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The importance of Christianity in the formation of Western civilization can hardly be denied. That importance is not simply a matter of the past. In the process of secularization Western culture did emancipate itself from its religious roots, but that emancipation was by no means complete. A complete break from Christianity was not intended in the seventeenth century by those who wanted to put the public culture on an anthropological rather than religious foundation. The issue at that time was not a revolt against the Christian religion, nor even against its influence on the culture. Rather, there was an urgently felt need to get beyond the confessional antagonisms and religious warfare that had disrupted the peace of Europe for more than a century. The turn away from Christianity as the basis of public culture was not, at least in the first instance, caused by alienation from the Christian religion, although that turn may have produced alienation in the long run. Beginning with the eighteenth century, however, the humanistic values associated with modernity were viewed as being completely independent from the Christian religion, and even antithetical to it. In our century the circumstance is again different. Today, familiarity with Christian teaching has faded; biblical narratives and the vocabulary of Christian faith are no longer common cultural currency.

Christianity is not the only root of Western culture, of course. A similar importance must be accorded Classical Antiquity, comprising Greek and Roman art, literature, and philosophy, as well as Roman law. In some ways the continuity of modern culture with Classical Antiquity might seem even stronger than with Christianity. Although its treasures had to be reappropriated from time to time in movements of renaissance, there was never a definitive break with the classical tradition. Ideas of Greek and Roman origin, especially ideas associated with natural law, played a crucial part in the transition from a religious to an anthropological basis of public culture in early modernity. But the authority of the classical models in literature was challenged as early as the seventeenth century in the famous querelle des anciens et des modernes , when public opinion determined that contemporary French writers were superior to their classical models. Our century has decisively shaken off the normative claim of classical architecture and sculpture, while in higher education the classical heritage is no longer viewed as authoritative.

On closer examination, then, classical antiquity has not fared much better than Christianity in the cultural climate of modernity. Moreover, the classical influence was very largely dependent upon Christianity. In late antiquity and throughout the medieval period, classical literature and philosophy were transmitted by monks and Christian schools. It is doubtful whether much of the classical culture would have survived had it not been appropriated by Christianity. Not all parts of the heritage were equally well preserved, of course; classical sculpture and whatever was related to pagan religion did not fare well. Nonetheless, it is to the credit of Christianity that not only was so much of the classical legacy preserved but it was transfigured by a Christian spirit and disseminated throughout the world along with the faith of the Church.

The cultural tradition that developed under the influence of Christian faith is filled with complexities. These complexities issue in significant part from the distinction between religious and secular realms within a culture that as a whole was informed by the Christian faith. The secular was not outside the purview of Christian faith; Christian influence was not limited to what was viewed as religious. Rather, Christian faith informed the understanding of both the religious and secular realms. The very distinction between the religious and secular has its source in the Christian awareness that the ultimate reality of the kingdom of God is still future. That ultimate reality is at present only available through individual faith and the sacramental life of the Church. In this understanding, the social order and public culture that exist short of the final coming of the kingdom are always provisional.

The resulting distinction between religious and secular realms, institutions, and patterns of authority sets Christianity apart from other religiously informed cultures. It is also very different from the relationship between religion and society in the pre-Christian Roman Empire. While all sorts of religious cults were tolerated in ancient Rome, there was no dualism in principle between religious and political institutions. The emperor was the high priest, pontifex maximus. The distinction between bishops and emperor that is so important in Byzantine history was unknown in the pre-Christian Roman Empire. While the Byzantine emperor was considered to be the temporal representative of the eternal rule of Christ the heavenly king, the bishops had the responsibility (and power) of judging the orthodoxy of the emperor. Such arrangements reflect the complexity and subtlety of the distinction between religious and secular that was introduced by Christianity.

With the Constantinian epoch, we are told, the Church of the martyrs was turned into a state agency for securing the spiritual unity of the empire. The conventional view is that with the Constantine settlement the Church sold its soul to Caesar in return for respectability and worldly influence. This, it is said, represents the great “fall” of the Church from its pristine spiritual purity. It is noteworthy that some of the harshest judgments of the Constantinian settlement are issued by those who otherwise insist upon the Church’s political responsibility, especially its responsibility to bring about change on behalf of justice. In fact, the Constantinian settlement was one way in which the Church sought to exercise political responsibility, and to do so in a way that would not subordinate the Church to worldly purposes.

We need to recall that the emperors from the time of Theodosius were themselves professed Christians, and they sometimes did more for the Church than leading bishops and theologians to restore peace and provide for the flourishing of the Christian community. Moreover, the idea of empire as such is not intrinsically evil. Here one must take issue with Reinhold Niebuhr, who, it seems to me, exaggerated the merits of national rule while underestimating the dangers of nationalism. The Habsburg empire, except for the persecution of Protestants in the early period of its modern history, provides an example of imperial rule that was largely beneficial to the nationalities that lived together under its authority.

The flaw of the Constantinian empire was not so much in its being an empire as in its inherited method of taxation and, most particularly, in its lack of toleration. After the Council of Chalcedon in 451, entire provinces inhabited by monophysite and nestorian Christians who would not accept the decisions of Chalcedon were alienated from the imperial authority. In the seventh century these alienated provinces became easy prey to the rapid expansion of Islam. Before that, it was the emperors more than the bishops who had worked to mediate religious conflicts and prevent the alienation of so many Christians. Unfortunately, their efforts were not successful.

Intolerant dogmatism was probably the most disastrous sin of traditional Christianity from the early centuries up to the beginnings of modern times. Intolerance contributed more to the ambiguity of the Christian past than any other factor, and it is therefore necessary to understand the roots of the phenomenon. We must ask ourselves whether dogmatic intolerance, with all its ugly consequences, belongs to the essence of religious passion for truth, at least in its Christian form. If the answer is yes, the exclusion of religion from the arena of public culture—an exclusion introduced in early modernity after the confessional wars of the post-Reformation period—was justified then and is justified now. But the religious dogmatism that emerged as early as the Constantinian period can also be viewed as a distortion, even a disease, of the religious mind. If it is that, it can in principle be overcome without extinguishing the religious commitment to truth.

I suggest that the temptation to intolerance is indeed rooted in the Christian eschatological consciousness, but it is not an inevitable consequence of Christian eschatology. The Christian faith is based upon the conviction that the ultimate future and truth of God has become present reality in Jesus Christ. This consciousness of the presence of the eschaton, of the ultimate, easily leads to the conclusion that the teaching of the Church also has the status of ultimate truth, to the exclusion of alternative understandings of reality. Such reasoning, however, disregards the critical distinction first expressed by the Apostle Paul: While the truth of God’s revelation is indeed ultimate, our understanding of that truth is always provisional and will remain so until the end of history (1 Corinthians 13:9-12). This distinction is of utmost importance because it yields the imperative of tolerance. While God’s revelation is absolute truth, our understanding of it, also as reflected in ecclesiastical teaching, remains provisional and partial.

We do not possess the truth in the sense of owning it or having it at our service. It is precisely our commitment to the truth that is always beyond our secure apprehension that requires us to respect those who offer alternative accounts of the truth, both within the Church as well as outside. In other words, tolerance is not against the truth; it is the truth that makes tolerance imperative. When the distinction between the ultimate truth of God and our provisional understanding of that truth breaks down, intolerance seems to be the natural course for those who take truth claims seriously. This, then, is the disorder or disease of the Christian eschatological consciousness that has produced so much of the ambiguity in our culture’s Christian past.

A first case in point was the dissociation of the Christians from the fate of the Jewish people after the destruction of Jerusalem and the second temple by Titus. In contrast to the argument advanced by the Apostle Paul in the Letter to the Romans, the Church of later centuries no longer understood itself to be involved with the Jews in a common history of election and salvation. Rather, the Church understood itself to be the final form of the one people of God, to the exclusion of the Jews. The same exclusivism, arising from an unqualified sense of finality, is at the heart of Christian dogmatism and intolerance. In all these instances, Christians overlooked the provisional character of the believer’s existence short of the final coming of the kingdom.

This dogmatism became, time and again, the occasion for unnecessary divisions within the Christian community. It led to particularly disastrous consequences in the West where it was combined with the ambitions of the papacy to exercise power over all institutions of governance, both ecclesial and civil. The ambitions of the papacy contributed perhaps more than any other single factor to the tragic history of the Christian West. In the middle ages there was a loss of harmony between spiritual and civil authority, and later, at the time of the Reformation, the rupture of ecclesial unity led to the confessional wars that made necessary the emancipation of the social order from religious authority in order to reestablish social peace. While I believe that a petrine office for furthering peace and unity in the communion of all Christians might be beneficial for all the churches, and might even be a requirement for their unity, this should not blind us to the historical record of the papacy. A self-critical appraisal of its role in past centuries could lead to the reforms by which the Roman papacy might fulfill its true vocation to help secure the peace and unity of all Christians. Until that happens, Protestantism continues to have the historical mission to remind Protestants and others of what the gospel requires in the Church’s faith and life.

We move now from Christianity’s ambiguous past to the contemporary ecumenical situation. My argument is that the renewal of Christian unity is absolutely mandatory not only for the authenticity of the churches in obeying the will and prayer of their Lord but also for the cultural plausibility of the Christian religion. Nothing in the past has been more detrimental to the plausibility of the Christian message than the destructively fanatical controversies among Christians. Perhaps the gospel of love cannot be expected to change the basic conditions of life in this world before the final advent of God’s kingdom, but that gospel should be powerful enough to enable Christians to keep peace among themselves and to present their communities to the world as models of reconciliation. To be sure, controversy and division cannot always be avoided so long as questions of doctrine, questions of truth, are taken seriously. But controversy should not be dominant in the picture that Christianity presents to the world, nor should Christians today remain divided simply because their ancestors were divided by controversies in centuries past.

Christian unity does not require that all the confessional traditions except the Roman Catholic Church should disappear. On the contrary, the plurality of traditions in liturgy, ministry, ecclesial organization, and doctrinal expression—so long as they do not contradict one another—belongs to the abundance of Christian faith and life. The different churches will continue, but under conditions that allow for fuller ecclesial unity. Adaptations by all sides will have to be worked out in order to achieve minimal conditions for the mutual recognition that is expressed in sharing at the eucharistic table. As a consequence of such renewed communion, further changes would no doubt follow in due course.

Again, Christian unity is a prerequisite for any renaissance of Christianity’s role in public culture. As the history of Christian divisions was the main factor in alienating Western society from its religious roots, so that alienation cannot be overcome without ecumenical reconciliation among the Christian churches. I do not say that such reconciliation is a sufficient condition for the renaissance I have in mind, but I am convinced that it is a necessary condition. At present, however, it must be admitted that ecumenical progress is slow and tedious. This despite a remarkable change of attitudes at the grassroots level and theological dialogues that have achieved greater clarity regarding the obstacles in our doctrinal traditions. As some old obstacles have been overcome, however, new obstacles have emerged. Here I need only mention as an illustration the question of women’s ordination, which, contrary to the expectations of most, has become a formidable problem in ecumenical relations.

The ecumenical process is too important to allow it to slow down. As we have seen, it is important for the authenticity of the churches and for Western culture. It is also important for Christianity’s relationship to other religions. Obviously, dialogue with other religions differs from ecumenical dialogue among Christians, for Christians encounter one another on the basis of the same faith in the same Lord Jesus Christ. At the same time, however, Christian attitudes towards persons of other religions cannot escape being profoundly influenced by the ecumenical spirit that is nurtured in intra-Christian ecumenical dialogue. Such ecumenical dialogue nurtures an awareness not of the relativity of our own faith but of the different ways in which that faith can be legitimately expressed. This awareness, this readiness to learn, indeed this eagerness to learn, carries over into our encounter with people of other religions. It is no little thing when a basic disposition of confrontation is replaced by that of mutual respect. Of course, situations of disagreement and conflict will still arise, but such situations are transformed when they arise within the framework of sympathetic perception of the other.

In this framework of Christian ecumenical consciousness, the relationship between Christians and Jews holds a particular, indeed a unique, place of importance. In past centuries Christian intolerance toward Jews was so severe because they—though heirs of the Old Covenant—did not embrace the fulfillment of the promises in Jesus the Christ. Today the new ecumenical consciousness allows Christians to appreciate in more positive terms the presence of Jews as representatives of the biblical tradition that gave birth to the Christian faith. It is only with Jews that Christians can know for sure that they pray to the same God. Christians profess the one God of Israel in trinitarian form, but it is most certainly the one God of Israel whom they profess. They profess him in trinitarian form according to his final revelation in Jesus Christ, the Jew who by his testimony to the kingdom of the one God of Israel became the savior of the world.

The authentically Jewish character of the mission of Jesus, though provocative to his contemporaries (as were the prophets before him), will remain the focal point of Christian-Jewish dialogue in the future. But the controversy over Jesus loses much of its bitterness and poison when both sides look ahead to the kingdom of God, which Jesus proclaimed, and recognize their own provisional circumstance in their pilgrimage toward that future. In that light, what Christians have in common with Jews is allowed to stand out in its full importance. What they have in common is faith in the one God of Israel, the memory of God’s ancient history with his people, and an understanding of the dignity of each person as created by God and destined to share in his image. This conception of the dignity of the person is the basis of an understanding of human rights, an understanding that Christians and Jews share and that cannot be secured apart from such a religious basis. Wherever these convictions with their biblical background become the focus of cultural attention, it is appropriate to speak of a Jewish-Christian tradition that informs our cultural consciousness.

To be aware of the provisional character of Christian existence and of the provisional character of our knowledge of God in his revelation is to undergo a profound change in our consciousness of truth. It is a profound change from the dogmatic consciousness of earlier centuries but—and I must emphasize this point—it does not constitute a surrender to secularism. Awareness of the provisional nature of Christian existence and thought makes possible a more authentic appropriation of the way the believer relates to the absolute truth of God as revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Far from abandoning the Christian truth claim, it is a more self-conscious and therefore more plausible way of asserting that truth claim. Awareness of provisionality does not mean selling out Christian affirmation to the current mood of false modesty that abstains from truth claims in deference to what is falsely called pluralism. Pluralism can mean many things. Pluralism can refer to a cultural situation in which competing truth claims are to be treated with respect. Pluralism can also mean, and all too often it does mean, the assumption that truth claims are no longer meaningful because there is no one truth. That fits nicely the assumption of radical secularism that there can be individual religious preferences but no religious truth.

When in the seventeenth century the social and political system began to emancipate itself from its religious roots, there were compelling reasons for doing so; the mutual intolerance of confessional controversies had destroyed the social peace. Subsequent developments toward a completely secular self-understanding in the public culture of Western societies, however, produced the illusion that societies can survive in the long run without any common religious basis whatever. This is rightly called an illusion or self-delusion because without religion there is finally no limit to individual license except the coercive power of the law. It has been astutely observed by thinkers as various as Rousseau, Dostoyevsky, and, in our own time, Max Horkheimer that, if there is no God, anything is permitted.

In the course of our century evidence has multiplied that a morality based on reason alone, independent of any religious connection, is, to say the least, precarious. Without religion, liberty degenerates into license and coercion. Rousseau spoke of the need for a civil religion, a religion shared by all citizens as a source of adherence to their society. And of course there have been more recent discussions of civil religion, notably in America. Some Christians have expressed legitimate concern about the potentially idolatrous nature of a civil religion. Others have suggested that civil religion is not a religion in its own right but refers to a form of public piety that arises from the religious traditions and from interaction among religious traditions. I believe that suggestion is persuasive, but my immediate point is that a sustainable social morality requires a religious basis.

A political order may declare itself neutral toward differences of religious allegiance, but it cannot dissociate itself from religious affinity altogether. One might make the case that the toleration of different forms of religious allegiance is itself based in a particular form of religion. When, alternatively, toleration is based on indifference, and when religious indifference becomes a mark of the public culture, we should not be surprised by the steady increase of unbridled license, by the progressive loss of consensus regarding moral and cultural values, and by social disintegration, leading, more likely than not, to tyranny and the loss of freedom.

There are compelling reasons, then, for Western societies to try to recover their religious roots. The choice is not between religious neutrality and an identification with a particular form of religion at the price of intolerance. The real question is what form of religion a society will choose as the basis of its public culture. It could choose, as some societies have chosen, an idolatrous nationalism or a form of ideological utopianism. Or, with yet other societies, it may choose a form of “fundamentalism.” Or—and this is obviously what one hopes for—it might choose a religious tradition that, as a matter of its own self-understanding and as a condition of its own authenticity, requires the idea of toleration. Such a tradition provides a religious basis for the institutionalizing of tolerance in, for example, the separation of church and state. The separation of church and state, it is perhaps not necessary to say in this company, must never mean the separation of religion from public life.

Given alternative religious possibilities, Western societies are well advised to recover their religious roots in a cultural tradition informed by Jewish and Christian beliefs. Western ideas of human rights and especially the underlying conception of human freedom have their basis in these beliefs: in the Christian teaching that the individual person is the object of God’s eternal love and that human freedom has its source in the individual’s communion with God through faith, and in the Jewish understanding of the dignity of the human person as created in the image of God. In the light of these teachings, individual freedom cannot be unbridled license. Freedom is grounded in a hope beyond this life, in the certitude of a communion with God that makes a person independent from the adversities and temptations of temporal life and issues in a sense of vocation to the service of others. The Christian idea of freedom is basic to the distinction between the secular and the religious, but does not permit that distinction to become a divorce. Rightly understood, the Christian idea of freedom entails toleration and respect for other persons and their ways of using their freedom. It encourages personal creativity while at the same time sharpening the sense of social responsibility.

Among the many contributions of Christianity to the development of culture, one is deserving of special mention—Christian teaching regarding the family. In current discussions it is often overlooked how much the role of women in the context of the family was greatly enhanced by the Christian faith. Christianity opposed divorce as a male prerogative because that violates the permanent bond between husband and wife, and apostolic teaching admonishes husband and wife to mutual love and devotion in place of a one-sided subordination of the woman to her husband. Though these principles were often neglected in the history of Christianity, they are a clear decision for the equal dignity of women in the life of the family. The emancipation of women in the context of the family was a first step toward the establishment of equal rights for women also in public life. Christian teaching regarding the dignity and rights of women is a great Christian asset in the worldwide competition between religious cultures, especially with respect to the missionary expansion of Islam.

The beginning of the third millennium may well witness the resurgence of a culture inspired by Christian values, a culture that may have a powerful appeal for people all over the world. The present impact of Western ideas about human rights provides a foretaste of such a possibility. It is not without reason that representatives of other cultures, especially in Islamic states, protest that the insistence on human rights is an imposition of Western cultural values rather than a reminder of what belongs to human nature universally. It was indeed from a Christian perspective that the idea of human rights and the various catalogues of human rights were developed—from the sixteenth century to the eighteenth century American Revolution to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

While Christian in origin, the idea of human rights has a powerful appeal also to individuals in cultures where the values of individual freedom are traditionally less celebrated than in the West. The argument against the Western notion of individual freedom is, of course, that it dissolves all forms of community, decency, and moral propriety. That is a more telling rebuke than many Westerners realize. It reflects more than merely a conservative reaction to change. The rebuke is part of a fundamental criticism of Western secular culture. If Western freedom in fact means no more than individual license, others do well to try to defend their communities and spiritual values against the encroachment of Western secularism. Beyond the defensive mode, Islamic missions in Western societies express a strong sense of missionary vocation aimed at liberating Western nations from the materialism and immorality associated with secularism. These Muslims view Christians as having failed in the task of the moral transformation and reconstruction of society. Such criticism is a serious challenge to traditional Christianity and to Western culture. A culture devoid of spiritual and moral values is not equipped to meet that challenge, and is bound for disintegration and decay.

And so, while we can envision a great resurgence of Christianity and Western culture in the third millennium, such a future is by no means certain. Western societies may ignore their need to recover the strength of their religious roots. They may continue headlong on a secularist course, unaware of its certain and dismal outcome. The end of Western culture, however, would not spell the end of Christianity. The Christian religion is not dependent upon the culture to which it gave birth. As it has in the past, the Church can survive and flourish in the context of other cultures.

In earlier periods of modernity, the prophets of secularism confidently expected the decline and final disappearance of Christianity. And secularism did in fact achieve an enormous erosion of popular commitment to the churches, especially in Protestantism. Secularism’s greatest success, however, is in the widespread demoralization in the ranks of clergy and theologians who are supposed to proclaim and interpret the truth of the gospel but delude themselves that they are achieving that purpose by adapting Christian faith and life to the demands of secularism. What the situation requires, I am convinced, is precisely the opposite of such uncritical adaptation.

The further secularism advances the more urgent it is that Christian faith and Christian life be seen in sharp contrast to the secularist culture. In posing such a contrast there is, to be sure, the risk of fundamentalism. Today the fundamentalist temptation is strongly felt in both Protestantism and the Roman Catholic Church. Protestant evangelicalism and the reassertion of the confessional tradition of Roman Catholicism are, in principle, more authentically Christian answers to the challenges of secularism than is the strategy of cultural adaptation and assimilation. That being said, however, there is a danger of fundamentalism on both sides. Fundamentalism of any kind forfeits the Christian claim to universal truth—a claim that is bound up with our culture’s understanding of critical rationality—and it loses its hold on the ecumenical opportunity and obligation of our moment in Christian history. What is needed is a strong reaffirmation of the central articles of Christian faith against the spirit of secularism, and then a joining of that to a renewed commitment to rationality and ecumenical openness. Needless to say, such a combination is not easy.

It is quite possible that in the early part of the third millennium only the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, on the one hand, and evangelical Protestantism, on the other, will survive as ecclesial communities. What used to be called the Protestant mainline churches are in acute danger of disappearing. I expect they will disappear if they continue neither to resist the spirit of a progressively secularist culture nor to try to transform it. Since the time of the Reformation, Protestantism was closely associated with the general culture. At first, the price of independence from Rome was accepting the tutelage of the secular authorities. Later, Protestantism availed itself of the opportunity to present itself as the modern form of Christianity peculiarly attuned to modern culture. At times this was carried to the point that it was thought that ecclesial institutions should simply dissolve into the culture.

There was a kind of logic to this idea of “culture Protestantism” so long as the public consciousness was identified with the Christian heritage. But that period came to an end with the breakdown of traditional European culture in the First World War and the destruction wrought by idolatrous nationalisms. Since then, and as a result of disillusionment with the spiritual progress of Western culture, Protestants turned with new urgency to the central importance of the Church in the Christian faith. Also, and not by chance, the ecumenical movement toward ecclesial unity came to the fore, a movement greatly strengthened by the ecumenical engagement of the Roman Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council.

Contrary to what some Protestants had thought, a Christian culture is not a plausible alternative to the ecclesial form of Christianity. If it ever was, it is no longer. There is no alternative to the Church. The further the secularist dominance of the general culture advances, the more clearly the Church, in clear distinction from that culture, emerges as the reference point of Christian existence. The Church takes the form of particular local congregations and of the universal communion of all Christians. These forms of ecclesial allegiance are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, only as they strengthen one another can the Christian community face with confidence the challenges that are ever more strongly posed by both the secular culture and the competing claims of other religions. Thus have we been brought by an ambiguous past to face with confidence an uncertain future.

Wolfhart Pannenber is Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Munich and founding director of the Institute of Ecumenical Theology. His most recent book is Toward a Theology of Nature (Westminster/John Knox Press). This essay originated as the 1994 Erasmus Lecture, sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Public Life.

Image by Oliver Lechner from Pixabay. Image cropped.