There are many religions in the world, but only Christianity can boast of having more than two billion followers across the world, comprising people from nearly every ethnicity, race, and social class. Even Islam – its closest contender and the “fastest growing religion in the world” is nearly a billion followers behind. But how is the religion that names itself after Jesus the Messiah influencing the 21st century? The answer may surprise you.
Christianity certainly is a house divided. The Protestant Reformation played a major role in this (and the proliferation of Protestant denominations continues to prove this) but it also made the Catholic Church wake up from centuries of semi-stagnation, resulting in a major resurgence of traditionalism, as we see in the great world missions of the Counter-Reformation. Indeed, the Jesuits – zealous evangelists and promoters of the Roman faith – probably wouldn’t have existed hadn’t it been for the polarising catalyst that was Martin Luther.
Those divisions haven’t yet come to an end, rather Christianity is even more diverse than it was in the 17th century. Thankfully, the different bodies calling themselves Christian are reaching out to each other in a spirit of sincerity and dialogue and are repenting the terrible sectarian bloodshed that so often categorised post-Enlightenment Europe. But the various Christian ‘sects’ are still very different and continue to operate and influence the world in their own unique way. Let us begin with the largest group of all – the Roman Catholic Church.
“The Spirit of Vatican II”
In the mid-20th century, the Catholic Church held a worldwide pastoral council called the Second Council of the Vatican, or – to put it simply – “Vatican II” (hereafter referred to as V2). Unlike previous councils, V2 never chose to define dogma or clarify church teaching – rather it wanted to bring about ecclesiastical reforms to be able to better respond to the new world of the 20th century. But many Catholics agree that V2 was an absolute disaster.
V2 resulted in the sharp splintering of the Church. The liberals and the ‘modernists’ complain that it didn’t go far enough in eroding “medieval superstition”, while the conservatives argue that the ambiguous language in its documents creates a great danger for doctrinal error to be spread. In addition to these two groups, there are more than half-a-million traditionalist Catholics who reject it altogether, calling it a non-infallible “robber’s council” – the best example of this is the Priestly Society of St Pius X, with supporters around the globe.
Yet, V2 has resulted in a change of attitude among many believers. Today, Catholics are much more focused on preaching about “social justice” than before. This is best seen in the lives of Mother Teresa and Oscar Romero, both saints of the Catholic Church, as well as in the current Pontiff, Pope Francis. The rise of the so-called “Liberation theology” has created a great impact in Latin America (particularly Brazil), with some calling it the “Marxist version of Catholicism”. The “left-wing Church” in this part of the world has played an instrumental role in protesting against totalitarian right-wing bigotry.
Liberation theologians contend that the root cause of poverty and social injustice is sin (the implication being that social justice cannot return unless people begin to lead saintly lives) and that the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized are the “privileged channels of God’s grace”. The result is that a direct link has been made between theology and social activism. To be a good Christian, one must fight against and oppose oppressive structures of power, say the Liberation theologians. While Liberation theology is certainly not a branch of Communism in any formal sense of the word, the similarity with Marxist rhetoric has, at times, concerned many conservatives, not least among them being Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. This is very ironic because the Catholic Church of the 20th century was one of the most powerful anti-Communist forces in the world, with many (including New York Times bestselling author and scholar Paul Kengor) crediting Pope St John Paul II as having played an instrumental role in the fall of the Soviet Union.
Luther’s Revenge: The Worldwide Resurgence of Evangelicalism
Evangelical Christianity is by far the most powerful and dynamic religious force in the world today. Evangelicalism is converting people by the hundreds of thousands. The best example of this is the late Baptist missionary Billy Grace, who preached to more than 3 billion people during his career.
Evangelicalism is characterised by both simplicity and zeal. There is no Pope or central authority structure to dictate dogma – the Bible is the only rule. There is no long and boring liturgy as we see in Catholic and Orthodox Churches – rather, church services tend to have contemporary music that is very appealing to the youth. They are not led by old and haggard clerics barely able to even speak a word – on the contrary, their leaders tend to be charismatic, scholarly and lively. The sacramental emphasis is replaced by a much freer and fluid form of spirituality, and it is not uncommon to hear the phrase “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion”.
Most of the Christian apologists defending the veracity of Christian truth in the academia are also Evangelicals. William Lane Craig, Ravi Zacharias, NT Wright, Richard Bauckham, Michael F Bird, Craig Keener, Craig Blomberg, James DG Dunn, Alvin Plantinga – the list is very impressive indeed. Not only are these devoted (Evangelical) Christians eager to convert souls, they also represent the top brass of scholarship in their respective fields. For instance, William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga are one of the most cited scholars in the philosophy of religion, while Wright and Bauckham have both had an association with universities like Oxford and Cambridge.
Funny enough, Evangelical Christianity is very American, and very, very Republican. So, while Catholics seem to veer leftward, Evangelicals are solidly in support of capitalism and the notion of a culturally advanced Western Civilisation.
Holy Mother Russia: The Re-Baptism of Rus
With the fall of the USSR, the resurgence of Eastern Orthodoxy was all but inevitable. Today, the Moscow Patriarchate can be called the unofficial state religion of the Russian Federation. Now operating with Vladimir Putin’s open consent and cooperation, they are rebuilding Churches long destroyed and reconstructing schools that had been annihilated by anti-religious sentiment. In fact, some Orthodox followers and clergy are actively advocating the restoration of a Christian state.
Orthodox Christians are very, well, ‘orthodox’. When the Pope visited Serbia, he was greeted by sloganeers protesting “the Papist heresy”. Even the Patriarch – while having met the Pope at the airport – refused to offer Mass with him. Similarly, Russia is cracking down on “fringe groups” – not least among them being the non-Trinitarian Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have had to face fierce persecution.
What animates these people? It a vision of the legendary Byzantium, an empire so wonderful that it may be fittingly called the kingdom of God on earth. When the ambassadors of Prince Vladimir of Kiev first saw the Latin Mass, they were not too impressed, but when they witnessed the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, they wrote back exclaiming that this was the most heavenly thing they had ever seen. In the Orthodox narrative, the Church of Rome fell into heresy when it started claiming for itself ecclesiastical supremacy. It was then excommunicated and replaced by the Church of Constantinople, the New Rome. And when Constantinople fell under the sword of Islam, God raised up Moscow – the “Third Rome”.
It seems that if there will ever be a Christian state in the 21st century, it will exist mainly in Orthodox-dominated lands (and perhaps in Catholic Poland). For the rest of the Christian world, political Christendom is dead and gone.
Atheists and critics of religion sometimes contend that Christianity is on the decline. But is this true? While it is without a doubt correct to say that Europe and the Western World is secularising at an exponential rate, this does not hold true with regard to the rest of the world. There is an explosion of Christian growth in the global south, particularly in Africa which has proven to be a fertile mission field for the Christian message. As far as academia is concerned, the resurgence of orthodox Christian scholarship in recent years is also a sign of life. However unpopular the faith may be among young white people, it certainly has a long and bright future ahead.
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