A Journey through the Past

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I will stay with you, if you’ll stay with me, Said the fiddler to the drum, And we’ll keep good time on a journey thru the past. — Neil Young

In the year 337, a sixty-five year old man in ill health was making his way back to his home. His had been a turbulent life, filled with intrigues, wars, assassinations (including ordering the juridical deaths of his wife and an eldest son) and betrayals. Realizing that the end was near and hoping for forgiveness for all that he had done in his life, he changed into the white robes of a Christian catechumen and requested baptism. Shortly afterwards, in a small suburb of the city he had built, Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus, died. Soon to be known as Constantine the Great and hailed as the first Christian emperor, his body was interred in the Church of the Twelve Apostles in Constantinople.

Opinions vary as to the depth of Constantine’s Christian faith. What is certain, is that the promulgation of the Edict of Milan in 313 allowed Christians to openly practice their faith without fear of persecution and ordered the return of confiscated Church property. It is also allowed that Constantine supported numerous Christian endeavors, especially the building of churches while he personally retained many of the symbols and stylings of the older imperial cults and deities. Unfortunately, at least in my opinion, he also involved himself in the doctrinal and disciplinary aspects of church life. As such, he attracted numerous Christian leaders who had visions of “Christ’s kingdom on earth” rising out of the Roman empire, despite Christ’s own assertion – before Pontius Pilate no less – that his kingdom was not of this world.

In his wake Constantine left a troubled legacy of an empire ruled by intrigue and, perhaps of more importance to us in 2016, of a Church increasingly dependent upon the state, both for material well being and the expectation of specifically Christian ideals being promulgated in civil society.

Now, while intrigue has always been a part of political life (both in the civil and religious spheres) the involvement of the Church with the State was something new and it has left a mark on the life of the Church that extends from the time of Constantine to the present day. Throughout the centuries since Constantine, a quasi-theocratic idea of civil society (drawing heavily on Old Testament examples) has made it’s way in and out of Christian thought. Some, such as Augustine, sought a clear differentiation between the “City of God” and the “City of Man”, but even he thought the power of the State could be used against heretics and schismatics and that the Church could and/or should enjoy special privileges. The general idea of the amalgamation of Church and State, however, ranged throughout the Middle Ages and, despite Luther’s concept of “the Two Kingdoms”, into the Reformation period when, with the Peace of Augsburg (1555) and the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) the ruler of any state could establish it’s religious practice – cuius regio, eius religio (“Whose realm, his religion”).

In the United States, formed in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, the truly revolutionary idea of a nation without a national established religion was enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, namely, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Making use of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom as it’s basis, the intent was clear. In Jefferson’s own words, it was meant to erect “a wall of separation between Church and State.” (James Madison, the author of the First Amendment also cited Luther as providing the proper distinction between civil and ecclesiastical spheres.) This, however, applied only to the nation as a whole. Several colonies, now states, had established churches well into the first half of the nineteenth century (Massachusetts being the last to disestablish in 1834). Moreover, as white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants made up the vast majority of the population, almost through to the present time, the intermingling of state policies and religious concerns remained the norm rather than the exception. Even as new waves of immigrants made their way to America, they often almost measured their progress by how they made their way into politics carrying their faith tradition with them. While the idea of a Roman Catholic president seemed novel and unusual in 1960, within a very short time most Judeo-Christian faith traditions were accepted – although the idea of an occupant of the White House stating that he was “born again”, did raise some eyebrows in the 1970s.

If you grew up in the fifties and sixties, you were used to seeing Bishop Fulton J. Sheen on television. Your parents might be reading Norman Vincent Peale. Billy Graham was a regular visitor at the White House. Clergy were respected members of the community. Presidents went to church, the Congress had chaplains, tax exemptions were made for houses of worship and prayers might be said before the local high school football game. In 1954, even the Pledge of Allegiance was altered to include the phrase “under God”. For the most part, we were comfortable. The laws and mores of civil society seemed, at least to most, to mirror our faith traditions – and we were mostly, if not always, at ease with the status quo. The road we were on had stretched all the way from fourth century Constantinople to twentieth century Washington… and we liked it.

Those days, however, are gone, and they will not return.

We have to face the fact that not only has the world changed, so has the United States.

Europe, for decades, has been made up of nations that may only be described as “post-Christian” in terms of culture, belief and church attendance. At the present time, even in England, with an established Church and bishops seated in the upper chamber of Parliament, only 1.4% of the population will attend an Anglican service on any given weekend. On any Friday, more Muslims will attend mosque than Methodists will attend a church or chapel on the following Sunday. In the Netherlands, two-thirds of the remaining Roman Catholic churches and over 700 Protestant churches will close within the next 4-10 years. The outlook throughout the rest of the continent is similar. Next stop… the United States.

In the United States the numbers may not say it all, but they say enough. Mainline churches across the board are in decline and even evangelicals are caught in the slide downwards. Whether in the Gallup Poll of December 2015, or the extensive Pew Religious Landscape study of 2014, or the recent book, The End of White Christian America by Robert P. Jones, the numbers generally tell the same story, and the story is this: Members of mainline denominations, as well as self-identified evangelicals are aging and dying, with fewer and fewer young people taking their place. Even former adherents, now in middle age, are leaving. The percentage of those with no religious affiliation whatsoever is growing across most age ranges (among young millennials, ages 18-24, 36% self identify as having no religious affiliation at all). I could go on. There is very little good news. The numbers are exhaustive and exhausting.

The influence of religious groups has also waned. Perhaps a good anecdotal example of this might be seen in the lead up to recent wars. In 1990, prior to the Gulf War, real attention was given by President George H.W. Bush to the pronouncements of religious leaders, some even being invited to the White House to discuss their concerns. Vigils and prayers for peace were held across the country and were covered by national media. Eleven years later, prior to the invasion of Iraq, concerns of religious leaders were essentially ignored, with little attention being given by the media apart from secular protest marches in major cities. Things had clearly changed.

We are blinded, however, by what we think we are seeing and hearing. There seems to be so much activity, so many blogs, so many websites for local churches. If you have the money, you can even take a cruise with your favorite Bible teacher or Christian artist. The list of possible activities seems almost endless, as though a brave new Christian world is emerging. Then those pesky statistics come back to haunt us. For the year 2014 (the last year reported) the average Sunday attendance in the Episcopal Church was 90. For the year 2015, the average Sunday attendance in the United Methodist Church was 88. Now remember, this is the mean number – about half of the churches have more, but half have less. Also, these are national figures and there are conferences (Methodists) and dioceses (Episcopal) where the average Sunday attendance is 35 or even lower. Obviously, many of these churches cannot be sustained. They struggle to pay their bills, rely on denominational subsidies and hope against hope that things will get better, but it seldom happens.

So, as I look at the mega-churches, worship events in arenas, and the panoply of television preachers and ministries, what am I to think? I believe that they are the last vestiges of a Christian triumphalism that is “past its sell-by date” and do not reflect the reality faced by many, if not most, churches in the United States. Aligning ourselves with society, current norms and partisan politics may have “worked” at one time. Now, in my opinion, it is the most certain way for the Church to be consigned to irrelevancy, or to further divide the Church into smaller and smaller factions and subgroups. As someone once said, “When you wed yourself to the present, you will be a widow in the future.”

If Robert Webber was correct that the “path to the future runs through the past”, it is to the past, I believe, we must go, bypassing the Constantinian settlement, the supposed glories of medieval Christendom and embrace the life of a different kind of Church: A Church that managed it’s own affairs. A Church that did not look to the State to give it a position of advantage (financial or otherwise) and, indeed, did not look to the State to assist in propagating the Church’s ideals, mores or faith. The treasure of that Church consisted of the poor, whom they cared for and fed. It was a Church that faced occasional persecution, but, in spite of the persecution, grew.

Clearly, there has never really been a “golden age” for the Church. As individuals and as worshipping communities we have always had to struggle with the dichotomy of “being in the world, but not of the world”. Nevertheless the example is there, even in the New Testament canon. We can see such a Church in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch, Clement and in the Didache. It was a Church that counted humility as a virtue. The certainty of that Church was confined to the saving work of Christ, not national pride or partisan political allegiances. Moreover we can see echoes of that Church in the lives and works of so many throughout the centuries – Francis of Assisi, the young Luther, John Wesley and so many more down to our own day.

Such a Church, especially if modeled on that of the ante-Nicene period, would be an adjustment for most American Christians. It would probably involve even more than can be stated in this small essay – the loss of tax exempt status, for instance; or involvement in civil disobedience if the State requires conformity contrary to conscience or belief. So be it. Such a Church, however, might also foster a renaissance in Biblical studies, theology, music and the arts. Who knows, it might even create disciples.

Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD is author of The Early Episcopal Career of Athanasius of Alexandria (Notre Dame, 1991), Prayers of the Martyrs (Zondervan, 1991) and is a member of The Project.

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