For some time now, I have been intrigued by the French scholar Remi Brague’s thesis, about the origins of what we call “Christendom,” or “Christian Civilization.”
Brague’s position is amusingly paradoxical: “The civilization of Christian Europe was constructed by people whose purpose was not that of constructing a ‘Christian civilization.’”
In other words, the architects of Christendom did not see themselves as such. Their achievement was the unforeseen result of their commitment to God, not to any earthly ideal.
The philosopher and historian cites the example of the sixth century Pope St. Gregory the Great:
“What he created – Gregorian chant for example – has defied the centuries. Now, he imagined that the end of the world was imminent. And therefore, there wouldn’t be any ‘Christian civilization,’ because of lack of time. He only wanted to put a bit of order into the world before leaving it.”
We might say the same of St. Augustine, who wrote amidst decline but became the Western Church’s most influential thinker; or St. Benedict, who composed a Rule, built monasteries – and became a father of civilization. They had no “Christendom” in mind, but only the faithful service of Christ.
Brague distinguishes between “Christianism” – an ideology focused on accomplishing a cultural program – and faith in Christ. The irony is that “Christianism” can’t achieve its goal: believers only transform culture when, in a sense, they forget about that and simply serve the Lord.
But Brague – an esteemed Catholic thinker – is not telling us to hide or privatize our faith: “When (Christ’s) Resurrection is believed in … everything is seen in a different way, and one acts in consequence of that, in all spheres.”
As for “Christianism,” its priorities seem to be tragically reversed: it fails in the temporal realm – where it is desperate to succeed – by not putting spiritual matters first. I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’ axiom: “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in.’ Aim at earth and you get neither.”
What Christianism wants, first and foremost, is to accomplish a cultural program and promote certain moral norms.
These goals are essentially good. But they cannot be the Church’s top priority. Her fundamental mission is something greater.
The Church exists, above all, to evangelize and make disciples: to announce the Gospel, and live the Gospel.
If we do those things, Christian culture and moral edification – “second things” – will follow. But if we focus on “second things,” we lose everything: no discipleship, and no evangelism; but no cultural impact or moral improvement, either. As Lewis notes, “you get second things only by putting first things first.”
Unfortunately, some solidly orthodox Catholics seem hesitant to talk about “the Gospel” – as if this were a Protestant way of evangelizing, or just unnecessary.
Furthermore, there is some confusion as to what constitutes “the Gospel.” Some Catholics assume we are “sharing the Gospel” when we focus on various moral norms, cultural correctives, and precepts of the Church.
These omissions and confusions are understandable. Protestantism, in particular, has caused widespread confusion about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. At times, the very notion has been cheapened: treated like a mere “get-out-of-Hell-free” coupon, without the reverence due to such a profound and sacred mystery.
But Catholics, at times, have overreacted to this problem. Rather than talk about Jesus and the Gospel, we may shift reflexively to other subjects – which are related to the Gospel, but which are not it.
At times, instead of speaking about Jesus Christ – to those who may barely even know Him! – we focus on His Church: its teaching authority, its apostolic succession and unity, its upholding of moral doctrines, its sacred traditions – and so on.
All of these things are good, true, and necessary. They are divinely-ordained consequences of the Gospel.
But they are not it. The Gospel is one simple thing: God’s offer of mercy, solidarity, and salvation, in the person of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is the outstretched hand of the incarnate God, offering forgiveness, love, and eternal life.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums up the Good News with words from St. Paul: “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” (Gal. 4:4-5).
“This,” the Catechism continues, “is ‘the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God': God has visited his people. He has fulfilled the promise he made to Abraham and his descendants. He acted far beyond all expectation – he has sent his own ‘beloved Son.’”
Paragraph 1846 puts it more succinctly: “The Gospel is the revelation in Jesus Christ of God’s mercy to sinners.”
The Gospel has profound moral consequences, initiating us into a life of repentance; and yet, the Gospel itself is not a moral code. Likewise, the Gospel has cultural consequences, calling us to “restore all things in Christ”; but the Gospel itself is not a cultural program.
We must not confuse the Gospel with its necessary consequences. Nor may we substitute the proclamation of other things – such as an earthly agenda, the moral law, or the visible Church herself – for the preaching of the Gospel. We must put first things first.
Remi Brague’s critique of “Christianism” has helped me examine my life and my approach to the Faith. It has inspired some hard questions:
Does my life convey something of what God has done for us in Christ? Have I built my life on Jesus, and made efforts – whether subtle or overt – to introduce others to Him? Do I regard other people in the light of the Redemption and the Resurrection?
Or have I focused on conveying a set of moral norms and cultural goals, premised on the ascendancy of the Church and obedience to the Natural Law? Do I look at others, first and foremost, through the lens of moral judgment?
Perhaps we would rather preach the program of “Christianism,” than the Gospel. But this was not the method of the believers who converted the Roman Empire, or laid the groundwork for the “ages of faith.”
Those disciples, in Brague’s words, “could not have cared less about ‘Christian civilization.’ What interested them was Christ, and the reverberations of his coming on the whole of human existence.”
And that, ironically, was how they built Christian Civilization.
I did not come easily to these conclusions.
For a long time after my Christian (and later Catholic) conversion, I was deeply bitter towards the secular culture – which I blamed for so much of the pain in my life, and others’ lives.
For the most part, I saw modern Western culture as a vast machinery of lies: systematically disconnecting us from God, from each other, and from reality. Looking to historic Christendom, I saw precedents which – while clearly imperfect – seemed closer to the truth about God and humanity.
Further, I had become Catholic after a brief time in Evangelical Protestantism – which has many good qualities, but is also disorganized, cut off from history, doctrinally confused, and individualistic. This led me to focus on the Catholic Church’s authority, history, moral teachings, and organizing capacity.
These experiences and discoveries convinced me that society should be radically reconstructed – on the basis of Natural Law, Divine Revelation, and historic precedents.
This was no idle fantasy. I expected to risk, sacrifice, and suffer for this cause – and to some extent, in various ways, I did.
I do not wholly regret it. Nor have I changed my basic analysis: we live largely in a complex of lies; we should repent of them, and build our common life on natural and spiritual truth.
Nevertheless, my anti-modern reconstructionist project is finished.
Its central flaw is simple: It does not bring Jesus Christ to others. It does not bring others to Jesus Christ.
It was not evangelistic. It was only “Christianism”: a cultural program, a moral agenda, a set of grievances and demands.
They are justified grievances, too. But none of this is actually the Gospel. Nor does it succeed in communicating the Gospel.
Today, I recognize that we must oppose secularism in a different way. Evangelism and discipleship take precedence over everything.
We cannot fight secularism with any other “-ism” – not even “Christianism.” Our efforts fail when we focus on the Church more than God, when we prioritize a moral and cultural program over the personal, transformative encounter with Christ.
Morality and culture matter, of course. But remember: “You get ‘second things’ only by putting first things first.”
What comes first, is the word of God’s love and mercy – the hand of divine reconciliation, extended to us by the One Who has already conquered the world (John 16:33).
Everything else – our life of repentance, and our apostolic task of cultural formation – flows from the Gospel. There is no other foundation.
It is harder to focus on the Gospel. But this is the way of the believers who built Christian civilization. There is no other way.