THE EARLY CHURCH’S TEACHING on charity, David Bentley Hart reminds us, “raised the care of widows, orphans, the sick, the imprisoned, and the poor to the level of the highest religious obligation.”
The duties of the bishop in the third century included taking responsibility for the education of orphans, providing aid to poor widows, and purchasing food and firewood for the destitute. Community engagement in the early church resulted in sacrificial commitment by laity as well as clergy. During the plague in North Africa in the third century, Christians cared for the ill and buried the dead, frequently at the expense of their own lives, demonstrating an ethos at odds with the prevailing culture. From the other side of Christendom, Terry Eagleton picks up this theological commitment, suggesting that God is present when the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent empty away. Salvation does not come through religion with its apparatus of cult, law and ritual and compliance with a moral code. It comes rather through “feeding the hungry, welcoming the immigrants, visiting the sick and protecting the poor, orphaned and widowed from the violence of the rich.”
With the unwinding of Christendom, churches in the United Kingdom (UK) and its settler colonies no longer have access to political power to the extent that they used to. They are now only one among many groups involved in advocacy, making a claim to speak on behalf of, and for the benefit of, the community. Many Christians, though, are not yet ready to face the reality of this shift. Somehow, they feel the churches’ position of privilege and entitlement was taken away while they weren’t looking. Resentment and angst about the loss of privilege, targeted at those deemed to be responsible for this outcome, are widespread in the churches.
The shift beyond Christendom is not finished yet. That’s an important reality whose consequences need to be faced, both by those who are in grief at this process, and for those who are enthusiastic about getting beyond Christendom. For those grieving, there is more grief still to come. For those enthusiastic at the prospect of reshaping the churches’ community engagement, the enthusiasm needs to be tempered by the reality of what policy analysts call ‘path dependency’. We carry our history with us, and don’t get to start with a clean slate. That’s why in addition to the terminology of ‘after Christendom’ and ‘post-Christendom], I will use phrases such as “emerging from Christendom”, “on the way out of Christendom” and “the transition from Christendom”. The terminology of transition signals that while we can work toward new forms and patterns of engagement, many of the assumptions and images that we will be working with are themselves a legacy of Christendom. If we don’t recognise that we are carrying that mental baggage with us we risk subtly reinscribing new forms of Christendom, at the same time as we suppose we are exiting from that historical pattern of engagement.
We are not going to escape from the historical legacy of Christendom quickly or easily. As we have found in recent years, there always seems to be something more emerging from that entangled history that needs to be exposed to the light of the gospel. The role that the settler churches in the colonies played in the European invasion and the dispossession of the First Nations peoples in Australia still awaits a substantive reckoning. Christian churches have yet to fully acknowledge the consequences of that invasion and the extent to which they have benefitted economically and politically from the colonial project over the past two centuries. The inheritance of the churches from the invasion in terms of land and wealth remains, even though the historical Christendom relationship is unwinding. Colonialism is an example of how the historical legacy of Christendom remains to be dealt with even though the structural underpinning of Christendom is being dismantled. I leave this paragraph as a discomforting reminder of a further important agenda awaiting our attention.
Why secularisation is not quite relevant
Much of the recent debate of the Christian churches and their future has been framed in sociological terms under the heading of secularisation. What is the relationship of post-Christendom to secularisation, de-secularisation and the suggestion that societies are becoming post-Christian? Through much of the twentieth century advocates of secularisation suggested that the Christian churches were in a state of decline under the pressures of modernity. They were confident that the churches would become increasingly irrelevant to politics and public policy. Christianity would survive as an individual consumer choice, ‘spirituality to go’. The trajectory of secularisation as a sociological process turned out to be much more complicated and the outcomes equivocal. The conclusion of many sociologists is that we need to avoid reaching into our intellectual toolbox for one-directional, historically inevitable sociological processes when we come to analysing the impact of modernity on Christian identity and mission.
There are other ways we can visualise the movement of the sacred and the secular, and how they relate to the social and political changes that are going on. The political theologian William Cavanaugh for example, has used the metaphor of the migration of the sacred from the sphere of church across to the realm of the state. The historian Eugene McCarraher has identified the continuing presence of the sacred in his narration of the continuing re-emergence of enchantment in the supposedly secular world of business in the US over the past few centuries. The work of both Cavanaugh and McCarraher suggests that we should work with the possibility that the sacred may become secular, and the secular transmogrify into the sacred. Similarly, we should imagine institutional and social boundaries as being porous rather than a rigid channel through which the secular rushes down in full flood to sweep the sacred away.
I have also avoided the use of the terminology of ‘post-Christian’. I regard the term as problematic as a way of viewing the relationship between the church and contemporary society. This is not least the case because Christianity is still present in the ‘unthought’, those taken for granted assumptions we bring to bear in framing our ethical and political debates, shared by both Christians and non-Christians alike. The historian Tom Holland has recently documented how the Christian church and its Scriptures have shaped European culture, and how that influence has remained operative in public debate even if its presence is not always recognised, and this despite the move beyond Christendom. Secularist critiques of Christianity’s public failures, in Holland’s view, are driven by moral assumptions that when examined prove to be deeply rooted in Christianity. “[I]n a West that is often doubtful of religion’s claims, so many of its instincts remain – for good or ill – thoroughly Christian.” The notion that we live in a secularised world that is free of myth and the sacred either misses or misreads a good deal of what is going on.
The deconstruction of Christendom has a long history. Protestant sects in both the UK and the US, from the seventeenth century onward, had sought to undermine Christendom as expressed in the structure of establishment in the UK through their respective struggles for religious freedom. The missionary movement of the nineteenth century, in its periodically tense relationship with the colonial powers, exposed the limitations of Christendom as an exportable model. The questions that began to be raised then about the injustice and dispossession resulting from invasion, are only now receiving some serious attention by the churches in the former colonies. Western Christianity, Jason Goroncy observes, “has not heeded the words of the Hebrew prophets to be a sanctuary unescorted by borders or bullets. Nor has it placed much store in the warning carried in the words ‘crucified under Pontius Pilate.’ Instead, it has been made inebriated by quaffing from the same wells of imperialism that created the empires of Egypt, Assyria and the United States.”
David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press, 2009), p.164.
Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith and Revolution (Yale University Press, 2010), pp. 18–19.
Stuart Murray, in Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World (2nd ed. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2018), has provided a good historical summary and theological reading of the far-reaching nature of this change. See pp. 132–160.
Stuart Murray-Williams, “Post-Christendom and Post-Colonialism.” Anabaptism Today 3.1 (April 2021) pp. 36–48.
Eugene McCarraher, The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity (Harvard University Press, 2019).
William Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy: God, State and the Political Meaning of the Church (Eerdmans, 2011).
Tom Holland, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (Little, Brown, 2019), p. xxix.
Jason Goroncy “Race and Christianity in Australia.” Post–Christendom Studies 4 (2019–2020) p. 52.
This is an adapted excerpt from the new book Community Engagement After Christendom (Wipf & Stock, 2022), reproduced with the permission of the author. https://wipfandstock.com/9781725257375/community-engagement-after-christendom/
© Doug Hynd is Adjunct Research Fellow at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, Charles Sturt University, Canberra, Australia. He is actively involved in refugee action, and is an Ekklesia associate with strong Anabaptist connections. He is author of Community Engagement After Christendom (Wipf & Stock, 2022).