Final lecture: Global Christianity

[Since Global Christianity (syllabus) is my more “experimental” course this quarter, similar to the devil course last spring, I thought it might be appropriate to post my capstone lecture notes here, as I did with the devil course.]

Experimental course—an expansion of my area of research, giving me a chance to look at one of the most rapidly growing fields in the study of Christianity and to introduce students to what is considered a “cutting-edge” area of research.

Exceptionally broad course as well—geographically, historically, and theoretically. In addition to the specific communities and movements we looked at, with all the historical and economic background that was necessary for that, we discussed a variety of issues in the theory of religion, including Cox’s concept of “primal religion,” the secularization thesis, the notion that Christianity and especially Protestantism leads inexorably to civil society, capitalism, and democracy, the theory of Lamin Sanneh that Christianity is a religion defined by its “translatability”—and just for good measure, we did some dialectical thinking and some Foucault as well.

I’ve chosen to conclude the course with Cox’s final reflection on Pentecostalism and with another of Sobrino’s urgent expositions of the “preferential option for the poor.” Both, it seems to me, point toward what their respective movements could or should be—though as we’ve seen, the reality has tended to be different.

In the case of Cox, we’ve seen that his hope for a Pentecostal form of liberation theology seems unlikely to come to fruition—in Žižek’s categories of therapeutic vs. critical religion, Pentecostalism seems to be very firmly on the side of the therapeutic. And there’s a lot to be said for the therapeutic—we live in a world that is often very difficult and painful to live in, and people need some kind of hope or relief.

Whether there is a kind of “religious instinct” in humanity or whether religion is a kind of reaction to suffering, it does seem that religious experience is something that is here to stay for the foreseeable future—and Pentecostalism clearly provides an especially powerful, raw, and unmediated religious experience for many of its members. It’s inevitable that people will want to evaluate Pentecostalism in other terms—but any analysis that doesn’t take that aspect of religious experience seriously is going to be incomplete.

On the side of liberation theology, we’ve seen that political authorities, often backed by the US, have relentlessly repressed the movement. It persists to this day—its leading theologians are still mainly alive and working, and there are still base communities in operation—yet it has gone from being a central factor in the political struggle in Latin America to being a much more marginal phenomenon.

I’ve emphasized again and again that the repression is to blame for Liberation Theology’s decline, because I find that people too easily assume that it “never caught on” or that people generally found a more politically engaged version of Christianity implausible or unappealling. For those who think that Christianity is inherently repressive, LT stands as a clear demonstration to the contrary.

At the same time, however, LT’s extreme opposition to all established powers likely made the repression all but inevitable—especially given the realities of the Cold War, when any populist protest movement was treated as a communist plot by the US, which was and remains the greatest military power in the history of humanity.

The idea that the US would allow a LT-style regime to take power in its backyard was never realistic—as illustrated by the experience of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the Catholic priest and liberation theologian who has been repeatedly deposed as president of Haiti. And yet an LT-style regime seems to be the only acceptable outcome from the perspective of the movement itself, given its radical critique of all existing political and economic arrangements.

I maintain that the radical protest of LT is justified—but whatever you think of the substance of their claims, it seems clear that this movement was doomed from the start to face strong opposition and repression, most often from people with ample stocks of weapons and no discernable conscience.

To that extent, it might be that the whole movement is essentially a repetition of their own interpretation of Christ’s crucifixion—a paradoxical strategy of accepting oppression and even death as an act of protest. It may not have been the most “effective” thing to do, but it’s also unclear what would have been “effective.”

So overall, while I have tended to dismiss the argument that LT “never caught on” and that Pentecostalism speaks more directly to people’s needs, it does remain the case that LT actively courted the repression that muted its impact. Pentecostalism has generally met with much less opposition from the authorities—what obstacles it has faced have tended to be passive ones, such as general restrictions on religious freedom not limited to Pentecostals—and that’s likely because Pentecostalism hasn’t made it its mission to vocally oppose all authorities.

Now I’ve justified my decision to compare Pentecostalism and LT on various grounds throughout this quarter—they’re both international movements, they provide a contrast between an American export (P) and an indigenous development, they both claim to get back to the primal truth of Christianity…. and of course, Dr. Gandhi suggested that I do so.

I’d like to offer one final justification, one that to me gets to what should be at the heart of anyone who’s investigating the phenomenon of “global Christianity”—they both call into serious question our understanding of what Christianity is. The fact that both are Christian movements seems indisputable, and yet so much of what is familiar from more mainstream versions of Christianity is absent, transformed, or even consciously rejected, and both in the name of a more fundamental insight into the nature of Christianity that was supposedly present in the early church but became lost in the development of “tradition.”

Pentecostalism claims to restore the same direct access to the power of God that the apostles experienced on the day of Pentecost—miraculous signs, miraculous transformations of people’s lives, and miraculous overcoming of racial and ethnic boundaries are not a thing of the past, but something everyone has direct access to, here and now.

That directness is absolutely crucial for understanding Pentecostalism—if some kind of defined meeting space and defined leadership is still necessary, it is still the case that access to God’s grace and power does not depend on the mediation of any institution or ritual.

Preachers are authenticated not through training and institutional approval, but by the evidence of God working through them. Churches are founded not through a chain of tradition, but as the need arises. Worship is largely free-form and spontaneous, and while sacraments are not usually completely rejected, they often seem to be a kind of add-on, rather than being central—certainly not to the degree that they’re central in Roman Catholicism.

Historically, mainstream Christianity has insisted on institutional continuity and on the centrality of the sacraments—even the Reformation didn’t get rid of these ideas, only transformed them. Yet Pentecostalism shows that Christianity can thrive in an atmosphere of free-wheeling entrepreneurship—and can even strike many people as more obviously authentic than the rigorously authenticated structures of mainstream Christianity.

On the other side, Liberation Theology puts forward a vision of the biblical heritage that reveals a God who is always on the side of the poor and the oppressed, making Jesus’ message and mission out to be the liberation of the poor rather than the salvation of souls.

Though its theologians have always tried to keep the peace with institutional churches, they have put forward their ideas of consciousness-raising groups or “base communities” as the most authentic expression of Christian community—and the political struggle for justice as the most meaningful religious experience. Social analysis and commentary is not a matter of “applying” a set theology to different circumstances, but is instead supposed to be a crucial step in developing and refining theology.

What makes these two movements, which depart so much from the mainstream of Christianity, so obviously Christian? Both of course make Christ and the Bible into indispensable and indisputable points of reference—yet there have been many movements in history that shared similar points of reference but that most Christians came to regard as being beyond the pale, perhaps even destructive of true Christianity. And in any case, the images of Christ and the uses to which the Bible is put in both movements are radically different and probably incompatible, despite what Cox hopes.

Despite this radical difference, I do think both exemplify a tendency that I have found throughout the history of Christianity—a tendency that perhaps radicalizes Sanneh’s theory of Christianity’s “translatability.” That is, both exemplify Christianity’s constant refusal to limit itself to any defined boundaries and the utterly pragmatic and even unprincipled means that it will use in order to spread.

Christianity evolved from a community of Jews and Gentiles into an essentially all-Gentile religion when it became clear that Judaism was taking a different path. It went from being a persecuted cult that rejected the worship of the empire to being the religion that united and defined the empire.

It went from being power’s handmaiden to being the de facto ruler of Western Europe during the middle ages—and when the new power structure of the nation-state started to evolve, it found a new role supporting those regimes and showed remarkable flexibility in adapting to the realities of the emergent capitalism (such as dropping the prohibition of charging interest).

And in the 20th century, when the power structures organized around capitalism and the nation-state became increasingly intolerable to an increasing proportion of the world’s population, it turned that order’s powers against it in order to transform itself once again.

LT took the social scientific tools by which nation-states justify and legitimate their policies and turned them into weapons of opposition—weapons that were, to be sure, less than effective against actual, physical weapons.

Pentecostalism took the entrepreneurial spirit and shameless salesmanship of global capitalism and used them to create an ever-growing and amazingly flexible transnational network of believers.

Even mainstream Christianity has arguably transformed itself in order to exceed the boundaries of the nation-state—with liberal Christianity embracing the language of human rights that are above any nation’s laws and conservative Christianity struggling to preserve human life and the human species itself through its regulation of family life and sexuality, again conceived as a natural law that exceeds any nation-state.

It remains to be seen which of these models will prove most effective, though it does seem that the radical protest of Liberation Theology may well be self-undermining—thriving only under conditions that virtually guarantee its repression. Meanwhile both sides of mainstream Christianity have positioned themselves as a kind of conscience of the world and have had some significant concrete effects in that regard, though not enough to remotely satisfy the most committed members of either side.

And what of Pentecostalism? Its impact is much harder to gauge, because it is much more indirect—even when it focuses on “this-worldly” needs, as in the Guatemalan attempt to redeem the nation one soul at a time and the Ghanaian quest for material security, it advocates means that are indirect, faith-based, or—from a purely secular perspective—either useless (Guatemala) or actively harmful (Ghana’s prosperity gospel preachers).

If Pentecostalism really does represent the future of Christianity, then it seems to me that the future of Christianity is unknowable—and that’s because the future of Christianity will inevitably be something new that grows out of Pentecostalism as well, something that continues the process of exceeding Pentecostalism’s American models, of breaking through the comfortable formulas and the familiar clique of elite preachers that threaten to turn Pentecostalism into a kind of institution despite itself.

Conformity is a powerful force, but the fundamental impulse of Pentecostalism, it seems to me, is non-conformist—always ready to start a new church if needed, always comfortable with spontenaity and weirdness. If it can remain faithful to its calling as a movement for misfits, Pentecostalism may well be a force for restoring a genuinely new kind of dynamism to Christianity.

The continuous danger for any grass-roots movement, however, is that it can be easily co-opted—and Cox thinks that this has happened in part due to the relationship between Pentecostalism and the religious right, and as one can also perhaps see in the example of Ghana, where Pentecostal preachers have often been content to bask in the glory of recognition by the authorities rather than question them.

And here I reveal my biases: I wish Christianity could be more like liberation theology. I wish the preferential option for the poor was a core conviction of all Christians. I wish that Christianity made it a central mission to make the present world suck less rather than consoling people with hope for the next world.

Not everyone shares my goals, obviously, and there’s a case to be made for cultivating the favor of the powerful to gain the most favorable possible circumstances for spreading the word and giving more people access to the power of God. Yet if the radical protest of LT has its inherent drawbacks, so does the strategy of making nice with the powerful—because the powerful will not be powerful forever, and when they are discredited and defeated, their handmaidens will be as well.

That, it seems to me, is the profound lesson to be found in the continent that we did not discuss at all in this course on “Global Christianity”—when Christianity identified itself so tightly with the notion of “Western progress” that legitimated the European powers, it too was brought down by the world wars that discredited and destroyed that ideology. If a Christian movement can be defeated by opposition and persecution, as LT has largely been, so too can it be defeated by its very success—“explosive growth” can indeed blow up in one’s face.

10 thoughts on “Final lecture: Global Christianity

  1. Yeah, this lecture did call from a slow-clap guy, like from “Not Another Teen Movie”; “You can’t start a slow-clap at any time and expect everyone to join in.”

    As a side note, I think your approach to LT and pentecostalism is right on. I also liked how you admitted to your preferences theologically. I have had the experience of having at least one professor lecturing on a topic for an entire, and out of pretense of being “objective,” never admitted his views. Only through later personal conversations did students learn of his views. Students understand that approach to be thoroughly dishonest. I know a number of students who make a concerted effort to avoid this prof’s courses, and who encourage other students to do the same.

  2. Rod raises an interesting question: what place does “stepping back” from the discourse have in teaching? Is “teaching the spectrum” dishonest or allowing students space? Or does the process of text selection inherently disallow a disinterested pedagogy, that syllabus prep is a positive statement about one’s thoughts on a course?

  3. I do soften my views and play devil’s advocate in class much more than I would in a conversation with peers, but I’ve always made my own convictions pretty clear — partly because that’s just how I am, but also partly because students seem to be more engaged when the course is more “opinionated.” That is to say, if they can tell you care, which a clear opinion communicates, then they will also care more.

  4. Evidently I softened my views so much this semester–someone noted halfway through class last night that they didn’t know what I thought about anything that we had discussed–that the students demanded to play a game whereby they tried to guess what I thought about the various issues discussed in the course. The course, by the way, was on animals and the law (rather broadly construed). They collectively decided that I was an omnivore who favoured animal welfare–and watched a lot of TV. Only one of those is correct.

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