Monday, October 20, 2008

Addendum to the Last Post: Defining Christendom

There are two basic definitions of "Christendom:" one generic and descriptive and the other specific and pejorative.

1. Christendom: the lands in which Christianity has historically been numerically dominant, especially Europe and those parts of the globe colonized primarily by Europeans such as North, Central and South America, Australia and New Zealand and, perhaps, large parts of Africa. Christendom once existed in Asia Minor, the Holy Land and North Africa, but has been destroyed in those regions by Islam.

2. Christendom: the union of Church and State with the Church the dominant partner or (as I defined it in my book, Rethinking Christ and Culture):

"Christendom is the concept of Western civilization as having a religious arm (the church) and a secular arm (civil government), both of which are united in their adherance to Christian faith, which is seen as the soul of Europe or the West. The essence of the idea is the assertion that Western civilization is Christian. Within this Christian civilization, the state and the church have different roles to play, but, since membership in both is coterminous, both can be seen as aspects of one unified reality - Christendom." (Rethinking Christ and Culture, p. 14)

It should be obvious that in the last two posts I was using the term "Christendom" in the first sense, not the second. It is perhaps less obvious, though no less true, that in those posts I am calling into question the adequacy of the second definition as it stands.

In the context of my book, I went on to link the term "Christendom" to the term "Constantinianism," which I define as "an eschatological heresy in which the kingdom is considered already to have come, or as being in the process of coming by means of events now underway in history." (See my book on Yoder for a full discussion of Constantinianism.) In the Rethinking book I say: "I prefer the term Christendom simply because it is a better-known term and less likely to be misunderstood." (p. 15) I now disagree with myself on that point; I think the term "Constantinianism" would be less likely to be misunderstood. I made a mistake in conflating the two terms and I would now like to distinguish them.

Constantinianism has two problems, which Christendom may or may not have depending on the historical situation under consideration.

First, Constantinanism involved the absorption and co-opting of the Church into the orbit of the State. But you can have Christendom with the Church and State remaining separate; the Church does not necessarily have to be co-opted.

Second, Constantinianism is an eschatological heresy. You can have Christendom without Constantinianism, but Christendom often does fall into the Constantinian trap.

So by conflating these two terms, I may have caused unnecessary confusion. I have also made it virtually impossible to advocate a kind of "Christendom" (definition #1) in which Church and State remain separate and Constantinianism is avoided. The absurdity of this situation is that I have backed myself into the corner of saying that in any country in which the overwhelming majority of the citizens are Christian, there we have Christendom inevitably. The "inevitably" must be challenged.

It would seem to me now to be absurd to say that a given country must be an example of Christendom and therefore be sinful just because the majority of the citizens have been converted to Christ. There are countries - and not just in Europe - where evangelism has resulted in the majority of the population becoming Christian without that country becoming an example of what I meant by Christendom in my book. Kenya, for example, is now over 90% Christian. What do we do with Kenya? Ask 45% of the population to volunteer to revert to paganism? Is Kenya doomed to repeat the errors of European Constantinianism because so many have embraced the Gospel? Any viable Christian social ethics must give some guidance on what to do in case evangelism is successful and the vast majority of people in a society are converted without coercion, but by the working of the Holy Spirit. My definitions fail on that point and need revision.

What really alarms me now is the number of people (some of whom have read my book and some some of whom have read Yoder, Hauerwas etc.) and who think the following series of thoughts:

a) Christendom is always Constantinian
b) Therefore Christendom is always bad
c) Christendom is visible whenever the Church, or Christians as a group, influence the State or society as a whole in any way whatsoever (even if it is done nonviolently).
d) All conservative Christians are promoting Christendom whenever they try to defend human rights or the family in the name of the Gospel (eg. when the early Church convinced the Roman Empire to ban infanticide or the contemporary Church tries to convince the government to ban abortion)
e) Therefore a basically liberal individualist approach to politics, ethics and law is the only way to avoid Christendom today.

The fifth thought is often unconsciously refected in behaviour, whereas the first four are often stated explicitly. My concern is that the first four lead to the fifth in practice even when the person explicitly denies being a liberal. My point is that to accept points a-d is to leave one with no option other than practical liberal individualism even if one rejects theoretical liberal individualism. To attack conservative Christians (the Religious Right) while being unconcerned about same-sex marriage, assisted suicide, abortion etc. is in effect to accept liberal individualism in practice and the theory will eventually follow the practice.

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