Against Constantinianism

Christian power meets resistance. Being trained through Jesus' story means adopting the practices and habits of a new city, and this cannot help but create a conflict between the church and the world, for the world seeks to put us to its own malign purposes. A great deal of Hauerwas' work focuses on the particular scenes of this conflict, which are many. Materially, this diversity of conflict is unified under a general scheme of violence and peace. Worldly powers, for Hauerwas, are not most visible and potent in injustice or oppression. Instead, worldly powers show their true face in the presumptive necessity of violence. Secular power must threaten in order to be effective. In contrast, the defining practice of the church is peace-making, and precisely because of this, the density of the church necessarily collides with the social "realities" that require menace in order to maintain power.

Hauerwas consistently describes this conflict between the church and worldly power as "Constantinianism." This is a protean term in the Hauerwasian lexicon, and he uses it in diverse ways. At times, he seems to advance an (unconvincing) historical thesis about the "fall" of the primitive church into a captivity to worldly vanity and illusions of social significance. At other times, his use of "Constantinianism" is a rhetorical device for sharpening contrasts. Conflict between the church and world galvanizes, and Hauerwas sees any diminishment of that conflict as "Constantinian." But most often, Hauerwas uses the term "Constantinianism" to denote the ways in which Christian truth becomes innocuous and weightless. It is, as he puts the matter, an approach of "spiritu-alization," and as he writes, "by 'spiritualization' I mean simply the attempt to make Christianity intelligible without that set of habits called the church" (Hauerwas 1988: 159). Thus, a "Constantinian" is anyone who would make the church invisible and weightless. Assumptions and practices are "Constantinian" if they disembody rather than solidify Christian identity.

Hauerwas is clearest when describing the American situation. By his analysis, the churches configure themselves in light of prevailing political, economic, and cultural arrangements. America needs Christianity, and churches clamor to satisfy that need, either in conservative support or in progressive critique. The upshot is a blending and blurring that make Christian character and practice invisible. What is the difference between a generic law-and-order, family-values conservative, and a spokesman for the "Christian Right"? What is the difference between a generic, inclusive progressivist, and a spokesman for liberal Protestantism? Hauerwas wishes a pox upon both houses, for each defines the witness of the Christian in terms of the needs of American society, and the more successfully the church meets these needs, the more invisible it becomes, because the more it blends into the prevailing culture.

Hauerwas' rejection of Constantinianism seems clear. It represents everything that assaults the density-forming reality of Christian life and practice. Yet his formulations can seem contradictory. Consider the following claim. "All our categories have been set by the church's establishment as a necessary part of Western civilization" (Hauerwas 1991: 10). The church becomes a constituent of "civilization," and this role prevents stark and defining contrast. Yet, as we have seen, in his positive articulations of the role of the church - its "necessity" for world destiny, its crucial role for our ability to see the truth of all things - he seems to be establishing Christianity even more forcefully than the so-called Con-stantinians. This confusion is reinforced by essays with titles such as "In Defense of Cultural Christianity: Reflections on Going to Church" (Hauerwas 1998: 157-73). Still further, Hauerwas consistently and vigorously rejects the radical Augustinianism of many Reformation thinkers, a theological disposition that attacks just those forms of worldly pretension that would seem to animate the Constantinian project. Against this Protestant tradition, he allies himself with the Catholic theological tradition that has been congenial to religious establishment and close involvement with culture.

What seems contradictory need not be so. The church can become invisible and weightless in many different ways, and Hauerwas' apparent contradictions are simply manifestations of his due diligence. On the one hand, Hauerwas attacks the patrons of relevance and responsibility. When prince and bishop blur together, it becomes hard to see the power of God at work in the world. When bourgeois virtues blend with Christian character, it is difficult to identify the specific gravity that the Gospel should take in our lives. In both cases, Christian faith lacks an identifiable form, and the church fails to mark out a distinctive culture and politics of her own. However, the cry for relevance and responsibility is not the only danger. Patrons of radical transcendence and prophets of the "vertical" also contribute to the invisibility of faith. As Hauerwas recognized in his first book, Character and the Christian Life, the dominant theological moves that Protestant neo-orthodoxy used to reassert the autonomy of revelation and the sovereignty of God block all forms of Christian embodiment. The "Protestant Principle" makes the church as invisible, perhaps more invisible, than the most Erastian of circumstances.6

So, Hauerwas rages against a mistaken view that the church gains weight through alliances to "real" forces (regnant regimes of political, cultural, and intellectual power), and at the same time he attacks modern theological attempts to make Christian invisibility into a spiritual virtue. Against the patrons of relevance and responsibility, he insists that Christianity is not of this world. The church cannot normalize relations with worldly powers in order to take up a regular role in managing secular politics and maintaining culture. Against the patrons of radical transcendence, he insists that Christianity is sacred politics that is very much in the world, if not of it.

This two-front war against "Constantinianism" is, I think, best understood through a story of the conversion of the great pagan apologist, Victorinus, told by St. Augustine. "After examining [the scriptures]," St. Augustine reports, Victorinus "said to Simplicanus, not openly but in the privacy of friendship, 'Did you not know that I am already a Christian?' Simplicanus replied, 'I shall not believe that or count you among the Christians unless I see you in the Church of Christ.' Victorinus laughed and said: 'Then do walls make Christians?'" (Augustine 1991: 136). For St. Augustine, the answer is clear. Walls do make Christians. Victorinus is not a Christian until he enters into the public life of the church, submitting himself to instruction in the mysteries and giving his name for baptism.

For Hauerwas, the answer is just as clear. Walls make Christians. The task of political theology is to prepare the bricks for the walls of the church by identifying and displaying the many ways in which the truth of God in Jesus Christ takes on solidity, substance, and continuity in the affairs of men and women. And those walls separate just as much as they encircle. To enter this heavenly city, one leaves behind, often in painful turns of repentance, the earthly city we thought our only possible home. Thus, Hauerwas' polemics against Constan-tinianism should be understood as ad hoc criticisms of the many ways in which the church has tried to demolish the walls of separation and moderate the wrenching turn of repentance, whether by so distancing faith from practical affairs that "spiritual" becomes a synonym for "impotent," or by so intertwining faith with the habits and practices of the wider culture that the Christian life becomes invisible.

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