In 1980, for the first time in a thousand years, more Christians were living in the Global South than the Global North.
Christianity has now become predominantly a non-Western religion. It is moving out of the cradle of Western culture and the Enlightenment, which shaped and formed most of Christian faith for the last four hundred years. This means a commonly accepted way of thinking, with rules, models, and assumptions governing how we observe and interpret reality, is changing in unanticipated ways. We’re undergoing a major paradigm shift.
Attention must be placed on the startling fact that world Christianity has now become a non-Western religion. Today, Christianity is experiencing its greatest growth and vitality in cultures that historically have not been framed by the Western Enlightenment and secular modernity.
It’s no easy task to outline this major paradigm shift, a majority of the world’s Christians today live in cultures where they put on a different set of glasses to view and interact with the world.
Andrew Walls has spent much of his career in Africa studying the forms of emerging Christianity in that continent and then contributing to the overall study and understanding of world Christianity. Lamin Sanneh, once described Walls as “one of the few scholars who saw that African Christianity was not just an exotic, curious phenomenon in an obscure part of the world, but that African Christianity might be the shape of things to come.”
Andrew Walls says this: The most striking feature of Christianity at the beginning of the third millennium is that it is predominantly a non-Western religion. . . . We have long been used to a Christian theology that was shaped by the interaction of Christian faith with Greek philosophy and Roman law. . . . These forms have become so familiar and established that we have come to think of them as the normal and characteristic forms of Christianity. In the coming century we can expect an accelerated process of new development arising from Christian interaction with the ancient cultures of Africa and Asia, an interaction now in progress but with much further to go.
Lens One: The Individual and Community
Enlightenment thought focused on the primacy of the individual. Non-Western cultures, on the other hand, often begin with the primacy of the community. Religious faith, with both its traditions and belief structures, is almost impossible to comprehend apart from a shared community that also transcends barriers of time.
Lens Two: Rational and Supernatural Approaches to Knowledge
Insight into and contact with the nature of reality comes through legends and rituals, or dances and vision quests, which provide portals into spiritual realities upholding all life. Knowing truth through abstract thinking is a foreign concept in a world where one can touch reality through sacred lived experiences.
Lens Three: The Material and the Spiritual World
Enlightenment thought reinforced a clear boundary between the material and spiritual.
Cultures in the non-Western world typically assume a far more fluid and interconnected relationship between the material and the spiritual. Spiritual forces and realities, both good and evil, permeate the so-called material world. The origin and life of material objects are connected to spiritual forces.
For most of world Christianity, the movement out of the enduring, comfortable cradle of Western culture to the non-Western world entails a fundamental reorientation of how culture and faith interact in the process of theology around crucial issues involving how we understand truth and experience reality.
Seeing through Non-Western Eyes
The understanding and role of Christian faith within the diversity of non-Western cultures is the playing field for the most important theological work, in my view, in the twenty-first century.
For most Christians in the United States, all this represents entirely new terrain. We don’t recognize how thoroughly we’ve become trained to see the world through the eyes of the Western Enlightenment, with all its prevailing assumptions.
For the future of Christian faith, this will no longer work. For Christians of all theological persuasions formed by modern Western culture, an imperative of our journey is learning to see reality through non-Western eyes.
The truth is that the glasses of the Western Enlightenment that have framed our view of the world now obscure reality more than reveal it. We shouldn’t simply be curious about how others see the world but rather seek to understand how our own vision has been distorted. We need corrective lenses for the sake of shaping a resilient and clear vision within our own culture in this time of dramatically shifting paradigms for understanding the world. That is part of the promise of embracing the future of Christianity as a non-Western religion.
- What major shifts in the church does the author describe in this chapter?
- How would you define the word paradigm? What has been the prevailing paradigm in your faith community? Why might you wish to change this prevailing paradigm? Or not?
- The author describes one important shift as seeing the world through a different set of lenses. What examples of these lenses does he provide? Which of these examples was particularly striking to you? Why?
- Why does the author say we are at a “hinge point” in the history of global Christianity? From that hinge point, how does the author see the future?
- What is your reaction to the author’s discussion of seeing through Native American or Indigenous Peoples’ lenses? How can you or your faith community benefit from these perspectives?
- What more do you want to learn or do based on reading this chapter of the book?
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