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Why 'Christendom' is a threat to Christianity's core

"Christendom" is a term that has largely fallen out of favor -- mostly because what it attempts to describe really doesn't exist anymore. It used to refer to those areas of the world where Christianity was the dominant religion and where that religion set the parameters of the surrounding culture.

Cross-flagChristianity still is the most populous religion in the world, but its ability to define the cultures in which it's practiced now has been diminished -- in some places rather severely. That's not an entirely bad thing, especially in places where Christianity seemed to embed itself in the political instruments of state, given that the result often was compromising of Christian principles, standards and teachings.

Author David French, senior editor of The Dispatch and a columnist for Time magazine, explores the question of Christendom vs Christianity in this piece, asking, "Is American Christendom increasingly incompatible with American Christianity?"

French describes the difference between them this way: "Think of the distinctions roughly like this — Christianity is the faith, Christians are believers in the faith, and Christendom is the collective culture and institutions (universities, ministries) of the faith."

And even though participation in Christianity is slipping in the U.S. and its influence is declining, French rightly insists that "America possesses immensely powerful, immensely wealthy Christian institutions that may not be part of the state but in many places are strong enough to exercise power over the state. And they certainly create their own culture, a culture that shapes the daily lives of millions of Americans."

For French, real Christianity involves imitating Christ, which means being disciples of Jesus and living by the self-sacrificing values he demonstrated in his life and in his death.

That, he says, is where Christianity often gets compromised in favor of the culture of Christendom.

As French writes, "The true imitation of Christ becomes not wisdom, but folly. Many people may choose doctrine. Few people choose the cross. For who would really choose the cross when their ministry does such good, when it reaches so many people, and when it’s so very important to the soul of a nation?. . .Yet the institutions of Christendom should model the way of the cross if they’re going to preach the way of the cross."

None of this is simply worry over hypothetical situations. French puts it this way: "I have written time and again about the immense amount of Christian fear that motivated support for Donald Trump. Christians voted, it was said, in self-defense. Faced with an avalanche of fearmongering that falsely proclaimed an existential threat to Christian institutions if the Democrats won just one more presidential race, Christendom responded — we must live.

"And so the mighty power of tens of millions of American Christians was exerted on behalf of a cruel, incompetent man — a man whose vanity and ignorance contributed to the deaths of countless thousands of his fellow citizens."

Political choices made on the basis not of religious doctrine and values but of power and influence almost inevitably turn out to be damaging to the religion of the people who made those choices. People outside of that faith tradition see through the hypocrisy and the lusting after power. That, in turn, damages not only the reputation of the religion whose followers made that choice but of religion generally.

That should be more obvious than it seems to be.

By the way, a new study from Brown University suggests that political polarization is often a result of an intolerance of uncertainty. It's true of people who describe themselves as liberal and those who describe themselves as conservative, researchers found. One of the researchers put it this way: “This shows that some of the animosity and misunderstanding we see in society is not due to irreconcilable differences in political beliefs, but instead depends on surprising — and potentially solvable — factors such as the uncertainty people experience in daily life.” The problem, then, is that people dislike uncertainty, paradox, mystery -- anything but clear and concise answers and outcomes. And yet what is life if not the playing out of uncertainty, paradox, mystery and ambiguity? We need to find ways to teach people how to live with uncertainty without degenerating into simplistic thinking.

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The primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall, famous for her work with chimpanzees, has won won the 2021 Templeton Prize. As this RNS story explains, it's given to people who "use science to explore humankind’s place and purpose within the universe." Think of it as an honor to people who imagine that science and religion have something to say to one another, as they do. What's important for scientists and people of faith (they're not mutually exclusive groups) to remember is that science tries to answer questions about what, where, how and when. Religion, by contrast, concerns itself with a question that science can't answer, the question purpose, the question of why the world, including people, is here at all. If each discipline stays in its lane while appreciating (and communicating with) the lane of the other, everything works better.

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P.S.: Another cost of the fighting between Hamas and Israel has been that it has threatened interfaith cooperation, especially between Muslims and Jews, as this Associated Press story reports. Violence and war complicate everything. Everything.


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