How Christianity Destroyed Christendom image

How Christianity Destroyed Christendom

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David Bentley Hart's essay in the most recent edition of First Things is worth the subscription price on its own. His theme is the way in which the seeds of Christendom's demise were sown, paradoxically, by the gospel itself. After a couple of thirteenth century vignettes that beautifully illustrate the paradox of Christendom - the emancipation of the slaves in Bologna, followed a few years later by Thomas Aquinas' infamous argument for executing heretics - Hart argues that the very essence of Christianity made Christendom both initially triumphant (to the point that it changed humanity's ethical imagination forever) and fundamentally unstable (such that it collapsed in on itself eventually). For Hart, Constantinianism and Christendom are not fundamental evils nor fundamental goods, but merely things which happened which brought about both good and bad results for the human race. But owing to the nature of the gospel, they could not, ultimately, survive:

“At the very least, however, it seems obvious to me that Christian culture could never generate any political and social order that, insofar as it employed the mechanisms of state power, would not inevitably bring about its own dissolution. Again, the translation of Christianity’s original apocalyptic ferment into a cultural logic and social order produced a powerful but necessarily unstable alloy. For all the good that it produced in the shaping of Western civilization, it also encumbered the faith with a weight of historical and cultural expectation often incompatible with the Gospel it proclaimed.

“When Christianity became not only a pillar of culture, but also a support of the state, and thereby attached itself to that human reality that necessarily sustains itself through the prudential use of violence, it attempted to close the spiritual abyss separating Christ and Pilate on the day of their confrontation in Jerusalem. At the same time, however, it created a cultural reality animated (or at least haunted) by the language of the Gospel: the often tacit but always substantial knowledge that all of human power’s pretenses and delusions and deceits have been exposed for what they are, and overthrown by God’s Incarnation as a man who was the victim of all the enfranchised religious, political, and social forces of his time and place. There was no way for such an alliance to avoid subverting itself.

“I am not saying only—though I am saying—that the concrescence of Christianity into Christendom necessarily led in the West, over the course of centuries, to its gradual mortification, its slow attrition through internal stress, and finally its dissipation into the inconclusiveness of human history and the ephemerality of political orders. I am saying also that Christendom could not indefinitely survive the corrosive power of the revelation that Christianity itself had introduced into Western culture. Christian culture’s often misunderstood but ultimately ­irrepressible consciousness of the judgment that was passed upon civil violence at Easter, by God, was always the secret antagonist of Christendom as a political order.

“Certainly, reflective intellectual historians have often enough noted the ironic continuity between the early modern rise of principled unbelief and the special “apocalyptic vocation” of Western culture; and the observations of Ernst Bloch and many others on the “inevitable” atheistic terminus of the Christian message are, while not correct, at least ­comprehensible: for modern Western atheism is chiefly a Christian heresy, and could not have arisen in a non-Christian setting. Which yields the troubling thought that perhaps the historical force ultimately most destructive of the unity of the Christian culture of the West has been not principally atheism, materialism, capitalism, collectivism, or what have you—these may all be secondary manifestations of some deeper problem—but Christianity. Or, rather, I suppose I should say, an essential Christian impulse that, as a result of the contradictions inherent in Christendom, had become alienated from its true rationality and ultimate meaning…

“So perhaps the best moral sense Christians can make of the story of Christendom now, from the special vantage of its aftermath, is to recall that the Gospel was never bound to the historical fate of any political or social order, but always claimed to enjoy a transcendence of all times and places. Perhaps its presence in human history should always be shatteringly angelic: It announces, even over against one’s most cherished expectations of the present or the future, a truth that breaks in upon history, ever and again, always changing or even destroying the former things in order to make all things new. That being so, surely modern Christians should find some joy in being forced to remember that they are citizens of a Kingdom not of this world, that here they have no enduring city, and that they are called to live as strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”

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