Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Wednesday, October 09, 2002
I've just finished Philip Jenkins' book,
The Next Christendom. I blogged about his article in the Atlantic covering much the same territory here. All my prior criticisms stand. The book is a very quick read, covering much of the same territory he covered in the article, and not in that much more depth.

Some points I didn't focus on enough, however, in my last comments:

(1) Reading between the lines, it seems to me that Christianity is growing by both natural reproduction and conversion and Islam more purely by natural reproduction. He talks about competition for conversions in Africa and Asia, but I don't think Islam is making many converts in India or China, and his own survey doesn't suggest they are making many inroads this way in Africa. Indeed, I get the feeling the main fields for conversion for Islam are in the West, particularly among the poor and racial minorities of the West. This is significant because conversions are one measure of the health of a missionary religion; if Christianity is outpacing Islam in conversions, that is a measure of its confidence and of its power as currently promulgated.

(2) The European immigration story potentially looks different than we've all assumed because there is a substantial Christian immigration to Europe as well as a Muslim one. If Europe wants to remain a Christian rather than a mixed Christian/Muslim civilization (or neo-pagan/Christian/Muslim civilization), then it would do well to import its necessary immigrants (and they are absolutely necessary) from Christian lands in Africa and Asia rather than Islamic ones. I note in this regard that France has done a far better job of integrating its Christian immigrants into French culture at large than it has of integrating its Muslim immigrants. (I would argue that Britain and Germany have failed at both.) In any event, the population stats that Jenkins cites do prove that Europe - if it wants to - could preserve its Christian identity, if not its Caucasian racial cast.

(3) When the Vatican document Dominus Iesus came out, I remember my reaction being: this is much ado about nothing. The Catholic Church has, since Vatican II, moved in a direction of dual covenant theology (I know that's not precisely right, but I'm simplifying). That is to say: to a view that the Jewish covenant with G-d is in some sense still operative, and therefore while Jewish salvation might have to be perfected at the end of days when Jesus returns, there is no urgent need for the Jews to accept Jesus prior to that point, provided they are true to their own covenant. Frankly, I think that's the best possible stance for a relationship between Judaism and Christianity; anything less still bears some of the mark of supercessionism, and anything more would seriously dilute the Christian message, and would therefore be unlikely to stand within Christendom. All that said, nothing in Dominus Iesus contradicted this position, and therefore it was not obvious to me why Jews were upset by it. (Well, I know why they were upset; because they didn't understand it. But that's not much of an excuse.) But what I didn't realize was why the document was promulgated in the first place. And this brings me back to Jenkins' book, which makes it clear that what the Vatican was responding to was the syncretism that is quite rampant in Africa and parts of Asia, whatever Jenkins may believe, and that raises real questions about the future of Christianity in these regions. Jenkins does a good job of pointing out what real syncretism looks like - how far from Christianity some Christian-influenced groups have gone - and contrasting it with more mainstream trends in African religion. But I think he underplays the degree to which the fringe trends are present in mainstream congregations. Africa is very newly evangelized, and even longstanding Christian regions are poorly integrated into the body of the Church. In any event, I know understand why Dominus Iesus was put out, and its real significance, which means I have even less sympathy for those who attacked it on liberal grounds.

(4) THAT said, it does strike me that as the Catholic Church in particular moves "South" it will become less and less interested in the process of repentance and reconciliation with Judaism and will be pushed more in the direction of returning to supercession. Which is, needless to say, bad, from a Jewish perspective - and, I think, from a Christian perspective, since the polemic against the Jews is, I believe, an enormous distraction from a Church that, as I Jew, I can affirm holds in its hands an important share of the Truth, capital "T."

(5) One last point about Catholicism, the Jews, and Africa. There has been quite a hullabaloo in Jewish circles about the potential canonization of Piux XII. It's a debate I've steered resolutely clear of, because I just don't care enough about the debate relative to those on the inside of the Church, on either side of the debate, or the Jews who have joined it. That said, it seems to me, looking on, like the heart of the debate is: did Pius XII do enough to combat the Holocaust. The arguments that he was an active aider and abettor have always struck me as highly unpersuasive. The arguments that he was the leading friend of Jews of his time, by contrast, are generally too partisan for me to evaluate effectively. But if this is the debate - did he do enough - then what, analogously, shall churchmen say in 50 years when there is talk of canonizing John Paul II, apropos of the Rwandan genocide. That mass-murder was clearly aided and abetted by some in the Catholic heirarchy in the country. And it is not obvious what the Vatican did to fight that evil. And the magnitude - 600,000 or so murdered in the space of a few months - compares well (if that's the word) with the atrocities of the Einsatzgruppen in Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and so forth. If the Church is truly global, why should not Rwanda count for as much as Croatia if we're talking about the crimes of churchmen and the actions - or lack of action - by the Church to prevent those crimes?

(6) One thing I hadn't thought about at all before reading Jenkins' book was the future of the Anglican Church. The Anglican model, which gives a high degree of autonomy to bishops (there being no Pope) but which in terms of structure and dogma otherwise looks pretty similar to Catholicism, would seem to be tailor-made for the world Jenkins describes. And, indeed, it seems that the Anglican Church, which is dead or dying in Britain and America, is surging forward in Africa and Asia. This is an interesting development, with potentially powerful implications for the future. It would be very easy to see Afro-Asian Anglicanism evolving into something like what Orthodoxy is in Russia and other East European lands, and having the same kind of tensions with Catholicism in neighboring areas. Equally interesting is what Jenkins focuses on: the new phenomenon of American Episcopals of a conservative bent going to Africa or Asia to be ordained as bishops by the more conservative leaders of the church in those regions, and coming back to America to found missions. American Anglicanism may yet enter an entirely new phase on the strength of this officially unimpeachable effective secession from their church in this country. Two trends very worth watching that I would not have known of without this book.

(7) Finally, I think it is crucial to take population projections with a grain of salt. Fertility trends have changed very rapidly in a number of countries: the Catholic collapse in southern Europe is well-known, but there have also been dramatic declines in fertility in countries like Mexico, Iran, Bangladesh, Indonesia and so forth. The echo of earlier fertility will still drive these countries to very large populations, but they will not become quite the colossi that might have been predicted 50 years ago. Similarly, projections for an Ethiopia of nearly 200 million souls seem to me somewhat unlikely, though certainly not impossible. And not only for reasons of potentially declining fertility; it is not obvious to me that there will not be a dramatic increase in mortality in Africa, from war and pestilence. India and China grew to their current proportions in a far more orderly fashion and over a longer period, and were densely populated societies (though not nearly so dense as today) for centuries before the boom of the 20th century. That's not true of Congo or Arabia, and we don't know what the consequences will be of the kind of growth they are currently experiencing. It's not pleasant to predict mass death. But it doesn't seem terribly unlikely, does it? In any event, since much of his argument is based around Africa, the ultimate population of Africa has great bearing on the validity of Jenkins' predictions. Even if he's right, I think he's too Africa-centric. If he's wrong, the case for the importance of Latin America and Asia - where the dynamics are quite different from Africa, in spite of the commonalities that Jenkins finds - is even stronger.