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North America and the New Christendom

The center of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably southward, to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. What does this mean for North American neocalvinists? Gideon Strauss is the editor of Comment.

In his review of Philip Jenkins' The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2002), Mark Noll wrote for Books & Culture (March/April 2002) that

While European Christianity has become archaeology and North American Christianity hangs on as sociology, Christianity in ever-expanding sections of Africa, Latin America, and Asia is dynamic, life-transforming, and revolutionary—if often also wild, ill-informed, and undisciplined.

Jenkins in The Next Christendom sounds a clarion call for attention to the religious realities shaping the world in our time.

"Over the past century," writes Jenkins,

...the center of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably southward, to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Already today, the largest Christian communities on the planet are to be found in Africa and Latin America. If we want to visualize a "typical" contemporary Christian, we should think of a woman living in a village in Nigeria or in a Brazilian favela. As Kenyan scholar John Mbiti has observed, "the centers of the church's universality [are] no longer in Geneva, Rome, Athens, Paris, London, New York, but Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa and Manila."

Later in the book Jenkins writes that

The grim fact of Christian impoverishment becomes all the more true as Africa assumes its place as the religion's principal center. We are dealing with a continent that has endured countless disasters since independence, measured by statistics that become wearying by their unrelieved horror, whether we are looking at life expectancy, child mortality, or deaths from AIDS. Africa contributed less than 2 percent of the world's total GDP, although it is home to 13 percent of world population . . . Since the 1960s, Africa's share of world trade has all but disappeared. . . . Matters are made infinitely worse by the unravelling of several African states, a process attended by unbelievable bloodshed.

Christians in Africa, Asia and Latin America will respond to this reality, one way or another. Paul Freston in Evangelicals and Politics in Asia, Africa and Latin America (Cambridge University Press, 2001) delineates three possible ways in which the response of these Christians to global poverty might articulate the various spheres of society:

In burgeoning Third World evangelicalism we see a similar range of postures towards the state (though not necessarily in the same proportions, nor with the same overall effects) as in the history of worldwide Protestantism. One such posture is the rejection of political participation which characterised most Anabaptists of the sixteenth century. The second posture is the ideal of the "Christian nation," adopted by Calvin in continuity with the Middle Ages. The church is at the centre of society, furnishing its official creed. The pious ruler should promote true religion and morals by political and judicial means. . . . The third posture flourished initially among some early Baptists and the Levellers of the English Civil War, and later spread to other groups, including the Neo-Calvinists who governed Holland for much of the period from the 1890s to the 1940s. This is principled pluralism, of religious freedom in an non-confessional state.

As Freston writes, it is not clear which option African, Asian and Latin American Christians will choose, and what the consequences of their choices might be. As the numbers of Roman Catholics and evangelicals grow in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, they are likely—for this is the general historical pattern—to shift from the first posture (non-participation) to some mixture of the second (Christian integralism) and the third (principled pluralism).

Christian integralism leads not only to a shortage of religious freedom (often accompanied by a shortage of other human rights), but also to a collectivist view of the state that leaves little room for the flourishing of the various other spheres of society. By contrast, principled pluralism allows for religious freedom and a flourishing civil society, not on the basis of a modernist secularization of the public sphere, but more properly on what neocalvinists identify as the common grace societal structure of sphere sovereignty.

There is some truth to Mark Noll's diagnosis that European Christianity has become archaeology, North American Christianity hangs on as sociology, while Christianity in Africa, Latin America, and Asia is revolutionary. I would argue, however, that North American Christianity remains far more vibrant and continues to carry far more culturally transformative power than he seems to allow. In addition, I believe that North American Christianity, given that it continues to have a rich institutional fabric and enormous social and ecomomic resources, has a particular responsibility to be of service to the emerging Christianity of the global South. In particular I would argue that North American Christians have a duty to engage Christians from Africa, Asia, and Latin America in a dialogue about the problem of poverty and the architecture of society.

Neocalvinists in North America have perhaps a greater responsibility in this regard than any other evangelical movement. Africa, Asia and Latin America needs the idea of sphere sovereignty and the passion for social justice of the neocalvinist tradition.

The "dynamic, life-transforming, and revolutionary" Christianity of Africa, Latin America and Asia needs to forge a Christian social thought adequate to the historical challenges faced by people in these parts of the world. Such a social thought can be found in the neocalvinist tradition inspired by Abraham Kuyper.

Abraham Kuyper's opening address to the First Christian Social Congress in Amsterdam in 1891 had a galvanizing effect on the emerging Christian social movement in the Netherlands. It is at this Congress that Kuyper—with reference to Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum—delivered his illuminating and inspiring address on The Social Question and the Christian Religion, available in print as The Problem of Poverty, edited with an introduction by James W. Skillen (CPJ/Baker, 1991).

Kuyper had identified the purpose of the first Christian Social Congress to be discussion of the question: "What should we, as confessors of Christ, do about the social needs of our time?" He argued that an honest discussion of this "social question" required recognition "that serious doubt has arisen about the soundness of the social structure in which we live," and an acknowledgement "that public opinion is at war over the foundation on which a more appropriate—and therefore more liveable—social order may be built."

Kuyper had challenged his audience in these words:

Only one thing is necessary if the social question is to exist for you: you must realize the untenability of the present state of affairs, and you must account for this untenability not by incidental causes but by a fault in the very foundation of our society's organization. If you do not acknowledge this and think that social evil can be exorcised through an increase in piety, or through friendlier treatment or more generous charity, then you may believe that we face a religious question or possibly a philanthropic question, but you will not recognize the social question. This question does not exist for you until you exercise an architectonic critique of human society, which leads to the desire for a different arrangement of the social order.

The architectonic critique of society Kuyper argued for at the first Christian Social Congress was not a brand new idea—he had elaborated the metaphor already in a series of articles on manual labour published in early 1889.

"We must courageously and openly acknowledge," wrote Kuyper,

...that the Social Democrats are right when they call not only for the physician but most certainly for the architect as well. ...For they argue that society cannot be salvaged by eliminating a few abuses since the evil does not reside in such but in the entire structure of our social system...

The real issue between them comes to this: that the Liberals arrived ahead of the Social Democrats, built the house according to their design, and now demand that the Social Democrats accept the dwelling—though, as landlord, offering them some repairs. For their part the Social Democrats say:
Your whole house is useless. Let's demolish it altogether. Then we will build, at our combined expense, a new house according to my design.

Kuyper's architectonic critique of society was (1) passionate in its pursuit of economic justice and the alleviation of poverty, (2) committed to the emancipation of the poor from the patronising tutelage of the rich so that labour might achieve an independent agency in society , and (3) subtle in its architectonic critique of modern (liberal capitalist) society and in its advocacy for an alternative vision of a richly diverse societal structure, the vision of "sphere sovereignty." Similar passion, commitment, and subtlety is needed as we fashion an architectonic critique of the world in which we live today. North American Christians must join hands with Christians from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and build a global social movement in response to such a critique.

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Gideon Strauss Gideon Strauss
Gideon Strauss was the editor of Comment from 2000 to 2010. ... read more »

Posted in Philosophy, Religion.

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