So long as Christianity has existed, there has existed a tension between the life of humble service to which Jesus’ disciples are called and the desire to offer beautiful and reverent worship to an awesome God. Both of those things require money, which explains the tension. Both are necessary and good. Both are commanded by God. So which one wins out, and why? If the overarching mission of the Church is to serve as Jesus serve, then can anything beautiful or extravagant be justified?
Certainly, one of the chief complaints against Christianity by unbelievers is the hypocrisy of building incredible edifices in the service of worship while ignoring the plight of the poor. The charge of hypocrisy is cheap and easy for unbelievers when they see the contrast between a beautiful (and expensive) cathedral and the beggar out front. Certainly, there are many Christians who also see it as wasteful to martial funds for an extra bit of beauty when there remains so much need in the world.
The other side of this coin is an overabundance of concern for aesthetics. It is true that some, maybe even many, Christians are more concerned about beauty and the perfection of liturgy than outreach and concern for the poor. They may argue that the fine points of worship do, in fact, matter. Haven’t you ever read the details that God offers the Israelites concerning the priest’s attire and the adornment of the Temple? God was not so blasé about worship practices that He limited worship locales to open fields so more money could be pooled and distributed. (And even open fields cost money!)
And then there are Jesus’ own words, said while Mary (Martha and Lazarus’ sister) was anointing his feed with expensive nard and her own tears: “The poor you will always have with you.” This was right after the disciples asked the ever-present question, “Why don’t we sell the nard and give it to the poor?” Or even words said again, ironically perhaps in the presence of Mary and Martha, that Mary had chosen the “better part” by focusing on his teachings rather than preparing a meal for the hungry. Do these teachings not at least provide some basis for emphasizing worship and beauty, and not sacrificing everything to merely distribute to those in need?
Ideally, we can see each extreme for what they are and offer a fuller answer. We preserve beauty when and where it provides a defensible good in the life of the body of Christ and we also serve the poor. Achieving both is possible and the concepts are not necessarily in conflict unless a Christian assumes one extreme position or another.
The False Dilemma Between Beauty or Almsgiving
Events like the Notre Dame fire bring these questions to the fore, of course. As millions are donated to restore a mere building to glory, the question will be asked: “Why spend all of that money on a building instead of giving the money to the poor?”
So many issues are tied up in that question. First, is the primary mission of the church to be a distribution center of material goods for the poor? No, that is an outcome of belief, not the reason for the Church’s existence. Second, might the poor benefit from beauty as well? Yes, and in fact it is rather patronizing to assume that all people don’t appreciate and cannot benefit tremendously from aesthetic beauty. Beauty is not only the province of the rich. And third, if the money were diverted to the poor, would the benefit of such redistribution outweighs the good of a rebuilt fixture of culture and history?
There is no way to answer that question with a solid “No” without sounding callous. Would you be the person to take a meal out of a hungry man’s mouth in service to a building, no matter how beautiful?
Let me first offer a realistic answer to why we should strive for beauty, why a maximalist approach to worship (or at least not a minimalist approach) is defensible against the charge that the money should merely be redistributed. If we adopted that view akin to Marx’s “From each according to his ability; To each according to his need,” we would produce more poverty, not eliminate it. The Christian worldview assumes that man will get over on other men if at all possible, and if the Church is indiscriminately handing out free money, food or things, you can rest assured there will always be a line at the door, populated by believers and unbelievers alike.
This is born out by our experience. No matter how much is or has been distributed, poverty remains. Are you familiar with the results of the War on Poverty? In fact, such distribution can easily become a safety net for those that prefer addiction to work, and homelessness to responsibility. I realize that sounds harsh, but if you disagree, you don’t know much about the inner workings of any modern charity. And you don’t know that indiscriminate redistribution is the enemy of real charity, personalized help beginning with healing, wholeness, education, and self-determinism.
So, diverting money from Notre Dame to the poor will not eliminate poverty. In all likelihood, there would be more poverty in the end, for the incentives to leave an impoverished lifestyle would be lessened if not eliminated altogether. And Notre Dame would still lie in ruins.
Value that Transcends Money
The longer answer, or at least the long-term answer, is that monuments like Notre Dame (perhaps not of that scale, but built within the same understanding) express progress and they inspire us in a way we cannot calculate. Sure, we can see that $2 billion was raised for the rebuilding of Notre Dame and we can ask ourselves, “What good could we do with $2 billion in another domain?”
But you can’t really calculate the social loss of destruction and the cultural value of beauty, order, and edifices that reflect our highest goods and first priorities. A building like Notre Dame represents the best of our talents, the highest of our goals, and the peaks of our imaginations. We leave it feeling awestruck, and that is kind of the point. We all see what is possible, and perhaps we are given a glimpse of the wonder and beauty of heaven itself, which, again, is part of the reason these buildings exist in the first place.
The way to build a civilization, the way to truly progress, is not to simply take from those who have achieved and dole it out, though Christians always have and always will and always should offer ministry to the poor. Mere redistribution simply encourages poverty.
What must be offered is a vision of what lies beyond us, both in terms of our eternal lives, but also even in the here and now. Beauty—whether in something as impressive as Notre Dame Cathedral or in something as modest as an orderly flower bed—communicates the taming of chaos, the building of something better, and hope for a better future. Letting buildings crumble and burn, or never building something aspirational to begin with is not always wrong. But there is certainly nothing wrong with offering all in a society the inspiration that comes from the beautiful forms and designs of a Notre Dame.
Photo: Nave of Chartres Cathedral, The Old Cowboy