Saturday, October 10, 2009

It's Time to Ban Use of the Words "Constantinian" and "Christendom"

I would like to propose a ban on the use of the words "Christendom" and "Constantinian" for the foreseeable future, since they are so generally mis-used and abused.

The word "Christendom" had a generally positive or at least neutral connotation up until the last few years. Now "Christendom" has a uniformly bad connotation in most theological discourse. When I spoke of a "Post-Christendom" approach to Christ and Culture in the title of my 2005 book, I retained something of the double sense of gain and loss that inheres in the decline of Christendom. My point was not so much that we are better off now that we are in the post-Christendom period, as it was that we need to recognize that we are in a post-Christendom period.

The problem with not recognizing that fact is that, whereas participating in the cultural establishment used to be a way of engaging in Christian action, now participating in the cultural establishment is to engage in post-Christian pagan action. So there needs to be a lot more intentionality about how we relate to the majority culture around us. We need to develop minority sensitivities and learn from the Jews how to survive in a generally hostile environment rather than lumbering along lazily assuming that we are the minority. The spectacle of the liberal Protestant denominations having adapted themselves to the polite paganism of the upper middle classes in Europe and North America and still quaintly thinking of themselves as Christian is a ridiculous one that we should try to avoid for many reasons, the least of which is so that we do not make fools of ourselves.

Christendom was a period of Western culture that peaked in the 13th century in which a serious attempt was made to create a Christian culture on earth. To dismiss it all as insincere or a complete failure is a form of Philistinism that is insupportable and irresponsible. Our ancestors were far from perfect, as was the culture they built, but the attempt was sincere and the results, compared to the moral and spiritual wasteland of the 20th century, were impressive. To say that we live in a post-Christendom period indicates both gains and losses that probably can never be finally tallied up.

"Constantinianism" is a term, which was invented by John Howard Yoder and which has been corrupted and debased in just a single generation by those who claim to follow his thought. For Yoder, the term refers to an eschatological heresy in which the future kingdom of God, which lies on the other side of the Parousia, is captured and dragged backward into our own plane of history and becomes a human political project instead of a Divine gift. Constantine became the symbol, for Yoder, of the attempt to build the Kingdom of God on earth here and now in our own human strength. The result of such activity is a violent regime that uses Christianity as its legitimating ideology.

The way the term is used in much contemporary theological discourse is as a handy way of attacking all forms of conservatism by those with a left-wing bias. Christendom has left the West with a rich legacy of laws that protect human life, uphold human dignity, and limit the libido dominandi. Modern progressivism has systematically attacked and undermined these laws one by one in order to remove restrictions on the will to power that are perceived in modernity as oppressive because they prevent the self-creation of individuals through the exercise of will. Whenever anyone dares to defend laws against, say abortion or adultery, or laws that mandate one day of rest in seven or which place limits on technological manipulation of human life, they are hit with the label of "Constantinian." To be Constantinian is to refuse to be caught up in the fanatical, blind faith that change must inevitably equal progress since man is inherently good and we have such good intentions.

It seems that in much theological discussion today, "Constantinian" simply means "conservative" and "Christendom" simply means a barrier to progress. To be anti-Constantinian and anti-Christendom has come to mean simply being "progressive." The use of these buzz words allows one to apporpriate the Enlightenment-inspired faith of modernity without appearing to be simply modernist. But my point to those who use these words is: why not just be honest and call yourselves what you are, that is, modernist progressives?

1 comment:

Fred said...

"Constantinianism" is a term which appeals to history as mythology and falls apart when the Christian testimony of the time is examined...