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Can there be a Christian Constantine?

In his book, Against Christianity, Peter Leithart argues (well, he doesn’t really argue, he articulates a vision in a self-consciously  piecemeal manner, actually much akin to theoblogging) in a very Radically Orthodox manner that the church is supremely political in its own being.  The church is, itself a culture, having its own sociology (which is theology) and its own politics (which is ecclesiology).  In the course of his writing he writes “against” Christianity (the Christian faith turned into an apolitical religious activity), ethics (Christian moral practice as understood separately from the totality of life in community), theology (Christian thinking systematized and dehistoricized), and sacraments (ecclesial practices as mystical transaction between God and the interiorized self). 

However, at the end of all these various things that Leithart is “against”, he ends his book with a chapter entitled, “For Constantine”.  In a surprising move, his emphasis on the political and cultural nature of the church leads him to insist that if the church, the civitate dei, is indeed a full-orbed challenge to the powers that be, a truly alternative polis, it must be capable of integrating and ordering all of the political, economic, and social aspects of the wider world.  Thus, Leithart argues here against Yoder, Hauerwas, and company by arguing that Constantine is the logical and theological outcome of the gospel.  If the church is truly the polity of God, then the church’s polity must ultimately end up ordering any and all earthly polities.

I think Leithart, despite his many great points and fascinatingly Reformed version of ecclesiocentric politics is off on this point, and I think he is off because of an overly optimistic eschatology.  In fact, I wonder if it is the older versions of Reformed postmillennialism, which optimistically thought that church would bring in the Kingdom of God that is operative in his thought.  His work provides a fascinating example of Radical Orthodoxy being cast into a conservative (but highly creative, mind you!) Reformed mold that is highly ecclesiocentric.  I certainly commend his work, if for no other reason because I don’t think there’s anything else quite like it out there.

But what think you?  Could there ever be a Christian Constantine?  Or has there already been? Can the church truly be said to be a polis in the fullest sense of the world if it does not offer a program for regulating the political and economic life of the rest of the world?

7 Comments

  1. freder1ck wrote:

    What bugs me about Hauerwas (even as I sympathize with him) is that he uses Constantine to signify a faith that achieves public morality via politics. But does history support this reading? One place to begin evaluating Constantine is H. Rahner’s Church and State in Early Christianity. Now, this is a contentious book, to be sure, but 55% of the book is original sources. If one is to learn from history then one should begin by learning about history.

    I think about Henri de Lubac’s Catholicism in which ecclesiology finds itself stretched dynamically toward including all of humanity. The Christian’s desire that truth be recognized impels him forward, making it “impossible for him not to aim at establishing among men relationships more in conformity with Christian reality [...] If he fails, he will feel it as a wound in his own flesh, and supposing he despairs he will not find peace” (366).

    The Christendom of H. Rahner and de Lubac (as also Flannery O’Connor who corrected de Chardin with her ironic title “Everything that rises must converge”) was not due to eschatological optimism, but to an awareness that the victory in these efforts is beyond this world.

    Balthasar expressed the paradox this way:
    “Can the symbol of powerlessness ever become a sign of worldly victory (in hoc signes vinces)? [...] If anything has triumphed in the Cross [...] then it can only be a triumph of incomprehensible love whose power cannot be confused with any earthly power” (You Have Words of Eternal Life, 93)

    Monday, July 30, 2007 at 12:23 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    I certainly have sympathies for de Lubac, as you know. But, in reading Eusebius it does seem that a shift to an eschatological optimism was at least some part of the theological turn towards Christendom, as varied as the phenomenon was.

    Monday, July 30, 2007 at 1:54 pm | Permalink
  3. Michael Westmoreland-White wrote:

    No. If Constantine were converted, he would have had to abdicate. I do not say that Christians (or Jews–see the roles that Exiles played in the Babylonian and Persian empires) can never participate in government, but not in any form of government that is inherently oppressive, nor in any role that is inherently violent.

    Monday, July 30, 2007 at 2:05 pm | Permalink
  4. Michael Westmoreland-White wrote:

    Eusebius was the first Christian political toady–a suck up if there ever was one. Interestingly, he was Constantine’s SECOND Christian political advisor. The first one quit after Constantine sacked and massacred a town–but Eusebius found a way to justify it.

    Monday, July 30, 2007 at 2:06 pm | Permalink
  5. Michael Westmoreland-White wrote:

    I also have trouble with Hauerwas identification of ALL Christian witness to governments and public morality as “Constantinian.” I think is a very bad move.

    Monday, July 30, 2007 at 2:07 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    I had a feeling this would draw your comments, Michael! And I agree with you.

    But do you really think Hauerwas says that ALL Christian witness to the wider world is Constantinian? That seems to take him a bit farther than he goes, in my opinion.

    Monday, July 30, 2007 at 2:07 pm | Permalink
  7. Nicholas wrote:

    You might also want to take a look at Jean Danielou’s L’Oraison Probleme Politique (ET: Prayer as Political Problem) which has a chapter on why Constantianism was not only good but a necessity for the Church to achieve its goal of being the “Church of the Poor.” He argues that the impetus toward the church as “pure” is misguided contrary to the stances of such prominent thinkers as Hauerwas and Yoder.
    Peace,
    mcn

    Tuesday, July 31, 2007 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

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