Cross posted at Notes from a Small Place.

On Christopher’s invite, I’m also responding to Matt’s earlier post with my idea for a book title and theme.

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.

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy, and son Wendell. Jake’s writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

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  • JAKE: Good title and subtitle. Your post raises a lot of questions for me because I haven’t studied Christendom. For my benefit (and hopefully other Mere O readers), can you please briefly answer my inquiry:

    1. Is there a biblical warrant for Christendom?

    2. What is the historical definition of “Christendom 1.0”?

    3. What’s happened to Christendom 1.0? Has it disappeared?

    4. If Christendom developed and thrived in “a place as homogeneous as medieval Europe,” is Christendom 2.0 even possible in a place as heterogeneous as 21st century America?

    5. You seem to be of two minds about Christendom 1.0. Did it fail or succeed to deal with pluralism? And what would count as “failure” or “success”?

    6. Are you suggesting there was globalization in Christendom 1.0? If so, how does it compare to 21st century globalization?

    7. What’s the one book every Christian should read to understand Christendom?

    * I like how your post explained the book project whereas mine only gave reference for the title’s origin. Do you have questions about my book project or Soren Kierkegaard’s selected passages? If so, please ask them on my post.

  • Christopher – A large part of this would have to be covered in a more thorough form after I had time to do more research on it. A lot of what I have above are intuitions based upon limited research during my undergraduate days.

    1) I would argue that Christendom is the natural outcome of adherence to the cultural mandate of Genesis 2, the renewed cultural mandate given after the flood (Genesis 9, I think) and of the Great Commission in Matthew 28. Additionally, I think you can look at texts like Jeremiah 29’s letter to the exiles as supporting the pursuit of a robust Christian culture that exists alongside the many other cultures of the day.

    2) Christendom 1.0 would be the synthesis of Greek classical culture and the emergent Christianity of the 2nd and third centuries AD. I’d say it begins with Constantine and continued up through the beginnings of modernity, though the Protestant Reformation did great harm to the idea. (Interestingly, Calvin and Bucer were staunch believers in a kind of Christendom. See Calvin’s work in Geneva and Bucer’s work to create a German church in the 1540s that united the Catholics and Protestants. However, by severing their ties to the institutional church, Calvin and Bucer opened the door for the erosion of Christendom.) The idea with Christendom is that the Church, grounded in the truths of the Gospel, is the incubator for the creation of a unique culture that stands separate from but not necessarily antagonistic to the other existing cultures of the day.

    3) I think the Reformation weakened Christendom severely. But even then, it had been faltering for centuries before. The foundation of Christendom must always be the Gospel taking root in the lives of the members of the church. The pursuit of political influence can only come as a result of desiring to steward God’s gifts well in light of the Gospel. It cannot be an end in itself. But in medieval Europe, the church came to pursue power in that way. With the fading of the European monarchs in the middle ages, the church stepped into the political vacuum created and came to be little more than a political entity itself. So the foundations were cracking due to Rome’s poor view of political power. They expanded with the breaking of organizational unity in the Christian church and I think it completely collapsed under the strain of modernity and enlightenment rationalism. But it’s not that Christendom doesn’t have the resources to answer the Enlightenment. Rather, Christendom was so weakened by the time the Enlightenment came, it’s ability to answer was severely damaged.

    4) That’s the question I’d have to answer. My intuition is “yes,” but I’d need to do more reading before I could make any definitive statement.

    5) It’s not that I’m of two minds, it’s that I think as Christendom grew it forgot the lessons that made it possible in the first place. Christendom would never have come into being if it weren’t for the insights of a diverse group of thinkers from Alexandria, Hippo, Rome, Byzantium, and countless other regions of the late Roman empire. However, when it solidified it became centralized around western Europe and became much more defensive in its orientation. When you add in the rise of Islam in the east and in northern Africa, it created an atmosphere in which Christendom was frequently on the defensive. And as has been the case in many other cases throughout history, that feeling of imminent danger creates a very suspicious (in other cases we’d say “xenophobic”) climate in which non-conformity is feared and suppressed.

    I would define failure or success for Christendom along the lines of the great commandment: Did Christendom succeed in loving God and loving others? Obviously there are many questions that response begs but, again, they’d need to be answered in a lengthier treatment.

    6) No, I don’t think there was globalization in Christendom 1.0. I think there was an initial surge of creativity sparked by the diversity inherent in the Roman Empire of the third, fourth, and fifth centuries. But when Rome collapsed and Islam rose, that diversity became one of the first casualties. So to the extent that the Roman Empire was a globalized empire, yes, there was globalization in the foundations of Christendom. But I think whatever “globalization” there was (and I’m leery of using such an anachronistic term) depended completely upon the pax Romana to sustain it. When Rome failed, that interconnectedness of the empire also failed. In today’s world, globalization is not as dependent upon a single political entity or empire. It’s more dependent on some than others (namely the United States, China, India, and Germany) but if one of those powers fell, globalization would continue. This point about the separation of globalization and the health of a single political entity is really important in understanding the differences, I think.

    7) Oh man, I wouldn’t know where to begin. I think for understanding the philosophical under-pinnings you can’t do better than the Reynolds book. Leithart’s Against Christianity is also important. In terms of understanding individual aspects of it, a good history of the Middle Ages would be useful. And in understanding how Protestantism helped kill Christendom, I’d suggest reading the Consistory Records from Calvin’s Geneva (which are now available in book form thanks to Eerdman’s and some wonderful scholarship under the direction of Dr. Thomas Kingdon) and Martin Greschat’s excellent biography of Martin Bucer. Bucer is an extremely important figure to understand for two reasons: 1) He plays a huge role in helping Calvin develop his pastoral theology (and some of his ecclesiology) and 2) He is hands-down the most ecumenical of the first generation reformers. Bucer’s chief goal in the Reformation was the creation of a Christian society. His sacramental theology, soteriology, and ecclesiology all need to be understood within his concern for a Christian Germany. So he was much more willing to work with Rome than any other Protestant Reformer. Calvin had some sympathies with what Bucer was doing but most of the Protestants (esp. leaders like Luther) were appalled by it.

    The trouble with a project like the one I’m describing above is that it’s scope is massive – you have to work with history, political theory, theology, and sociology just as a starting point.

    OK, now I really should get going… I need to get to work on some painting around the house before a big thunder storm rolls in. Great questions though. I need to read your idea again, but I was certainly intrigued by it.

    peace

    • JAKE: Thanks for the solid answers. I’m more familiar with “Christendom” than I previously thought because my single course in church history at Wheaton College acquainted me with the period that you describe. Still, my familiarity with Christendom is more like a study than a painting.

      I question whether Christendom is a helpful heuristic (let alone a feasible project) after its collapse. Invoking Christendom today seems as odd as invoking the Soviet Union. Aren’t we better off talking about the Church (which one?) rather than Christendom? So much has changed since the original Christendom that a “rebooted Christendom” seems unlikely – and maybe undesirable. Ecclesial unity made Christendom 1.0 possible. The post-Reformation landscape, especially in the United States, is marked by ecclesial fragmentation (denominations), which seems like infertile soil for Christendom 2.0. My mind is not even capable of envisioning a shared culture that emerges from Catholics, Orthodox, Evangelicals, Mainline, and Emergent. Isn’t it more realistic to encourage culture-makers within our respective traditions rather than making a trans-sectarian (or ecumenical) culture?

  • Christopher, two things in response to your skepticism about such an arrangement:

    1) I do think you can already see signs of a healthier ecumenism in groups like Evangelics and Catholics Together and through the Manhattan Declaration. (Or the Evangelical Manifesto that Os Guinness prepared a few years back. You also see it in books like Jim Belcher’s Deep Church, I think.

    2) That said, I also agree that moving in that direction will be extremely slow and will take a lot of time. But I don’t think that invalidates my approach. I won’t live to see it, but it’s still worth working toward. One of my professors used to say that in any discussion you need the people voicing the really extreme viewpoint b/c they’re the ones that can push the discussion forward. So I’m calling for a reinvigorated Christendom not because I expect to see it in my lifetime, but because I believe that we need to start working back towards that goal. I think by keeping such a goal in front of us, it helps give our ecumenical moves a bit more importance and urgency while also giving us a cohesive framework through which to view culture.

    That doesn’t mean my proposal is without other flaws, of course. But I don’t think the difficulty of enacting it means we shouldn’t work towards it in some way. It just means we need patience and wisdom. (It won’t surprise you to learn that the guy I did my thesis on wanted to create a United States of Africa and faced the exact same criticism of his plans.)

    Great questions, thanks for interacting with the idea so much (and so well)!

    peace
    ps When did I become Mr. Meador? That’s my dad, I’m Jake.

    • JAKE: I’m glad you appreciate the questions. The project interests even though I’m skeptical. Yes, there are “signs of a healthier ecumenism” but ecumenism is different than a single church polity as was the case in Christendom 1.0. The examples you mentioned – Evangelicals & Catholics Together and the Manhattan Declaration – concern “least common denominator” theological and social issues. I don’t anticipate Evangelicals, Catholics and the Orthodox producing a shared culture of architecture, liturgy, art, music, and literature. What’s your answer to my question about the usefulness of the “Christendom” heuristic after its historic collapse? Aren’t we better off talking about the Church (which one?) rather than Christendom?

      P. S. For the sake of consistent blog post titles, I thought “Mr. Meador” was appropriate. Consider it a playful edit. If you watched the video on St. John’s College, you’ll realize that I’ve been habituated into the formal address of “Mr.” or “Ms.”

  • Andrew

    Jake,

    I thought I’d post my comment/question over here rather than on your blog, since you’ve done some clarification in the comments here that you haven’t at your blog. My understanding of Christendom 1.0 (and I haven’t done extended reading on this) is that it involved a political-territorial component – Christianity became the official religion for a territory, supported by the ruler of that territory. (See for instance the use of the term in Hugh McLeod’s introduction to this book: http://books.google.com/books?id=e-u_apG88cQC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_atb#v=onepage&q&f=false )In this sense, the Reformation and the Peace of Westphalia (and its principle of cuius regio, eius religio) continued, rather than undermined, Christendom. Disestablishment led to the destruction of Christendom by breaking the link between Christianity and territorial authority.

    Does your understanding of Christendom include this territorial-political component, and how would that look in Christendom 2.0?

  • Andrew – Regarding the reformation and Christendom, my argument is that the first generation reformers wanted to preserve Christendom but that they destroyed their ability to do so by breaking from Rome. If you look at Bucer and Calvin’s approach to Strasburg and Geneva I think you clearly see that both of them want to preserve this sort of pervasive Christian culture that touches every area of life. And for a time they were able to, but I think you need some sort of meaningful organizational unity amongst Christians for anything like that to be sustainable in the long term.

    Another point regarding cuius regio, eius religio: Theoretically that preserved the pervasiveness of the church, but in reality it had the effect of creating great religious confusion due to the shifting religious identity of the region. Multiple territories in Germany would shift back and forth between Protestant and Lutheran, causing the church’s to exist in a kind of perpetual instability b/c every 10 to 20 years the religious identity of the state could shift. (On the bright side, the confusion gave us some brilliant confessional documents intended to address the issue, including the Heidelberg Catechism. I’m not sure it accomplished it’s goal, but I am profoundly grateful it was written.)

    Clearly that territorial-political component is present in 1.0. Regarding its presence in 2.0, perhaps I should rephrase things to clarify a little of what I mean: Assuming we follow Hunter’s prescriptions for relating to culture (with his emphasis on faithful presence in every sphere of life), I think some form of Christendom (by which I mean the pervasive, all-encompassing influence of the Christian faith in every sphere of society) is inevitable. With that said, it’s an extremely long-term project that no single generation will be able to accomplish. So one generation will need to think about “what does it mean to be faithfully present in every sphere of life, politics included?” The next generation will need to begin to enact some of the previous generation’s ideas, and so it would go.

    Essentially, I haven’t been able to get away from John Mark Reynolds point that we now live in a world with many similarities to the world that yielded the first incarnation of Christendom – the existing norms and mores of the culture are eroding, the dominant political empires are stagnant or declining, and we’re on the edge of something new. So for Christians this is a very exciting time. We seem to be finally going in a healthy direction in the American church, both theologically (IE a resurgent interest in the hard questions of theology and a desire to think theologically as evidenced in the surge of popularity of many reformed writers and the accompanying books answering their arguments) and ecumenically (as seen in the Gospel Coalition and ECT, as well as church planting networks and new denominations that are trying to have a big tent within the network/denomination – look at Acts 29, the Evangelical Covenant Church, or Sovereign Grace). Add in the huge growth of the church in the global south and we have a world in which Christians are uniquely positioned to become agents of redemption in our many different communities and nations.

    So as far as the territorial-political component goes in Christendom 2.0, I wouldn’t say it’s something we’re pursuing, but rather it’s an inevitable consequence of trying to be faithfully present in political power structures. Of course, the question of whether the political/territorial component would look the same in 1.0 and 2.0 is a separate question entirely, which is why I’m interested in looking at pluralism and Christendom.

    • Jake has put his finger on why I think Christendom 2.0 is unlikely in Protestant America: “you need some sort of meaningful organizational unity amongst Christians for anything like that to be sustainable in the long term.” Call it a failure of the imagination, but I don’t envision “organizational unity” across Protestant denominations that would produce a shared culture of architecture, theology, music, art, liturgy, and literature. Because James Davison Hunter’s book is on my mind, I think the pressing challenge for Protestant Christians is difference: not only difference outside the church but irreducible difference inside the church. Because difference isn’t going away, why not learn to live with it and make the best of it? Might it be the case that Protestant difference, however mysterious and maddening, belongs to providential design?

      If Christendom is reconfigured to mean Hunter’s paradigm of “faithful presence,” which I embrace, then why not get rid of “Christendom” as a heuristic and project, sticking instead to the aforementioned paradigm or an alternative expression that doesn’t connote the political-territorial entity that belonged to Christendom 1.0?

  • Andrew

    Thanks for clarification, Jake! And I think I agree with you about the Reformation weakening Christendom in its practical effects, e.g. the toleration that accompanied Westphalia certainly undermined the idea of a uniform religion for territories of the HRE.

    And I think your point about the global south is huge. If Christendom 2.0 happens, I suspect it’s going to take its shape from developments in places like Africa and Latin America.