Wednesday, September 18, 2002
Very interesting article in The Atlantic Monthly about the future of Christianity. Here is an interview with the author, Philip Jenkins. I just bought his book, and I'll check back in on the topic when I've got it read.
Some quick reactions to the article and the interview however:
Jenkins' basic argument is that Christianity is (a) the fastest growing religion in the world; (b) shifting its center of gravity radically towards the "Global South"; (c) not going to become more liberal, but rather more conservative, traditional, supernaturalist and primitive; and (d) the changes in global Christianity are going to dominate the history of the 21st century.
The argument is basically true, particularly if you are contrasting Africa and Europe, which is what Jenkins is doing most of the time. But that's my main quibble with the book: Africa and Europe are two extremes in terms of Christianity today, and may not be good templates for understanding the future of Christianity in the United States, Latin America or Asia.
So let's talk about these quibbles, briefly.
(1) Latin America has been Christian for 500 years. It is not being "Christianized." What is happening there is that Pentecostalism and Mormonism are starting to make inroads against traditional Catholicism, and novel religions are being born as well that have some family relation to Christianity but that cannot be called Christian. The former phenomenon is partly related the the Americanization of the region, and is therefore a distinctly different process from what is going on in Africa. The latter phenomenon, meanwhile, is most pronounced in the African regions of Latin America: Brazil and the Carribbean. So once again, we may be dealing with a process that has more to do with African culture than with the dynamics of Christianity generally. Latin American Catholicism does not look so radically different from Catholicism in Europe a century ago, and the challenge from Pentecostalism and Mormonism is fundamentally different from the challenge of Martin Luther and Henry VIII, because America is this external force operating that has no analog in 16th century Europe.
(2) Jenkins keeps referring to the "poorest of the poor" as the locus of the new Christianity. But neither Latin America nor Asia fits the description. Brazil and Mexico, the two dominant nations of Latin America, are large, partially developed societies with a high degree of social stratification, strong national identities, and abundant wealth as well as poverty. Moreover, they have both seen rapidly declining birth rates over the past 30 years. They look very different from sub-Saharan Africa, demographically, historically, culturally or economically. Asia is an even more dramatic contrast. India and China have enormous wealth, long and literate religious traditions that historically have proven resilient in the face of foreign religious challenges, and China in particular is on the cusp of demographic shrinkage; all future growth is the echo of the last generation's population boom, as fertility is now sub-replacement. Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Korea: these are religiously vibrant and interesting societies, and Christianity is strong and growing in each country. But in no sense are these among the poorest countries of the world. Again, the appeal of "primitive" Christianity in China or Korea is not rampant poverty, low life expectancy, epidemic disease and random violence. Pentecostalism is especially popular, according to Ian Buruma, in Singapore, an extremely wealthy country with a distinctly odoriferous political and social culture. The "Global South" model is missing something.
(3) There's a real question - not only in my mind, but in the mind of much of the Catholic heirarchy - over how much of what is going on in Africa - which, again, is Jenkins' template for understanding the future of Christianity - is really Christianity. Jenkins glosses over this when he lumps Pentecostalism and Catholicism in with horrific phenomena like the Lord's Resistance Army. Pope John Paul II has been reported to have expressed reluctance to dramatically raise the profile of the African Church specifically because of the continent's recency of evangelization. Much of what is going on there looks less like the Reformation Era than it does like the early Christian period, or like the earlier Middle Ages, the era of the Cathars and the Albigensians and (to pick a group that stayed - barely - Orthodox) the Franciscans. We don't know at this early date to what extent what is going on in the heart of Africa will ultimately look like Christianity - and remain part of established churches with institutional histories - and to what extent it will look like something new, and to what extent it will simply be eclipsed. To make another historical analogy: Africa may look in some ways like the Burnt Over District of upstate New York in the 1830s. Out of the wild wackiness that went on there came the LDS (Mormon) Church, the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventists. Are these Christian groups? The last pretty certainly yes. The Witnesses? Tougher call; they believe a whole lot of things that don't look much like Christianity. The Mormons? I'd say not; their church is related to Christianity, but they believe in a plurality of gods, the ability of humans to become divine, and they have a new scripture. They may call themselves Christians, but they look like a new religion to me. What's happening in Africa may be the future of Christianity, but only if it remains Christianity.
(4) How much do numbers matter? The Catholic Church has for centuries been led by Italians, but most Catholics are not Italian. How much influence did the enormous Irish population - largely in the diaspora in America, Britain and Australia - have on the institutional and doctrinal history of the Church? And how much compared with the Irish influence in the early middle ages, when it was one of the few literate areas of Europe? Numbers are not everything. They may not even be the most important thing. Again, I'm not arguing that the liberals are going to win out within the Catholic Church because they are "literate" and the traditionalists are "primitive." I don't accept that characterization and I don't think that's a good prediction. But no church, no religion is a democracy, and the fact that large numbers of believers follow one or another practice or doctrine does not necessarily mean that that practice or doctrine represents the future of the religion.
In any event, it's an important and interesting topic, and I look forward to reading his book and reporting my reactions in this space.