Thursday, May 10, 2007

Some Thoughts on Christendom, part 1

Christendom is often spoken of pejoratively. Christendom is a distortion of Christianity and the Church, often seen as happening through political means. Christendom is seen as the establishment of the Church as the religion of the state (in its most obvious form Constantine is the one we hate as the originator of this relationship). However, Christendom is also used to describe the non-established dominance that Protestantism and Christianity have had in the history of the United States. Today, In varying ways, we are being asked to react or respond to the loss of this dominance, the loss of this particular form of Christendom. While I agree that the above definitions of Christendom are true they are not complete. This incompleteness and that the term is generally used pejoratively hides from us a larger pattern a larger reality of the Church and the potential social implications of that reality.

The Church as the continued physical presence of Christ in the world, should and can have an effect on the world. This is the Church's eschatological impact. Yet this eschatological impact given that it is oriented towards another time and world in this time and world means that it's effect is always already partial. (I fear I may be misunderstood here: these two times and worlds overlap, in that sense they are neither strictly temporal nor strictly spatial, and thus can and do overlap, this I believe is the witness of scripture and tradition.) In the final analysis what we know is passing away and what is to come is not of our making. (Yet we are also forced to express aspects of this reality in temporal language,it is inescapable) Christendom I wish to argue emerges out of this boundary that is created by the Church's eschatological being in the midst of a world that is passing away and yet asserts itself continually in rebellion against the new that God, through Christ and the Church, seeks to bring about. Christendom is the natural outcome of a society still bound to this world and its fallen and demonic tendencies thoroughly impacted by the presence of the eschaton mediated through the Church.

As evidence of this Christendom, as a phenomenon produced by the Church as eschaton, I would first point to the patterns of large scale social disruption caused by a high conversion rate, followed by persecution. Acts 19 account of Paul's mission work in Ephesus, where in it is indicated that the presence of the Church in Ephesus had such great impact that those who made idols and were connected to the worship the goddess Artemis feared for their livelihood and the future of the temple of Artemis(see Acts 19:23ff). We have here in Scripture the first instance of Christendom: when so many have entered into the Church or come under the Church's influence and are no longer buying idols, we have all the necessary conditions of Christendom. The Church by virtue of its numbers in a particular society (limited possibly to just a city as here in acts, or extending over an entire empire matters little) gains a disruptive influence, which is followed by persecution. We see this pattern intensify as the Church expands throughout the Roman empire. Rarely (despite certain ideological interpretations of the the early church) did the Church simply appeal to the poor and outcasts but the Church has always appealed to every level of society. Once there are enough people from the society to opt out of the public religion, which Greek and Roman Religion was at base, civic religion, the system based on that public religion of the gods and emperor, suddenly has a problem. Persecution of Christians is then the way to ensure that a significant number of the society are doing their civic duties. (This is not to deny that their would be true belief in the nature of these acts and their effects on the world spiritual and physical) The Church then finds itself in a peculiar situation, where great numbers of its members abandon the Church and make the appropriate sacrifices, hand over holy objects, give keys to the churches, etc. The whole Donatist schism was, from this perspective, about the existence of Christendom and was a denial its validity. Where as those who argued for the reception of the lapsed back into the Church implicitly admitting the validity of Christendom as an effect of the the eschatological presence of the Church in the World.

What I am arguing here is that Christendom predates Constantine. Constantine simply recognizes an effect of the Church's presence in the world and seeks to live in this by product we have come to call Christendom. The Church accepted Constantine because in rejecting the rigorists of any stripe whether they be "gnostic" or Donatist the Church already accepted the imperfect manifestation of the eschaton in this world, which we now call Christendom. What I hope to explore around this understanding of Christendom is 1) what happens when we return to a occasional or spotty manifestation of Christendom (which I believe we currently find and may continue to find in the States ), and 2) how even those who seem to reject Christendom are currently attempting to preserve it even as it crumbles. What I find encouraging from the pre-Constantinian Church is that it found ways to take in stride the rising and falling of its members as Christendom came into existence and then crumbled around it in the midst of persecutions and as its members fled in droves.

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