Is Christianity in danger of disappearing? Since at least the middle of the twentieth century, Christianity in Europe has often been seen as in decline, with the most recent surveys indicating that scarcely more than half of EU citizens believe in any God at all. Many Christian communities in the Middle East, such as the Assyrians, have been displaced through the US invasion of Iraq, the Syrian Civil War, and the emergence of ISIS. The Eastern Orthodox Church, freed in its Russian incarnation from decades of Communist rule, shows strong signs of growth in Europe. However, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the displacement of Russians means, increasingly, that Orthodoxy’s southern frontiers end thousands of miles further north than they did a century-and-a-half ago.
In fact, Christianity in the world is in no danger of vanishing. The percentage of Christians as a part of world population is nearly the same as it was a century ago. What is changing, however, is the face of Christianity, as both the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant denominations see more and more of their congregations be composed of Latin American, African, and Asian populations. Pope Francis is the first Pope from Latin America, while Brazil constitutes the single largest Catholic country. There are almost as many Catholics in Nigeria as there are in Germany. There are perhaps tens million of Chinese affiliated with official state-sponsored Protestant organizations in that country, but the proliferation of unofficial “house churches” means that there could be up to 58 million Protestants and 9 million Catholics living in the People’s Republic of China. This, in turn, would make China the fourth-largest Protestant country after only the USA, Nigeria, and Brazil.
Demographic changes like these are bound to bring about conversations about theology and dogma. To take the example of the Anglican Church, bishops from the “global South” have boycotted conferences on the grounds that North American churches are too lenient on the ordination of homosexual bishops and their blessing of same-sex marriage. Conversely, many theological conservatives who approved of Joseph Ratzinger have expressed concern over the stress that Pope Francis has placed on issues such as global warming, consumerism, and US-Cuba relations (his more traditional views on matters such as abortion and same-sex marriage notwithstanding). As nations whose entry into Christendom is inescapably entangled with European imperialism come to occupy greater prominence, the question of how “North-South” relations will affect Christianity cannot but occupy the attention of Christians and non-Christians alike.
Our latest guest to the Global History Forum, Albert Wu, offers perspectives on these question in his recent book, From Christ to Confucius: German Missionaries, Chinese Christians, and the Globalization of Christianity, 1860-1950, published with Yale University Press.
In his book, Wu (an assistant professor at the American University of Paris) explores how German Protestant and Catholic missionaries engaged with China during the late Qing period and during the Republican period. At the heart of the book stands a paradox. At the start of the period in question, German missionaries viewed Chinese Confucianism as backwards and a crucial hindrance to China’s conversion and, more broadly, modernization. Yet by the 1930s and 1940s, German Christians viewed Confucianism as a crucial ally of Christianity in China. They insisted that a synthesis of Confucianism with Christianity constituted not heresy but rather only common sense. Wu’s book explains this paradox of how Germans “struggled to make a religion with universal claims adopt particular forms” and “how a global religion should assume local guise.”
As many Christians on both sides of the North-South (not to mention European Muslims in search of a “European Islam”) debate these questions, Wu’s book provides useful historical perspective. Outgoing Toynbee Prize Foundation Executive Director Timothy Nunan recently sat down with Wu to discuss From Christ to Confucius as well as Wu’s ongoing research agenda.…