Global Christianity, Global Critique:

The many globalizations of Christianity

posted by Richard Madsen

Globalization, Chalmers Johnson says, is just a new word for what used to be called imperialism. He is partly correct, but I do think there are some differences. Cultural globalization, at least, is what the world looks like from the point of view of an imperium in decline.

Christianity has been spread around the world for many centuries now. In the sixteenth century, the conquistadores brought Catholic Christianity to South America and the Philippines. In the seventeenth century, Jesuit, Franciscan, and Dominican missionaries brought it to India, Japan, and China. In the nineteenth century, Catholic and Protestant missionaries planted the faith in the colonies established throughout the world during the age of European imperialism. But this dissemination of the Christian faith was not called globalization. It was called “propaganda fidei” or “Christian mission.”

Now, it is European and North American historians and anthropologists who are leading the discussion of global Christianity, and its “global critique” is the work of Western philosophers and theologians. What is new about this global Christianity and why are Western intellectuals now concerned about it?

What is new, I think, is the changing position of Western intellectuals—both Christian and secular—in the world order, and the consequent expansion of their horizons. Such expansion takes place under two conditions: first, new forms of communication enable people in one culture to encounter the ways of life and thought of another; and, second, one or both sides are cognitively and morally vulnerable to the effects of the new encounter. One can have the first condition without the second. For example, if one society invades and subdues another through overwhelming power, it is not necessarily morally vulnerable to the new experiences to which it is exposed. The hegemonic society’s elites can just dismiss the other’s strange customs as primitive and inconsequential. To overcome its weakness, the elites in the invaded society may feel pressured to acquiesce in this condescension and to imitate the beliefs and values of the politically superior country in order to acquire its power. The powerful society, in effect, has pulled the weaker society into its own horizons. But if the power relationship is relatively symmetrical, if one society encounters another on a relatively equal footing, the cognitive frameworks of both may be vulnerable to destabilizing re-interpretation. The horizons—the scope of possibility for thought and feeling and belief—of both may expand.

During the ages of Western conquest and colonization, the Christianity implanted around the world was defined and controlled by imperialist powers. Westerners could be proud of having brought their faith to their new dominions and could take satisfaction in transforming those dominions, at least partially, into their own religious likeness—but only partially, because it was usually thought that the “natives” could never fully understand the subtleties of theology and could never be fully trusted to govern themselves. Until after the Second World War, the bishops and leading clergy in most Catholic colonies were European, as were the leaders of Protestant denominations. With movements toward de-colonization, that began to change, but the hegemony of the Western powers ensured that the normative standards for Western theology and ecclesial polity were set in the West itself. Even the theologians of liberation got the foundations of their theological education in universities and seminaries in Europe and North America.

Now, however, Europe and North America have lost their relative standing in the world and stand on something closer to equal footing with new centers of wealth and power around the globe. This leads to a destabilizing expansion of horizons, which in turn leads to anthropological and theological discourse about the globalization of Christianity.

Intellectuals who carry on their reflections within this new horizon notice certain things that they previously hadn’t taken seriously. One of these is the vigor of kinds of indigenous popular Christianity that were marginal to the old missionary enterprise—the kinds with a stripped down theology and a heartfelt faith and hope in the direct experience of the Holy Spirit. Although the origins of these forms of Christianity are in religious movements that began in the West, they were often regarded with suspicion, or as inconsequential, by Western leaders of Christian denominations in Asia and Africa. From the Western leaders’ point of view, one problem was that these forms could easily be propagated by local Christians, without the benefit of sophisticated Western training. In the past generation, it has indeed been these forms of Christianity that have grown most rapidly, even while the forms of Christianity that once dominated the West have gone into decline. At the same time, many of the rapidly growing forms of Christianity in the two-thirds world take on the flavor of their local cultures and seem alien to many Western Christians. This is what is often of concern in the current Western discourse on global Christianity.

Perhaps our situation today is not unique but happens whenever a religious homeland loses its hegemony. Perhaps our situation—for Western Christians and “post-Christians” alike—is akin to that of the Jewish leaders of the Jesus movement in the first century CE. After the destruction of Jerusalem and the diaspora of the Jews, they saw the form of their faith that had been adapted by Paul to be more acceptable to Gentiles now suddenly beginning to grow in dynamic fashion, eventually taking on forms that its Jewish forbearers—and even Paul—might have found barely recognizable. The stone that the builders rejected now became the capstone. It is appropriate that several of the articles in this special issue focus on the role played by the apostle Paul, because he began the first of many globalizations of Christianity.

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One Response to “The many globalizations of Christianity”

  1. Yorgason & della Dora in their editorial for Social & Cultural Geography, 10, 6 (2009) approach similar questions within cultural geography as you have dealt with them here. Not wishing to reduce to a position of Christianity = imperialism = Christianity, they are seeking a de-centering of secularisation as a mode of analysis.

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