I have only watched one church burn to the ground. It was one of the most progressive congregations in the United States, and a lightning bolt reduced it to ashes. If ever there was a target for conservative pundits, this was the church. I watched the inferno, hoping that people wouldn’t use this tragedy as a weapon.
Divine judgment was not the only available interpretation of this event. Congregants could have seen protection in the midst of the flames — for pieces from the altar and the rainbow flag survived. Fire insurance and donations then funded a beautiful rebuild.
Where conservatives might find divine judgment, progressives could see a divine affirmation. Judgments and mercies were in the eyes of the beholder.
I am a historian of the interpretation of conflict. I research how people turn events into ideas; how they extract meaning from triumph or tragedy. People are “significance junkies,” as Carl Sagan argued. Whether religious or secular, it is natural to look behind events for a sordid or silver lining. Humans find patterns and meaning everywhere, and they are not very good at distinguishing signal from noise.
After the fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral, there are several types of interpretation that must take place. Experts on the nature of fire will doubtless learn so as to prevent future conflagrations and bring them to a timely resolution. Those who specialize in human nature have another task. They need to figure out whether the fire was intentional or fits into a larger pattern of destruction. For example, Brendan Cole wrote an article in Newsweek last month titled: “Catholic Churches are Being Desecrated Across France — and Officials Don’t Know Why.” If this was an act of terrorism, one would be hard-pressed to argue that Christ himself would advocate retaliation for the destruction of a building named after his mother.
My sadness over the fire at Notre Dame was compounded by an awareness that another type of interpretation would soon take place. A Google search for “Notre Dame Divine Judgment” has been returning more and more hits.
Many of these interpretations appear on anonymous message boards, and some seem deliberately provocative. It should come as no surprise, if the reports are true, that Islamic State affiliates rejoiced. However, I strongly suspect that the anonymous praise given to Allah on simplyconfess.com was posted by someone wanting to stir anti-Islamic hatred.
Several Christian websites have included theories that link the fire with divine judgment on France’s secularity. Conservative talk-show host Dennis Prager weighed in at Townhall.com: “It is as if God Himself wanted to warn us in the most unmistakable way that Western Christianity is burning — and with it, Western civilization.” Unsurprisingly, apocalyptically minded observers are also taking note.
Providentialism — the act of discerning divine purposes behind events — has always been intimately connected with this cathedral. It was in this church that ministers interpreted victory or defeat for the French people. It was here that they described monarchs as Godlike. Notre Dame’s exalted ceiling, flying buttresses and towering spire were not made for merely ordinary events. They were designed to communicate something about God’s relationship with humans, and Christians commonly believe that God is involved (in some way) with everything that happens on Earth. Christians can — and should — thank God that more of the cathedral was not destroyed. It is more controversial, however, to claim to know how God was involved and why particular events occurred.
The 17th century was a high-water mark for finding divine communications in human calamity. After each political and military contest, there was an additional battle for the interpretation of the event. Edward Gee’s 1653 “Treatise of Prayer” linked providence with prejudice in a way that anticipates later theories about epistemology and power. He said that “construction follows opposition.” In other words, humans observe events and then form beliefs (construction) in ways that confirm their prior judgments (opposition). In a similar vein, David Hume noted in “The History of Great Britain” how partisans, “by forced inferences,” interpreted events “as a confirmation of their particular prejudices.”
How should we respond to diviners who use this fire to bolster their agendas?
Instead of asking “how should we interpret the Notre Dame fire?” we should be asking, “How should we interpret interpretations of the fire?”
The flames reveal the biases of the interpreter, and we should look at this tragedy less as a divine communication and more like a Rorschach inkblot test.
Matthew Rowley is a research associate at the Cambridge Institute on Religion & International Studies (Clare College, Cambridge), an honorary visiting fellow at the University of Leicester and a non-stipendiary fellow at the Woolf Institute, Cambridge. His research focuses on the relationship between religion and violence in the Puritan Atlantic world.