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Is Christianity finished as a source of inspiration for progressive social change?

Whatever the emerging world becomes, it will need a new consciousness to guide it, especially if we want that world to be a good one. 

Credit: Pixabay/Stocksnap. CC0 Creative Commons.

“Were Christians to be in a position to exert enduring cultural influence, the results would likely be disastrous or perhaps mostly so.” This is the judgment of University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter, who coined the term “culture wars” in the 1980s, but it’s a sentiment that’s shared by many on the left.

Given their flawed thinking about public life, says Hunter—“based on both specious social science and problematic theology”—there seems to be little future for the Christian faith as a motivating force in progressive politics in the USA and beyond. But is this judgment correct?

To put this question in context, the American Century is over. The institutions that sustained the modern industrial world (including many of the mainstream Christian churches) are rusting out, their legitimacy crisis dragging on like a festering wound since the Sixties.

Whether we like it or not, we are emerging into a different world. It feels strange to us. We can’t see it clearly at this point, or even know what to call it. But whatever the emerging world will become it will need a new consciousness to guide it, especially if we want that world to be a good one.

Finding and articulating that new consciousness in order to re-imagine our societies is one of the central challenges of our times—supporting the growth of a wider, public sensibility and a progressive way of life in which peace, justice, love, hope and human flourishing can grow. To meet this challenge, I think we’ll need to draw on imaginative resources wherever we can find them.

So it’s at least worth taking another look at Christianity’s faith and practice, history and global diversity, theological ideas and spiritual traditions in order to see whether any of these things might offer us these kinds of resources. Can Christianity be critical enough of itself and of society to be a productive source of change? By this I don’t mean that Christians should simply criticize. We’ve had enough cranky, reactionary rhetoric from the uniquely American religious right in recent years to last a lifetime.

But keep in mind that as recently as the Sixties, Christian public identity in the US was claimed by the moderate-to-progressive Protestant ‘mainline’ denominations—the religious center-left. Progressive theologians including Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich and Harvey Cox, and activist clergy like Martin Luther King Jr and William Sloane Coffin, were all well-known, consequential public figures.

Their intellectual and moral tradition was rooted long ago in the eighteenth-century in what historian Amy Kittelstrom calls the “American Reformation” in her recent book, The Religion of Democracy. Kittelstrom describes this period as one of fascinating intellectual ferment during which New England pastors and theologians started to mix Reformation Protestantism with the values of the Enlightenment.

This experiment produced a new liberal faith; a new liberal intellectual culture fostering democratic values such as liberty of conscience, equality and social progress; and the first stirrings of protest against slavery and in favor of women’s rights. These church leaders, says Kittlestrom, “were the first people in the world to call themselves liberals.” Their ideas were crucial to the development of social consciousness in the USA well into the twentieth century.

Kittelstrom connects distinctly American traditions like Transcendentalism—white America’s first truly new spirituality; Pragmatism—its first unique philosophy; and Progressivism, fueled by the Social Gospel, to the spirit of the American Reformation and its fusion with democratic society. The American Reformation’s intellectual influence, writes historian David Hollinger, “was—and continues to be—a world-historical event, or at least one of the defining experiences of the North Atlantic West . . . from the eighteenth century to the present.”

This diverse, open and inclusive mainstream version of Christian faith has faded out in the last 50 years, to be replaced by an inexperienced reactionary rump with neither the historical memory nor the cultural skills to articulate a coherent public faith, or even to grasp how society is changing. The now long-forgotten ‘death’ of the Protestant mainline churches, as Catholic sociologist Joseph Bottum reminds us, is more consequential than we might think. Bottum laments losing a venerable, crucial, moderating voice in civil society as “the central historical fact of our time”—and a significant source of our present political and cultural confusion.

But can Christian faith today offer a critique of our current way of life, in the same way that, say, feminism or critical race theory can? Is it able to provide a progressive resource for creating a new public consciousness and form of life as societies sail into uncharted waters?

Nearly everyone outside the white, Euro-American dominant society feels written out of history, but where do we turn for an alternative point of view to correct this situation? We turn to post-colonial writers certainly, including Christian theologians from Latin America, Africa and Asia. We look to the East for new varieties of religious consciousness, and to pre-colonial indigenous cultures for alternative modes of life. And we look to pre-Western pagan values that underpin eco-spiritualities and new religious movements.

But all these resources only go so far in helping us with our own critical self-understanding. How can we in the West understand ourselves—on our own terms—from the perspective of our own history? One way to do this is by re-telling our own story from our own beginnings, without prejudice to the ancient and Medieval Christian roots that predated the modern period.

This is already being done by some of the most influential philosophers of our generation. For example, Charles Taylor, an early leader in multicultural theory, has helpfully traced the rise of modern consciousness from theological as well as philosophical roots in his magisterial Sources of the Self.

Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben (a radical leftist, and an atheist as far as I know) is another. He argues that to understand Western thinking we need to pick apart modern thought to uncover its theological underpinnings, and he publishes copious theological writing. “I think” he says, “that it is only through metaphysical, religious, and theological paradigms that one can truly approach the contemporary—and political—situation.”

Another voice in the mix is Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian philosophical rock star of the Marxist left who publishes frequently with theologians, even claiming that “to become a true dialectical materialist, one should go through the Christian experience.”

These are not endorsements of actually-existing Christianity by any means, but they represent a rich intellectual search for philosophical alternatives that are rooted in the ground of Christian theology and practice.

In addition, the Western perception of Christianity is more than a little myopic. It’s easy to forget that 33 per cent of the world’s people—2.4 billion individuals—identify as Christians. Jesus still has more followers than Facebook, and most of them live lives far different from those in the West. Pentecostal Christians alone now outnumber Buddhists worldwide. As Philip Jenkins pointed out some years ago in his seminal book The Next Christendom, to overlook the rise of Christianity in the global South—which  now constitutes 60 per cent of world Christianity—is to miss the most profound social revolution of the twentieth century.

Why don’t we see this clearly? In part it’s because many of us live in an ‘already-been-Christian’ context. Christian tradition has been in our background for so long that it’s almost second nature to be critical of it, and many of us assume that it’s on its way out anyway.

But that ignores the fact that in ‘never-before-been-Christian’ societies, Christianity might provide progressive resources, social as well as spiritual. Some choose Christian faith as a means of assimilating liberal Western values, some to connect with a global religious consciousness. Many others see in the faith solutions to personal problems as well as intellectual tools to understand their own cultural traditions. We do the same thing in the West when we borrow non-Western spiritual practices like meditation or yoga.

For whatever reasons, individuals around the world who are concerned about their spirituality are asserting their free agency to choose these resources in order to address their own developing consciousness. They do this in large numbers even now in a post-colonial period of extensive criticism of the West and its religion.

What can be made of this enormous, global community of different and often clashing Christian identities? It’s certainly a testing ground for just about every social problem and potential solution. To take an example from Africa: the Anglican Communion ranges from homophobic bishops to progressive civil rights heroes like South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former Ugandan Bishop David Zac Niringiye. How tensions between conservatives and progressives play out will have an enormous influence on African society—as well as demonstrate whether or not Christian faith can mobilize its resources to support human flourishing for everyone.

Whatever you decide to make of it, the Christian movement will be with us for a very long time, warts and all. In spite of its many problems—and they are manifold—it is important to take another look to see how rich it might be in terms of the resources we need to guide the world into a new way of being, and a new form of consciousness, where peace, justice, love, and hope may prevail. 

About the author

Gregory Leffel, Ph.D., is a missiologist working on collective action, social movements and theo-politics, and is director of One Horizon Institute in Lexington, Kentucky. He is author of Faith Seeking Action: Mission, Social Movements, and the Church in Motion; and is past president of the American Society of Missiology.  


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