2016-06-30
I have recently begun a lecture tour that will last until mid-August, taking me around the world. In this column, during the next few months, I will attempt to describe the state of Christianity in Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. I introduce this series with an analysis of what has become a popular theme in conservative religious journalism: namely, the presumed shift of the center of world Christianity from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere.

The word "shift" in this analysis may well not be the best choice, but that is the one normally employed. Christianity in Europe and in nations of European descent has fallen on difficult days statistically, while major growth is occurring in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and most spectacularly in Africa. It is not the accuracy of this data that concerns me; it is, rather, the way conservative voices, normally from the First World, interpret this data. They are the ones who have chosen the word "shift" as a part of their analysis.

I saw this interpretation first employed in the reports from conservative Western journalists covering the Lambeth Conference in the United Kingdom in 1998, a once-a-decade meeting of the world's Anglican bishops. At this conference, for the first time in Anglican history, bishops of color outnumbered bishops of English or Anglo-Saxon origins. The daughter churches of the Third World had reached a new level of strength.

These bishops of color, however, overwhelmingly reflected the evangelical background and style of the English, American, and Canadian missionaries who brought Christianity to the Third World during the past two centuries. The great majority of the African bishops, for example, appeared unaware of the past 200 years of critical biblical scholarship. They had also either not yet engaged or were resistant to new learning that had countered the old traditions on such great social issues as race and ethnicity, the emancipation of women, and the new understanding of homosexuality.

Indeed, when those issues were raised at the Lambeth Conference, the majority of the Third World bishops responded with biblical quotations designed to prohibit any further debate, just as their evangelical mentors had done generations earlier in the West. It was like listening to people caught in a time warp. They seemed not to realize that this same strategy had been used in the West to undergird slavery, segregation, and apartheid, to say nothing of protecting the divine right of kings, and asserting the flatness and centrality of the earth inside a three-tiered universe.

While I am not impressed with this response in the 21st century, I have no trouble understanding why the Third World bishops were led to adopt it. The Third World has for centuries endured colonial domination, which was used to keep the people of those nations in servile backwardness.

My impression at Lambeth was that a new form of theological colonialism was now being tried by the American, British, Australian, Canadian, and New Zealander conservatives who encouraged their Southern Hemisphere allies in these failed tactics. In the West, these conservatives were part of the defeated backwater in each of their national churches. They had lost the battle to save the literal Bible. They had lost the battle against segregation, against evolution, against science, against birth control, against the equality of women, against abortion, and against justice for gay and lesbian people. In their own faith communities, they were resorting to splinter and schismatic tactics. The Lambeth Conference, with so many Third World bishops in attendance, gave them, they reasoned, a final chance to reverse history and restore their own premodern values to the Anglican Communion. So in reporting on Lambeth, they gloried in what looked like a revival of yesterday's values and spoke of the "shift" in Christianity's center to the Southern Hemisphere.

I saw this same theme next in Roman Catholic circles. It has become a major subtext in the rash of speculative pieces by conservative Western Catholics about the successor to Pope John Paul II. These speculations are written against the backdrop of serious church decline in Europe. Despite the long and reactionary reign of this pope and his arbiter of orthodoxy, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the decline of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe has not been reversed--rather, it has reached crisis proportions. The only place this church is growing is in the Third World, amid populations where education is not yet universal and where modern scientific knowledge frequently clashes with traditional values--making the claims of a premodern Christianity appealing to a fearful people.

So these writers suggest that since the center of Christianity is shifting to the south, Vatican politics ought to reward these burgeoning churches by choosing one of their leaders, like Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, as the next Bishop of Rome.

Finally, this same theme was broadcast across the nation in a recent feature in Newsweek, written by its senior religion editor, Kenneth Woodward. In this article, the rising numbers of Third World Christians were once again interpreted as positive, in that it augurs well for a return to biblical authority and traditional values. This, of course, means that such a return will support the continued Roman Catholic negativity toward such women's issues as ordination, birth control, abortion, and the right to get a divorce from an abusive husband without losing status as a communicant in good standing. It would also keep the homosexual issue from even being discussed, since that is the current pattern in Catholic practice.

In each of these illustrations, the agenda of the conservative commentators is obvious: They are seeking allies in their own losing struggles. So all these commentators view Third World Christianity through rose-colored glasses. They do not mention that by and large in the Third World, there is still the assumption that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is wrong, if indeed Darwin is known at all. If one were to cite the definitive DNA evidence that links human life not only with the apes but even with plant life, many Third World Christians--including most of their bishops--would be incredulous.


These commentators have not asked about the level of biblical scholarship possessed by the Third World leaders. If they had, they would have discovered in most of them a literal fundamentalism that might even be to the right of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, whom no one would confuse with a biblical scholar. Third World Christians generally don't know such biblical conclusions as the fact that Moses died some 300 years before any of the books called "the Books of Moses" were written, or that 40 to 70 years passed between the death of Jesus and the writing of the gospels.

These conservative commentators do not mention the status of women in the Third World; they choose to ignore the fact that polygamy is still observed in parts of Africa, and the brutal practice of female circumcision, deliberately designed in these patriarchal cultures to remove sexual pleasure from women, continues to be a part of many African societies.

These conservative commentators will not write about the brutal tribal wars based on ethnicity that have set the people of Rwanda against one another, all but annihilated the Ibos of Nigeria, kept the Luos repressed in Kenya, and spread civil war across many of the states of central and southern Africa. In these wars, ethnic cleansing is practiced, and African Christians, Protestant and Catholic, have participated, allowing tribal identity to overwhelm Christian teaching.

These commentators have not mentioned the blatant homophobia in both Africa and Southeast Asia. Christian leaders in Africa still maintain that there are no homosexuals in their countries, or if homosexuality is admitted, that it was "caught" from white Europeans. Christians throughout the Third World still assert that homosexuals are either evil people who can be changed if they are converted, or that they are mentally sick people who can be healed if properly treated. Such theories are dismissed as nonsense in Western medical circles today. Homosexual people in Africa have told me that they risk murder if they come out of their closets. They believe that if they were killed, the act would be endorsed by many Christian leaders of that continent, who quote scripture to justify it.

These conservative commentators do not mention that God is so often defined in Third World Christianity as an invasive, theistic miracle worker. I shall never forget a bishop from Sudan telling me that God had miraculously provided for his deliverance from death by causing someone to telephone him with a message requiring him to leave his home for a brief absence. During that time, guerilla fighters broke into his home and killed his wife and son. His deliverance was a miracle, he asserted. Why God could not also have saved his wife and son by suggesting that they accompany him had not occurred to him. Clearly, his God believed bishops to be more important that wives and children.

No, the decline of Christianity in the Northern Hemisphere and its growth in the Southern Hemisphere does not represent a shifting pattern that constitutes the wave of the future. The decline of the European and North American churches is happening because the ancient presuppositions on which traditional Christianity rested have been all but destroyed by the expanding knowledge available in the Western world. The churches of the West have had to wrestle with the Enlightenment; new discoveries in biology, physics, and astrophysics; the changing role of women; and the overwhelming data suggesting that homosexuality is a perfectly normal part of the spectrum of human sexual experience.

The fact is that Christians in the Third World have yet to be introduced to these insights--but they will be, sooner or later.
When that happens, their literal, magical, fundamentalist religious system will also come tumbling down. If Christianity lives in the 21st century, it will be because all Christians have engaged and been transformed by the insights of the modern world, both secular and theological. It will not be because we have retreated into an anti-intellectual mentality in order to prop up a dying religion in which we can preserve traditional prejudices and outdated ideas.

The vocation of the church today is to embrace reality, to walk into the headwinds of modernity, to engage the issues of our generation, and to lay aside our own theological naivete. A pious yearning to see the Christianity of the Third World as a harbinger of things to come is not a step into a living future.

As I travel throughout the world, I will look for signs that Christianity is engaging the issues of the real world. I do not expect to find those signs in the conservative revival of evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity in the Third World.
more from beliefnet and our partners