Saturday, October 18, 2008

How Liberal Modernity is as Bad as Christendom at Its Worst

It is customary in certain circles now to attack Christendom as evil and to hold that any attempt to "impose" Christian morality on society, even through the democratic process without violence, is wrong. This is a huge over-reaction to a legitimate concern. In my book "Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective" I may have contributed to this way of thinking inadvertantly by portraying Christendom in a one-sided way. Let me explain.

1. Before Christendom: Church and State as One
Prior to the rise of Christianity in Western Europe during the period from the shift of the imperial capital from Rome to Constantinople to the end of the Dark Ages, every known large empire had religious and political power united in the King or Emperor. This was true of the Roman Emperor and the Persians, Assyrians, Babylonians and Egyptians before him. The Byzantine Empire and the Islamic Empires did not break with this pattern.

2. During Christendom: Secular and Religious
As Western Europe developed during the 4th-13th centuries, something new happened. At first the Church stepped in to fill the void left by the gradual disintegration of the Roman Empire and helped establish order in society, but as the economy recovered, the population grew and political order became established, the Church drew back from day to day administration and allowed the secular rulers to govern. The theology of Augustine was the source of one of the greatest political ideas the world has ever seen - the idea of the "secular." The secular world was the world that was not governed by the Church. It was the world of commerce, politics and civil law.

It is true that the Church still claimed authority over the civil rulers, who were after all church members. But it was essentially the authority of church discipline. The Church taught the moral law and expected her members, including those who were rulers, to follow it. But while the Church was in that sense supreme, the Pope was not the Emperor and this was unprecedented. There were two authorities and two laws (civil and ecclesiastical) and two powers.

3. After Christendom: A Regression to the Past Unification of Religion and Politics in the State
After the Reformation, the rise of early modern states, and the Enlightenment, the modern world came into existence. As liberal modernity developed, one of the main themes was the attack by secular intellectuals and rulers on the authority of the Church. Religion was relegated to the realm of the private and personal, while the State claimed all authority. Hobbes, for example taught that the state must have the final say in biblical interpretation. What has happened in modernity is that the State has replaced the Church and assumed the kind of all-powerful role it had in the Roman Empire prior to the rise of Christianity.

In Christendom, there were times when the Church took over or allied itself too closely with the civil authorities and relied too much on coercion and violence to accomplish its mission. These are errors and failings that must be criticized. The Christendom temptation was for the Church to become totalitarian and take over the role of the State - fighting wars, deposing rulers, owning the bulk of the property etc.

But in Modernity the temptation is the opposite. The temptation is for the State to take over the role of the Church - by deciding for example to re-define marriage as not having procreation at its center and by denying human rights to the unborn. The State in modernity takes responsibility for making law, determining right and wrong and meeting all the material needs of the citizens.

The West was a great civilization and was founded on an incredibly important idea - the idea of the Church and State having distinct but complementary roles. In modernity, the goal has been to deny any role whatsoever to the Church or the Bible or revelation or God. This makes modern Western nation-states into idols, just as the great empires of the past were idolatrous. The City of Man is exalted as an absolute.

Christians who advocate the complete secularization of the West out of a mis-placed sense of shame at the failings of Christendom in the past are simple-minded, ignorant of history and naive about the dangers of letting the idea of the West die out. They are also, I fear, in the majority today. There is an unholy alliance between liberal Catholics, liberal Protestants and liberal Anabaptists who may be very different from each other in some respects, but who both promote either wittingly or unwittingly the privatization of religion and the ending of Christian influence on public life. They are aiding and abetting in the destruction of the only civilization in the history of the world ever to make religious freedom possible. The very dignity of the human person as a free being before God is at stake. There is no religious freedom in Islamic nations, none in Communist nations and none in nations in which the secular State has become all powerful.

When liberal modernity allows the totalitarian Church to be replaced by the totalitarian State, it is no friend of religious liberty. Rather it is as bad as Christendom at is very worst.

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