In the first third of the 300s, as the Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and then became its patron, Pope Sylvester, the bishop of Rome from 314-335, had a dream. He understood it to mean, “Now is poison poured into the church.”
I owe my awareness of Sylvester’s dream to a lecture by Douglas John Hall, one of the most important theologians of our time. Delivered at Emmanuel College in the University of Toronto in October of this year, its title was “The Future of the Church.” The story, Hall notes, is a later Christian legend. Sylvester may never have had such a dream. But it reflects a realization on the part of whoever created the legend and those who repeated it that something poisonous began to happen to Christianity when it became allied with dominant culture.
The image of a poisoned church, a poisoned Christianity, is striking. It refers to what might be called “the cultural captivity of the church” – namely, Christianity co-opted by and conformed to the conventions of culture, which most often have been about dominance, power, and wealth.
The conformity of Christianity with the values of dominant culture in much of its history since the 300s and into the present is obvious. When slavery was a cultural convention, most Christians accepted it – in the United States, as recently as 150 years ago, even in the North. So long as patriarchy was a cultural convention, most Christians were patriarchal as well. Indeed, it was less than 50 years ago that most mainline denominations began to ordain women.
When cultural convention condemned same-sex relationships, most Christians also did, and many still do. And when Christian countries went to war and proclaimed that God was on their side, most Christians did too. The wars of Europe for a thousand years have been fought between Christian countries.
The cultural captivity of Christianity – the poison of Sylvester’s dream –continues to shape American Christians (and Christians in many other countries). We cannot avoid being shaped by the culture in which we grow up and live. But we can be more or less conscious of the way we have been shaped by our time and place, and more or less conscious of how Christianity’s vision of the way things should be may be quite different.
Individualism as an ideology should not be confused with the value of individuals. Individuals matter. It is a central affirmation of the Bible and Christianity: we all matter to God. Individuals and progress in individual rights, human rights, matter.
But individualism as an ideology is quite different. It is the notion that how our lives turn out is primarily the product of our individual achievement. Those who do well do so because they have made the most of their opportunities. It is the notion of the “self-made” person.
This ideology generates a politics and economics that privileges the successful: they deserve the fruits of their achievement. It dominates the political right, Christian and non-Christian alike. Most often absent or minimized is a concern for “the common good,” except perhaps when it is alleged to be the product of maximizing individual opportunities.
The effects of American individualism on American Christianity go beyond politics. For many Christians, morality is understood primarily to be about personal behavior. In comparison, what might be called “social morality” (economic fairness and a concern for the common good) receives short shrift.
So also Christian understandings of salvation are often individualistic. When Christians identify salvation with a blessed afterlife, with going to heaven, salvation becomes about the salvation of individuals. In a crude and clichéd phrase, Christianity becomes the ultimate life insurance policy – for those individuals who believe and/or behave in the right way.
Perhaps the most blatant even if not the most widespread example of Christianity co-opted by the ideology of individualism is the prosperity gospel. At its center is the promise of “doing well” in this life if only we as individuals believe and act accordingly.
All of this is very different from “the dream of God” as we encounter it in the major voices of the Bible and earliest Christianity. Of course, Christianity is about individuals and our relationship to God as individuals. But when it is most authentic, it is also about God’s dream for a world of fairness (justice) and peace. It is about “the common good” and not just my individual good.