September 25, 2002
Christianity Past, Present, and Next
-- Jonathan Ebel
Over the past twelve months, Islam has been the religion of concern in the American media. The scandals of the Catholic and Baptist Churches have taken some attention away, but understandably journalists have been assessing the role of Islam in local, national, and global societies. As a result, the average American’s knowledge of Islamic faith, states, and radical elements has grown exponentially; events have forced that knowledge upon us.
Lower profile events and what they may portend for Christianity as a global faith are the subjects of Philip Jenkins’ brief study, “The Next Christianity.” Jenkins grabs hold of the rhetoric of reformation used by American Catholics appalled by clerical sexual misconduct, and considers the potential shape of a Reformation and Counter-Reformation twenty-first century style. What would happen if the called-for reformation occurred -- if reformist voices within American Catholicism were heeded and a liberalization of doctrine and democratization of polity became a reality within the Catholic Church?
With the proper cautionary about predicting the consequences of something so monumental, Jenkins notes that such calls for reform issue from a particularly liberal, distinctly post-Enlightenment type of Christianity that predominates in the northern hemisphere. He warns that those calling for reform must attend to the immense and rapidly growing Catholic communities of the southern hemisphere whose faith embraces hierarchy, authority, the magical and the mystical, and is far more conservative theologically. Formal liberalization might bring Northern and Southern Catholics to alienation, schism, and even violence of the type spawned by the Protestant Reformation. Reformation or none, Jenkins sees mighty challenges looming for a global church with such a divided membership.
Protestants, too, must brace for challenges to their comparatively liberal faith. According to Jenkins, Pentecostalism and its offshoots, which claim an estimated membership of 400 million worldwide, present the greatest threat. The "deep personal faith, communal orthodoxy, mysticism, and puritanism" of Pentecostals, along with their "obedience to spiritual authority" has brought a radical, visionary brand of faith to already volatile social situations. Ignore Southern Christianities and their supernaturalist worldviews at your peril, Jenkins warns. They have been, are, and will be militant. And they are a big part of the future of world Christianity.
Jenkins’ points are worthy of note. As he writes, the picture of Christendom that many have in their heads depicts only a small fraction of the reality. The success of global evangelization has made that reality even more diverse than it was a century ago. Globalization forces us frequently to confront committed Christians whose social and cultural situation -- and religious leadership -- leads them to versions of faith far different from that of America’s mainstream Protestant denominations, and of many American Catholics.
History shows us that Christian scriptures and traditions contain ample material for those seeking to do violence in the name of their Lord. It is not improbable that Southern Christianities could become a breeding ground for intra-faith strife if Southern Christians come to see their faith as under attack. But as we anticipate the next well-spring of religiously justified hatred and violence, let us not forget that so-called Northern Christianity, replete as it is with the elements against which Jenkins warns, has itself given the world plenty of horror. The Enlightenment, secularization, and the privatization of faith, each of which has a highly contested place in American religious history and no sure hold on the Northern faithful, are no hedge against violence.
In an odd and unintentional way, Jenkins' study resembles many a Northern Christian's first steps in that violent direction: the other has been identified; they are very different than we are, and yet claim the name Christian -- what are we going to do about them?
Jonathan Ebel is a doctoral candidate in the history of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School.