that if you want to send a letter to God, you should look up the mailing address of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, raising this is really not on point.

    If, on the other hand, you mean that God cannot be found in such buildings, then your theology is seriously screwed up, f you mean by “such buildings” to mean any physical church; or you are simply a bigot, if that “such” part means “Roman Catholic.” In any case, there really isn’t anything to discuss.

    (2) My standard critique: You use “the church” when you mean White American Evangelical Protestantism. This usage is widespread among White American Evangelical Protestants and some non-Christians who have bought, at least to this extent, what White American Evangelical Protestants are selling. This is a variant of the Big Lie that White American Evangelical Protestants have been telling for about a half century, that “Christian” = White American Evangelical Protestant. This Big Lie is so pervasive within the subculture that people do this with no sense of how this is both factually incorrect (White American Evangelical Protestants constitute about one third of American Christendom) or how offensive it is (do you really mean to say that I am not really a Christian?).


  23. Yes, the incarnation of Christ is so important. But I sense many evangelicals only see it as some kind of necessary step for *our salvation* rather than something holistically good and right. Because Christ wouldn’t have needed to become a human if we hadn’t sinned, then it’s not really that important. Either way you look at it, the tangible and physical are declared good – in the beginning and in Christ and in all things.


  24. > I think there is some reality in why we abandoned the physical,


    I very much view it as a retreat; the defeated hiding down in their warren, from which one can shout “It doesn’t matter” at whatever passes by.

    It’s sad. And transparent.


  25. It’s been a bit more than a decade now but the members of the church I grew up in (and the one my parents still attended) were arguing about whether or not to remain in its centralized city location or buy some property and move out in the country. The debate split mostly along generational lines. The older folks (which included the minister) wanted to stay where they were and the younger folks (which included the associate pastor) wanted to move.

    The debate got somewhat acrimonious at times. At one point in response to one of the older folks’ comments about what the church building meant to them the associate pastor came out with the “the church is the people not the building”. When this was relayed to me I was suddenly aware of what a dang fool idea this is even though it is true on one level.

    You see the older generation actually built that church which rose from the ashes of a truly acrimonious split with another local church. One of my earliest memories is running around the grassy lot while my father and other folks laid the physical foundation of the structure. They financed the construction themselves and met in the basement for a long while until they could swing the finances to hire a builder. The building for them embodied all their hopes and dreams from a troubled time. Of course it meant more to them than it would to a 30 something associate pastor. I was struck how utterly facile the guy’s point of view was and how clueless.

    Well the economy soured and it became impossible to move so that settled that issue. But whenever I’m back in the town I grew up in I always look for that steeple even though I haven’t been in the church for years. That was a goodly chunk of my youth and part of my parents (both gone now) still lives there. You have to live a little to feel that so we can be forgiving of the callowness of youth even as our elders were forgiving of our callowness.


  26. I have always believed that when the Hebrews were in Babylonian captivity they had to find a way to worship God, who certainly was not in the Temple or even the Ark anymore . Synagogue and the keeping of the Torah became a way of life, adjustments were made. God did not just reside in the Temple , he was with them even in Babylon . This was as a say a sea level change in attitude.

    So in the medieval times before the printing press and the hard scrabble times of that period the majestic buildings were the testimony and reminder of God to the people of that era. Icons, relics and other symbols stood in place of the written word for the majority of the uneducated people. Again we look back and compare the society and culture of the old days to our advantaged , enlightened society. Unfortunately , like most of the grand places of worship in Europe Norte Dame was mostly a tourist attraction and as one NYT reporter wrote also used , not only as a tourist attraction but as a place of worship

    I totally agree with many of the post above , we need physical places to visit. I visit my Mothers grave , not because she is there but to reflect and remember. Notre Dame is a part of western civilization as well as important to the Catholic faith and its lost is profound. We are physical and spiritual, that is the beauty of the life God gave each of us.

    Also I am worried about where Lon Chaney and Charles Laughton will live now. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a great movie and I think a very lovely , young Maureen O Hara was the gypsy lady.

    A long time ago , when I was young and silly as compared to now being old and silly, I would give Quasimoto as my name on the restaurant wait list to be called, no one ever blinked an eye or even seemed amused. Perhaps they saw the resemblance..


  27. Ben, you may be correct in saying my historical analysis is a bit cobbled together. But my sense is that Cartesian thought so penetrated the west and then the church (though we may have called our emphasis “spiritual” over rational, albeit plenty have been trapped into extreme rationalism). We had to find a way to engage with the trend of the period – and especially as Protestantism forged forward in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s (and then on to evangelicalism in the mid-1900’s). It seems we were trying our best to engage Darwinianism, certain “liberal” theologies, and even the practices of Rome. These all became our enemies, in a sense. I might even say those 3 enemies allowed for the rise of dispensationalism, which is very dualistic.

    So we moved theology toward this internal rational thought realm (again, then into the spiritual realm) and gave up on the physical and the tangible as having any significance.

    Again, it may be cobbled, but I think there is some reality in why we abandoned the physical, the tangible, and the like.


  28. Where IS the concept of ‘sacred’ in the evangelical world? Maybe it would help to understand it better. (?)


  29. “We have basically abandoned all things physical, all things tangible.”
    Interesting and valid point. Isn’t being tangible the point of Jesus being human, God became tangible for humankind to interact with? Isn’t that the point of the body and blood being tangible in the Eucharist, for us to encounter in the physical realm?

    I guess that’s how I’ve looked at it for years.


  30. ” He pooped, sweated, bled (with typeable blood), hungered, yawned, and farted so we could have “spiritual” blessings? Sorry.”The more you think about it, the catholicker you get.”

    don’t knock yourself out Burro


  31. Suddenly, my residually-Reformed self doesn’t feel so bad about wanting to go on a pilgrimage.

    I remember a knock-down drag-out I had with a Church of Christ missionary who told me I was going to Hell for kissing icons. They are very good at knock-down drag-outs and I have to admit I waded right in with glee. He told me “the Old Covenant was about the physical Land. The New Covenant is about the spiritual Home.”

    “Oh”, I said. “God became incarnate in the New Covenant so we could live inside our craniums (crania?) and think good thoughts about Him? He pooped, sweated, bled (with typeable blood), hungered, yawned, and farted so we could have “spiritual” blessings? Sorry.”

    The more you think about it, the catholicker you get.


  32. Yes, the physical/spiritual divide is nothing new – it was present in the early Church’s day in the form of Gnosticism. But Descartes prettied it up and gave it a “scientific” veneer at a time when such things were starting to become important.

    And whatever else it is, evangelicalism is VERY gnostic at heart. The reactions to the loss of Notre Dame are just one manifestation of it.


  33. In this sense, at least at the time Notre Dame was built, it really was a labour of love and adoration. There may have been elements of national or local pride, and probably politics too, but the building was designed to echo the majesty and awe associated with God.

    Like all the great building projects of the middle ages, Notre Dame was built with resources taken from peasants in far flung rural towns (where most people, who were peasants, lived) the vast majority of which would never see it, since they would never travel more than a handful of miles from their homes in a lifetimes; neither were they asked if they wanted to contribute from their penury to its construction. No doubt Notre Dame is a beautiful place, and God has been met there; but that can’t romanticize the harsh and exploitative economic conditions out of which it was built.


  34. I think your historical analysis is a bit cobbled together, and the causality is not the way you present, but I can agree with where you’re going.

    This sounds a bit solipsistic (if that’s the right word – if it’s even a word), but I believe that God is wherever we put him. Not in the sense that “God is whatever you think he is”, but in the sense that God makes himself present in the place where we go to look for him. In this sense, at least at the time Notre Dame was built, it really was a labour of love and adoration. There may have been elements of national or local pride, and probably politics too, but the building was designed to echo the majesty and awe associated with God.

    Aside, I read someone recently pointing out the weirdness that “I think therefore I am” (amongst other things) has lead us to a hyper-materialistic scientific world view, where we can’t even prove our own existence!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: