Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Is it really Constantine's fault?

This review is part of a blog tour for Ken Howard's new book Paradoxy. You can see a full list of bloggers on the blog tour here.

Ken Howard’s new book Paradoxy examines the increasingly polarizing divide within global Christianity between “liberal” and “conservative” approaches to theology. Howard’s personal story is a compelling one: the child of a Jewish mother and a Christian father; an Episcopal priest in a time of intense internal struggle within that denomination around issues of sexuality; pastor to the second iteration of a congregation whose first incarnation had been torn apart by theological differences and power struggles. Howard stands on many fault lines, and as such, he seems particularly well-positioned to treat this topic with sensitivity and passion.

Howard’s central premise is that while differences in theological distinctives have always existed within Christianity, the volatility of the current theological debates are less about the substance of those debates and more symptomatic of living in times of rapid and continuous change in which a number of paradigms that have defined Christianity for centuries are changing dramatically.

He begins the book by defining the role of paradigms/worldviews in the lives of individuals and collectives, particularly in the collective of the global church. He then defines the three primary paradigms that he believes are at the root of many of the conflicts as they both inform the Christian worldview and are dismantled by current events. The first of these paradigms that he defines is “Christendom”, to which he dedicates Chapter 2 of his book.

He opens the chapter by both defining Christendom as a specific time in history –the period after which Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Holy Roman Empire and was himself crowned the Holy Roman Emperor—and the idea of a world that is primarily Christian and ruled by Christian leaders. From these two definitions, he constructs two main points:
- “Constantinianism” –the specific alignment of the church with the state, relying upon stability and uniformity in order to maintain stability—has exerted an influence down the centuries so great that we continue to be defined by this dynamic, dividing the world into “us” and “them” in the same manner that members of one state may view an enemy state
- As Christianity decreases in global membership and influence, those who are threatened by losing their idea of Christendom as a global political and social reality react in various ways that put them into strident tension with one another

Obviously I’m oversimplifying, but these are the basic arguments as I understand them. While I agree wholeheartedly with the dynamics that he describes, I have to disagree with drawing a direct causal connection to the Holy Roman Empire. An example from p. 20:

“The effect of the Christendom paradigm is to divide the world into “us” and “them.” This tendency to demonize and dehumanize those with whom we disagree has contributed to some of the worst excesses of the church over the centuries, by whichever branch held legitimate authority. This US/THEM demonization has continued to the present day, practiced by liberals and conservatives alike.”

There is no question that the alignment of church with state –which Howard rightly notes was happening theologically in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, long before Constantine made it a political reality—forever altered Christianity. It allowed for the spread of Christianity as a matter of conquest and cultural conformity, and this was a dynamic played out again and again, most ignominiously through the Crusades and through global colonization by “Christian” nations through the 17th-19th centuries. There is also no question that the rise of global Islam as well as the massive population and economic booms of “non-Christian” China and India have created panic conditions for many Christians who find the idea of a “non-Christian” world extremely threatening.
However, the “us” v. “them” dynamic is a feature of nearly every large conflict, particularly those between identity groups (and most virulently between those identity groups who are close cousins… think of the former Yugoslavia or of India v. Pakistan). When group identity is threatened by outside forces, failure to conform within the ranks of the identity group becomes a kind of treason, and the “us” v. “them” dynamic often takes on the character of a battle to the death. I won’t go on and on, but suffice to say that this is the most prominent feature of identity based conflicts, and it really has nothing whatsoever to do with Constantine.

I also disagree with hearkening back to the Holy Roman Empire as a defining metaphor for current conflicts within Christianity. I have met one person in my whole life for whom the events surrounding the coronation of Constantine at St. Peter’s Basilica were important in his lived faith: a British graduate student at the University of Oxford who is currently in the process of becoming a monk. Most Christians probably would struggle to tell you who Constantine was. However, an American Christian may well know all the words to the Lee Greenwood song “God Bless the USA”. I *do* agree that the colonial impulse –the belief in Christianity as a civilizing cultural influence and indirectly responsible for the technological and cultural progress of mankind—is a strong metaphorical influence for American Christians, and quite possibly for Christians in other parts of the world.

Despite having a quibble with these things, I am glad that Ken is writing this book at this time, both because it needs to be written and because he is so well positioned to write it from where he stands culturally and personally. His writing style makes reading quite effortless and pleasant, and he has that rare gift of making very complex matters understandable quite quickly. I’m also looking forward to reading further in the book as he develops his other themes and makes recommendations for the way forward in Christianity.

1 comment:

Gene Anderson said...

You are so correct, most people i know think "Constantine" was a guy in am movie who fought demons and smoked way too much. Cultural context is everything. History is vital, but we live in the now.