It was standing-room-only on Monday night when Philip Jenkins delivered the annual Erasmus Lecture at the Union League Club here in Manhattan. Jenkins discussed the current explosion of third-world Christianities and what it means for the future of the religion¯a fascinating topic.
Among the interesting threads in the following day’s roundtable Q&A was Pope Benedict’s Regensburg speech and its relation to the varieties of Christianity in the Global South. In his lecture, Benedict called the European synthesis of Athens and Jerusalem the "historically decisive character" of Christianity, a providential, normative event that "did not happen by chance."
But to look at the picture Jenkins painted of the future Church¯on average, non-European and un-Hellenized¯is to call into question the universality of Rome’s marriage. If, a century from now, Africa and a freer China are the scholastic centers of Christianity, with folklore and Mencius taking the place of Aristotle, what then are we in the West left to conclude about the synthesis of faith and reason described by Pope Benedict at Regensburg?
A friend sends this along on the subject: "The sun of grace has shone on our part of the world, and we [Western Christians] must be grateful, avoiding all arguments about how Socrates was more critically rational than Confucius." Had Christ been born, per impossible , on the Yangtze, or had Muslim arms conquered Europe, which was all too possible, the face of Christianity would doubtless look different today.
That said, at what point does "different" become "other"? Is a creedal Church that "goes behind Nicea or Chalcedon," as was asked at our meeting, still Christian? Certainly Christians living before the councils must be considered orthodox.
Jenkins warned his audience against interpreting these new expressions of Christianity through Western lenses. Christ does not belong to any one culture or philosophy. Recall the story of Simon and Andrew: "And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. And they straightway left their nets, and followed him." What, in this brief encounter, convinced the brothers to leave everything and "straightaway" follow Christ? Culture, philosophy? Couldn’t have been. Like millions of Southern souls, Simon and Andrew experienced the gift of the Holy Spirit, the joy of a God who is love. Unparalleled in joining the infinite and the finite in Jesus of Nazareth, Christianity is, writes Hans Urs von Balthasar, " the aesthetic religion par excellence ."
All across the Global South, a whole series of strange, beautiful roads are being built to the promised New Jerusalem. Some of them seem to be bypassing Athens. And that, as Jenkins persuasively suggests, poses hard questions for those of us who came to where we are by way of Jerusalem and Athens.
John Rose is an assistant editor at First Things .