A slow dawning (reasons for hope – 3)

January 26, 2004

(this WW was delayed by server problems…)

The third in this series on reasons for hope suggests that observers in the west are slowly awakening to global spiritual realities.

Hope, we have said, is not based on present evidence or trends. The grounds and goals of our hope are anchored in the unchanging Triune God. That’s why the writer to Hebrews talks of an anchor, a sure and steadfast hope – chapter 6: 19. Our hope needs to be anchored on God’s character, promises and purposes, on God’s future. Even when there is no visible evidence, there is still reason for hope.

That said, we have pointed to signs of growing spiritual hunger in Europe. In the last WW, ‘Together for Europe’, we suggested that the ongoing God-in-the-constitution debate could have some very positive outcomes. I shared my impression that believers across a broad spectrum are responding to the opportunity to celebrate the riches of Europe’s Judeo-Christian heritage.

Now let’s zoom outwards to gain a global view on what may be one of the biggest stories missed by the pundits.

Academics have anticipated (and often hoped-for) the continual decline of Christianity and the triumph of secularism. Europe is commonly described by many as a post-Christian continent, the bell-wether for the rest of the west. Yet new voices are being raised in academic circles claiming Christianity to be both growing and evolving in ways that Westerners tend not to see. Western self-preoccupation, say these voices, has blinded them to see the most dramatic revolution in the world today, global religious revival.

In the light of new global realities, secularism’s future is not rosy. The collapse of communism in the Soviet bloc of course was one spectacular form of secularism’s retreat. A recent survey found that after 70 years of atheistic education in Russia, over 70 per cent of the population now believed in God. Russian logic argues that if the communist government said there was no God, there must be one.

China too is in the process of becoming Christianized, according to David Aikman, former Beijing bureau chief for TIME magazine. Aikman has spent much time in China over the past three decades. In the summer of 2002 he spent three months with key Christian leaders in China gathering the final information for his recently-published Jesus in Beijing. On that visit he also addressed our YWAM global leadership team, (see w e e k l y w o r d 02.09.02 – FULFILLING THE KHAN’S VISION?). He shared then his belief that China could be 20 to 30 per cent Christian within 30 years.

“If that should happen,” he writes in his book, “it is almost certain that a Christian view of the world will be the dominant worldview within China’s political and cultural establishment, and possibly also within senior military circles.”

China is almost self-consciously casting around for something to replace the bankrupt philosophy of Marxist-Leninism, says Aikman. Christianity has not yet been embraced as that replacement by the Chinese people, but today it is in a very good position to do so. The intellectual center of gravity for Christianity may move decisively out of Europe and North America as the Christianisation of China continues and as China becomes a global superpower. Chinese think-tanks estimate China will match the power of the U.S. by 2020 and could emerge as the number-one global superpower with a few decades.

Christianity will change the nature of China in many different ways over the next several decades, and in doing so, will change the world in which we live, claims Aikman.

Large regions of the non-communist world are also experiencing an equally spectacular revival of religion, Holland’s high-brow paper, the NRC Handelsblad, reported recently. In their soon-to-be-published book Worlds of Power, researchers Stephen Ellis and Gerrie ter Haar claim that Pentecostal and charismatic churches are ‘spreading like cabbages’ (Dutch for ‘reproducing like rabbits’) in the Majority World. The ideological language of the world will become more religious, declare the authors, who are not just thinking of Christianity. They also see revivals of Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism in Asian countries, and point to the revival of Islam in political debate.

None of this should be happening according to western intellectual theories of modernization, say Ellis and ter Haar. Hence western academics haven’t realized what was happening and have totally underestimated the significance of this religious revival. Separation of church and state by the Enlightenment led to a widespread assumption that, as the world developed, belief in unseen realities would simply be discarded. Perhaps that is the case in an unbelieving Western Europe, suggest the authors, but not globally. More lands are being governed by religious elites, who may even control the latest scientific knowledge, including‚Äîin the case of India, Pakistan and, they add, the US‚Äînuclear technology!

Governmental institutions introduced by western colonial powers simply became facades masking deeper beliefs in spiritual powers. Western arrogance often assumes that Africa’s history only began in the 19th century with colonization, say the authors. But failure of western models of development lies behind the spiritual revival in Africa particularly. In the 50’s and 60’s, African economic growth was often 5 or 6 per cent. Nigeria was expected to become a world power within two or three decades. Africa would develop more easily than Asia without the obstacles of religion, conventional wisdom held. But since the oil crisis in the 70’s, Africa has not followed secular western expectations.

Ellis and ter Haar argue that lack of imagination hinders westerners from seeing that western models don’t necessarily work in other contexts. The west is so convinced of its own value, they argue: “we know what is best for you; we don’t need to ask; we come to develop you, not the other way around.” Westerners often don’t understand how others seek to improve their lives, also materially, through their religious faith. But for Africans, reality also includes the unseen. The western mission to civilise on secular values has failed.

Philip Jenkins also warns that western self-importance has caused observers to miss the most dramatic revolution in the world today. In The Next Christendom, which has triggered much debate in western academic circles since its appearance little more than a year ago, Jenkins claims Christianity to be on the rise again, but this time with a centre of gravity in the southern hemisphere. In Africa alone last century, the number of Christians rose from 10 million to 360 million!

Christianity as a whole is both growing and mutating in ways that observers in the West tend not to see, says Jenkins. News reports today may well focus on a resurgent and sometimes angry Islam. But it is Christianity that will leave the deepest mark on the twenty-first century‚Äîin its variety and vitality, its global reach, its association with the world’s fastest-growing societies, its shifting centers of gravity and in the way its values and practices vary from place to place.

The process will not necessarily be a peaceful one, cautions Jenkins. Only the foolish would venture anything beyond the broadest predictions about the religious picture a century or two ahead. But the twenty-first century will almost certainly be regarded by future historians as a century in which religion replaced ideology as the prime animating and destructive force in human affairs, guiding attitudes to political liberty and obligation, concepts of nationhood, and, of course, conflicts and wars.

A slow dawning?
Western observers seem to be slowly waking up to the realization that the demise of Christianity—and the ultimat

e triumph of secularism—may be as elusive as the midsummer arctic night. F
or after sinking low in the
afternoon sky, the arctic summer sun rolls slowly along the horizon refusing extinction, until dusk merges into dawn and the reborn sun climbs again to start a new day.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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