The Myth of Christianism?

Ben Mann, a frequent contributor to the website Catholic Exchange, penned a piece back in December 2013 entitled “The End of Christianism.” In it, Mann leans on the French Catholic theorist Remi Brague to decry Christianism, “an ideology focused on accomplishing a cultural program,” which is somehow distinguishable from mere “faith in Christ.” This leads Mann to detect an irony, namely that “Christianism can’t achieve its goal: believers only transform culture when, in a sense, they forget about that and simply serve the Lord.” What’s unclear is what this “sense” means to Mann or even how a self-conscious project of Christian cultural transformation could ever unfold without faith that Jesus is the Christ. Does Mann (or Brague) suppose that there is now an extant socio-cultural movement, ostensibly Christian, which, at its core, is not? Granted, in the context of modern American political realities, there have been plenty of politicians—even an entire political party—which were once given over to speaking in a Christian vernacular in order to achieve electoral ends. And certainly the last several centuries have furnished more than a few “enlightened” thinkers who defended the Christian patrimony on primarily instrumental grounds. But both camps have been exposed for what they truly are, which leads me to wonder where exactly is “Christianism” today?

Mann’s article is now nearing its second year of pixelated life and social matters have moved quite briskly since then. Today, for better or worse, we have entered the age of “Options,” some of which seem to agree with Mann’s dismissal of Christianity-as-Kulturkampf and others that are in direct opposition to it. Mann doesn’t believe in “hid[ing] or privatizing our faith,” but he doesn’t want Christians to embark on a project of “promot[ing] certain moral norms” which, in an earlier and less relativized vernacular, may have been called immutable and intractable moral laws. Similarly, the dichotomies Mann draws between the Gospel and God, Christ and His Church, and so forth are not easily intelligible to minds not already shaped by fundamentally modern religious norms. Mann sees priorities and needful separationism where an earlier epoch saw an indivisible whole, which may lead one to wonder what exactly it is Mann is calling for.

At the close of the day, Mann rejects his own version of what he calls an “anti-modern reconstructionist project[.]” Fine. It’s still not clear, however, why anyone else should reject such a project or why such projects must inevitably fail to “bring Jesus Christ to others” or “others to Jesus Christ.” That any old “anti-modern reconstructionist project” may fail to do just that isn’t surprising. But should that not inspire those who take the Gospel—and both its repentant and evangelical cores—seriously to abandon failed endeavors while refreshing earlier models to fit our contemporary cultural context? Instead of slicing Christianity into primary, secondary, and tertiary pieces, would it not be more wise to attempt to see Christianity holistically, without artificial divisions or, for that matter, compromises?

I doubt Mann desires anything resembling a compromised Christianity. He is, after all, looking for something “purer” and less encumbered by “accretions” (even if they aren’t really accretions). His spirit is refreshingly open as opposed to the “Options” phenomenon which, at times, appears alarmist, if not defeatist. It doesn’t have to be that way. It is still possible to find a horizon beyond liberal modernity, one which radiates with both the truth of the Gospel and the gift of natural reason. I suspect that Brague, with his tempered Straussian instincts, wouldn’t disagree with that.