If there is one thing we can reliably predict about the 21st century, it is that an increasing share of the world’s people is going to identify with one of two religions, either Christianity or Islam, and the two have a long and disastrous record of conflict and mutual incomprehension. For the sake of both religion and politics, and perhaps of simple planetary survival, it is vitally necessary for Christian and Jewish Northerners to gain a better understanding of Islam. But odd as it may sound perhaps the more pressing need is to appreciate that other religious giant, the strangely unfamiliar world of the new Christianity. Southern Christianity, the Third Church, is not just a transplanted version of the familiar religion of the older Christian states: the New Christendom is no mirror image of the Old. It is a truly new and developing entity. Just how different from its predecessor remains to be seen.
Studying Christianity in a predominantly Christian society can pose surprising difficulties. I teach in a religious studies program which, like most of its counterparts in universities across the United States, introduces students to the global dimensions of religious experience. In practice, that means providing a wide range of courses on the World Religions, such as Islam, Buddhism, and so on. The main religion that tends to suffer in this package is Christianity, which receives nothing like the attention it merits in terms of its numbers and global scale. Whatever the value of Christian claims to truth, it cannot be considered as just one religion out of many: it is, and will continue to be, by far the largest in existence. A generation ago, the neglect of Christianity in academic teaching made more sense than it does today, in that students could be expected to absorb information about the faith from churches, families, or society at large. Today, though, that is often not a realistic expectation, and one encounters dazzling levels of ignorance about the basic facts of the religion.
If Christianity as such receives short shift, the situation is still worse when it comes to the religion outside the West. Normally, textbooks discuss the faith in African and Asia chiefly in highly negative ways, in the context of genocide, slavery, and imperialism, and the voices of autonomous Christianity are rarely heard. Given the present and future distribution of Christians worldwide, a case can be made that understanding the religion in its non-Western context is a prime necessity for anyone seeking to understand the emerging world. American universities prize the goal of diversity in their teaching, introducing students to the thought-ways of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, often by using texts from non-Western cultures. However strange this may sound in terms of conventional stereotypes, teaching about Christianity would be a wonderful way to teach diversity, all the more so now that particular non-Western religion is returning to its roots. Significantly, though, few Religious Studies departments in public universities offer courses in Pentecostalism, say, compared with the substantial numbers teaching on Buddhism or Islam. Partly, this reflects political prejudices: at least in the humanities, most academics are strongly liberal, and take a dim view of Pentecostalism and fundamentalism. While colleges do discuss Catholicism, the issues involved in these courses are very much those of interest in the liberal West, rather than the lived realities of Catholic practice in Latin America or Africa.
Considering Christianity is a global reality can make us see the whole religion in a radically new perspective, which is startling and, often, uncomfortable. In fact, to adapt a phrase coined by theologian Marcus Borg, it is as if we are seeing Christianity again for the first time. In this encounter, we are forced to see the religion not just for what it is, but what it was in its origins and what it is going to be in the future. To take one example of these startling rediscoveries, Christianity is deeply associated with poverty. Contrary to myth, the typical Christian is not a White fat cat in the United States or western Europe, but rather a poor person, often unimaginably poor by Western standards.