Crucible of Questions

Volume 52, Issue 2, Michael J. Crosbie

People were kneeling in the streets of Paris. This was not simply a demonstration of their distress about a piece of France’s history going up in flames. The burning of Notre-Dame happened on the Monday of Holy Week, a period for Christians that is more hallowed than Christmas. A symbol of faith was aflame, in the holiest week of the Christian calendar.

Religious architecture is in a precarious state right now. Fewer people are visiting religious buildings in all faiths. A Pew Research Center study released just last year focused on an “age gap” in religion around the world—fewer adults under 40 said that religion was important in their lives and that they attended services. Pew and other research institutions have been monitoring how people self-identify their religious orientation, and the numbers have been trending this way for decades. Twenty-three percent across all age groups in the US identify themselves as “Nones,” people who have no affiliation with organized religion—more than the percentage of Roman Catholics in the country. But most Nones don’t describe themselves are atheists or agnostics. A 2017 Pew study found that 72 percent of Nones say they believe in God, a higher power, or a spiritual force. Another way to describe this majority among Nones is “spiritual but not religious.” A cathedral speaks to them about “sacred space” in ways different than it does to committed believers. But a burning cathedral can move them at a deeply human level.

A few years ago I worked with some graduate architecture students to understand how they viewed spirituality in architecture. I asked them to define it for me. The majority didn’t talk about “smells and bells,” stained glass, or altars. What people did together in a space determined whether they considered it spiritual or not. They didn’t believe architecture was sacred because someone had blessed it, or if it looked one way or another, or that it was made of certain materials. What seemed primary for these students was how the space allowed or encouraged people to relate to each other, how they shared with each other, how they cared for each other.

Notre-Dame will likely be rebuilt as it was before the fire. Its new fabric will recreate what the cathedral looked like as contemporary people remember it. But will it fulfill the idea of a sacred space for the people who reconstruct it, people like my students? They are of a different time and place, and a reconstructed Notre-Dame will not speak to them as a sacred place as it did to those who raised it nearly a millennium ago.

Thomas Merton warned against recreations of religious buildings—he saw them as denying the possibility that the sacred could be encountered in anything but a structure that looked as though it had been built ages ago, “as if God did not belong to all ages and as if religion were really only a pleasant, necessary social formality, preserved from past times in order to give our society an air of respectability.” Merton believed that it’s up to every new generation to create architecture that speaks to the spirituality of its time, whatever it is.

As Notre-Dame’s reconstruction occupies our attention over the next decade or more, it’s worth asking questions about what sacred space means to us, if it means anything at all.

Michael J. Crosbie is the Editor-in-Chief of Faith & Form and can be reached by email at

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