Global Christianity and (post)modernity

Last week, I wrote a post discussing the southward shift in Christianity, also referred to as the rise of Global Christianity.  Since I talk a lot about modernity, postmodernity, and whatnot in this blog, an obvious question might be how the rise of Global Christianity relates to these historical eras.  The class I’ve been TAing this semester has been structured around the theme of modernity, so since this post and the last have come out of a lecture for that class, I have an answer to that question.

At first blush, it might seem like Global Christianity, being primarily a non-Western phenomenon, and (post)modernity, being primarily a Western phenomenon, might not have a lot to do with each other, but I think there are at least two ways to connect them.  I would like to suggest that both can be tied to the trends of globalization and pluralism.

One way of answering how World Christianity fits into a narrative of modernity is to talk about the relationship between World Christianity and globalization, assuming that globalization is an outgrowth or full flowering of modernity or (as I would probably argue) an important part of the context of postmodernity.

Christian mission has a long history as both a form of globalization and as a force that’s been tied to other forms of globalization.  In fact, that’s what I’m writing my dissertation about.  Religion has long been something that’s bound people together across the globe.  In addition, there have been close (though complicated) connections between Christian missions and other globalizing forces, like commerce and colonialism.

But where I think Christianity and especially World Christianity ties best into globalization is that it reflects the same global/local (or glocal) nature one sees in secular forms of globalization.  Christianity is at the same time a pre-eminently global religion and a pre-eminently local religion.  It is global by virtue of the catholicity of the faith.  It is local by the propensity of the faith to adapt itself to local cultures (a process called inculturation).

Furthermore, scholars have argued that conversion from traditional religions to Christianity is a means of establishing new, stable, global connections in a world where destabilizing global connections are threatening traditional ways of life.  Yet at the same time, Christianity can be a way of preserving (though at the same time changing or reinterpreting) elements of traditional ways of life, from language to ethnicity to cultural habits to social structures.

So there’s a dialectic between Christianity as a global religion and Christianity as a local religion, where there are tensions between the two, but in which the two feed into each other – Christianity’s global connections are often what generate local appeal, but without the ability to adapt locally, Christianity wouldn’t grow globally.

Another way is to tie the story of World Christianity into (post)modernity is to talk about World Christianity as another form of pluralism or diversity which undercuts the sorts of grand narratives that modernity wants to construct and thus fits with the postmodern world.  Here, I’m using pluralism not as a value to be promoted, but rather as a term describing the diversity of the world around us.  Often, pluralism causes tension and conflict, and I think the question of how to live in a pluralistic setting is one of the most pressing questions of postmodernity/what comes next.

World Christianity reflects the pluralism of our world in several ways.  First, when examining World Christianity, you find a lot of pluralism within Christianity.  There is denominational pluralism.  Catholics, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Independents, Orthodox, and Protestants think, believe, worship, and practice differently.  There is an abundance of cultural pluralism within World Christianity.  This cultural pluralism within Christianity can lead to misunderstanding and conflict, both within and between cultures.  There are theological differences, differences in worship, differences is ecclesiology, etc.  In particular, there are differences in theologies and in access to resources between Western and non-Western Christianity.

World Christianity also reflects pluralism between religions.  Christians outside the West often live in situations where they share societies with a significant number of non-Christians and in many instances (especially in Asia) are minority populations in predominantly non-Christian contexts.  This raises the question for Christians of how one reacts theologically, ethically, politically, etc. to people from other faiths, especially other world religions such as Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.  How should Christians deal with certain eastern religious settings were religion is additive rather than exclusive, and Jesus can be another god in the pantheon?  How should Christians deal with violence or political restrictions imposed on them by other religious groups?

This question of political restrictions raises another form in which World Christianity reflects the postmodern problem of pluralism.  Many nation-state governments see pluralism as a problem and seek to repress ethnic or religious diversity out of fear that it will destabilize the state.  Brian Grim recently released a study saying that 70% of the world’s population lives in countries with high or very high levels of political or social restrictions on religion.  Not only are Christians persecuted for being Christians, they are also in many places persecuted for being ethnic minorities, like the Karen in Myanmar.

Interestingly, both of these connections between World Christianity and (post)modernity also tie in to the theme of the contextualization of Christianity – of recognizing that theology is developed from within social and cultural contexts.  When people talk about contextuality, they are also often seeking to promote the development of indigenous theologies from within non-Western contexts.  But contextuality isn’t only non-Western.  We in the West have a context, too, and connecting Christianity and that context is part of why I blog.


Jessica posted on May 5, 2011 at 9:35 am

I very much enjoyed reading this, David. It’s refreshing to hear someone talk about Christianity smartly and in the context of the world in which it exists. I’d never really thought of Christianity as being glocal (I’m never sure whether to love or hate that word–), but it totally fits, and I think you’re right. Great blog!

David Wm. Scott posted on May 6, 2011 at 5:33 am

Thanks, Jessica!

Beth posted on May 11, 2011 at 8:08 pm

Hey David,
Nice post. I am, however, a bit uncomfortable (as you might expect) with the term “pluralism.” Even though you claim that you are not using the term as a value to be promoted, I still connote “pluralism” with the approach to inter-religious dialogue that claims that no one religion has an exclusive claim to truth. Now, you are not using the term so much in reference to inter-religious but rather ecumenical dialogue and the differences that exist between Catholics, Protestants, and different denominations of both. But still, the term and its context in a blog about post-modernism makes me wonder: are there some denominations that are “more true” than others? Is the sacred deposit of Truth contained more in one than the other? Or, do we have to claim as “post-modernists” and “pluralists” that all of these different “expressions” of Christianity are just as true (all some for of the Christian truthS) since they are contextualized, glocalized versions of the same reality? Where does Truth (capital T and singular) fit into your characterization of global Christianity?

David Wm. Scott posted on May 11, 2011 at 9:30 pm

I’m really not trying to comment on who has the Truth in the post (though obviously it’s Methodists 😉 ). By talking about pluralism, I’m not trying to say that no one has the Truth, but rather pointing to the fact that in our world, there are an increasingly large number of different takes on what the Truth is. Even if we have the Truth and are confident in that belief, I think we need to recognize that there are many people out there who disagree with us but are just as confident they do and many people who are just as confident that no one does. Coming to terms with a pluralistic world doesn’t necessarily mean relativism – it does mean figuring out how to live in a world in which we recognize that people don’t all share the same values and have a multiplicity of different viewpoints.

Post a Comment

Your email address is never shared. Required fields are marked *