Today and tomorrow I want to take a 500-year (or so) view of Christianity, kind of a look from 30,000 feet, if you will.
First, I want to reintroduce you to The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, by Phyllis Tickle, a book I mentioned last August in a blog book column, as I link you to this thoughtful analysis of the book by my friend Tom Roberts, editor at large at the National Catholic Reporter.
Then tomorrow I want to reintroduce you to the great reformer John Calvin, the 500th anniversary of whose birth is being celebrated this year.
But first Roberts' piece on Tickle's book.
Tom suggests, drawing on Tickle's work, that "we are squarely in the midst of a grand shakeup that regularly occurs on a bi-millennial basis to institutionalized Christianity." I think both Tickle and Roberts are right, but you sort of have to get up to the 30,000-foot level to see it all.
There are lots of forces at work inside Christianity that are pushing and pulling it in competing directions. The faith is sweeping across Africa and is growing mostly in the Southern Hemisphere. What is growing there is mostly a kind of theologically conservative Christianity that may be quite different in the end from what most people think of when they think about conservative Christianity in the United States now, where it is characterized by theological fundamentalism, or scriptural literalism, and/or by its adoption of a socially conservative agenda on such issues as abortion, gay marriage and so on.
I think the faith moving across Africa and Asia is more focused on reliance on a God who provides for the poor and needy in all situations. Imagine taking Celtic Christianity's emphasis on the presence of God in the ordinary things of our lives and translating it into African or Asian culture. There's not a lot of time or need in those cultures now for nuanced theological debates, given the fragility of life. Rather, there is more need for joyful worship of a God who cares about even "the least of these," to quote the New Testament.
At the same time, what we might call a more liberal impulse is moving through Christianity. That includes the efforts to ordain gays and lesbians to ministry as well as to give women and lay people in general more influence in church life. And it includes an openness to interfaith dialogue that is not built on a need to try to convert people as a starting point.
It's not yet possible to see just what this 500-year flood will drown and what it simply will nourish. But as the globe shrinks and mobility increases, the old-time religion of 19th and 20th Century America inevitably will give way to new forms influenced by Christianities from around the world and new movements (such as the Emergent Church) in this country.
It's really an exciting time for those of us who are Christian. My hope is that we can hold on to the core of our faith even while being open to experiencing new ways of living it out. We'll see.
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MORE CHURCH-STATE ISSUES
This ABC News story about the U.S. military either distributing or destroying Bibles in Afghanistan seemed to raise the same kind of concerns I wrote about recently in discussing Jeff Sharlet's recent article in Harper's Magazine about efforts to create a Christian power center in the U.S. military. No branch of -- or agency representing -- our government should be out promoting one religion over another. Why is that concept so difficult for some people?