Cross posted at Notes from a Small Place.
For Every Tribe and Tongue : The Problem of Christendom and Pluralism
There’s a growing movement in evangelical circles that believes the solution to the complex and convoluted question of Christianity and culture is a return to Christendom. I’m currently reading John Mark Reynolds’ excellent book When Athens Met Jerusalem and am looking forward to reading Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine when it comes out this fall. Additionally, I think if we define our terms carefully, a reinvigorated Christendom is very much compatible with the vision of writers like Andy Crouch and James Hunter, both of whom have published significant books on Christianity and culture in recent years. A reinvigorated Christendom (Christendom 2.0) offers us the practical tools to understand the relationship between Christianity and culture. It is able to encompass the strengths of the Christian right (an understanding that political power is not evil), the Christian left (a desire to serve and protect the marginaliezd) and the insights of the Anabaptists (who understand that Christian culture must inevitably be a counter-culture). Further, it is able to meet the calls given by both Crouch and Hunter. Christendom is a remarkable incubator for culture (as any student of the Middle Ages knows quite well) and it is not easily given to the modernistic hubris that seeks “to change the world,” preferring instead to simply and faithfully apply the Christian faith in every area of life through the wise stewardship of God’s gifts.
And yet. When we use this language of Christendom, many are initially frightened – and understandably so. As a Buddhist friend explained to me recently, “When I hear Christendom, I think of the world where they burned people like me.” For all its many strengths, it’s undeniable that the Christendom of pre-modern Europe struggled mightily with issues related to pluralism and diversity. It wasn’t, as some would like to suggest, that original thought was completely stifled. To suggest such a thing is to fundamentally misunderstand the medieval Christians. However, it is hard to deny that the world of medieval Europe was often a dangerous place for those outside the almost-exclusively white, male, Catholic power structure.
These twin observations beg an obvious question: How can a rebooted Christendom – which often failed to handle pluralism well in a place as homogeneous as medieval Europe – possibly be the answer for contemporary Christians who live in an infinitely more diverse world?
Obviously, answering such a question would require a great deal of research (hint, hint to any publishers out there). But here’s my intuition on how I’d go about answering it: I’d begin with Thomas C. Oden’s argument in his book How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind. In it, Oden argues that much of what we consider to be staples of western Christianity actually has its roots in the African church of the 4th-8th centuries. The argument is not without merit. Augustine, possibly the most important theologian in church history, was a Berber from modern-day Algeria. Athanasius, nicknamed the Black Dwarf in his day, was likely Egyptian. Additionally, many other important church fathers like Tertullian and Origen also came from the African continent. (Whether Oden’s argument speaks to cultural difference between the classic west and the African Christians or if it is merely a geographical observation is another issue for another day, but in either case the point stands that western Christianity wouldn’t exist without the Christianity that flourished in Africa.)
Beginning from these African writers, I would argue that Christendom’s roots do not lie in the land of white Europeans, but amongst the brilliant minds of the north African church fathers. Using this as a starting point, I would argue that Christendom 1.0 already gives us a model for how to synthesize a diverse and eclectic mix of ideas coming from a variety of places. It combined the insight of some European fathers from Rome, some Eastern fathers from Byzantium, the great African leaders in the church, and the foundations laid by the classical Greek thinkers. Therefore, the problem facing us is not as dire as we might initially expect. Rather, the problem is how do we draw on the wisdom of the disparate group of thinkers that gave us Christendom and then stretch that thinking out to not only form a renewed Christendom, but also to teach us how to live well alongside our Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and non-religious neighbors? Someday I’d like to write something answering that question.