Notre Dame in a spiritual age

Published 7:20 pm Tuesday, April 16, 2019

By Charles Qualls

What I am about to say won’t be universally popular in a spiritual, but-not-religious age. Still, I think it needs to be said. Because as I wrote this, I had just watched Paris’ spectacular Notre Dame Cathedral burn. I was saddened twice by what I saw.

At first, my heart hurt because I’ve been there. Two times. Elizabeth and I were fortunate to have visited Paris in July of 2002 and then I spent a few days there again in November of 2007. That time, I got to go inside and explore. I took in its scope and scale, and the beauty and symbolism of the faith.

This significant house of worship has been severely damaged if not ruined by the fire. The extensive holdings of art and statues are said to have been saved, at least many of them. As a worship edifice, it is a rich place in which to feel humbled and in which to encounter the Creator. Even if rebuilt, it will obviously be a largely different version of its now 800-year-old self.

Thin though the connection may be, when you have travelled some and visited a place, you feel a tie to it. So, that was sad.

Then, my deep and abiding sadness turned a little cynical. In general, Europe has led America in a disturbing pattern. For decades now, church participation and attendance has waned. Some few have good and deep reasons, as they have been disillusioned and even hurt by a flawed and all-too-human church. Now, churches close on a weekly basis.

In its place, a churched age has given way to a spiritual, but-not-religious expression. I say “expression,” because I am just as cynical that most people who vow that stance actually practice it. I wouldn’t pretend that I have talked with all of the millions who would self describe in that way. Of course I have not, but I have had conversations with many of them over the years.

Upon gentle and respectful questioning, most will indicate that they really aren’t even all that spiritual. They just don’t have any use for the church. They tell me so. If you are the rare exception, and actually practice spirit, I respect that more than you know.

The Notre Dame fire made me sad because I saw the streets of Paris lined with hymn-singing mourners who were likely sadder about losing a key tourist attraction than they were about losing a house of worship they actually participated in.

If your reaction to that last assessment is that I am being judgmental, or to wonder how I could possibly know, let me ask you to keep your eye on the ball. Rather than push back at me, admit if you will that church attendance math (and the social survey data) indicate I am probably right. My own social media feed showed much the same. People whom I know do not attend church, nor regularly practice faith, were posting sentimental vacation photos and expressing their sadness.

A building does not a church make. The people are ultimately the body of the church. When Notre Dame Cathedral or the local church down the street from you are simply pretty buildings in a community, then you don’t truly have a church. Empty houses of worship that just look nice, and merely symbolize the sentiment of faith, don’t do much good.

The church remains what she has always been. Because she is a human institution, she has always been flawed. If you go to a church for long, someone will be ugly to you. You’ll hear something that doesn’t make sense. Someone will disappoint you. This happens anywhere that humans gather.

As some say, refusing to go to church because there are imperfect people in it makes about as much sense as refusing to go to a gym because there are overweight people there. The imperfect church can let us down. She can fail God because she contains real people. Like you and me.

But, she’s the best we’ve got. She’s way better than empty philosophical phraseology like “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious” if you aren’t actually practicing the spiritual part. Don’t let her be a tourist attraction, that church you used to attend. Don’t just show her off when your family visits town. Be a part of your local church and make her a better place.

So bring your disillusionment inside the church and park it right next to mine. Bring your doubts in and co-mingle them with mine. We’ll figure it out together.

THE REV. DR. CHARLES QUALLS is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 562-5135.