Striking changes are afoot in the way intellectuals address Christianity. Long seen as a largely Western tradition steadily losing its cultural influence in the West, Christianity has recently been re-installed at the center of debates that concern academic specialists and public intellectuals alike. In the last few years, it has suddenly become possible, maybe even fashionable, to ask whether Christianity might be a leading force of change in the contemporary world. Even more surprisingly, scholars who self-consciously stand outside what they think of as religious circles now find themselves promoting episodes in Christian history as key models for the way important social changes ought to occur. Christianity has overwhelmed the secular levees that used to channel its course. And as a source of new models of revolutionary action that do not depend on determinist assumptions, Christianity is enjoying a moment of high-cultural centrality the likes of which it has not seen in many decades.
One way to explain Christianity’s return to prominence is to make the now banal observation that the validity of secularization theory—particularly when understood as a theory of religious decline—has been greatly exaggerated. Starting in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, with the Iranian revolution, the rise of the Christian right in the United States, and the important role played by the Catholic church in the development of the Solidarity movement in Poland, it became clear that religion was not destined to leave the public sphere to itself in most modern states. In response, thinkers began to pay more attention to the ways religion shaped not only private live but social life more broadly. By the turn of the millennium, it was hard to ignore the force of religion in the world without coming off as naïve.
But there is more to say about the recent upsurge in intellectual interest in Christianity than that it predictably follows from the failure of the secularization paradigm to explain how the world works now. We recently edited a special issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly entitled Global Christianity, Global Critique. Our motivation for the project comes from the sense that two broad fields of argument stand out among current intellectual discussions of Christianity. Although both of these fields of argument might be taken to be relevant to discussions of the failure of secularization theory, they in fact go far beyond it, by making claims about how Christianity is and perhaps should be transforming both itself and the world.
One of these fields of argument is being constructed primarily by historians, anthropologists, theologians, and popular Christian writers, and has taken shape around notions such as “world Christianity” and “global Christianity.” Those participating in this discussion hold that while Christianity has always been global in its ambitions and self-conceptions, there is something about its recent growth, particularly in the global South, that is transforming it in important ways. The scholar who has had the most success in harnessing the energy of this conversation into a single coherent narrative is the historian Philip Jenkins. In his widely read book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Jenkins deploys a knack for making dramatic demographic arguments and an eye for the telling vignette to craft a story of Christianity as a religion whose greatest growth is still ahead of it. This growth will, however, not be in its traditional European heartland, but rather in the global South. Southern Christians tend, on Jenkins’s account, to be far more theologically and socially conservative than Northern Christians, and certainly more conservative than the kinds of liberal Christians who, until recently, have been so central to elite theological debate in the West. This means that as the center of Christianity moves South, so too will its dominant ideas and expressions become more conservative, leaving many Northern Christians to reckon with a kind of global marginality that they would never have predicted for themselves several decades ago. The current crisis in the Anglican communion over issues of homosexuality—a crisis in which conservative African Bishops are playing a key role—is taken by those who follow Jenkins to be paradigmatic of the kinds of strains that will beset Christianity more generally as its power centers move South. Those who contribute to the global Christianity discussion do not all agree with Jenkins in their reading of global Christianity’s origins, shape, and probable future course. Some scholars, for example, see a growing interest in social justice and a progressive politics emerging out of the rapid growth of Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity around the world—or, at least, they note the development of a set of positions that does not conform easily to a conservative/liberal frame. But all scholars who speak about global Christianity do see themselves as making important empirical claims about the changing nature of the contemporary faith.
The second current discussion of Christianity to which we draw attention is primarily philosophical and has moved to make Christian categories and materials central to new projects of philosophical and cultural critique – projects once thought to be firmly rooted in secularist (and largely atheist) assumptions. The most prominent names connected with this discourse are Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Jacques Derrida, Gianni Vattimo, and Slavoj Žižek. Out of this group, the contributors to Global Christianity, Global Critique attend principally to the three continental philosophers who have written on Paul: Agamben, Badiou, and Žižek. All three share an interest in reading Paul as offering a model of a subject committed to radical change, and in drawing from Paul’s story non-determinist models of how such change can come about. Peter Sloterdijk has these philosophers in mind when he writes, in God’s Zeal: The Battle of the Three Monotheisms, of Paul as “an idol for lovers of abstract militancy to this day […] the first Puritan, the first Jacobin and the first Leninist all rolled into one.” Drawing on Paul’s abrupt conversion, and on what they understand as his commitment to making Christianity a universal religion, these philosophers have put Christian categories back at the center of debates over how to think about society and its potential transformation. Although their relationships to the truth claims of Christianity are varied, they have made it possible for philosophers and other kinds of critical thinkers, not just to think about religion, but also, in important respects, to think with it, or at least with some of its conceptual, and sometimes its narrative, resources.
Both the debates over contemporary changes in Christianity and those over the political potential of Christian models of change have contributed to the new prominence of Christianity as a focus of intellectual discussion. But to this point, those involved in these two conversations have spoken little to each other. The philosophers (and some theologians) who consider the resources Christianity offers for rethinking trajectories of social and political change often disregard the discussions of existing forms of Christianity carried out by those participating in the discussions of global Christianity. Similarly, those studying Christians around the world often set aside the kinds of broad arguments about the social and political import of the Christian heritage laid out by the philosophers and those in dialogue with them. Our contention is that these parallel emerging discourses could benefit from some cross-fertilization. Global Christianity, Global Critique aims to initiate a conversation toward this end, bringing together essays by social scientists who study existing Christian communities (represented in the SAQ volume by those from our own field of anthropology) with efforts by theologians, philosophers, and historians of religion to reconsider the critical potential of Christianity.
In bringing these two conversations together, we ask some new kinds of questions. For example, is the philosophical shift to Paul only contingently related to what is happening among Christians both inside and outside the West? Or, might the global Christian discourse help make the philosophical one seem important or plausible? Put otherwise, is it the currently very evident global reach of Christianity that makes it a reasonable candidate to provide the foundation of what we gloss in our title as the philosophical effort at “global critique”? Looking from the other direction, does the new global organization of some forms of Christianity require of those who study it a different kind of attention to the political and broader social stakes involved in the transformations they track? Might a deeper engagement with philosophical discussions of Paul, and of Christianity more generally, help to sharpen debates that unfold along these lines?
In this forum, we invite discussion of these and related questions raised by the contributors to Global Christianity, Global Critique. The forum will feature posts by some of the contributors to the SAQ project, but provides an opportunity for others to join in, too. Some of these posts will respond to the SAQ essays, but we will also welcome the exploration of new issues, questions, and problematics alongside those already broached—ones that push forward the effort to understand and shape the public intellectual discussion of Christianity in the contemporary world.