September 27, 2002
“The Next Christianity,” A Reply
-- Jon Pahl
A secular form of apocalyptic mythologizing, an anachronistic analogy, and debilitating denial make Philip Jenkins’ “The Next Christianity” a poor piece of public prophecy. The basic logic of the piece is a syllogism: a “supernaturalist” Christianity is growing in the South (i.e., Africa and Latin America), supernaturalist Christianity is inherently violent, therefore a unified Christian South indicates the leading edge of a twenty-first century that will “almost certainly be regarded by future historians as a century in which religion replaced ideology as the prime animating and destructive force in human affairs” (54).
This is secular apocalypticism. It revives the old bogey of the French Enlightenment -- l’infame of religion, in the service of a dualistic mythology that predicts a violent end. But this crystal ball is a little foggy. Jenkins is right that Christianity is growing (“relentlessly,” as he puts it) in the South. But the prospect of a unified Christian South is unlikely. Far more likely is the continual and tragic struggle of a South torn by conflict stemming from the legacies of colonialism. Furthermore, much of the new Christianity in the South is not well understood by the mythological dualisms of “conservative” versus “liberal,” or “traditional” versus “modern,” that Jenkins imposes upon them. It is true that indigenous beliefs, folklore, and customs often combine with Christian beliefs and practices in very complex ways in the South. But the same kind of hybridity also characterizes many religious movements in the postmodern North, as Jenkins occasionally admits. Evangelical Catholics, Christian Pagans, and Jews for Jesus cannot be labeled “conservative” or “liberal” without gross distortion, and besides, such hybrid groups hardly constitute the leading edge of threats to world peace. Nation-states still hold that position of dishonor, and their massive militaries are not likely to fall to a few African or Latin American groups of spirit-believers who also pray to Jesus. It is difficult to conclude from his own evidence why Jenkins then tars the Southern movements of hybrid religions as “almost certainly” a “destructive force.”
Perhaps the problem lies in Jenkins’ analogy with the Reformation of the sixteenth century -- a move as anachronistic as his secular apocalypticism is unwarranted. It hardly “seems inevitable,” as Jenkins contends, that an “enormous rift” analogous to the schism between Protestants and Catholics in the sixteenth-century will occur between Christians North and South. At least as likely on the basis of the historical evidence is that the ecumenical dialogues and intercultural cooperation forged over the past century will flourish, building stronger religious agencies for peace-making, mediation, and reconciliation. After all, the twentieth-century was the ecumenical century, and saw the emergence of religious non-violence in leaders like Gandhi, King, and Tutu; in institutions like the World Council of Churches and the World Conference on Religion and Peace; and in manifold non-governmental organizations, as R. Scott Appleby has recently surveyed in The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation.
Communications technologies, shared publications, easy travel, faculty-student exchanges in the academy, and personal friendships have created networks between old-line Christians in the North and indigenous churches in the South where all voices (even strident ones) are welcome, while difficult issues are debated. Certainly there will be differences between Christians North and South, but Jenkins appears to assume that “religion” is some sort of irresistible force, like Fate, rather than a human project that arises from and can be altered by human agency. This is an oddly ahistorical assumption, and on its basis Jenkins dismisses the agency and intentions of the vast majority of Christians in the South. Such believers (think Desmond Tutu) favor democratization, sustainable development, and peace, albeit on their terms, rather than on the imposed conditions of Northern ideologies -- of which they have only too much experience.
Finally, what makes Jenkins’ alarmism so alarming -- and important to correct -- is its debilitating denial of Northern, and more specifically, of the United States’, failure to develop humane foreign policies and practices. If we want to point fingers at the causes of global conflict, surely it is premature to blame “The Third World,” when the first two still have plenty to confess and redress. The U.S. is directly or indirectly implicated in the vast majority of global conflict and violence -- nuclear, chemical, environmental, and so on. Jenkins thus scapegoats religion in a delicious but dangerous irony. Claiming the end of ideology, he only evinces its enduring sway.
Jon Pahl is a professor at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.