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.