In the aftermath of the Brexit win in the referendum, it’s natural for Brits to wonder what life will be like after the country leaves the European Union. But as a Christian, I suspect that the move away from Christendom, which has been happening for rather longer, is a much bigger shift – and it affects much of Europe as a whole (ourselves very much included).
I’ve been helped to think about this by a book on Post-Christendom (sub-titled ‘Church and mission in a strange new world’) by Stuart Murray. He’s written in a challenging and thought-provoking way, much of which I agree with – but there’s also much that I am not convinced by.
The core of Murray’s argument is that the church of the first few centuries was marginalised, poor, pacifist and subject to persecution. After the Roman Emperor Constantine came to power, the church became the dominant religious institution, wealthy, willing to go to war, and now prone to perecuting those of other religions – as well as Christian heretics.
This represents the Christendom shift. It is hard to argue against the basic reality of this change, and it is easy to see that the church may well have taken on certain attitudes that were more about religious power than about the gospel. However, Murray is a passionate writer, prone to writing polemically, and I am not convinced that all his arguments stand up to scrutiny.
One example is his treatment of Augustine’s theory of the ‘just war’. Augustine reasoned that a war could be just if certain conditions were met – the most famous of which is if going to war is a lesser evil than not doing so. The second world war to combat Hitler’s Nazi regime is often referred to in this context. Murray – himself a convnced pacifist – regards just war theory as an example of Christendom thinking that would not have been possible in the pacifist early church, and is therefore inherently suspect. Instead, this is a subject that should prompt some more nuanced thinking: some wars are, at the very least, more just than others – but protagonists may try to cloak their actions with the ‘just war’ label whatever the actual morality.
Nevertheless, Murray makes a rather pungent critique of the Reformation which highlights an issue that I had not recognised before: for all that the Reformers did change, they remained embeded within the Christendom mindset. They continued to embrace the opportunity for political power, as the Roman Catholic church had done previously. It has long puzzled me that the long and brutal Thirty Years’ War in Central Europe (from 1618 to 1648) was between Protestants and Catholics – how on earth did they think this was consistent with Jesus’ teaching in the gospels? What the Protestant reformers didn’t change was this Christendom mindset, in which power games seemed to play a key part. Presumably all sides thought they were fighting a ‘just war’…
The later part of the book is about mission in a post-Christendom world, and I tend to think that he brings to his discussion rather too much of his own personal gripes with some sections of the church. A much better, and far more practical, treatment is ‘Making new disciples’ by Mark Ireland and Mike Booker, which is a survey of different approaches to mission and how they are faring in a changing culture. Nevertheless, Murray’s book, despite his polemical tendency, is a most valuable treatment of an issue which seems to be below the radar of the wider culture.
Jen and I have been enjoying getting to know the Somerset area over the last few weeks. This weekend there were two particularly good events, though in very different ways – the Ashcott Beer Fest and the Catcott Open Gardens.
Until we arrived, we hadn’t realised how well organised the Beer Fest actually is – with a large variety of beers available to taste, and live entertainment in another marquee.
The Open Gardens event was also extremely well organised – with guests being driven round in classic cars provided by a Catcott resident! It might not surprise readers of this blog to know that one of my highlights of the day was an unplanned intruder…