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Is Christianity a Civilizational Project?

There is an interesting tendency among many theologians today to adopt, at least in broad strokes, one of two declension narratives about the church. The quest for “when things went wrong” is quite a nefarious endeavour, and one that it seems few of us can resist. It is also, despite its dangers and problems, an important theological task. Narrating our history truthfully is vital to faithful embodiment and practice in regard to the mission of the church in our age. As such, understanding the dynamics of how we narrate the church’s past, particularly in regard to where the church has gone wrong, is vitally important.

There are two basic narratives that are generally proffered today by various theologians. The first is what could roughly be called the Free Church position. In this narrative, the primary shift in the church’s history occurred through the complex series of events which led up to and followed Constantine’s establishment of Christianity as the state religion of Rome. The collusion of the church with imperial power slowly altered and reshaped the church’s self-understanding as the apocalyptic ecclesia of God on pilgrimage through the present age. The church instead came to understand itself as the guarantor of the right ordering of civilization, the spiritual guide and priest of a whole cultural, political, and economic order which was, in some sense, Christian. The Free Church narrative decries this shift in the church’s self-understanding. What is important is not that the church continue to find ways of shoring up the project of Western civilization, but rather to return to its own particular narrative and practices as a way of sustaining a communal life within the fragments of Christendom and modernity. Thinkers in this vein would include John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and others.

Another declension narrative that has become common today contends that the fundamental mistake of the church was not so much its capitulation to Constantine. Rather the conversion of Constantine and Christianity’s transformation into the cement of Western civilization was a part of the mission of the church. The church’s point of historical failure occurs not at the inception of Christendom, but at its breakdown and the advent of modernity. During the medieval period of Christendom, society was unified within a Christian vision for fostering a common life in the corpus christianum. Within this whole structure of a distinctively Christian civilization, all of life was in some sense oriented towards a meaningful Christian telos. It is at the breakdown of Christendom during the Enlightenment (precipitated by the Reformation) that things begin to go terribly wrong. Once the church ceased the cohesive force ordering society, everything descended into fragmentation. Thus the rise of global capitalism, and the problems of alienation and fragmentation that characterize modern life can be traced back to the eclipse of the church as the force of social coherence driving and maintaining society. This sort of narrative is espoused by thinkers like John Milbank and Oliver O’Donovan.

The first thing that is interesting about these two narratives is that they both call the church to very similar sorts of postures in the current state of global capitalism and modern fragmentation. Whether we think the church went wrong at the inception of Christendom or at its dissolution, all are agreed that in the state of modern alienation and nihilism what is needed is for the church to return to its particular narrative and practices, seeking to sustain a common life oriented towards its telos as the people of God. The difference of course comes in terms of what each side expects this to accomplish.

There seems to be one question that underlies the way in which we find our way through the sorts of narratives of decline which, to some degree or other most of us hold to. That question concerns the nature of Christianity as such: Is Christianity a civilizational project? That, I think, is the crucial question for how we narrate the church’s past and understand the nature of its failure in relation to the reality of modernity. If we think that Christianity is a civilizational project then clearly we will lean towards the more nostalgic, pro-Christendom sort of narrative which calls upon the church to rightly order the earthly city towards its proximate good. If however we are inclined to insist that Christianity is not a civilizational project we will be drawn towards the narrative that disavows Constantinianism and calls the church to reject any opportunity to order society through the use of earthly power. There are many elements of both these narratives that are not mutually exclusive in the least. But, the ultimate point that will determine our basic orientation has to do with the central question of whether or not Christianity is a civilizational project.


  1. dcrowe wrote:

    I don’t know if I agree with the idea that thinking Christianity is a civilizational project will necessarily lead one to be Constantinian (although I note that if you were intentionally parsing your words, that’s not what you said *exactly.*) One could see the Kingdom of God as a civilizational project that rejects many of the premises of Constantinanism, such as the place (or lack thereof) for force and violence, coercive decision making processes, etc. The Kingdom of God might be civilizational in a way that’s just inintelligible to Constantinianism.

    Friday, September 12, 2008 at 10:35 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    A fair argument. I guess I wonder though if the very concept of “civilization” can be intelligible without recourse to violence. If it cannot, then any notion of Christianity as a civilizational project will be inherently predicated on the utilization of certainly powers that many would consider Constantinian.

    Friday, September 12, 2008 at 10:42 am | Permalink
  3. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    This is good Halden, and I think one can take either narration in any number of directions. It seems that in many cases both types become all too willing to see the church as the sort of “soul of society.” For instance, the Free Church type might renounce Constantinianism yet still work for the prospering of “Christian values” to build-up civil society. Similarly, many times the Christendom-nostalgia type, which unfortunately is quite common in Catholicism, realizes that a revitalized Christendom begins with the church instilling “Christian virtues” in society.

    It is interesting to me that although both of these positions are quite different it seems that they usually end up filling a similar space-which I suppose is a place in something known as “civil society.”

    Friday, September 12, 2008 at 10:56 am | Permalink
  4. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    I think dcrowes position is quite in line with Halden’s description of the Christendom-nostalgia type –isn’t this just Milbank?

    Friday, September 12, 2008 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Yeah I think that’s absolutely right abut how these narratives can be utilized and run with. The danger of that sort of soulish language is very, very real and can take different incarnations with either of these sorts of narratives.

    Friday, September 12, 2008 at 11:01 am | Permalink
  6. Evan wrote:

    I think it’s interesting that you leave out a third narrative about the Church… that of modern liberalism itself. You present this as something which your first and second narratives are surprisingly at one in rejecting. But surely “modern” or “liberal” theology is still alive and well? Not that I’m advocating it, mind you, but I think one reason why “Free Church” and “Christendom” thinkers are so marginal to the wider discourse about the Christian faith is that they don’t know how to dialogue with modern liberalism as a form (granted, perhaps a deformation) of the Christian narrative itself.

    Friday, September 12, 2008 at 11:43 am | Permalink
  7. Dave Belcher wrote:

    In Rome, Hauerwas repeated Yoder’s caution that often “anti-Constantinianism” can often simply repeat or sneak in through the back door a new kind of Constantinianism, and I think this really has to be taken into account. While telling history “truthfully” is a difficult task, and one to which the theologian is bound and cannot so easily eschew (as many feel they can), “telling history ‘truthfully’” need not be equivalent with “declension narratives.” I think that kind of equivalence evidences a tendency toward a scapegoat sort of mentality in our historicizing — which to me is ineluctably not the way to tell history truthfully.

    I’m not saying that these can’t be helpful…but I certainly think it would be incorrect to say that these are the only two possible narratives we can tell (which I am pretty certain is not what you are saying here Halden, but you know someone’s going to read it that way eventually). Perhaps a more helpful task in the present (before we get embroiled in the blame game, which will be inevitable, perhaps) is for us to grapple with two questions: (a) why the church is taken to have obviously failed at some point in its history (and I think we can agree that this is indeed the case — but it should not simply remain some self-obviating fact at the same time); (b) and, more importantly perhaps, what that failure looks like or where it is located in the present-day church. Locating “where the church went wrong” is a much easier task than actually isolating the problem we face in the church today; in fact, I think that more often than not declension narratives are precisely a way of avoiding the present day church (or, “the historical church” — ironic, huh?)…and I think we theologians are called to the more difficult task.

    Friday, September 12, 2008 at 12:05 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    I think that’s quite right, Dave. These two narratives are sort of very broad descriptors that clearly cannot be quite right if taken as a specific account. Whatever sort of way we describe the church’s declension, our narratives must always be kaleidoscopic.

    And it’s true that determining what is wrong with the present-day church is the most pressing issue. However, I think the way we answer that question will depend on some of our historiography. In other words, the “problem” we’re facing today will be understood on the basis of what we thing we’re “supposed” to be doing and thus, we’ll inevitably look back on the church’s history for when the church was more or less doing that. And if we identify that relative “right-doing” more with the pre-Constantinian church or with the Medieval church, that will, in some important ways determine how we go about seeking to solve today’s ecclesial woes.

    Friday, September 12, 2008 at 12:12 pm | Permalink
  9. Evan wrote:

    What I find fascinating is Augustine’s place in all of this. Augustine was, after all, probably the most important figure in making “pilgrimage” a central concept of ecclesiology. At the same time many would associate him with the rise of “Christendom”. And then of course we have Augustinian realism presenting a modern liberal alternative. It seems to me that most every side has claimed him at one time or another, and I’d be as bold as to say that all have done so with pretty decent justification.

    Friday, September 12, 2008 at 12:22 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    That’s right, Evan. Barry Harvey’s new book, Can These Bones Live? is, I think on the right track in terms of Augustine’s place in all of this and the complexities of these sorts of narratives in the first place.

    Perhaps we could survey all possible responses to modernity on the basis of differing Augustinianisms!

    Friday, September 12, 2008 at 12:28 pm | Permalink
  11. Haiden:

    You speak of differing narratives of “the church’s” failure. I don’t believe we can either choose among or synthesize such narratives without answering the prior question: “What is the Church?” Nor can we do more than continue an academic debate if we regard ecclesiology as entirely a matter of opinion. But without a rich ecclesiology propounded as doctrinally normative by some ecclesial authority itself, academic debate is all we have.


    Friday, September 12, 2008 at 1:58 pm | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    Actually, Mike the way one answers the question of the church’s failure will clearly reflect a prior answer to the question of “what” the church is. Certainly if we all agreed, as you do, with the ecclesiology propounded by the papacy the discussion would be different, but the fact is that the discussion is more complex and includes churches from many different ecclesial tradition.

    Friday, September 12, 2008 at 2:09 pm | Permalink
  13. Hill wrote:

    “The ecclesiology propounded by the papacy” is one of the few that actually takes in to account the complexity of the modern ecclesial milieu, even if one doesn’t agree with it. (Say what you will about the tenets of Catholic ecclesiology…) I’m pretty sure Benedict has at least a comprehensive a grasp on the complexities of ecclesiology as anyone who frequents these discussions.

    And you never know… Mike might be talking about Bartholomew I :)

    Friday, September 12, 2008 at 2:52 pm | Permalink
  14. Halden wrote:

    There’s an element of truth to that, though I think it oversimplifies things in an unfortunate way. The way Ratzinger consistently portrays any and all protestant ecclesiologies is quite myopic, and frankly often betrays a simple lack of knowledge. He presents ecclesiology is if the only choices are individualistic self-creations (equated with all of Protestantism) or the sort of structural giveneness provided by the papacy.

    Friday, September 12, 2008 at 3:20 pm | Permalink
  15. Dave Belcher wrote:


    I was careful not to say that what is at stake for the present-day church is “determining what is wrong” with the church…I was cautious because I think that we need to reside there in the church’s failure a bit longer. The thing that really bothers me in fact with narratives of decline is this kind of notion of isolating a problem in order to fix it…the nature of my inquiry has to do with what that failure can say to us (you’re probably already with me, but I am thinking of Rowan Williams’ use of “judgment,” especially in Resurrection, but also in the earlier essay — Ben’s paper in Rome has a lot to say here)…and I think that will most likely mean that in fact it is not really the case that “we’ll inevitably look back on the church’s history for when the church was more or less doing that [what we want to do now]“…

    I do not think that “tradition,” as a “living faith of the dead” (to quote Pelikan), can simply be a turning back (and certainly not inevitably so, not “of necessity”) in order to sort of find the right moral prescriptions for how to course correct our sinking ship (e.g. Radner)…especially inasmuch as “living fath” will always be one that is gifted to us by the power of the Holy Spirit (who goes ahead of us because she rests on Jesus, Lord of History, the Christ, who ascended to the right hand of the Father…Nate Kerr helpfully talks about the Spirit as the “excess” of Jesus’ historicity in his upcoming book). And I think that this further means that instead of “looking back” we can look around, we can find that the dead in fact live, but not sort of behind us, but within our very contexts, all around us in the here and now. The real radicality of “tradition” — that which is handed on and that we are always already handing on — is not a seamless continuity, but precisely in the “discontinuity” that breaks into our midst — here’s all that cool apocalyptic stuff you love so much! — in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ…we “live” in that tradition only inasmuch as we are constantly brought face to face with the risen Lord and the break of that very event — such that “he is in the middle” and “all things must pass through him” (Bonhoeffer) — is precisely wherein we are given to receive the gift of faith in the present (even “tradition”).

    Sorry that was probably too much and too long-winded, but I think that helps a bit more to say what I only implicitly wanted to say in the first comment. Peace.

    Friday, September 12, 2008 at 3:29 pm | Permalink
  16. Dave Belcher wrote:

    And I just wanted to add Halden, that though I have always found you to be astutely brilliant, I have noticed a real shift here lately in terms of rigor and precision that I have found stunning. I always know that even when we disagree we are going to have a good conversation, and that you will have much more to say, and much good to say. I just wanted to thank you for that.

    Friday, September 12, 2008 at 3:34 pm | Permalink
  17. Halden wrote:

    Yes Dave, I absolutely agree with all of that. When I said that it was important to determine things that are wrong with the contemporary church, I didn’t mean that to be taken in a way that implies either a simple (Constantinian!) desire to “fix” the problem, nor imply that we could ever find some historical instantiation of a pristine ecclsia free of self-contradiction.

    I think we attempt to do critical historiography precisely for this reason. Yoder said it very well when he claimed that “What we then find at the heart of our tradition is not some proposition, scriptural or promulgated or otherwise, which we hold to be authoritative and therefore exempted from the relativity of hermeneutical debate by virtue of its inspiredness. What we find at the origin is already a process of reaching back again to the origins, to the earliest memories of the event itself, confident that that testimony, however intimately integrated with the belief of the witnesses, is not a wax nose, and will serve to illuminate and sometimes adjudicate our present path.”

    Perhaps that makes it more clear. I can see how my earlier comments were a bit crude in how they put things.

    Friday, September 12, 2008 at 3:37 pm | Permalink
  18. Halden wrote:

    And thanks for the kind words, they are much appreciated! I’ll try not to let them go to my head.

    Friday, September 12, 2008 at 3:38 pm | Permalink
  19. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Yes, Halden, I think this is all very good. Thanks for the clarification. Peace.

    Friday, September 12, 2008 at 3:40 pm | Permalink
  20. Hill wrote:

    While I agree there may be other ecclesiological options than the two you suggest Ratzinger is considering, they are by and large academic or theoretical constructions, either that or rather insular. I think it is also a mistake to assume that his writing, almost all of which was done as a churchman in a specific position of pastoral care and hence with a specific prudential burden, reflects the extent of his thoughts on the matter. In short, it is somewhat comical that anyone of us would suggest Benedict is myopic on the matter. You might disagree with him, and that’s fine to acknowledge, but I’m fairly certain he’s given these matters at least as much consideration as you have.

    Friday, September 12, 2008 at 3:53 pm | Permalink
  21. Halden wrote:

    Having lived in and seen many of those “other ecclesiological options” I would really question the idea that they are “by and large academic or theoretical constructions, either that or rather insular.” I’d like to compare good apples to good apples here. Though of course, I don’t expect everyone to have experienced the gambit of ecclesial expressions in the protestant world. And there are certainly plenty of bad apples as well.

    I suppose I don’t know anything more of Ratzinger’s opinions than what he has put forth in writing and those writings may be somewhat limited in their scope. Be that as it may, he’s written a good bit, and what I’ve read of it manifests what seems to me to be a simplistic binary construction of the two options. But to be sure, I know he’s much smarter than me. I’m just giving my impression of what I’ve read of his.

    Friday, September 12, 2008 at 4:03 pm | Permalink
  22. Hill wrote:

    I’m sorry… I didn’t actually mean to denigrate any of the more recent developments in Protestant ecclesial construction, especially the likes of which you have engaged with. My point is just that these are very very new, and really not in historical continuity with any vibrant strands of Protestantism (that’s probably a good thing). It’s also unclear to what extent they are “Protestant” other than simply not being Catholic. So let me modify what I’ve said: they may not be academic constructions, but they are relatively insular (compared to the historical tradition of Protestantism), and as a result, it’s difficult to engage with them as a “phenomenon.” The only reason I’m able to do is because I trust what you are telling me. I myself have virtually no encounter with these sorts of church’s. I think the sort of work he’s done necessarily addresses Protestantism as a historical phenomenon, and until more can be done to situate these new ecclesial options, it’s going to be difficult to engage with them in the same way. This is of course, something people are doing. For the vast majority of Christians in the world, however, the kind of church polity you are suggesting really isn’t much more than an idea, though possibly a very good one.

    Friday, September 12, 2008 at 4:14 pm | Permalink
  23. Halden,

    I just stumbled across this post, and swear that the whole thing – excepting the last paragraph – nearly mirrors the PhD research proposal I wrote last November! I even named Yoder and Milbank as the representatives of these narratives of decline (Of course, I call them “narratives of decline,” as my blogmate Dave has above). I kind of thought there was slight originality to my paring of them, but I suppose this is just common stock?

    What puzzles me in this conversation is the justification of our theological judgment[s] of history – how it is possible? From what foundation can we judge?

    I have had my mind bent toward a more irruptive perspective which Dave points to. I do not claim to understand exactly and the extent of what Nate Kerr is doing (or even sometimes what Dave is pointing to, since he is better versed in this realm than I), but they have been conversation partners for me – especially when I was writing the proposal. I have been reading a little continental thought which has helped provoke something fascinating: Jean-Luc Nancy’s idea that deconstruction owes itself to Christianity (Christianity is “auto-deconstructive”), has some truth to it. I am obviously taking it a different direction than Nancy is, though I am unsure where exactly it will lead, other than to a de-stabalizing Christ. But it is in the direction of what Dave says: “discontinuity” that breaks into our midst.”
    (Of course I probably need to be wary of wandering into a “What Would Jesus Deconstruct?” with Caputo).

    Thanks for the post!

    Friday, September 12, 2008 at 11:07 pm | Permalink
  24. dcrowe wrote:

    R.O. Flyer: No way! I would align myself, if asked, with Yoder’s school of thought, especially using Halden’s descriptions above. What I questioned was what was meant by “civilization.” And I think Halden’s response to my comment is a very thought-provoking question – whether the term means anything without recourse to violence. I think Halden, in his response, is on to something, namely that the connotations of the word imply a top-down ordering. What I was attempting to bring out was a very Yoder-friendly point: that the Gospel is political, but a kind of politics that threatens and confuses the systems of political power based on violent domination. What was missing in my original comment was a distinction between political and civilizational.

    Saturday, September 13, 2008 at 10:39 pm | Permalink
  25. Damian wrote:

    I’m going to ask the stupid question, as this conversation has fascinated me and yet I’m not familiar enough with the authors to take part: If I wanted to read Milibank, O’Donovan, Yoder, Hauerwas on this topic, what books should I keep my eye out for?


    Monday, September 15, 2008 at 1:47 am | Permalink
  26. Dave Belcher wrote:


    Milbank: Theology and Social Theory; O’Donovan: The Desire of the Nations; Yoder: The Priestly Kingdom; Hauerwas: In Good Company

    At least those would be my suggestions.

    Monday, September 15, 2008 at 6:08 am | Permalink
  27. Damian,

    Though I would agree with Dave’s Hauerwas suggestion, Hauerwas is all over the place, and the best place to look in relation to this conversation would be in the table of contents of several of his books, selecting essays on this topic. But Dave is correct, since In Good Company shows the anabaptist side of Hauerwas well.

    Monday, September 15, 2008 at 12:33 pm | Permalink
  28. Halden wrote:

    Damian, I would also second Dave’s recommendations, though I would be more apt to recommend Hauerwas’s The Peaceable Kingdom as a “first read.” Yoder’s The Original Revolution would also be helpful, but I think the recommendation of The Priestly Kingdom is spot-on. That book contains some of the most important Yoder work ever written and I return to it more than any other book of his, even The Politics of Jesus.

    Monday, September 15, 2008 at 12:41 pm | Permalink
  29. Damian wrote:

    Thanks guys – I’ll drop these into my ‘to read’ list.

    Monday, September 15, 2008 at 1:42 pm | Permalink
  30. Araglin wrote:

    As for T&ST, be sure to get the 2nd edition as his new preface is by itself worth the ticket price (although, to be frank, I’m not sure it will be comprehensible to you until you’ve already read the book through (plus the more-recent parts of his oevre)….Also, I might suggest that you read Being Reconciled first (that is, before T&ST). As for O’Donovan, I think From Irenaeus to Grotius is a good point of entry to his project (and it also includes loads of primary source material from the tradition within which he is working), as it is in more manageable bits that DotN, which can be a bit dry on first reading, especially if you’re used to the more dazzling prose styles of Milbank and Hart.

    Monday, September 15, 2008 at 4:50 pm | Permalink
  31. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Yeah, the Hauerwas suggestion, In Good Company, is a bit strange at first, I’ll admit. I always have that one in my head because that is where he develops this language of the church as “an alternative polis,” which resounds well with this “narrative of decline” stuff.

    If you are getting into this stuff primarily as a way of framing the “narratives of decline,” Damian, then I would hold off on Being Reconciled until you have had the chance to wade through Theology and Social Theory…not only is the former a collection of essays, Jamie Smith has (convincingly in my mind) argued for a “turn” (even if only slight) from TST to BR. Ok. I’ll shutup.

    Tuesday, September 16, 2008 at 4:51 am | Permalink

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