This presentation is based on three assumptions: first, the old “mainstream ecumenical paradigm is dying; second, Christianity as a whole is thriving, especially in the majority world; and third, the gifts present in the global Christian movement, when kept in the hands of Christ are adequate for the task of the evangelization of the world.
First, the demise of the modern ecumenical movement is not news. Even the most ardent ecumenists know that the structures built to create and sustain the visible unity of the church are no longer viable. Over the last decade or so there have arisen a number of new ecumenical tables. The Global Christian Forum represents such an effort.
The World Council Meeting held in New Delhi (1961) articulated a vision of unity of Christians “made visible as all in each place who are baptized into Jesus Christ.” This visible unity of the church has been difficult to achieve. Christians are now engaged in conflict, not necessarily between communions (although this still exits), but within communions. These battles are messy and confusing. They test ecclesial structures to the degree that the quest for visible unity seems an impossible task. In many ways inter-faith dialogue seems more promising than intra-Christian dialogue!
A point made a the New Delhi assembly is worth noting: “the achievement of unity will involve nothing less than a death and rebirth of many forms of church life as we have known them…nothing less costly can finally suffice.” No one at New Delhi could image the extent of the cost for this unity. Few could image the world now dawning before us at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Who at that time would have believed in the demise of the Soviet Empire? Who would have dreamed of the ripple effects of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965)? Who could have imagined the decline of powerful ecumenical structures? Who at New Delhi could smell the stench of death that would come from the Western World as Christianity embraced a secular agenda over against classical Christian truth? The cost of re-birth could not be calculated in 1961, and I am afraid that it is too costly for some today.
Even among those who seek a new form of ecumenism and applaud the death of the old, there is a lack of awareness of the extent of the death and re-birth necessary for the achievement of the visible unity of the world-wide church. The so-called “new ecumenism” while grounding the quest for the visible unity of the church in “classic Christian truth,” fails to understand that it has its own Enlightenment blinders to the reality of Christianity outside the Western context. Western conservatives look to the South for support, but fail to understand the worldview of Southern Christianity. In doing so they create what Philip Jenkins calls a Mirror effect” finding their own agendas reflected there. This is the same type of mirror effect that happened in the 60s and 70’s with liberation theology.
The second assumption, namely that Christianity as a whole is thriving, especially in the majority world, needs to be juxtaposed to the first assumption. Any new form of ecumenism must take into account the new faces, the different worldviews and new voices of non-Western Christianity in such a manner as to honor these forms of the Christian faith on their own terms. This honoring will require nothing less than a death and re-birth on the part of those seeking the visible unity of the church.
I agree with Dale Irvin’s assessment of the inappropriateness of the term “Christendom” in describing emerging Christianity. Irvin points out that Jenkins and others use Western perspective and interpretive categories to describe what is taking place today. Whatever is taking place is not the construction of a new Christendom. World Christianity has not one center but many.
Irvin’s assessment of the inappropriateness of the term “Christendom” coincides with that of Lamin Sanneh, who does not interpret the massive rise of Christianity in the non-Western world as a euphemism for Christian triumphalism. Rather, he understands this rise as “the spontaneous coming into being of Christian communities among populations that had not been Christian.” Sanneh distinguishes between global Christianity as the faithful replication of Christian forms and patterns developed in Europe, and world Christianity being the movement of Christianity as it takes form and shape in societies that previously were not Christian. In this sense, ‘global Christianity,” and “Christendom” are both anachronistic constructs. Neither construct is adequate in describing the indigenous, multi-faceted forms of Christianity in the majority world.
Even though there are those who rightly point out there is no such entity as a New Christendom or global Christianity, it is possible to give some basic descriptors of Christianity in the majority world. Jenkins does a good job of highlighting the common denominator of Southern churches. He notes that within them is the critical idea that God intervenes directly in everyday life. This is also the major tenet of Pentecostal churches in the Western culture, although it is modified by a large dose of Enlightenment rationalism. The worldview sustaining this belief in God’s direct action is one that is “trans-rational, meaning that human reason is transcended and even negated by the logic of the Spirit. Within this worldview there is little distinction between the realm of the supernatural and that of the natural realm. “At the core,” notes Pentecostal theologian Jackie Johns, is a worldview wherein the “affective experience of God …generates an apocalyptic horizon for reading reality. In this apocalyptic horizon the experience of God is fused to all other perceptions in the space-time continuum.”
This form of Christianity engages the primal struggle between order and chaos and understands that there are demonic forces at play within this struggle. Richard Shaull describes such Christianity as flourishing at “ground zero” of this primal struggle. In his research among Brazilian Pentecostals he identified what he considered to be a new interpretative paradigm of Christianity, one he defined as the “reconstruction of life in the power of the Spirit.” This power to reconstruct life is most profoundly manifest in those places where “the most basic forms of life in the community-the family, local neighborhoods, social, economic and political structures are becoming unglued, leaving masses of poor people in both rural and peripheral urban areas without stable work, medical care, or opportunities for education.” They live in a situation of almost total abandonment.
In these regions of the world truth is experienced as encounter of a power that is able to liberate from evil. In the face of evil the power of the gospel brings direct divine intervention. When social institutions fail and political solutions become corrupt the Christian way becomes the solution. It offers healing for sick minds and bodies, the power to reorganize broken lives, to overcome addictions and to give people a sense of their own identity and worth. Salvation is first and foremost deliverance. “It is,” as Harvey Cox describes, “the ability to lure anarchy into the sacred circle and tame it.”
Southern Christianity offers what Andrew Walls characterizes as unique opportunities to witness the life of the apostolic church. Quoting his former professor, F.L. Cross, “We know next nothing about the ante-Nicene church,” Walls asserts: “We now have better resources for understanding the patchwork of fragments of Christian literature that survive from before the age of the great councils by examining the recent histories of the churches of Africa and Asia than the Bodleian or the Vatican libraries can yield.” While Walls may be overstating the case for apostolic life being currently visible in the Southern churches, the evidence seems overwhelming that the life of these churches provides a dynamic hermeneutical window for interpretation of ante-Nicene Christianity.
It is my thesis that a new form of ecumenism is needed that is able to embrace the challenges of world-wide Christianity. While many are aware of this need, there is little understanding and even fear of the forms of Christianity that are emerging in the East and in the South. Here we are today in a quandary where the words of Matthew Arnold seem most appropriate: We are living between a past that is dead and a future unable to be born. This time-between-times is indeed frustrating but it is also pregnant with promise. As never before we are in need of death and re-birth for the sake of the visible unity of the church.
The third assumption, namely that the gifts that within this global Christian movement, when kept in the hands of Christ are adequate for the task of world evangelization, calls us to re-conceive those gifts, revision the task and experience conversion.