The End of “Christianism”?

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.

Benjamin Mann

By

Benjamin Mann is a Byzantine Catholic, former journalist, and incurable philosopher. He is preparing to enter monastic life at Holy Resurrection Monastery in St. Nazianz, Wisconsin.

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  • Marc

    Benjamin, I really enjoy your writing. This was a very insightful.

  • Aaron King

    Very interesting… I share a lot of similar experiences (convert from atheism, to Protestantism, to the Catholic Faith) and came to some similar conclusions… i.e. a constitutional marriage amendment will not fix marriage… and strong Catholic Church and Catholic Culture will! And Catholic Culture only comes from believers. Very interesting.

  • Howard

    “All of these things are good, true, and necessary. They are divinely-ordained consequences of the Gospel.” The problem, of course, is that, as you admit, these things are NECESSARY. They are necessary because there are false gospels that claim to accept Gal. 4:4-5. The Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to accept this passage, but they preach a false gospel. The same with the Mormons. If those seem to be extreme cases, they are important today, and there are any number of ancient heresies that can likewise be cited. A great many errors can be (and have been) made, even with the best of intentions and in all honesty; we all come to the Gospel in exactly the same situation as the Ethiopian eunuch.

    But I think I agree with your main point. It reminds me of a sharp disagreement I had recently with a blogger who suggested that a really great idea for the new evangelization would be to talk ONLY about the natural law, and not only to leave out any reference to the Church, but also to Jesus Himself! At best this was a naive hope that somehow — through osmosis, or intuition, or library research — the target of the “evangelization” would make the unassisted connection between Aristotle and Jesus. At worst, this was the preaching of “another gospel”, such as St. Paul condemned in Galatians 1:8 — in this case, the “gospel” being the natural law, with all the “Jesus stuff” apparently being mere historical and cultural baggage. As I pointed out, I have no problem with someone making a merely philosophical case for the natural law, but this is not evangelization.

    More innocent, but still missing the point, are those Catholics who become obsessed by ceremonial details. The ones I have in mind are Traditionalists, but surely other groups have their counterparts. These are the Catholics who insist that it really does make an important difference whether a priest wears black for a funeral Mass, as was done a few decades ago, or purple, as is done today. They will frequently attempt to trace all dissent, disobedience, ignorance, heresy, and sacrilege to the use of the vernacular in the Mass instead of Latin. Latin is good and timelessness is good, but neither of these are NECESSARY.

  • Padraig Costello

    The New Evangelization starts with each of us as living examples of Christ’s love and his message. The transformation of our current neo-pagan culture to a renewed Catholic Culture will occur only if we are in uniformity with the divine will. We must not forget that Christendom was forged over the centuries by the blood of the martyrs……this too may be our fate in the forging of a new Catholic culture. The Byzantine church understands this well having suffered seventy years of persecution and martyrdom by communists and atheists who detested the Faith of our fathers.

  • John

    Puzzling – the implication of your comments about Gregory the Great and Benedict is that they only proclaimed the Gospel. However, in fact they developed institutions – the monasteries, the liturgy, the catechism, et al.- which formed the foundation for the Christendom that followed.

    Unfortunately, those institutions, or rather idolization of those institutions, prevented future generations from developing all the Christian institutions and ideas appropriate and necessary for their time, as explorers set out from Europe to discover a much bigger world, and scientists set to work to discover an enormous cosmos – neither of which were part of the Gospel witness, but which, if they did not fit the Biblical record properly interpreted, could and did undermine Christian belief.

    Evangelism is a cultural enterprise – we do not worship a “god” who created in 6 literal days, 6000 years ago, and is about to “rapture” the “elect” out of their clothes, houses, and cars into some heavenly realm.

    True, evangelism is not just a cultural enterprise.

    Finding and working toward the balance, in response to better understanding of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, between these two, during our time, is our endless challenge – Christendom is never a finished “product”, but always out ahead of us. Unfortunately, most do not understand this.

  • noelfitz

    This is a brilliant article. It is thought-provoking and challenging. Before reading it I never heard of the term “Christianism”. But reading it encourages me to try to think
    clearly.

    Two queries come to mind. First is the idea of Natural Law a dogma/doctrine of the Church? It is not accepted by many now.

    Secondly, is there a danger, when focusing of Jesus Christ, to become Arians,
    seeing Jesus as our intercessor, our mediator, our model and guide? Do we not focus sufficiently on his divinity? Should our religion be more focused on God? I know Jesus is God, but God is not only Jesus. The Church is, as well as the mystical body of Christ, the people of God. It is here to help us know, love and serve God.

    I may in incorrect, but this article has encouraged me to think about deep and important questions, for which I am grateful.

  • Brennan

    As 1 Tim. 3.15 says, the Church is “the pillar and foundation of the truth.” Christ died not only to redeem us but to found His Church. The Church is Christ’s body, thus the Church and Christ are inseparable. You cannot simply separate “the gospel” from the Church since to be baptized and have faith in Christ is to be incorporated into the living entity known as the Church. It is through the Church that the gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments initiate one into becoming a Christian and also provide the life of Christ through these same sacraments to continue to grow in Christ.

    So what is first? That is a good question. I would have to say worship and along with that of course the participation in the life of Christ through the sacraments of the Church. This is one reason why the incarnational aspect of the faith,–liturgy, art, architecture, and music is so crucial. And by this I certainly don’t mean nitpicking about liturgical colors;–I have never actually read or heard any traditionalist writer such as Dietrich von Hildebrand or Martin Mosebach do that. Rather it is that the incarnational aspect of the Church’s life should lead us to an encounter with Christ.

    As Dietrich von Hildebrand says (and here he gets to the heart of traditionalist arguments about the liturgy which have nothing to do with the color of vestments):

    “The basic error of most of the innovations is to imagine that the new liturgy brings the holy sacrifice of the mass nearer to the faithful, that shorn of its old rituals the mass now enters into the substance of our lives. For the question is whether we better meet Christ in the mass by soaring up to Him, or by dragging Him down into our own pedestrian, workaday world. The innovators would replace holy intimacy with Christ by an unbecoming familiarity. The new liturgy actually threatens to frustrate the confrontation with Christ, for it discourages reverence in the face of mystery, precludes awe, and all but extinguishes a sense of sacredness. What really matters, surely, is not whether the faithful feel at home at mass, but whether they are drawn out of their ordinary lives into the world of Christ-whether their attitude is the response of ultimate reverence: whether they are imbued with the reality of Christ.”

    http://www.catholic-pages.com/mass/hildebrand.asp

    And certainly we can say the worship was at the heart of the creation of Gregorian chant;–it’s entire purpose is to worship God. We also see this response of worship in Mary Magdalene pouring out the ointment on Christ’s feet and wiping them with her hair. Hence worship is primary and we certainly are not going to be making disciples, bringing people to an encounter with Christ, and altering the culture without putting that first and foremost in the life of the Church.

  • bobby sikes

    I find myself asking this same question several times a week…”Am I focusing too much on my relationship with Jesus to the exclusion of God?” Of course Jesus is God, but in utilizing St Patrick’s “Shamrock” explanation, is not God also Jesus? Can any human thought diminish the fantastic Oneness of the Holy Trinity? I find myself deeply comforted through my maintenance of a very personal relationship with Jesus Christ, through which I am in communion with the Lord God.

  • noelfitz

    Bobby, thanks for your contribution.

    I find this discussion excellent, as it seems to be made up of thinking and faithful Catholics, who want to worship God as best they can, seeing the bigger picture.

    As well as our Savior, God is our Father and creator and also our consoler and guide, who sanctifies us and gives us encouragement.

    The Father and the Holy Spirit, as well as the Son, are distinct persons, equal to each other.

  • Gary Adrian

    The Latin Mass parish I go to is about half converts to the Catholic Faith. They put worship first but are very evangelical toward others. They have a good mix of both. It just keeps growing. We are already to the point where we don’t have room for everyone at parties and other community gatherings. If you don’t sign up, you there won’t be room for you. Soon I am sure we will have to rent a larger facility.

  • Gary Adrian

    I think you miss the what is really going on in the Traditionalist mentality. I go to a Tridentine Latin Mass on Sundays and Novus Ordo during the week. There are two main reasons people become ‘Traditionalists’ as you call them. The main one is the sublime beauty of the TLM that seems to pull ones soul up to view heaven, brings us closer to God in reverence and love. I have literally experienced this about half the times I have attended the TLM. It is not an experience I have yet had at a Novus Ordo mass. The other is that families find that the children at the TLM parish that their children associate with have very devout parents and generally much less rebellious than those in the standard Novus Ordo parish. They find that they grow up to be strong Catholics who stick with the faith. Like any group, there are children who are drawn away to the world, but rather than the 70% leaving in NO parishes, it is about 20% at most.

    What is it that makes the TLM draw one closer to God is a mystery to me. Perhaps it is the reverence everyone shows to God when present (no talking in the sacristy, veils for women, men dress like one is meeting God, genuflecting before God, most people showing up 15 minutes or so before mass to pray and prepare themselves for this most wonderful sacrifice, leaving 15 minutes or so after mass to thank God for what he has just given them, etc.) It isn’t exactly the Latin, or the vestment colors, or the number of servers used, or the way the priest stands toward God rather than the people, it is the whole thing that has been developed over centuries.

    I have heard of diocese TLMs that are controlled by the current priest that changes every five years. You get a more liberal priest in and he doesn’t take it seriously, he starts to have the same attitude for the TLM as for the Novus Ordo, in a sense he becomes sloppy, doesn’t care, doesn’t have the same reverence for God. Over time many start to drift away because they aren’t being spiritually fed. Soon the TLM is cancelled because of lack of attendance.

    The point is that it isn’t the vestment colors, the Latin or anything else. It is the whole package that for whatever reasons seems to be blessed by God. Those I have met who attend the TLM are vibrant Catholics who display that love for God in every encounter with others, whether at work, in the store, or with their children. That is why my TLM Parish continues to grow about 10% every year while my NO parish seems to be getting to the point where it will be closed.

  • Howard

    The point is that you are taking your own preferences and trying to make them into something more than your personal preferences. You feel certain emotions, and you try to tell me that your emotions are an insight into the blessings of God.

    If you like the EF Mass, great; go to it. This may be where God wants YOU.

    I have attended EF Masses, but I did not experience the same feelings you did. Ah, but that just shows that I am more coarse and unrefined; anyone who is sensitive and refined will immediately prefer the EF to the OF, even if he understands neither, right?

    Whatever. Somehow there still seems to be a gap between “Gary Adrian likes it” and “God wants this for everyone”.

  • Gary Adrian

    Wow, I am not trying to get you to do anything. If you get more out of the Novus Ordo, fine. But that isn’t how it usually goes. The way it usually goes is that people like you make more Traditionally minded Catholics look like, well, what you have written above, judgmental and divisive. When in fact, there are a small group of more liberal minded Catholic who hate the TLM and do everything in their power to stop it. In the city where I live, I know of people who have literal died in car accidents trying to drive 60 or 70 miles to partake in the nearest TLM mass. Why, because some Catholics do everything in their power to block one being established locally. With about 40 Catholic Masses in our city, why can’t we have one TLM mass to attend? There are plenty of us that want it. Pope Benedict said that we can have it if we want it, yet our local diocese won’t allow it.

    Personally, I could care less how outrageous some Novus Ordo Masses get, but it would be nice for Catholic to have an option.

  • Howard

    Again, I have nothing against the EF Mass, as you seem to have nothing against the OF Mass. I only maintain that the EF is not what is essential.

    Yes, you ARE offended by sacrilegious Masses, as am I. The OF is not inherently sacrilegious, though, any more than the EF.

    As for people driving long distances … so what? Seriously. When I say that just because you or I want something very badly does not make it the One Thing Necessary, your response that you know people who really Really REALLY want it changes nothing. These people are still not God, so their desires prove nothing. Sure, they should be accommodated; but **if** their attitude is that if Jesus does not come to them in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, they want nothing to do with Him, then they are not really worshiping as Catholics at all: they are worshiping an idol under the appearance of Catholicism, just the same as Santeria or the cult of Santa Muerte. I don’t claim that this attitude is predominant in the Traditionalist community, but it’s there just as surely as puppet Masses and cowboy Masses pop up in the OF community.

  • Gary Adrian

    You have a good point. We are not God and we don’t have the right to decide how he wishes to be worshiped. Yet we as Christians have the responsibility to draw as many to Christ as possible. The Church through the centuries has always accommodated various cultures so they could be drawn to Christ. In my local parish we have masses specifically designed for Mexican immigrants with mariachi bands and in Spanish. There are probably 10 Spanish language masses in my city where the Speaking population in less than 5%, yet there is still no Extraordinary Form mass to meet the needs of those who desire it.

    Sadly I know several people who have left the Church because of the many changes since the 1960s. They just came to the point where they felt that if what was considered the most holy mass was required every Sunday around the world for centuries, was suddenly outlawed, the Church must have been wrong before and if it was wrong before, it could just as well be wrong now.

    On top of that they were told that that Protestants are our brothers and heaven is just as accessible to Protestants as Catholics. So why bother going to a Catholic Church and following all the requirements when one can be better entertained at a good evangelical service, or even just go have fun on Sunday instead of worshiping at all. God loves us all and who is the Church to judge whether I go to Church or not.

    Now most of my cousins don’t attend any worship service. The local Catholic churches are shut down or share one priest between five parishes. As you know, the largest non-Catholic group in the US are ex-Catholics. The largest religious group in the US are Catholics who DO NOT attend mass regularly. Statically prior to 1965 80% of Catholics attended mass weekly, today 30% attend weekly in the US, 5% attend weekly in France, and it just gets worse.

    I don’t know what the answer is, but when one goes by statistic (I am a data analyst and all about statistics), the dioceses in the US that are maintaining the highest Mass attendance rate, largest classes of seminarians, and lowest number of Catholics leaving the faith, are those that adhere the most to traditional Catholic teaching. Every one of these have one or more Extraordinary Form parish, and teach most ardently Catholic teaching, not watering it down, or ignoring it. Dioceses such as Lincoln Nebraska. To me that is a sure sign of God’s blessing.

    I am by no means saying that the Novus Ordo mass is bad, if done correctly. It just seems that it is so rarely done according to the Churches rubrics and even more rarely done in a holy and reverent manner. It seems that whenever the Pope would allow some small group in the US to do something previously considered wrong, it would spread to almost every parish in the US. Examples like receiving communion in the hand as if one was going through a lunch line, Altar girls which sadly makes it less desirable to boys and further reduces the number of vocations to the priesthood, extraordinary ministers turned into ‘everyday’ ministers, banal 1970s pop songs for ‘worship’ music that brings God down to our earthly level rather than bringing us up to his heavenly level. Bands and choirs singing in the front like entertainers rather than keeping our focus on God. All these things lesson the connection we have with God and thus cause us, whether consciously or subconsciously, to see it all with less importance. It adds a sense of relativism.

    If I could find one parish in my diocese that did the Novus Ordo as was defined in Vatican II, I would be there in a second. But as it is, I am drawn so much more fully to God while attending the EF mass that I feel my very faith would be at jeopardy if I discontinued. Perhaps my faith isn’t as strong as yours. I always admired people like you that can attend the Novus Ordo mass and stay strong faithful Catholics.

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