Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Origins of Christendom in the West

Kreider, Alan, ed. The Origins of Christendom in the West. New York: T&T Clark, 2001. (Available from Logos)

The Origins of Christendom in the West is the fruit of a symposium concerning Christendom and missiology. It consists of twelve papers (plus an epilogue) gathered under the headings "Aspects of Conversion", "Change and Continuity in the Christianization of Europe", "Liturgy and Christian Formation in the Advent of Christendom" and "Theology and Inculturation". The essays vary in perspective, method and quality (with one essay in particular that seemed to me to be of questionable scholarship and value), but the overall effect is to give a picture of the changes that occurred in the Church in the course of the early development of Christendom.

It is hardly surprising that, though not entirely lacking in balance, the overall take on Christendom is negative. Some of this simply comes from practical concerns, relating to the realities of mission-work today, with the introduction expressing agreement with the judgment of the French Worker-Priest movement that, in today's often post-Christian climate, "Appeals to Medieval models, or to coercion in the name of Christ, were inappropriate; in contrast, learning from early Christian models, for example in the area of conversion, might point the way forward for Christian witness" (ix). Beyond that, though, one wonders whether the tendency to contrast the pre- and post-Constantinian Church in order to label the latter as a perversion is really just evidence of how thoroughly we have internalized the ideals of our own age, with its emphasis on production and individual autonomy. Unable to judge other ways of organizing society by any other standard, we are forced to extricate Christianity from Christendom to maintain its credibility.

While the contrasts at certain points seem strong enough to condemn at least some aspects of Christendom on straightforward Christian terms, some (even most) of the changes that occurred were the result of the changing position of Christianity from an outside (perhaps in some cases even subversive) movement to the ordering principle of society. Can Christianity serve as such an ordering principle? If it is to do so, it has to face some difficult questions. For instance, it is one thing to exclude soldiers from your movement, it is another to say that there simply shouldn't be soldiers. It is one thing to demand renunciation of wealth in a voluntary society, it is quite another to enforce it on society at large.

Finally, what role does compulsion play in the religious life of such a society? Having learned from the violent failures to bring about religious uniformity that followed the Reformation, we take for granted the value of religious freedom and the possibility of grounding society on non-religious or very thinly religious grounds. We do so to such an extent that we read our own sentiments back into the Christian struggle under persecution. How baffling (or ironic), we think, that the Church could go from oppressed to oppressor in the span of a couple of generations. But this mistakes what the Church was ultimately about, reading it as simply a precursor to our own regime, and evaluating it on its success or failure to bring it about.

The martyrs did not die for a generic religious freedom but for Christ. The Church did not just want accommodation by paganism but victory over it. We can rue the fact that Christendom resorted to coercion to bring this about and point out that this leads to degradation of, for instance, the Church's understanding of conversion (as Alan Krieder discusses in the first chapter), but we should be wary of identifying our society's ideal with the ideal of the Early Church, by thinking that the Church went from being "for" religious freedom, to "against"--being somehow guilty of hypocrisy or a double standard--when, in reality, the Church had no position either way. The Church, before and after Constantine, was, simply put, "for" Christ, and the freedom they sought was freedom to worship Christ. Granted this and more, they did not find the establishment of the broad freedom of worship we enjoy as the obvious corollary that we would today. We can regard their conclusion as wrong, but accusing them of inconsistency or selling out an earlier ideal assumes that a) the Early Church was perfect, and b) "perfect" means, more or less, "like us".

That Christendom led to certain perversions of Christian understanding and practice is undeniable. To such, we should say "good riddance". But our own age tempts or hampers the Church in its own ways. In studying the changes that occurred in the Church during the formation of Christendom, we would do well to learn not only of the errors that were committed, but, more generally, of the Church's ability to adapt and bear fruit under different regimes. The formation of Christendom may have led to the death or perversion of certain ideals of the Early Church, but it also brought about the flowering of other aspects of Christianity.

(Continued in Part 2.)

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