One of the temperamental advantages to be gained from a belief in divine providence is serenity in the face of history’s ambiguities. This may be one of the more subdued and unheroic expressions of faith, but for Christians trying to make moral sense of the story of Christendom—from its once quite unpredictable rise to its now quite indubitable collapse—it is an absolutely indispensable one. For, if indeed God became incarnate within history in order to reconcile time to eternity, then it only stands to reason that the event of Christ should be one that never ceases to unfold in time, with discernible consequences and in substantial forms. And yet the actual historical record of Christian society hardly encourages confidence: marvelous cultural and ethical achievements, of course, but almost all of them inseparably associated with innumerable institutional betrayals of the Gospel.
Hence the need for a generously indeterminate trust in the mysterious workings of God’s will sub contrario. Otherwise the believer is apt to become trapped at one pole in a tedious dialectic of indignant rejection and credulous celebration, indulging either in sanctimonious denunciations of “Constantinianism” or in triumphalist apostrophes to the spiritual greatness of “Christian” culture, in either case reducing the very concept of grace to an empty cipher. A little prudent providentialism, however, relieves one of the anxious urge to pronounce some absolute verdict on Christian history as a whole, or to pretend to understand how the Holy Spirit might or might not reweave the tangles of human sin into unexpected occasions of charity or truth. It allows one simply to accept the inscrutable complexities of a world that, if it has been redeemed, nevertheless still groans in anticipation of a glory yet to be revealed, and so of a world in which all good is inextricably bound up with moral failure.
On the other hand, however, the hiddenness of God’s counsels ought not to become a license to complacency. Living as they now do in the long aftermath of Christendom’s political, social, and cultural collapse, able to gaze out across its twilit ruins from a certain critical and disenchanted distance, modern Christians are peculiarly well situated to consider anew what the true relation between Christianity and the native forms of human society is. At least, they possess an unprecedented perspective from which to pose the question. As witnesses to the ultimate failure of Christendom’s attempted accommodation between a living cultural consciousness of Christ and the concrete structures of human political and social power, they can at least ask whether the end of the old Christian order should be understood as something on the order of an immense historical accident or instead as something much more like an ineluctable destiny.
After all, there is no genuinely faithful proclamation of the Gospel that does not involve a very real and irreducible element of sheer contrariness towards the most respectable of human institutions. When the peasant Christ tells the aristocrat Pilate of his kingdom not of this world, or when Paul warns Christians against any commerce with the works of the god of this cosmos, or when Christ commands his followers to forgive those who wrong them in excess of all natural justice, or likens the wealthy citizen at heaven’s gate to a camel attempting to slip through a needle’s eye—as well as at countless other junctures in the New Testament—the Gospel is announced as something essentially subversive of the accustomed orders of human power, preeminence, law, social prudence, religion, and government.
A radically new story is being told, one meant to reorient and, to a very great degree, invert the stories that human beings have told about themselves from time immemorial. And this creates a certain irresoluble tension in any attempt to make sense of the Christian past, because it has been only within the stable institutional and cultural configurations of an all-too-human history that the Gospel’s more subversive story has been audibly proclaimed over two millennia, and has continued to produce material and intellectual consequences.
Perhaps, though, I should offer some illustration of what I mean.
Consider two episodes—nearly contemporaneous with one another—from the Italy of the High Middle Ages. The first occurred on August 25, 1256, when the podest and capitano del popolo of Bologna summoned the citizens of the comune to the Piazza Maggiore in order to announce the abolition of all bonded servitude within the city’s civil and diocesan jurisdictions. Some 5,855 serfs were redeemed from their signori—who were remunerated out of the communal treasury at a total price of 54,014 lire—then placed under ecclesiastical authority, and then granted their liberty.
An irrevocable abolition of serfdom in Bologna was then issued in a short text known as the Liber Paradisus, in which was indited the name of every emancipated serf. Historians have occasionally speculated on the economic benefits that Bologna may have reaped from this decision—for one thing, freedmen were eligible to pay taxes—but the actual cost of the manumission, immediate and deferred, was so exorbitant that it is rather difficult to see how the municipal administration could have calculated any plausible profit from its actions.
Perhaps, then, one should take seriously the motives the Liber Paradisus itself actually adduces: “Paradisum voluptatis plantavit dominus Deus omnipotens a principio,” it begins,“in quo posuit hominem, quem formaverat, et ipsius corpus ornavit veste candenti, sibi donans perfectissimam et perpetuam libertatem”: “In the beginning, the Lord God Almighty planted a paradise of delight, in which he placed man, whom he had formed, and whose body he had adorned with the garb of radiance [a shining raiment], endowing him with perfect and perpetual freedom.” It was only by sinning, the argument proceeds, that humanity bound itself in servitude to corruption; God in his mercy, however, sent his Son into the world to break the bonds that hold humanity in thrall, that by Christ’s own dignity all of us should have our natural liberty restored. Thus all persons currently bound in servitude by human law should have their proper freedom granted them, for they along with all the rest of us belong to a single massa libertatis wherein now not so much as a single modicum fermentum of servitude can be tolerated, lest it corrupt the whole.
This was, needless to say, an extraordinary declaration. Its logic extended far beyond the immediate practicalities of a local writ of emancipation, and into the realm of universally binding theological truths. It was an altogether radical proclamation of an intrinsic incompatibility between the concrete realities of the prevailing social order and the language of the Gospel that Christian society professed to obey.
The second episode, however, which to our sensibilities might seem the more outlandish of the two, was for its time far and away the more ordinary. Some twelve to fifteen years after the promulgation of the Liber Paradisus (the date cannot be more precisely determined than that), Thomas Aquinas put the finishing touches on that famous (or infamous) passage in the Summa Theologiae where he defends the practice of executing heretics. The argument he laid out there was quite a simple one, consisting of only two points, both of which he considered more or less incontestable. First, as regards the heretics themselves, their sin by itself warrants both excommunication and death. Second, as regards the Church, the graver evil of heresy is that it corrupts the faith, which gives life to the soul; and so, if we execute forgers for merely corrupting our currency, which can sustain only temporal life, how much more justly may we deal with convicted heretics not only by excommunicating them, but by putting them to death as well.
Of course, Thomas adds, out of her mercy towards each man who has strayed, the Church hesitates to pronounce a final condemnation until “the first and second admonition” have both failed; but then, if the heretic remains obstinate, “the Church, no longer hoping for his conversion, turns itself to the salvation of others, by excommunicating him and separating him from the Church, and furthermore delivers him over to the secular tribunal so that the latter might remove him from the world by death.” Nor can ecclesial compassion extend any further than this. Recidivism, for instance, even of the most transient kind, is unpardonable. Says Thomas, “At God’s tribunal, all who return are always received, because God is a searcher of hearts, and knows those who return in sincerity. But the Church cannot imitate God in this, for she presumes that those who relapse after being once received are insincere when they return; so she does not obstruct their path to salvation, but neither does she shield them from the sentence of death.”
Now, making whatever allowances we wish for historical context when considering these two episodes—for, say, the possibly somewhat mixed motives of the government of the Bolognese comune in freeing its bonded population, or for the good intentions of Thomas in hoping to preserve as many souls as possible out of the general ruin of this fallen world, and so on—their juxtaposition provides a perfect epitome of the spiritual contradictions inherent in Christendom.
In the one case, the laymen of the municipal government of Bologna—drawing upon their catechetical and devotional formation as educated Christians, and upon the scriptural language of the culture in which they had been reared, but upon no theological formation beyond that—were able to grasp, articulate, and act decisively upon a rich and rather beautiful theological principle, quite in defiance of the received social and economic practices of their age, and with fairly radical results. In the other case, one of the greatest speculative minds of Western Christian tradition recommended that, when confronted by the preacher of aberrant doctrine, the Church should (albeit reluctantly) assume the role of Caiaphas, and encourage the secular arm to discharge the part of Pilate.
I know that may seem an offensive analogy: Jesus before his accusers was in the right, after all, and they in the wrong; and Thomas was concerned for the salvation of souls; and so on and so on. But there can be no mitigation here of the offense against Christian charity. Christ may indeed have stood upon the side of truth, over against the verdicts passed upon him by both Caiaphas and Pilate, but the truth to which he bore witness was among other things a very particular rule of life, a clear and concrete way of inhabiting the world, a very specific practice of the presence of God among human beings; and it was one absolutely antithetical to the violence of religious and political power.
So, granting that Thomas and his order were products of their times, still the use of coercion and murder to defend the Church cannot be anything other than a betrayal of the Gospel far graver than any mere doctrinal deviation could ever be. Thomas’ argument is at once entirely consonant with the principles (social and moral) of Christendom, and yet entirely alien to the principles of Christianity. And that even so powerful an intellect as Thomas’ could have failed to grasp this is, to say the very least, troubling.
In the case of the Bolognese emancipation, then, we encounter an extraordinary event produced by the total saturation of a culture—generation after generation—in the language of the Gospel, in the narrative of Scripture, and in the logic of Christian theological tradition: an event that could not possibly have occurred apart from the historical reality of Christendom, in all its cultural intricacy and depth and layerings and efflorescences. In the case of Thomas’ argument, however, we encounter a monstrous deformation of Christian teaching also produced by the historical reality of Christendom: by the inherited mythology of the Constantinian accommodation and by a long-indurated cultural habit of viewing the Church and Christian society as a single, immense, integrated machine for the manufacture of baptized souls.
Rather than the new pattern of corporate human life inaugurated in Christ’s ministry—the practice of a life redeemed by God, the vital shape of a social order that executes neither heretics nor forgers—the Gospel had now become merely the deposit of sacred doctrine, which must be defended, if necessary, by the power of the sword; for it is occasionally expedient that, for the sake of a Christian nation, one man should die.
We may now be naturally disposed, correctly, to celebrate the one episode and lament the other. But how, practically speaking, in the realm of concrete social history, can one disentangle the cultural possibilities that allowed for the one from those that allowed for the other? Conversely, was the obvious contradiction between them merely one of those ambiguities that the vagaries of history inevitably generate, or was it instead the inevitable consequence of any attempt to forge a functioning alliance between the Gospel and the social structures of human power?
Christianity first entered the world of late antiquity not as a new institution, nor as a fully developed creed, but primarily as an event that had no proper precedent or any immediately conceivable sequel. The Gospel arrived in history as the proclamation of a convulsive disruption of history, a genuinely subversive rejection of many of the most venerable cultic, social, and philosophical wisdoms of the ancient world. And the central truth that the Gospel proclaimed—the event at the heart of the event—was the resurrection of Christ, which according to Paul had effectively erased all sacred, social, racial, sexual, and national boundaries, gathered into itself all divine sovereignty over history, and subdued all the political and spiritual agencies of the cosmos: powers and principalities, thrones and dominions, the “god of this world.”
The language of the book of Galatians is especially uncompromising with regard to the implications of this “interruption.” There Paul states that salvation in Christ is a complete liberation not only from the constraints of elemental existence (the stoicheia), but also from the power of law; for even the law of Moses, in all its holiness, was defective, having been delivered only by an angel through a mere human mediator (Moses), and had operated only as a kind of probationary “disciplinarian” (paidagogos) till Christ had set us free.
In a very real sense, then, Christianity entered human consciousness not primarily as an alternative set of religious obligations and credenda, but first and foremost as the apocalyptic annunciation of the Kingdom and its sudden invasion of historical and natural time alike. Within the spiritual world of Judaism, it was intelligible, but principally as a prophetic announcement made out of season—“This day is the Scripture fulfilled in your hearing”—which impetuously demanded immediate assent to what seemed a preposterous claim.
More to the point, in the larger world of the empire it was, as René Girard correctly notes, positively irreligious in its implications: a reversal of established sacred truths, the instant in which the victim of social and religious order was all at once revealed as the righteous one, the innocent one, even God himself. The pattern established in Christ—especially in the inexhaustibly suggestive story of his confrontation with Pilate—was one of martyrdom as victory, of power as the willingness to become powerless before the violence of the state and thereby to reveal its arbitrariness, injustice, and spiritual falsehood.
In its first dawning, therefore, the Gospel issued a pressing command, to all persons, to come forth out of the economies of society and cult, and into the immediacy of that event: for the days are short. And, having been born in this terrible and joyous expectation of time’s imminent end—its first “waking moment” being the knowledge that the Kingdom was near—the Church was not at first quite prepared to inhabit time except in light of that glorious crisis. For a people in some sense already living in history’s aftermath, in a state of constant urgency, there was no immediately obvious medium by which to enter history again, as an institution or body of law or even religion. Only after a little time had passed, and expectations had been altered somewhat, would it be possible for this singular irruption of the eschatological into the temporal to be recuperated into a stable order.
Still, of course, the Church quickly assumed religious configurations appropriate both to its age and to its own spiritual content. Jewish Scripture provided a grammar for worship, while the common cultic forms of ancient society were easily adaptable to Christian use. And there was also a certain degree of natural “pseudomorphism” in the process, a crystallization of Christian corporate life (with all its novelty) within the religious space vacated by the pagan cults it displaced. This was inevitable and necessary; a wholly apocalyptic consciousness, subsisting upon a moment of pure interruption, can be sustained for only a very brief period.
Even then, the alloy was never entirely stable. At least, it has often seemed as if the Christian event is of its nature something too refractory—the impulse to rebellion too constitutive of its own spiritual logic—to be contained even within its own institutions. This might be one of the reasons why Christianity over the centuries not only has proved so irrepressibly fissile (as all large religious traditions, to some degree, are), but has also given rise to a culture capable of the most militant atheism, and even of self-conscious nihilism. Even in its most enduring and necessary historical forms, there is an ungovernable energy within it, something that strives not to crystallize but rather to disperse itself into the future, to start always anew, more spirit than flesh or letter.
I am not speaking, I hasten to add, of some supposed “inner essence” of the faith, some pure Wesen des Christentums that somehow became trapped in the amber of subsequent tradition. I am speaking, rather, of a distinct element of Christianity’s power that cannot be ignored without fundamentally ignoring the very character of the Gospel: an element that may occasionally generate certain intrinsic stresses within the Church, but that could not help but produce a far greater and more chronic tension once an extrinsic accommodation had been reached with political authority.
This was, of course, a fruitful tension, producing as it did all the immense social goods of the Christian order: the cultural creativity, the slow amelioration of laws, the birth of the hospital, the establishment of an immeasurably richer moral grammar than the West had ever known, a whole vast and various range of artistic, technical, and scientific achievements—all of which were inseparable in one way or another from the radical revision of the understanding of the human being and of nature that Christianity introduced into the world. Yet its moral failures were no less astonishing or numerous. And now we live in the time after Christendom, among the rapidly vanishing fragments of its material culture, bound to it by only a few lingering habits of thought. Modernity is the post-Christian age, the reality of a culture that was shaped by the final failure of that accommodation. So, again, more simply: Why exactly did it fail?
Modernity, taken as a definable cultural project or epochal ideology, understands itself as the history of freedom. Or rather, I suppose I should say, the one grand cultural and historical narrative that we as modern persons share, and that most acutely distinguishes a modern from a pre-modern vision of society, is the story of liberation, the ascent of the individual out of the shadows of hierarchy and subsidiary identity into the light of full recognition, dignity, and autonomy. It is a story only, one that does not entail any single ideological program, and for that reason it gives rise to a bewildering variety of often incompatible ideologies.
It is the great cultural narrative that determines for us our highest value, to which all other values are subordinate. And it is quite easy to call attention to those movements of late medieval and early modern theological and philosophical reflection that helped to produce our specifically modern understanding of freedom: voluntarism, nominalism, an ever greater tendency to imagine God’s freedom in terms of the absolutely undetermined sovereignty of his will, the gradual migration of this image of freedom from God to human beings, and so on.
Having made something of a cottage industry of such observations myself, I shall refrain here from repeating myself at length. Suffice it to say that what the word “freedom” has generally come to mean for most of us now, when our usage is at its most habitual and unreflective, is libertarian autonomy and spontaneous volition, the negative freedom of the unrestrained or, at least, minimally restrained individual will. It is a concept of freedom not only impoverished, but ultimately incoherent (but that is an issue for another time).
Here, however, I want to point out that there is another side to the story as well. Simply said, all of our modern fables of liberation, in all their often contradictory diversity, have sprung up in the shadow of the very particular Western history of the Gospel’s proclamation. Resistance to or flight from the authority of the law—or, rather, a sense of the law’s ultimate inadequacy, or even nullity over against us—has from the first been a vital part of the moral sensibility of the Gospel. And in every modern demand for social and personal recognition as inherent rights, there is at least a distant echo of Paul’s proclamation of the unanticipated “free gift” found in Christ.
The peculiar restlessness, the ferment, of modern Western history—great revolutions and local rebellions, the ceaseless generation of magnificent principles and insidious abstractions, interminable ideological conflicts between Edenic nostalgias and eschatological optimisms, the ungovernable proliferation of ever newer “innate” rights and ever more comprehensive forms of “social justice”—belongs to the long secular sequel of the declaration that the Kingdom has arrived in Christ, that the prince of this world has been judged and cast out, that the one who lies under the condemnation of the powers of this age has been vindicated by God and raised up as Lord. It is a sort of “oblivious memory” of Paul’s message that all the powers of the present age have been subdued, and death and wrath defeated, not by the law—which, for all its sanctity, is impotent to set us free—but by a gift that has transcended the law’s power over against us.
This is not a claim that can be adequately defended in a few pages, of course. At the very least, however, it seems obvious to me that Christian culture could never generate any political and social order that, insofar as it employed the mechanisms of state power, would not inevitably bring about its own dissolution. Again, the translation of Christianity’s original apocalyptic ferment into a cultural logic and social order produced a powerful but necessarily unstable alloy. For all the good that it produced in the shaping of Western civilization, it also encumbered the faith with a weight of historical and cultural expectation often incompatible with the Gospel it proclaimed.
When Christianity became not only a pillar of culture, but also a support of the state, and thereby attached itself to that human reality that necessarily sustains itself through the prudential use of violence, it attempted to close the spiritual abyss separating Christ and Pilate on the day of their confrontation in Jerusalem. At the same time, however, it created a cultural reality animated (or at least haunted) by the language of the Gospel: the often tacit but always substantial knowledge that all of human power’s pretenses and delusions and deceits have been exposed for what they are, and overthrown by God’s Incarnation as a man who was the victim of all the enfranchised religious, political, and social forces of his time and place. There was no way for such an alliance to avoid subverting itself.
I am not saying only—though I am saying—that the concrescence of Christianity into Christendom necessarily led in the West, over the course of centuries, to its gradual mortification, its slow attrition through internal stress, and finally its dissipation into the inconclusiveness of human history and the ephemerality of political orders. I am saying also that Christendom could not indefinitely survive the corrosive power of the revelation that Christianity itself had introduced into Western culture. Christian culture’s often misunderstood but ultimately irrepressible consciousness of the judgment that was passed upon civil violence at Easter, by God, was always the secret antagonist of Christendom as a political order.
Certainly, reflective intellectual historians have often enough noted the ironic continuity between the early modern rise of principled unbelief and the special “apocalyptic vocation” of Western culture; and the observations of Ernst Bloch and many others on the “inevitable” atheistic terminus of the Christian message are, while not correct, at least comprehensible: for modern Western atheism is chiefly a Christian heresy, and could not have arisen in a non-Christian setting. Which yields the troubling thought that perhaps the historical force ultimately most destructive of the unity of the Christian culture of the West has been not principally atheism, materialism, capitalism, collectivism, or what have you—these may all be secondary manifestations of some deeper problemu2014but Christianity. Or, rather, I suppose I should say, an essential Christian impulse that, as a result of the contradictions inherent in Christendom, had become alienated from its true rationality and ultimate meaning.
Anyway, to return to my point of departure, a belief in providence is an ineffably precious thing at times. It seems to me rather absurd when Christians feel obliged either to celebrate or to lament the conversion of Constantine—to proclaim it either as the victory of the true faith over its persecutors or as the victory of the devil over the purity of the Gospel—rather than simply to accept it and all its historical sequels as part of the mysterious story of grace working upon fallen natures: to love everything good and splendid that it produced, to deplore everything sordid and evil, and then to recognize as well (and this is the most challenging task of all) that the tale of Christendom’s failure and defeat is also enfolded within those same workings of grace. Christendom was that cultural reality that was constitutionally, materially, morally, intellectually, and religiously disposed to hear the Gospel as a cosmic truth, to which it was therefore always open, if not necessarily very obedient. For that, Christians would be churlish to be ungrateful.
All of that, however, is now an exhausted history, one at least as tragic as it was joyous. The sheer banality of modern secular culture, and of its curiously rationalistic brutalities, may be a catastrophe for Western civilization; but it is also the inevitable result of a confusion between two orders that can never be one, and between which any real alliance can be at most a dialectic of reciprocal enrichment and impoverishment, in which each draws strength from the other only by surrendering something of its own essence.
So perhaps the best moral sense Christians can make of the story of Christendom now, from the special vantage of its aftermath, is to recall that the Gospel was never bound to the historical fate of any political or social order, but always claimed to enjoy a transcendence of all times and places. Perhaps its presence in human history should always be shatteringly angelic: It announces, even over against one’s most cherished expectations of the present or the future, a truth that breaks in upon history, ever and again, always changing or even destroying the former things in order to make all things new. That being so, surely modern Christians should find some joy in being forced to remember that they are citizens of a Kingdom not of this world, that here they have no enduring city, and that they are called to live as strangers and pilgrims on the earth.
David Bentley Hart is an editor at large for First Things and author of The Devil and Pierre Gernet.