There was an interesting article in the UK Times yesterday about the global success of ‘US-style muscular Christianity’ - that is, evangelicalism. The article is by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge and is based on their book God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World.
The basic thesis is familiar enough. There is some evidence for decline in church attendance in North America (they cite Jon Meacham’s Newsweek article on ‘The Decline and Fall of Christian America’). But in South America, Africa and Asia the evangelical church is flourishing. Adherents of the much ridiculed faith of Ned Flanders (they think of this very much as an American export success) can be found ‘in churches the size of football stadiums across Latin America, in 4,850ha (12,000-acre) “redemption camps” in Nigeria, in storefront churches in the slums of Rio and Guatemala City, in brick-and-mud tabernacles with metal roofs and dirt floors in rural South Africa’.
In post-Communist Russia 86% of the population identify themselves with Christianity (not an American export success, of course); and China, which already has more Christians than Communist Party members, is well on its way to becoming the world’s largest Christian country.
In light of this it is Europe’s proud secularist tradition that appears to be the historical and sociological anomaly; and even Europe is proving less resistant to religion than is usually assumed. Micklethwait and Wooldridge think that not only Islam but also Evangelical Christianity and charismatic Catholicism are on the rise, albeit from small bases. More than two million people have taken the Alpha course; Tony Blair now does God; and Nicolas Sarkozy has written a book arguing that religious voices should be heard in the public square.
The statement that really caught me off-balance, however, was this one: ‘Look around the world and you find that risible old Nedward - or at least the phenomenon he epitomises - has won one of the great intellectual battles of the past two centuries.’ Now it has seemed to me that Christianity in the West has lost pretty much every intellectual battle it has fought over the last two centuries; and in continuing to oppose the theory of evolution on the grounds that it contradicts scripture it shows itself determined not to interrupt a losing streak. How on earth can they claim that Christianity has won a great intellectual battle?
Of course, they are referring to one particular point of debate - that secularism will eventually eradicate religion in the same way that a competent and rational society might expect to eradicate other communicable diseases. And Evangelicalism has not so much won the intellectual battle as defied the opinion of intellectuals such as the sociologist C. Wright Mills, who argued in 1959 that ‘in due course, the sacred shall disappear altogether, except, possibly, in the private realm’.
But the assertion serves to highlight a huge but quite simple and probably unanswerable question: Is Christianity on an unstoppable upward trend? Or is it bound sooner or later to run into the Slough of Post-Christendom (Post-Colonial?) Despond.
Will the global church have to fall to the ground and die to itself in the way that the European church has done? Or does it have enough momentum, enough exuberance, enough stuff-you-secularism faith, enough uncomplicated confidence in the reality of God, to leap over the challenges of modernism and postmodernism - the two sides of the rationalist coin - in a single bound? Does the future lie with the global church or with the emerging, post-Christendom church?
Or to put it another way: Do the intellectual battles really matter?
Or to put it another way: What are we all so worried about?