On Monday night, the famous Notre Dame Cathedral was set ablaze in what is currently being treated as an accidental fire. It is not currently known what the exact cause of this fire was, and as far as I know the cause is still being investigated. Despite this, however, many people have taken to treating the fire as arson, without evidence, blaming a multitude of potential culprits – these include immigrants, Muslims, atheists, secularism, communists, and even Emmanuel Macron. But such conspiracy theories have not bothered me compared to something else, something more insidious in my mind. One take I have seen particularly from anarchist circles is one of indifference to the burning of the Notre Dame on the grounds that it is just a building, that it holds no value because it’s just a building, and that people are wrong to complain about such a historic building being destroyed as opposed to the millions of people starving in the world. Of course the myopia of such a take escapes them as usual – for indeed, surely it can be argued that such a building could be used to house large numbers of needy, homeless people, thus it would not at all be valueless even for the anarchist – but there is a broader point that has been simmering in my head in response to this development.
While it may seem predictable that I should support the burning of churches, mosques and synagogues because they are edifices of the Abrahamic faiths, the fact of the matter is I do not. We like to think of them as proud, rebellious acts, a punch to the face of God, the act of a fighter for freedom against organized religion, but in the end it is only the gesture of what Robert Anton Wilson once referred to as the hoodlum-occultist (or perhaps something like hoodlum-proselyte would be more appropriate in this case). The church burnings that happened in Norway during the 1990s served no purpose other than a means by which to prove who was the baddest black metaller of them all, and beyond that they only helped to establish and an edgy meme that would later become recuperated as equally edgy merchandise in service of the capitalist system while the unholy alliance of Christ and Capital continues almost unassailed – and that’s not even mentioning how in the end the churches that were burned were ultimately reconstructed by the government of Norway. I believe the same will also be true of the recent Louisiana church burning, which may also have had something to do with some crazy edgefag trying to be the next Varg Vikernes. But in a much broader sense, I find the idea that the past can simply be burned away, whether in edgy church burnings or in “cultural revolutions”, to be a delusion.
I would like to introduce you to a dialectical materialist argument on the past and the progression of history that may, perhaps, surprise you. We tend to think of radical movements as seeking some sort of “cultural revolution”, that is to say the violent purge of all reactionary elements such as the infamous Cultural Revolution in Maoist China. But in The Fundamentals of Marxist-Leninist Philosophy by Fedor Vasilevich Konstantinov, we are introduced to entirely the opposite perspective:
Under socialism the dialectical negation of the old and assertion of the new is characteristically a matter of dealing with problems as they arise, on a planned basis and under the control of society itself. The anarchistic view of the old as something entirely reactionary and only fit for destruction is alien to socialism. What is more, only socialist society, which comes to replace capitalist society, can, as historical experience has shown, save and preserve the greatest values of the material and intellectual culture accumulated by previous development. For this reason the self-styled “cultural revolutions” which under the pretext of struggle against “the old” destroy the precious, hard-won gains of the past have nothing in common with socialism.
Thus the law of the negation of negation is a law whose operation conditions the connection and continuity between that which is negated and that which negates. For this reason dialectical negation is not naked, “needless” negation, rejecting all previous development, but the condition of development that retains and preserves in itself all the progressive content of previous stages, repeats at a higher level certain features of the initial stage and has in general a progressive, ascending character.
What this means is that the history of a society, and its culture for that matter, progresses in the fashion of a dialectical continuum. This means that our civilization is a sequence in which new forms emerge from the old ones in a manner that they are ultimately related in some way to each other, even when they seem utterly distinct, and this relation is the product of emergence from the other, following a character of progressive, compounding development. Simply put, this means that the past never really goes away, rather the forms of the past transmute and progress, with its old spirit lingering on in time, with the best or simply most enduring forms of it surviving almost in perpetuity.
Understand this from the lens of paganism. We like to think that Christianity destroyed and buried paganism, and it certainly did attack the old ways to a considerable extent. But in other areas, they co-opted prior customs, re-purposing them as Christian customs, repackaged pagan temples as Christian churches, and during the Renaissance in particular pagan ideas, myths, symbolism and virtues were revived and redefined in a context that would not be completely antagonistic to Christian culture while still revitalizing the old virtues in a sense.
When Christianity falls, I would say that the churches do not need to be burned – that would be no different to when the Christians ransacked the temples of the old gods. I would suggest instead that, perhaps, after the death of Christianity, the edifices of Christianity would live on not simply as mere works of art as many atheists would say, but they may even become Temples of Reason in the sense that the old French Cult of Reason had in mind – or, perhaps, they would become temples of the gods, as some churches once were.