Christendom

While I was in France and Germany, I was most struck by how in the cities and towns the center of the community is still, to this day, the cathedral or the church. This is true of both Strasbourg, France, with its Roman Catholic cathedral, and Heidelberg, Germany, with its Lutheran church. They dominate the central square. Around these churches and in their shadow are sidewalk cafes where people are talking and enjoying themselves; there are artists and musicians; people buying and selling, pursuing romance, and being part of a community. This makes a striking image of life in its abundance presided over by the Christian faith.

I am aware that many, if not most of the people gathered around the cathedral squares are no longer Christian believers. But still. It is surely significant that no one gathers around the modernist buildings that these towns also feature. In Cologne, a television tower with a spire that ascends to the heavens, the top of which features a revolving restaurant, which must have been quite impressive a few decades ago, though at the center of its own square, is all but abandoned and the restaurant has gone out of business. The civilization of Europe still, at least by habit, revolves around its Christian heritage. Even in the buildings around the squares, so old and quaint, often dating from the 17th century back into the medieval days, have a human scale and an aesthetic dimension quite lacking in modernist, postmodernists, and the commercial buildings of today.

This speaks of the concept of “Christendom,” a civilization informed by the Christian faith. There was a time when every citizen of the town would have been a member of the church. Everyone would have been baptized. In fact, even in secularist Europe today, most people when they were infants were baptized. Perhaps it is in theological traditions that practice infant baptism and that have served as “state churches”–Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, the Reformed–that have the most positive theologies of culture. At any rate, I am aware that some Christians today think the very notion of Christendom is impossible. Only individuals, they say, not cultures, can be Christians. The church is intrinsically alien from the world. The church that embraces the world or seeks to guide it becomes worldly. Some people think there can be a Christian society, but that only come from the church’s exercise of political power. This is the position of some Christians and, ironically, many secularists. Cultural influence, that of salt in food and light in dark places, is more elusive.

Do you think Christendom is possible, even as an ideal? Can there be a Christendom in which even non-Christians can find a haven, just as non-believers too prefer to gather in the shadow of gothic spires?


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