Reclaiming Christendom

The Desire of the Nations - Amazon UK

Here’s the next instalment in my series summarising and assessing Oliver Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (CUP, 1996). Click here for other entries in the series

Chapter Six: The Obedience of Rulers

The triumph of Christ led to the expectation that pagan empire would yield to Christ – and so it appeared with the conversion of Constantine. O’Donovan re-examines Christendom. The Desire of Nations has been described as a defence of Christendom. In the preface to the paperback edition, O’Donovan says he did not intend to defend Christendom, but to learn for it. In reality, though, he does defend a particular form of Christendom. Sometimes he concedes there was other forms; sometimes he argues they were not of the essence of Christendom. We cannot accept Christendom as tradition because in the twenty-first century its continuity is broken. But it does offer a witness. We are its denouement (or even its ‘debacle’). So Christendom helps us understand political concepts and ourselves.

Key to O’Donovan’s argument is his claim (contra Hauerwas) that Christendom is not the church seeking earthly power. It is the church responding to the rulers becoming subject to Christ (223). ‘The political doctrine of Christendom was discovered and elicited form the practical experience of Christian political discipleship, in which Christian rulers were accompanied and assisted by the wider church.’ (219)

It is not, as is often suggested, that Christian political order is a project of the church’s mission, either as an end in itself or as a means to the further missionary end. The church’s one project is to witness to the Kingdom of God. Christendom is a response to mission, and as such a sign that God has blessed it. It is constituted not by the church’s seizing alien power, but by alien power’s becoming attentive to the church. (195).

In effect O’Donovan is asking, ‘What would you do if the powers submit to Christ? It is not enough to say Christians should not seek political influence. How will you disciple the ruler who converts?’

The service rendered by the state to the church is to facilitate its mission. The state itself cannot pursue the mission of the church, for it is not consecrated to that task and its weapons of coercion are not fitted for it. But it may facilitate the mission of the church, or impeded it. It may facilitate, it, first, simply by performing its own business responsibly and with modest pretensions. In the Christ era there is no neutral performance on the part of rulers; either they accommodate to the energy of the divine mission, or they hurl themselves into defiance. (217)

Christendom did sometimes coerce but this is not necessary to the Christendom ideal. ‘The story-tellers of Christendom do not celebrate coercion; they celebrate the power of God to humble the haughty ones of the earth and to harness them to the purposes of peace.’ (223) The state should not ‘defend’ the church.

Imagine a state that gave entrenched, constitutional encouragement to Christian mission not afforded to other religious beliefs, and expected of its office-holders deference to these arrangements as to constitutional law. Such a state would have no need to restrict the civil liberties of any non-Christian, even to the point of allowing the highest offices to be free of religious tests. When it could not do, of course, would be to protect its arrangements against constitutional reform, should that secure the necessary support. (224)

The suspicion of Christendom lies in the neo-liberal (post-modern) suspicions of doctrine and conviction. So any system that is built on convictions (albeit one that allows dissent) is deemed suspect. Our preference for ‘pluralism’ may itself be a form of cultural accommodation.

More dangerous than coercion is the danger of civil religion. The perils of post-Christendom are the same of those of Christendom, namely, negative collusion: the pretence that there is no further challenge to the rulers to be made in the name of Christ – especially to unified political and theological authority other than that involved in Christ’s own person (= Antichrist).

Finally, O’Donovan traces the legacy of Christendom in Western liberalism (though he finds it hard to land on a term and also emphasises it diversity).  The ‘state’ (not in the sense that the UK is a state, but in the sense in which we talk about ‘church and state’ – i.e. less that society but more than government) is a Christendom legacy. It is a new notion occasioned by the ascension of Christ which confronts the powers with another political authority. The esse of the responsible state is power, judgment and tradition. The bene esse is now judgment. But it still needs all three, though now they are subject to judgment. So O’Donovan identifies the role of constitutional law as a significant and positive legacy of Christendom: ‘The legal-constitutional conception of is essence of Christendom’s legacy.’ (240) Later the ruler’s responsibility shifts from being a responsibility to divine law to a responsibility to the people whose supposed act constituted him. The nation reappeared, this time defined not by blood but by a common political will. And so the nation-state was born. ‘On all sides pundits proclaim that the nation-state is in trouble. The truth is, it has been in trouble ever since Christ rose form the dead. The challenge issued to given, a priori political identities has been a persistent Leitmotiv of Christian thought.’ (241)