26 July 2011


The link to Zachary Calo's short review of Peter Leithart's Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom can be found here. Leithart's book is especially timely in light of Anders Breivik's recent murder spree in Norway that some have attributed to his Christian "fundamentalism." (The best account of Breivik's religious beliefs I've seen so far can be found here.) How in the world can anyone defend "Christendom" in the modern secular age? Wouldn't the political outworking of Christianity regularly if not necessarily result in more violent deaths and persecution?

In my recent post on Secularisms I noted the difference between the American and Indian varieties that focus on making room for "pluriform constellations of belief and practice" and the French view that seeks to exclude religion from public affairs and Sarah Beresford's goal of eliminating religion from even private life. Calo's review suggests a better term for the American and Indian forms of secularism: secularity.

Back to Constantine. Contrary to popular belief, Rome's first professing Christian emperor did not mandate Christianity as Rome's state religion. He did, however, suppress sacrifice to the Roman gods and banned gladiatorial events. How should we understand this? Was Constantine a proto-liberal or a crypto-totalitarian? Calo concurs with Leithart whom he summarizes as follows:
At the heart of Constantine's political legacy, Leithart argues, was the ending of pagan sacrifice and thus the loosening of political and civic identify from the sacrificial act. Constantine secularized the state through his deeds ... This desacralization inaugurated a civilizational shift in which the state was deprived of eschatological significance and left radically relativized in light of Christian proclamation.
In other words, before Constantine (and after him in many places until even today), the State was sacred. With and after Constantine, the State is secular--of this age--and has no eschatological significance. Important, yes, because justice is important. But ultimate, no.

It is Breivik's very lack of a Constantinian Christian understanding that permitted him to murder in the name of a "Christian" European culture; in his own words he cared little about the Christian religion. Unless we maintain a health secularlity we cannot maintain the separation of religion and culture and without this separation (from each direction), we have the recipe for terror or oppression. And isn't it ironic that it was a Christian Roman emperor who made the first move toward secularity?

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