By Steven M. Studebaker
Annihilation, not cultural marginality, is the threat facing Christianity in Syria and the wider Middle East, according to Najib George Awad, Associate Professor of Christian Theology at Hartford Seminary (see his article “Is ‘Post-Christendom’ a Relevant Hermeneutical Framework to the Situation of the Christians in Greater Syria? Towards a Critical Appraisal” for Post-Christendom Studies). For this reason, he distinguishes between “post-Christendom” and “post-Christian” societies. Christendom is a political and social condition that conflates Christianity with a particular culture and that provides social prestige and benefits for Christian adherence. Post-Christendom entails the loss of those political and social benefits.
Post-Christendom and post-Christianity are not synonymous. This distinction is vital for not only understanding the relationship of Christianity to Islam in the Middle East, but also the church in the West. Post-Christendom denotes cultural marginalization. Post-Christian indicates the extinction or endangered existence of Christianity in a particular place. Awad maintains that post-Christendom, given the assumption of a preceding Christendom culture, does not describe the cultural circumstances of Christians in Syria and the wider Middle East.
Today, the clash of civilizations paradigm, Christian West versus Muslim East, is a popular paradigm. Awad argues, however, that the relationships between Christian and Muslim communities were more fluid and interactional than assumed in the clash of civilizations paradigm. Although their interrelationships were never a multicultural idyll under ʽAbd al-Malik b. Marwān (r. 685–705), Islamization (Islamdom) and Arabization eventually took place.
But wait, before the rise of Islam, Syria was Christian, right!? The church in Syria fell under the orb of Byzantine Christendom. But Syrian Christians neither recognized the authenticity of Byzantine Christendom nor endeavoured to establish a Syrian form of Christendom. The coming of Islam freed the Syrian Christians from Byzantine Christendom and enabled them to establish an indigenous form of Christianity without the constraints of Byzantine Christendom. Many Syrian Christians regarded the loss of Byzantine Christendom as opening a pathway for a more authentic pursuit of Christianity. Syrian churches, in other words, welcomed the loss of imposed Byzantine Christendom and did not fear the rise of Islam, at least until ʽAbd al-Malik’s Islamdom. In a similar way, many western Christians today regard the loss of western Christendom as beneficial for finding more authentic ways of being the church.
Rejecting the Christendom and Islamdom models, Awad calls for a recovery of the shared ethnic and cultural history and identity of Syrian and Middle Eastern Christians and Muslims. A vision for life together to characterize their social relations rather than either a dominance or a persecution paradigm. He also argues that the post-Christendom paradigm is peculiar to western Christianity and non-applicable to Syrian Christianity, where the churches face annihilation, not only the inconvenience of marginality.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of McMaster Divinity College or the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.*