"The Church does not feel dispensed from paying unflagging attention to those who have received the Faith and who have been in contact with the Gospel often for generations. Thus she seeks to deepen, consolidate, nourish, and make ever more mature the faith of those who are already called the faithful or believers, in order that they may be so still more" (Pope St. Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 54).
"If Christianity, on one hand, has found its most effective form in Europe, it is necessary, on the other hand, to say that in Europe a culture has developed that constitutes the absolutely most radical construction not only of Christianity but of the religious and moral traditions of humanity" (Pope Benedict XVI, "Subiaco Address").
When the Christian narrative of the human drama and its corresponding moral order have become prominent in a given society and have come to provide, at least largely, that society’s ruling vision, what emerges can be called a “Christendom culture.” Some have used the term Christendom to refer to a society in which the Church is officially established in a confessional state – medieval England, say. Here is meant something broader. A Christendom society is one that goes forward under the imaginative vision and narrative provided by Christianity, whatever the specific polity concerning its establishment may be.
Christianity arose at a time when Israel, God’s chosen people, was surrounded by a sophisticated Hellenistic culture with a strong ruling vision of its own, and during its first three centuries the Christian Church was to one degree or another in conflict with its surroundings. During this time the Church functioned in an apostolic mode, by which is meant that she was making her way against the current of the wider society and needed to articulate and maintain a distinct and contrasting vision. Those who were brought into the Church did more than embrace a set of moral principles or doctrinal statements. There was a need for a profound conversion of mind and imagination such that they saw everything, viewed the whole, differently. The fourth century saw a shift, as Christianity came first to challenge and then to replace that original classical vision, incorporating much of the cultural patrimony of the ancient world into its own understanding. From that time on Western civilization has been, to one degree or another, a set of Christendom societies. This does not mean that the majority of the members of such societies have been seriously committed Christians. It means that there was a general acceptance of basic Christian truths and an assumption of the Christian narrative and vision of the world around which the societies’ institutions were gathered.
Again, to call such a society as this ‘Christian’ does not mean that the majority of its members were serious or educated Christians; in fact, there has probably never existed a human society for which that was the case. There is a reason why all the saints of Christendom have so constantly and urgently spoken out against the lack of genuine faith of their times. They were not unreasonable extremists holding to an overly rigorous standard, or romantic dreamers out of touch with human reality. Rather, they recognized that though the main institutions of their societies were under the influence of Christianity, there were always counter-currents running, and the majority of their members were far from living as convinced and serious Christians. They saw that much that went by the name Christian was in fact a watered-down reduction of it.
The presence of an assumed Christian vision goes far to explain why the preaching, in a Christendom context, of a Bernardino of Siena or a Vincent Farrar or a Savonarola or a John Wesley was so remarkably effective, with whole towns and cities embracing their message and social life (for a time) transformed. The overwhelming and immediate response to the proclamation of the preacher showed (apart from the grace of God) that his hearers shared his fundamental assumptions, which were present but often asleep within them. Their hearts resonated with an effective call to embrace the message more seriously, for it was the bringing alive of dormant truths, the making real of what was often only theoretical, the filling out of what had been reduced or corrupted.
We might then note these two basic modes by which Christianity interacts with human societies: an apostolic mode and a Christendom mode. The first is her way of confronting a society with a very different overall vision than her own; the second is her mode of acting when Christianity has fertilized the soil out of which the society’s basic assumptions spring.
In this regard it is instructive to observe the difference in the reception of the Gospel by various groups of people as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Three instances of preaching will show this principle in operation: Peter’s preaching to the Jews just after Pentecost (Acts 2:14-42), the preaching of Paul and Barnabas to the pagan populace of the town of Lystra (Acts 14:8-18), and Paul’s preaching to the Athenians at the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-32).
As to the first of these: the Jews were a religious people whose imaginative vision of the world was similar to Peter’s, who was himself a believing Jew. They knew what he meant by ‘God,’ heaven and hell, sin and repentance, prophecy and providence, the Covenant and the Messiah. The proclamation of the Gospel added something of vital importance to the Jewish understanding, but it assumed and built upon an existing vision. Peter’s words found resonance in the deep substratum of the minds of his hearers, and three thousand converted in one day. And once converted to faith in Christ, these new believers did not need to be brought to an entirely different way of seeing the world; rather, they could be welcomed into the newborn Church and take their places as intelligent believers fairly quickly. Even the opposition by some of the Jews to the preaching of the Gospel showed that they understood what was being said and knew what was at stake. A great deal could be taken for granted; the issue among them was simply whether or not this Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the promised Messiah. One sees a similar pattern in instances of Paul’s preaching at Jewish synagogues or among God-fearers as recorded throughout the book of Acts. There was rapid understanding, and whether the message was embraced or rejected (or a mixture of both), it was not difficult for Paul to make himself understood by his hearers. The same could be said for Paul’s own conversion. His ability to begin preaching Christianity so soon after he had recognized Christ as Messiah was based upon his grasp of the whole Jewish imaginative and narrative vision, one that the Christians had retained.
The reception of the ministry of Paul and Barnabas in the second instance tells a different story. Lystra seems to have been a believing pagan town where the Greek mythological vision of the world was ascendant. When Paul preached and then healed a crippled man, the crowds in the town were moved and impressed, but they interpreted what they saw and heard through the lens of their assumed pagan vision, and they became convinced that the gods, Zeus and Hermes, had come down among them in human form. Paul and Barnabas were appalled and could barely keep the multitude from offering sacrifice to them, a very different response than that of the Jews at Pentecost. If three thousand devout pagans such as these had been converted in one day, they would have had to undergo a far more profound transformation of mind than had the Jews in order to reasonably be called Christian.
Lastly, in the Areopagus Paul was dealing with yet another imaginative understanding of the world, one dominated by the philosophical schools to which Athens was the renowned home. Paul went at his task differently, in a way that could engage a sophisticated and philosophically critical vision of the cosmos. The response he received was in keeping with the assumptions of the environment: it was not nothing, but it was less immediate and enthusiastic than in either of the other two settings. Among some of his hearers an attitude of mockery arose which, although not surprising among the intellectually sophisticated and religiously skeptical, neither the believing Jews nor the Zeus-worshipping pagans exhibited.
We might then note these two basic modes by which Christianity interacts with human societies: an apostolic mode and a Christendom mode. The first is her way of confronting a society with a very different overall vision than her own; the second is her mode of acting when Christianity has fertilized the soil out of which the society’s basic assumptions spring. Putting it this way is of course far too simplistic: human societies are dynamic, and the degree to which Christianity is formative of a society’s culture and vision is never complete and never static. Nonetheless it can be of use to view these two modes as “ideal types” in order to inquire how best to respond to the cultural matrix we currently inhabit.
A Christendom situation gives the Church certain advantages, but also brings with it certain challenges and opens the door to certain temptations. An apostolic or missionary situation does the same. The Church has negotiated both in many different places and times. The key is to understand one’s own time and to develop a pastoral and evangelistic strategy appropriate to the prevailing spiritual and cultural environment. Before looking at what elements of such a strategy might be, it will help to delineate in greater detail these two ideal types.
Concerning a Christendom Culture
Christendom comes about due to the success of the Church’s missionary activity in winning converts and in vivifying the wider culture. There is an obvious great good involved in a Christendom society. It can only be good that a human culture be brought into greater rather than lesser alignment with the truth and goodness of God. It can only be fitting that the Lord of heaven and earth be acknowledged as such and that signs of his presence and expressions of his rule be formative for human life. To the degree that a human society is founded on Christian truth and its members have willingly embraced that truth, and to the degree that their vision of the cosmos corresponds to the way God sees things, that society and the individuals within it have overcome ignorance and aligned themselves to reality.
In a Christendom culture, the primary need is maintenance, in the best sense of the word. In such times, Christianity holds the field in the key institutions of the society and dominates its grand narrative. Its task, in the words of Pope Paul VI quoted above, is “to deepen, consolidate, nourish and make ever more pure the faith of those who are already called believers.” During such times the Church baptizes many societal institutions, founds others, and then struggles to maintain and deepen their influence. The task has never been an easy one; Christianity is not natural to a fallen world, and there are many forces, both human and spiritual, constantly at work to undermine and overthrow the influence of Christ upon humanity, individually and collectively. The tendency to reduce or assimilate the Gospel to non-Christian cultural beliefs and practices is a constant, corroding presence, unique to each time and place and often subtle in its operation. Too often, a society embraces many genuinely Christian elements and calls itself truly Christian, even while denying faith’s heart. Fallen humans are always prone to idolize the visible while forgetting more important invisible realities. Christendom is not a societal state gained once for all but rather an ideal never fully achieved, one that needs renewing, strengthening, and correcting at every turn. To perform this task well has demanded its own kind of heroism, as all the saints of Christendom have made clear by their lives and teaching.
A Christendom society fosters great cultural achievements. In such times Christianity leaves its mark on institutions of education, law and government; it influences art, architecture and literature. As the Christian ideal gets into the soil of the society, remarkable cultural fertility results. Such a society will develop its institutions and expressions almost unconsciously, with a characteristic strength and unanimity that seems mysterious. It is difficult adequately to explain historically why, for example, slavery slowly disappeared in the West, or universities sprang up, or parliaments began to be developed. There is something mysterious in the way Gothic cathedrals were raised in city after city, or hospitals and orphanages and other charitable ventures sprouted like a natural growth, or villages grew as almost organic things out of the living rock, with a ruling spirit ever in evidence but often not explicit. These and countless other cultural developments were the outworking of deeply held cultural assumptions and an integrated vision of the cosmos that cultural leaders and artists and artisans intuited and brought into material and institutional form. And once founded, such institutions tended to great longevity and so could be developed over generations and centuries, gaining significant cultural depth and authority.
In a Christendom society fundamental law and basic moral understanding are rooted in Christian truth. This is an advantage for many reasons, not least for family life and the raising of children. With good example and good influence readily available and the stated ideals of the society clear – if not universally followed – Christians can count on the wider culture for basic support. What Christian parents are teaching their children at home will resonate with the ideals held out by the authorities of the society. For those who grow up under its influence, a Christian vision will tend to become part of the furniture of the mind. As the fundamentals of the Faith become first principles of thought and behavior, there comes to prevail an instinctive resonance with Christian truth for which there will hardly be need to argue.
Christendom is not a societal state gained once for all but rather an ideal never fully achieved, one that needs renewing, strengthening, and correcting at every turn. To perform this task well has demanded its own kind of heroism, as all the saints of Christendom have made clear by their lives and teaching.
In Christendom, believers are fundamentally at peace as regards their faith. Although peacefulness can encourage complacency, there is nonetheless an objective good in living peacefully, worshiping freely, and founding and developing institutions that honor Christ without constant battle. The hostility of a darkened world is to some degree kept at bay.
In Christendom, the blessings of God’s government are scattered abroad, allowing a certain goodness to pervade the whole of the society. Despite the many sins and failings of Christians, the presence of Christ sweetens human life. People are generally happier.
Nonetheless, Christendom also brings with it stiff challenges, due in part to its successes. When Christianity becomes the main cultural current, many tend to be lukewarm in their pursuit of their faith, more or less going along for the ride. Christian devotion can become conventional, losing its radical character and thus its dynamism and attractiveness. The great sin of Christendom is hypocrisy, pretending to be more interested in God and in virtue than one is. Professing Christianity is the norm; living the Faith as a genuine disciple is the exception.
As a result, a distinction arises between the nominal and the seriously committed Christian that is not found in the first age of the Church’s life. In a Christendom society the level of Christian transformation expected of the general populace is rather low, and many who desire seriously to serve Christ feel that they must do something decisive to express the true Christian spirit, usually by entering a religious order. In Christendom ages this has sometimes been called “leaving the world,” as if all Christians were not supposed to leave the “world” in the scriptural meaning of the word. A sense of first- and second-class members of the Church can develop, and the expectation of holiness among the laity can wane.
In a Christendom culture the Church as a whole is tempted to lose its spiritual and otherworldly character and to become merely a this-worldly body, a department of state or a promising career path, a center of civilized activities rather than the mystical body of Christ. Because in a Christendom society to profess Christ leads to respectability and can bring power and wealth, because Christ is a name to conjure with and by which to gain influence, greedy and power-hungry people prey upon the Church and use its influence to further their own selfish aims. Sins of buying Church offices, of absentee bishops and priests, of avarice and the hoarding of wealth, of a general creeping worldliness among those whose task it is to lead others to Christ can become rampant. Even for those who avoid such glaring sins, the message of Christ can become overlaid with the categories of success originating in the temporal order and can cease to be a liberating force. Priesthood can become merely a job rather than a mission. Attending to the moral and ritual life of the Church can become perfunctory, valued only for immediately tangible effects. This is the sort of concern that sparked the reforming spirit of the sixteenth century, both Protestant and Catholic. To reform the Church truly in such times is no easy task.
In Christendom, because institutions are strong and well-founded, they tend to be taken for granted and therefore to lose their originating Christian spirit. Bishops and priests can cease to operate as pastors and evangelists engaged in a high-stakes spiritual struggle who are using their institutions to lead their people to discipleship, and instead they can come to see themselves and function as system managers who keep the machine well-oiled. In a Christendom culture, the type of person who is brought forward to lead the Church is often the conflict-avoiding administrator rather than the apostle. The Church goes from being a movement of spirit incarnated in institutions to a set of sclerotic institutions that have lost their inner spirit.
For many living in a Christendom time, the Church can be seen as one among many cultural institutions that enhance human life, rather than as the re-created human race saved from death and slavery… The Great Commission can seem a distant and irrelevant command.
In a Christendom society, the very strength of Christian institutions and principles brings a tendency to reduce the Faith to its visible expressions. Christians can wrongly think that the kingdom of heaven is fundamentally of this world, that its strength can be measured by its visible manifestations. As a result, they too often attempt to maintain worldly influence at the expense of genuine spiritual strength. The story, perhaps apocryphal, of an encounter of Saint John Vianney and the devil is expressive of the true source of the Church’s influence. The devil is said to have told Vianney that if there were three such priests as he, the kingdom of darkness would be ruined. Holiness, prayer, humility, hidden acts of charity are the spiritual means by which the Church is visibly upheld. When these are diminished, the outward expressions of the Church’s life grow tenuous and liable to failure. The Church is never in a more fragile situation than when she seems strong but has lost her deep rootedness in the invisible world. This danger can be hard to see in a Christendom age.
More subtly, in a Christendom time there are often counterfeits of genuine Christianity that assimilate Christian names and customs to what is in fact a different religion. John Henry Newman has noted this phenomenon in a sermon entitled “Religion of the Day”:
Because in a Christendom society the whole of the population (nearly) is Christian, the imperative for mission can wane. The truth that the human race is caught up in a cosmic battle between good and evil in which each individual needs to declare for one side or the other can be effectively hidden. For many living in a Christendom time, the Church can be seen as one among many cultural institutions that enhance human life, rather than as the re-created human race saved from death and slavery. Mission then becomes the preserve of a few religious orders laboring in lands far away. The Great Commission can seem a distant and irrelevant command.
Concerning an Apostolic Time
In an apostolic situation, because the Church is not the major influence in the society’s overarching vision, the need is not mainly for maintenance, though this comes into play; it is rather for apostolic witness and the building of a distinctively Christian cultural vision and way of life. In such a time the Church understands herself to be vastly different from the world around her, needing to make her way against hostility or apathy, unable to count on the wider society to sustain her institutions or to carry her vision of life. Such a cultural stance also brings with it certain advantages, as well as certain challenges.
Because one has to pay a serious price for the Faith in an apostolic time, there is less hypocrisy than in a Christendom age. The life of faith is more intense and therefore more attractive, more evidently life-changing. There is an immediate experience of the momentousness of belonging to Christ. The great adventure of Christianity is more palpable: its contours show up with greater clarity, and the Gospel attracts many high-hearted people who have a strong desire for God and for goodness. The specifically Christian quality of the lives of believers tends to be higher.
In an apostolic age there is by necessity greater purity of intention in priests and bishops, which makes for truer and more dynamic leadership. A higher standard of holiness among the clergy is more natural and easier to sustain. Those who might pursue Church offices for money or social prestige will usually find something else to do.
In an apostolic age the Church is in a sense more self-conscious. Christians know by daily experience that they inhabit a spiritual and moral world different from and often in opposition to the one around them, and this demands a greater sense of their distinct call. In an apostolic age every Christian is by necessity a witness and an evangelist; the role of the laity and the importance of lay holiness emerge with greater clarity as necessary for the Church to complete her mission.
In an apostolic age the Church is in a sense more self-conscious. Christians know by daily experience that they inhabit a spiritual and moral world different from and often in opposition to the one around them, and this demands a greater sense of their distinct call.
Confessing Christ in the face of hostility even to the point of martyrdom has always been accounted the greatest of Christian blessings, the most privileged way to imitate Christ, but it is hard to come by in a Christendom age. In an apostolic age the possibility of suffering for the Faith, even undergoing martyrdom, is present, as a heroic spirit of witnessing with courage animates the whole of the Church.
There are also challenges that come with an apostolic age. The various benefits that accrue in a Christendom culture are not present. Error in all its forms, doctrinal and moral, is rife. In such a cultural atmosphere it can be difficult for Christians to sustain their own spiritual and moral vision. Material advantages are offered to those who make peace with the non-Christian majority, and the attractiveness of the ruling vision is hard to resist, especially for the most vulnerable. Among other problems, it becomes more difficult to raise children in the Faith.
In an apostolic age the hostility of the wider culture can make a settled life difficult. Institutions are harder to found and harder to keep healthy, like trying to build a house in a gale wind. Fewer resources are available, and the cultural challenge of articulating the Faith, both individually and institutionally, can be exhausting. Especially among those who measure the strength of the Church by her visible manifestations, there can be a tendency to discouragement and a waning of confidence in the power of the Gospel.
Precisely because of the high cost of discipleship, the great temptation in an apostolic age is not to hypocrisy but to cowardice. While in Christendom people are tempted to profess more faith and virtue than they possess, in an apostolic age they are tempted to profess less. Open apostasy motivated by fear becomes more common.
In an apostolic age, because of the bitterness of the spiritual climate, groups of Christians face the temptation to develop an overly rigoristic attitude to faith and the moral life or to become sectarian and abandon the task of engaging and confronting the wider culture with the Gospel. There can be a tendency to “let the rest of the world go to hell” or to become dominated by a fearful attitude that robs the Gospel of its joyful and conquering spirit. Recognizing that there is a line of demarcation between Christianity and the wider society, the temptation arises to set that line in places not demanded by the Gospel. Just as accommodation to this-worldly currents of thought and behavior is the besetting temptation of many in a Christendom age, so the erecting of personal or group orthodoxies that do not map onto the true lines of the Gospel is the temptation of many in an apostolic age.
This five-part series is drawn from From Christendom to Apostolic Mission: Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age, published by the University of Mary (2020).
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More in Christendom to Apostolic
An imaginative vision forms the basis of action for societies and individuals alike, and the human imagination allows us to carry an entire world within our minds.
Our Current Apostolic Age
We must take stock of our present time and devise engagement strategies for our current Apostolic age, lest we continue to bear a Christendom mentality and utilize Christendom approaches.