Pa. scholar ponders future of Christianity

Penn State professor believes religion will thrive in Latin America

Asia, Africa also in picture

May 05, 2002|By Kristin E. Holmes | Kristin E. Holmes,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - When scholars talk about the death of Christianity and the rise of the secular state, Pennsylvania State University Professor Philip Jenkins just remembers the south.

Not south as in Georgia or Mississippi, but south as in sections of Latin America, Africa and Asia. There, Christianity is not only alive but thriving.

"Christianity is not in free fall," said Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Penn State. "It's booming and growing very fast in absolute and relative numbers."

Jenkins has gained recent prominence for one of his previous books, Pedophiles and Priests. In his latest, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Jenkins offers his perspective on this far different issue of world demographics.

He explores a trend that mission scholars first noted in the late 1970s.

Christianity is still the chosen religion of a third of the world's population, but most Christians no longer live in the United States or Europe. The center has moved southward, and the typical Christian in the world today is a Latin American or African woman.

Europeans now make up 28 percent of the world's Christian population, down from 70 percent in 1900, said Dana L. Robert, a theology professor at Boston University who has written extensively on global Christianity.

By 2050, six nations will each have more than 100 million Christians, Jenkins projects. Only one, the United States, represents the "advanced industrialized world."

The other countries are Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire).

Jenkins notes that "traditional heartlands of Christianity" such as Britain, France and Italy are absent from the list.

Enlightenment's impact

They are missing because of the impact of the Enlightenment and the intellectual revolution on the West, scholars say. Industrialization, scientific advances and urbanization have largely driven religion to the periphery of public consciousness in much of the West.

For retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, the decline can primarily be attributed to a failing of the church.

Christian leaders have not adapted the teachings of the church to a modern world where scientific discoveries and life's random realities challenge the sureties of one's faith, the bishop said. People have turned away.

"It is comforting to know there is a Father God who is taking care of me. The problem is that life doesn't allow us to believe that for very long," said Bishop Spong, former head of the Diocese of Newark, N.J., and the author of the 1998 book Why Christianity Must Change or Die.

Church of the oppressed

"You could find yourself sitting in a restaurant that a suicide bomber decides is their target that day," the bishop said. "What happens when you realize that there is no good protective parent figure, no matter how faithful you are?"

Meanwhile, in Africa, Latin America and Asia, Roman Catholicism, Pentecostal Christianity, and indigenous Christian churches are booming.

"Christianity makes sense in very poor societies," Jenkins said. "If you think about it, the world of the New Testament is the world of the very poor, the world of the oppressed."

Followers there often practice an emotional and charismatic kind of Christianity that incorporates elements of their culture and emphasizes miracles and healing, Robert said. They may go to church not only on Sundays, but every night for prophecy and healing.

"This is a supernatural [belief] that is not pie in the sky," Jenkins said. "It's `I want my reward and my miracle now,' and people believe in large numbers that they are getting their miracle now."

In Africa, religious institutions help to provide health care, education and social support and to find marriage partners, and assist with overseas travel, business and finding jobs, said Rosalind I.J. Hackett, a religious-studies professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Hackett is writing a book on women and new religious movements in Africa.

"In many parts of Africa, religion is about sheer survival, not just identity or personal faith," Hackett said.

But Bishop Spong argues that it is only a matter of time before the countries in the South face the same challenge to the faith that he says the West is grappling with.

In his 1998 book, Spong challenges the tenets of Christian orthodoxy and contends the faith could well disintegrate. In his latest book, A New Christianity for a New World, he sketches out a plan for the church's salvation.

`We can't pretend'

He says the discoveries of Darwin, Galileo, Copernicus and others have proved that "we can't pretend that the Earth is flat, that the Earth is the center of the universe, and that God is above in the sky."

The church must not ignore those issues but address them and find "the essence of Christianity" for a new world, Spong says.

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