Theological progress may be dependent upon the criticism of the Church’s institutional experience, even the rejection of long tracts of that experience as fundamentally invalid. In such criticism may well lie the necessary condition of really fundamental theological progress… [There are] various types of fundamentalism which stand in the way of the sort of renewal the present not only demands but seems to make possible.
-Donald MacKinnon: Kenosis and Establishment
Different religions stand in different relationships to their past. Given recent events, it is understandable that the nature and history of Islam has become under very strong scrutiny. I do not intend to discuss Islamic history or even theology per se since I have a very poor grasp of it.
I wish however to adhere to the rule of Christ that we examine the pole in our eyes before pointing out the dust in the eyes of others and discuss how Christian theology grapples with its own complicated and occasionally dark legacy, especially that of Christendom, and how it is relevant to discussions on the nature and history of Islam.
Realising the Eschaton
Within Christianity we have basically two different postures towards the past, namely, Protestantism and High Church denominations (whether Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox). For Protestantism the locus of revelation is in the Scriptures rather than in the historic experience of the Church. In some sense, Protestantism has a very convenient cop out with regards the messy past of Christendom, we can simply deny that it is theologically valid or right. Since the Scriptures alone are the source of infallible theological knowledge, then the Church can and does err and does not possess any intrinsic theological legitimacy. As the 29th Article of the Anglican Church puts it, “As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch have erred: so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of ceremonies, but also in matters of faith.”
The bulk of the difficulty for the past falls upon those forms of Christianity which believes that the historical experience of the Church possesses an intrinsic theological legitimacy because they believe in some sort of realised eschaton whereby what the Church has done is simply what God has willed it to be. Thus they cannot so easily dismiss the church’s past in the same way that the Protestant can. (I once attended an Evangelical apologetics meeting discussing the Galileo incident and its relation to science. The speaker had no problems blaming the event on a too much reverence for Aristotle by the medieval scholastics as well as the fact that it’s the Roman Catholics who were primarily responsible!)
However, even given these Protestant premises, which in principle allows us to repudiate any past action or event as fundamentally mistaken or in error, Christians in general try to defend their past legacy simply because the faith as lived is itself the product of Christendom and the historical experience of the Church. I wish therefore to discuss to what extent or even whether we should defend the legacy of Christendom.
An Alternative to Constantinian Christendom?
Let’s begin with the following quote from a book:
Constantine the Great and Charlemagne suggest themselves for comparison. They were both religious-political actors, just as Muhammad was. All three connected their politics with religion, wrote laws and conducted wars in the name of God; all three understood religion as a practical principal, as the foundation for a sociopolitical unification of people; all three were representatives of well-known theocratic ideals, and each of them left after himself a certain theocratic organization. According to personal qualities, all three were people candidly religious, honest, and free from base vices. And the personal qualities of all three did not safeguard them from abusing the limitless power that fell to their lot. Constantine he Great committed to death his wife and innocent son; Charlemagne massacred 4,500 Saxon prisoners. These evil deeds in and of themselves are more grave than all the evil deeds of Muhammad, and beyond that one must not forget that Charlemagne belonged to a nation that had already 300 years since accepted Christianity, and was brought up in this religion; and Constantine the Great, who had himself converted to Christianity, moreover, lived in a world incomparably more educated than the cultural milieu of Muhammad. Thus comparison of the latter with religious-political heroes of the East and the West of the Christian world turns out to be in favor of the Arabian prophet; and if the Greeks canonized Constantine, and the Latin Charles, then Muslims have all the more basis to reverently esteem the memory of their apostle.
–Vladimir Soloviev, “Muhammad: His Life and Religious Teaching” in Enemies from the East? V.S. Soloviev on Paganism, Asian Civilizations, and Islam. Trans. Vladimir Wozniuk (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2007), 209.
Now from the outset it is clear that neither Constantine nor Charlemagne were the founders of Christianity in the way in which the Prophet Mohammed was. However many high church Christians, and even some Protestants, do feel compelled to defend Constantine because he was instrumental in the establishment of Christianity throughout Europe and the solidification of Nicene Trinitarianism which was to become one of the most universal features of Christianity. It also does not help that many an Eastern Orthodox do consider Constantine a saint!
The question is, is it possible for there to be a Christian faith without Constantinian Christendom? Is Constantinian Christendom so essential to Christianity that without it there would be no Christian faith as we understand it today? We are not raising a trivial metaphysical question as to whether or not it is metaphysically possible for there to be a Christianity without Christendom, of course there can be, that is after all what Christianity and the Church was for three centuries before Constantine!
However we do not want to fall into the other “primitive baptist” extreme of saying that the Church will always be a persecuted minority and that when Christianity becomes established or a majority it is necessarily corrupt or nominal. In short, we want to know if it is possible for us to have the benefits of Christendom, that is, peace with the civil authorities, widespread evangelism and even conversion, without the “nasty bits” of Constantinan Christendom, that is faith enforced by civil power, persecution of heretics, forced conversion, etc. If we can provide a reasonable alternative, then we would be freed from the necessity of defending Constantinian Christendom, at least in principle.
The Church of the East
Fortunately we do have such a historical alternative, namely the Nestorian Church of the East (which needs to be distinguished from the Eastern Orthodox Church). I have discussed the Church of the East at some lengths in this post, however I will bring up and explain the salient points in the context of this post.
The Church of the East, because of its Nestorian theology, was persecuted and driven out of the Byzantine Empire by the Eastern Orthodox Church. They were mostly to be found in the Middle East and under the protection of the Muslim Caliphate for most of its life. Thus what we have here is a church and Christianity precisely without Christendom, that is, not a religion enforced or promoted by an alliance with the civil power.
The Church of the East however was not some tiny minority sect like the Copts in Egypt. At its height it rivalled, and even exceeded, the Latin Church in both size and influence, having expanded all the way to China. It lived and breathed in a multifaith environment and freely mingled and cooperated with its Muslim rulers and neighbours. Thus we have a form of Christianity here which not only managed to survive but also thrive without the traditional supports of both Eastern and Western Christendom and live in peace with non-Christian civil authorities.
Unfortunately the Church of the East did not survive a very dramatic decline in its fortunes many centuries later. Although it still survives to this day, it is but a shell of its former glory.
Conclusion: Making Sense of the Past and Confessing the Sins of One’s Fathers
What the Church of the East shows us however is that we do have a form of Christianity which is able to have the benefits of Christendom without its troublesome drawbacks. The only trouble with holding up the Nestorians as a legitimate part of Christian history and as an example of how the Church should be or have been in the past is that it involves acknowledging the Nestorians as fellow Christians brothers and sisters, which many Christians today are not very willing to do because they are technically “heretics” for rejecting the formula of Chalcedon. Personally however I consider it a pity to reject so many millions of faithful Christians who have lived, preached and practiced the faith faithfully for so many centuries, all without the traditional supports and comforts of Christendom, on the basis of such a theological technicality which is not understood by most Christians anyway.
If we accept the Nestorians as a legitimate part of Christian tradition and history, and we ought to feel the freer to reject, and even repudiate, the entire legacy of Christendom as neither essential nor necessary to the Christian tradition.
To bring our discussion back to Islam, the question which Muslims needs to ask is if they could likewise repudiate the more troublesome aspects of their past which are incompatible with contemporary life. It is one thing to explain the actions of the past in their historical context, it is another thing to justify it with principles essential to their religion. Are the Islamic conquests essential to Islam? Or is an Islamic theocracy necessary to the Muslim faith? Can one admit that they can be mistaken in principle in the same way in which I have in this post been able to say that Constantinian Christendom may have been flawed and a mistaken and can be repudiated without violence to the essence of the Church or the Christian religion?
I am not saying that in every case of Islamic use of force in history they are mistaken, or even that every Islamic theocracy was obviously a bad thing, evidently sometimes it can legitimately be used in self-defence or that some Islamic theocracies were benign and even enlightened, sharing many of our contemporary tolerance for multiple faiths premises. However, I am asking basically a question of theological principle, can one, in principle, consider the possibility that some of expression of Islamic theocracies, or some Islamic conquests or acts of violence are mistaken, erroneous, and are not essential or even contrary to the Islamic faith?
If the Muslim has trouble repudiating any aspect of its past, or feels instinctively protective of its entire legacy come hell and high water, then it is questionable whether or not Islam can really be reconciled with contemporary life given their refusal to reject or denounce troublesome bits of their past which evidently cannot be reconciled with the principles which are underlines much of contemporary civic or political life.