Where in the World is the Spirit Moving?

DWIGHT LONGENECKER

Not long ago a friend of mine was lamenting the state of religion in Britain and Europe. 'The Muslims are invading' he said. 'With our declining birth rate Christian culture in the West will be dead within fifty years.

Then the Muslims will simply step into the vacuum.' His pessimistic moan then became a rather frightening tirade against the 'enemy'. My friend didn't exactly call for a Christian crusade against Muslims, but he was hinting that a military solution might be the only answer.

I found such talk frightening, but my friend is not the only one to observe what is happening in Western Europe and call for tough action. The assassinated Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn spoke of the same fears from a different perspective. My friend was a conservative Catholic. Fortuyn was a liberal humanist. He wanted to limit the influx of Islamic peoples because they did not fit in with the liberated, sexually permissive society that he wanted. In different ways both my friend and Pim Fortuyn feared the rise of Islam and worried about the future of their own culture. Both of them were willing to entertain forceful measures to contain what they perceived to be a threat.

It is easy to fear what seems to be an alien, unfriendly and invasive culture, and if current trends continue, Christian culture in Western Europe may well be doomed. Perhaps our culture will die quietly as Eastern Europeans, Africans and Islamic peoples immigrate to Europe. On the other hand, we cannot foretell the future. Perhaps our society is poised for a great revival of the Christian religion as has never been seen before. Perhaps this renewal of the faith will sweep all before it to make Europe once more a truly Christian civilisation.

But even if Europe is eventually over-run by Muslims, does that mean that Christianity itself is doomed? Is Islam poised for world domination? Will worldwide Christianity inevitably fall to the Muslim threat? In his book The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington predicts that population forces will decide the question and he says, "in the long run . . . Muhammad wins out."

But Huntington is wrong. Christianity might fade in Europe, but in global terms, for a long time yet, there will be many more Christians than Muslims in the world. Philip Jenkins, an American professor has studied the situation. In his book, The Next Christendom:The Coming of Global Christianity, (see "The Next Christianity" from The Atlantic, October 2002) he says the Christian prophets of doom are ignorant of the explosive growth of Christianity outside Western Europe. In 1900, for instance, there were approximately 10 million Christians in Africa. By 2000, there were 360 million. By 2025, conservative estimates see that number rising to 633 million. Those same estimates put the number of Christians in Latin America in 2025 at 640 million and in Asia at 460 million.

According to Jenkins, the percentage of the world's population that is, at least by name, Christian will be roughly the same in 2050 as it was in 1900. By the middle of this century, there will be 3 billion Christians in the world. This is one and a half times the number of Muslims. In fact, if growth rates continue, by 2050 there will be nearly as many Pentecostal Christians in the world as there are Muslims today.

What we in Western Europe don't like to open our eyes to is the fact that the power centre of Christianity is shifting. We are used to being in charge. But within fifty years only one-fifth of the world's Christians will be non-Hispanic whites. The typical Christian will be a woman living in a Nigerian village or in a Brazilian shantytown. If the Christian population shifts South and East then the power shifts South and East as well.

This is where things really get interesting because the shift in Christian power base is not simply geographical or racial. The Christians in Latin America and Africa are far more conservative theologically and morally than the Christians in Western Europe and America. They have a very different agenda than we do. Thus, as Christianity becomes more Southern, it becomes more 'old fashioned' while being radically up to date at the same time. All those who say we must abandon traditional beliefs and adapt the Christian faith to modern Western culture are therefore singing to a cemetery. They're calling for change when the change has already happened in a way they never expected. Those who keep on harping about how the church must adapt to the modern world are like actors who are playing to an empty theatre.

This conflict became apparent four years ago when the world's Anglican bishops gathered at Lambeth. Many of the bishops from America and Britain wanted to push through a more permissive stance on homosexuality, but the Asian and African bishops were having none of it. They pointed out that there are more Anglicans in Nigeria alone than in Britain and the USA combined. They insisted on a conservative stance and infuriated the British and American bishops who were used to being in charge. When an American bishop accused the Africans of being ignorant fundamentalists, the African bishop replied that he too had a degree from Oxford and accused the American bishop of being patronising and racist.

The fact of the matter is, the vast numbers of converts to the Christian faith in the Southern and Eastern countries, are not won to the faith by a 'relevant' religion devised by the clever academics. They are won over to Christianity by the 'old old story.' That story tells how God sent his son to redeem a fallen and frightened world. That story tells how individuals can be liberated from their fears and follow their risen master to a new world of promise, forgiveness and freedom.

This shift of Christianity's "center of gravity" is also a reminder to Western Christians that we are not the whole show. We have to start thinking differently about ourselves. We are part of a much larger community: the worldwide Church. As Catholics it will be interesting to see how this shift affects the selection of the next pope. Will the forces of Western liberalism be stymied by the selection of someone like Cardinal Francis Arinze — a Nigerian who is charismatic, forward looking and yet morally and theologically conservative? The College of Cardinals gave us one surprise with a Polish pope twenty five years ago. Are we now in for an even more radical surprise?

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Rev. Dwight Longenecker. "Where in the World is the Spirit Moving?" The Universe (May, 2003).

Founded in 1860, The Universe is the most popular Catholic newspaper in the UK and Ireland.

This article is reprinted with permission from the author.

THE AUTHOR

Rev. Dwight Longenecker (dwightlongenecker.com) studied for the Anglican ministry at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and served for ten years in the Anglican ministry as a curate, a chaplain at Cambridge and a country parson. In 1995 he and his family were received into full communion with the Catholic Church. He is the author of eight books on apologetics, conversion stories and Benedictine spirituality including: Listen My Son: St. Benedict for Fathers, More Christianity, Challenging Catholics: A Catholic Evangelical Dialogue, St. Benedict and St. Therese: The Little Rule & the Little Way, Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate, and The Path to Rome. Dwight Longenecker writes for The London Times, The Catholic Herald and The Universe in England and Our Sunday Visitor and The National Catholic Register in the USA. In 2006 Dwight and his family moved back to his native USA. He lives with his wife Alison and four children in Greenville, South Carolina where he has recently been ordained to serve as Chaplain to St Joseph’s Catholic School.

Copyright 2003 Dwight Longenecker


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