Christ and culture in reverse gear

The relationship between God’s church and its surrounding culture is complex, dynamic, and fluid. Most of today’s global believers, along with most believers in history,  are in contexts where Christianity is a cultural minority – whether the surrounding culture is animist, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or communist. These believers have long learned how to be a godly minority, living as strangers and exiles (1 Pet 2:11), as did Joseph in Egypt, along with Daniel, Esther, and the rest of God’s people during the Babylonian and Persian exiles.

We in the west, and certainly including Australia, are in a fluid context. Our context has the legacy of a dominant Christian culture which is reflected in things like the location and size of church buildings, chaplaincy access to public institutions; legal structures and the general tone of public life in which political leaders at least paid lip service to Christian values.

All that is rapidly changing. Our dominant culture is increasingly one of aggressive and progressive secularism.

In Australia we see widened access to anti-life measures such as abortion on demand and euthanasia. Legislation of same sex marriage a few years back seems a quaint small step in view of the present tsunami of issues around gender identity. As for Christian beliefs and the church, we seem to have moved from some kind of widespread acceptance to indifference and are now seen as holding to dangerous ideas and practices that deserve condemnation and state-sanctioned suppression. The recent debate around the Presbyterian Church’s submission to the ALRC on the right of Christian schools to practise their beliefs throughout the school illustrate this. (Ask John McClean about that!)

How do we make sense of this? How do we respond? Do we take the Benedictine option and retreat to our caves and ignore the world? Do we try and preserve an imagined golden age of “Christian Australia”? Do we spit angry words of judgement on the world as we are pushed back from one foxhole to another?

This is where we western Christians can learn from others. We have much to learn, in humility, from fellow believers in greater Asia, the middle east, north Africa and beyond. They know how to be exiles and strangers in their own land.

We also have much to learn from early church history.

The early church moved from being ignored by the dominant culture to facing opposition of various kinds. Some of this was intellectual, as people like Celsus (the Richard Dawkins of his day) attacked its belief structures. Much of it was political, as it dawned on Rome that Christianity threatened the dominant ideology which was centred around the emperor and the Roman gods. And so, Christians were criticised, harassed, oppressed, and persecuted in various ways. But not endlessly. The see-saw of toleration and hostility ended with a final flourish of persecution, and then then remarkable events of the early fourth century. Within a few short years Christians had legal toleration, saw the emperor Constantine profess Christian faith, and had their property returned. Soon enough there was legislation that protected and enhanced the position of the church and embedded some Christian values. It is no wonder that Eusebius of Caesarea (a contemporary historian) could write:

All fear therefore of those who had formerly afflicted them was taken away from men, and they celebrated splendid and festive days. Everything was filled with light, and those who before were downcast beheld each other with smiling faces and beaming eye. With dances and hymns in city and country, they glorified  first of all God the universal king, because they had been thus taught, and then the pious emperor with his God-beloved children (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History; book X, chapter ix).

Eusebius’ enthusiasm makes perfect sense after the ferocious persecution of Diocletian which preceded Constantine’s profession of faith.  Little did Eusebius know that he was celebrating the birth of Christendom, whose shadows are now rapidly withdrawing from what was once called the Christian west. Whether Christendom played out well for the gospel is a hot topic for debate.

View through this lens, the early church and the present-day western church are in asymmetrical sequences. The contemporary western church is moving from a post-Christendom relationship to culture back to being a besieged minority. This is the reverse trajectory of the early church. Careful study of the changing relations of church and culture in the first four centuries  has much to teach contemporary western Christians about our relationship with a changing cultural landscape. We have much to learn and we have some good teachers available.

David Burke