The Cathedral and the Shrike


What would you commit to in a bid to raise funds?

The Notre Dame Cathedral fire on 15 April aroused much emotion across the world and prompted generous responses; within a few days of President Macron’s appeal, €859 million was collected from public and private donations to restore the historic church in Paris. The €200 million forked out by the Arnault and Bettencourt families echoed many citizen donations – clearly from the most modest budget – collected by the Fondation du Patrimoine.

The Woodchat Shrike (Lanius senator) is a passerine bird that nests in Italy and hibernates in sub-Saharan Africa. What it has in common with Notre Dame is the fact that it risks having the same end, disappearing. The species was included among those “at critical risk” by the Italian committee of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The main reason is the reduction of its habitat due to territory mismanagement. Unlike the cathedral in Paris, it is extremely unlikely that even a sum equal to 0.1% of the funds collected for Notre Dame will be collected to save this bird’s presence in Italy.

Is the comparison relevant? I do not know, yet I would like to propose a twofold consideration depending on whether the reader has a religious sensibility.

For those non-believers, the Woodchat Shrike is the product of millions of years of evolution and has an infinitely more complex structure than any cathedral or other architectural work.

For believers, this bird was made by God and is part of those creatures about which the Bible says: “he created all things to exist” (Wisdom 1:14).

Although the comparison may be somewhat weak. The Notre Dame (even in the eyes of secularized society) represents France’s history. On the other hand, the Woodchat Shrike means nothing to us. And so do the other 42 species of insects, birds, mammals, reptiles, fish and amphibians in Italy classified “at high risk”. They don’t represent anything.

What lesson can we then learn? On the whole, people do not act if we do not perceive a symbolic dimension that can motivate us. ‘Objective’ and ‘scientific’ knowledge of data are not enough. To act ethically, we need to understand the ‘sense’ of a certain thing, what it ‘means’, and what it ‘represents’.

Thankfully there is some good news, when we talk about nature, we can draw on a vast symbolic repertoire. In the Bible for example, we find a very strong religious sense of nature, conveyed mainly (but not exclusively) by the concept of creation. The Koran, the Talmud, the Vedas etc., teem with animals and plants. For hundreds of years, literature and art has found inspiration in the natural world. For many non-believers, nature evokes self-transcendence and arouses astonishment about the phenomenon that is life. For believers, it is a reminder of the Creator’s gift of life. This intercultural dimension of the relationship with nature represents a precious heritage for civil dialogue. Whatever your culture or religion, you can ‘see’ in the ecosystem something that motivates you to appreciate and protect it. In our multicultural society, this can also become a factor of cohesion. Starting from the urgency of the ecological crisis, we can compare our visions of nature, which then also becomes a way to learn about other cultures and philosophies of life.

Therefore the questions to start with are these: What does nature mean to you? What do you see in a Woodchat Shrike?


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