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Penser l’histoire religieuse au xxie siècle

 | 
Yves Krumenacker
, 
Raymond A. Mentzer

Some of the problems in writing
a « Global History of Modern Christianity »

Certains des problèmes que pose la rédaction d’une « Histoire globale du christianisme moderne »

Hartmut Lehmann

Résumé

Il faut tout d’abord déterminer et discuter les limites chronologiques du commencement du christianisme moderne global, dans tous les continents du monde. Est-ce que le monde moderne global commence avec l’Âge de la Réformation, soit avec Martin Luther et Jean Calvin, ou plus tard, peut-être en 1750, ou 1789 ? Chaque décision chronologique résulte d’une conception différente du christianisme moderne.
On doit en second lieu identifier les forces qui ont affecté le cours du christianisme moderne et discuter les conséquences dans une perspective globale. Je propose deux directions de recherche : Premièrement les effets de la multiplication des congrégations et des communautés chrétiennes ; deuxièmement les relations entre les forces de sécularisation et les forces des régénérations religieuses.
On doit enfin prêter attention aux influences étrangères dans l‘histoire du christianisme moderne. Par exemple l’influence des guerres et de la violence, ou l‘influence de l‘industrialisation, de l‘urbanisation, et de la surconsommation, ou l‘influence de l‘impérialisme et du colonialisme, ou enfin la relation entre les directions différentes du christianisme et les autres religions dans le monde moderne.
Pour le moment, on peut observer beaucoup de questions et peu de réponses.

Texte intégral

When should a « global history of modern Christianity » begin1 ?

  • 1 These remarks were prompted by two recent publications that claim to achieve and present a « Globa (...)
  • 2 In doing so most of them refer to Max Weber’s thesis on « The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of C (...)
  • 3 Recently, for example, by Brad S. Gregory, Unintended Reformation. How a Religious Revolution Secul (...)

1Let me demonstrate the difficulties this question implies by looking at two examples. If you decide to start your story with Columbus, your interpretation is linked to the discoveries initially led by adventurers from Spain and Portugal, and, as most initiatives were taken by Catholics, you may be in danger of writing a rather Catholic story. If you begin several decades later, with Luther and Calvin, the danger may be that you are drawn into the realm of Protestant triumphalism even though Protestants were reluctant to become active beyond Europe for a relatively long time, that is not until the eighteenth century. Even today, some historians believe that Protestants produced the changes, and caused the transformations, that characterize the modern world in politics and in culture, in social as well as in economic matters2. By contrast, the same centuries appear as a history of decline for many Catholics, as a time when the harmonious relationship of religion and society that had characterized the Middle Ages was disrupted and negative factors such as private and political egoism, consumerism, and materialism determined the course of events3. In other words, in writing a global history of modern Christianity confessional prejudice is a permanent danger, just as is Eurocentrism.

2For many historians, however, what should be called a global history of modern Christianity, does not commence until the French Revolution. This is the second example that should be considered. Those who stress the importance of this caesura are convinced that the revolutionary upheaval in France was no less than the ultimate challenge to traditional Christian norms and practices in Europe and beyond. How could French revolutionaries execute the one person that God had installed as his representative on earth ? How could they do away with all the laws that preserved tradition ? All over Europe, they argue, Christians were shocked, and many despised the so-called spirit of 1789.

3Beginning a global history of modern Christianity in and around 1800 seems also justified when you look at the new activities of Christian missionaries. Up until 1789, only a handful of European missionaries had been active in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. By contrast, hundreds upon hundreds of European and North American Christian missionaries started their campaigns outside of Europe in the course of the nineteenth century, supported by, and themselves supporting, European and American colonialism and imperialism. Some of the encounters between representatives of the Global North and the Global South promoted progress, most, however, caused misunderstanding, even bitterness.

4What I want to explain is that if you begin a global history of modern Christianity with the French Revolution the content of your story is quite different from the content of those stories that begin in the late fifteenth or the early sixteenth centuries. If you begin with the French Revolution, you have to dig deep into the history of global violence and counter-violence, of ideological extremism despising compromise, including anti-Semitism, into the history of political opportunism and into the history of nationalistic power politics and the role of Machiavellian decisions that finally led to the outbreak of the First World War and thus to a mega-event that itself was just the beginning of a new sequence of even more of what had gone wrong since 1789.

5Let me now ask whether it makes sense to assume that in writing a global history of modern Christianity one should decide to have one starting-point. For this, the new History of Global Christianity produced by Kohlhammer in German and by Brill in English is very instructive because the contributors to the first volume of this prestigious project answer the question « where to begin » in a number of ways. The description of Catholicism in Spain, Portugal and their Empires starts in the mid-fifteenth century, the account of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1448, the chapter about Christians under Ottoman rule in 1453. The ensuing chapters on Christians in Africa, on Latin-European Christianity and on Christianity in Asia, start in the early sixteenth century, and the history of Christian churches and communities in North America does not commence until the early seventeenth century.

  • 4 For important reflections on this theme see Klaus Koschorke (éd.), Etappen der Globalisierung in c (...)

6This means that according to the view of the editors of this project as well as the contributors, there is no single beginning to modern Christianity in a global perspective, but many. This approach may be called pragmatic. More importantly, this approach implies that there are many stories within a global history of modern Christianity. However, such a position raises many new questions. What does it mean to speak of global Christianity if the contributors treat, in fact, separate histories of Christianity on different continents ? Should we not rather speak of many histories within global Christianity, indeed of many Christianities thriving, suffering, and surviving on many continents4 ? And if that is so, one can ask what holds these different Christianities together so that it is justified to treat them as parts of a whole. Does this mean, as a consequence, that we are dealing, all through the modern era, with a plurality of Christian communities with multiple beliefs and multiple practices, some growing in recent decades in the Global South, others declining, in the Global North ?

Long term trends

7This leads me to a second question, namely the need to identify long-term trends that have shaped the global history of modern Christianity. I mean those factors that have deeply influenced the various, often conflicting developments within modern Christianity, thus justifying the attempt to design volumes that are called a global history of modern Christianity. As I mentioned at the beginning, in my view two factors deserve special attention : the pluralization of Christian communities ; and, equally important, secularization.

8Let me first address the pluralization of Christian communities. One can argue that the schism of 1521 caused a chain-reaction that could not be stopped and that has continued with unstoppable dynamic vehemence for the past 500 years. What was a secession of some Saxon theologians who were discontent with the practice of selling indulgences in the beginning, what was a relatively small group of theologians who were supported by politicians who in turn demanded autonomy from imperial and papal claims, in other words : what was a relatively small affair seen in a global perspective, turned out to be the starting-point for a chain-reaction causing a far-reaching fragmentation of Christianity. As we all know, since the sixteenth century, thousands upon thousands of Christian groups and communities came to life ; thousands upon thousands of self-conscious and sometimes self-appointed leaders claimed to represent the true Christian faith, resulting in endless scores of theologians with conflicting views and of communities with different practices.

9By the end of the sixteenth century, the groups that had separated from the Catholic Church had themselves split into more than a two dozen communities. By the mid-nineteenth century, in North America alone, observers counted more than three hundred different Christian congregations. As for our time, some sociologists of religion think that Christianity in North America has split into several thousand groups, and that the same process of separation and fragmentation is taking place among Christians in Africa and Asia and even in Europe with the same dynamic speed.

10Even the Catholic Church, as it was renewed by the Council of Trent, was affected by secessionist tendencies, indeed by a similar centrifugal acceleration. By the seventeenth century, absolutist rulers in France, Spain and Bavaria restricted papal influence in their countries ; furthermore, Jansenists attacked Jesuits, and vice versa, to give just two of many examples. Time and again, the popes attempted to reclaim authority over the whole church. Time and again they failed. In short, Catholicism was not immune to the forces of pluralization.

11In our case, as we discuss the challenge to write a global history of modern Christianity, a rather simple question has to be answered, the question of whether the pluralization of modern Christianity was good or bad. Is progressive pluralization bad because the common focus of all Christians is lost, because Christian solidarity is threatened, and because the individual Christian communities only follow their own agenda ? Or is pluralization good because believers can search for their salvation according to their own interpretation of Christian belief, and because people of different persuasion can find the kind of Christian community in which they feel at home ? In my view, the role and the meaning of the unstoppable pluralization of Christianity in the modern era is one of those topics that is especially hard to explain. At the same time, it is one of those topics that challenges historians to provide a clear answer.

  • 5 Hartmut Lehmann, Säkularisierung. Der europäische Sonderweg in Sachen Religion, Göttingen, Wallste (...)

12Secularization is perhaps the other matter that influenced the course of the modern history of Christianity more than anything else. But while pluralization is relatively easy to define, there are as many definitions of secularization as there are sociologists of religion who write about this subject5. But some aspects are obvious. Those sixteenth-century potentates who followed Luther and Calvin, secularized monasteries, just as those late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century enlightened rulers who were impressed by the teachings of Rousseau and Voltaire secularized what remained of church property in their countries. That was just the beginning. As the Industrial Revolution began to change the lives of more and more people in the course of the nineteenth century, many were forced to work on Sundays. Church attendance dropped. Some church leaders hoped to stop the progress of secularization by siding with conservative parties in the nineteenth century, some of their successors in the twentieth century by supporting fascist parties.

13In our context, as we discuss the difficulties in writing a global history of modern Christianity, two questions seem relevant. First, how do we measure the progress of secularization ? Second, should we, as we discuss the theme of secularization, not look at the story of revivals and awakenings within Christianity at the same time ?

14How do we measure the progress of secularization since the sixteenth century ? To my knowledge, sociologists of religion have not developed schemes that allow us to determine exactly how Christian beliefs and practices declined in a certain period, and in a certain area. So, we are inclined to make statements of a rather vague or impressionistic manner. Can one speak, for example, of a secularized way of life if fewer and fewer children are baptized, if the number of weddings that take place in church dwindles, while most of those who have passed away still receive a Christian burial ? Is measuring church attendance the answer ? What is, to take a different approach, the impact of modern science ? If you take the ethical canon of Christianity as the ultimate measure, you might be accused of taking a narrow Puritan stand that misses the life-style and, in particular, the spiritual longings of people who no longer belong officially to any established church. In short, even though no one would deny the progress of secularization in modern Europe and beyond, measuring secularization remains a scholarly snake pit.

15To talk about revivals and awakenings is somewhat easier. There is considerable research on the history of Jansenism, Pietism, and Methodism, as there is on the First and the Second Great Awakening and even on Erweckungsbewegung. If you take the trouble and look, there is also much that you can find about revivals and awakenings in post-colonial societies in twentieth-century Africa and Asia.

  • 6 Hartmut Lehmann (éd.), Säkularisierung, Dechristianisierung, Rechristianisierung im neuzeitlichen (...)
  • 7 For different points of view see, for example, Lamin O. Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity ? T (...)
  • 8 Philip Jenkins, The New Christendom. The Coming of Global Christianity, New York, Oxford Universit (...)
  • 9 The Missionary Movement in Christian History. Studies in the Transmission of Faith, Maryknoll, N.Y (...)
  • 10 The Religious and the Secular. Studies in Secularisation, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969.
  • 11 Hugh McLeod, Secularisation in Western Europe, 1848-1914, New York, St. Martin’s, 2000 ; Hugh McLe (...)

16The real problem that has to be tackled is the obvious, yet ever-changing relationship between secularization on the one hand and the revival and awakening movements on the other6. In my view, historians of modern Christianity should analyze and describe the continuing interaction between secularizing and revivalist tendencies, both with independent actors and their own motives, yet both depending on one another and responding to one another. Obviously, in some periods and in some countries, one side is stronger, more dynamic than the other. There exists, however, in my view, not one explanatory pattern that historians might follow7. Perhaps, the twentieth century is the exception. This is the story of the rise of Christianity in the Global South, forcefully brought to our attention by Philip Jenkins8 and Andrew F. Walls9, and the decline of Christianity in the Global North, as explained by David Martin10 and Hugh McLeod11.

The historical context of a global history of modern Christianity

17The third aspect that I want to discuss briefly is what I should like to call the proper historical contextualization of a global history of modern Christianity. There exist, it seems to me, three scenarios, three possibilities for such a contextualization.

18First : To interpret modern Christianity in relation to the global history of violence and warfare since the sixteenth century. That is the attempt to evaluate the role of Christianity in relation to the atrocities of the Thirty-Years-War, to the injustice and hardship and brute force of colonial expansion from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, and, not least, to look at Christian involvement and Christian behavior in the course of the Total Wars of the twentieth century. I wonder whether this is the best approach to comprehend the challenge Christian communities and Christian theologians had to meet in the past 500 years. My question : How much does this approach help us to comprehend the very essence of a global history of modern Christianity ?

19Second scenario : To interpret the global history of modern Christianity as part of the global history of industrialization, of urbanization, of consumerism, and, not to forget, of the global history of exploitation of natural resources not only in Europe but also in the so-called Third World. In this context, the natural environment becomes synonymous with God's creation, and the reckless exploitation of natural resources can be seen as a sequence of severe sins. Are we, if we ask questions like these, on the right path to understand what modern Christianity had to come to terms with, and to find out what has gone terribly wrong, even for Christians ?

20Third scenario : Should we not attempt to interpret the global history of modern Christianity as part of the global history of colonization and imperialism from the sixteenth to the early twentieth centuries, and as part of the history of de-colonization since the middle of the twentieth century ? Despite the noble efforts of some missionaries, the key concept in this context is the continued suppression of peoples in Third-World-countries and the continued exploitation of the resources of the Third World, leading at the beginning of the twenty-first century to a mass migration from the Third World to the First, with far-reaching effects on the moral fiber of First-World-societies. Let me repeat my question : Could such a focus be the key to understand the history of modern Christianity in a global context?

21I hardly need to emphasize that it is not possible to blend and combine these three scenarios. Rather, when looking for the proper historical context of modern global Christianity, historians are faced with the task of making choices, and in doing so they are challenged to clarify what role Christianity played in the modern world at various periods.

  • 12 Hartmut Lehmann, « Nationalism as Poison in the Veins of Western Christianity, c. 1800-1950 », in (...)

22To summarize, historians attempting to conceive and write a global history of modern Christianity have to make choices. They have to answer questions like « what is important », « what is characteristic », « what is relevant », and « what is not ? » They have to decide which forces influenced and shaped and perhaps distorted the very core of Christian belief since the sixteenth century12 ; in short, they have to tell us what was the very substance of Christian communities worldwide in the modern era, thus also telling us where to go from here.

23Any global history of modern Christianity should be much more than a kind of summary of the history of Christianity on all continents since the sixteenth century. Done well, such a history needs to offer convincing interpretations, telling us a great deal about the value and meaning of Christianity as it has expanded from Europe to all continents. The three volumes published by Kohlhammer in German and by Brill in English do answer some of the questions that I have posed. At the same time, these volumes as well as Brian Stanley’s new history of world Christianity offer the opportunity to ask new questions, and that is what I have, in all modesty, attempted to do.

Notes

1 These remarks were prompted by two recent publications that claim to achieve and present a « Global History of Modern Christianity » : Brian Stanley, Christianity in the Twentieth Century. A World History, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 2018, and Jens Holger Schjörring, Norman A. Hjelm (éd.), Geschichte des globalen Christentums. 3 vol., Stuttgart, W. Kohlhammer 2017/2018 (= Die Religionen der Menschheit, vol. 32–34) ; English translation : History of Global Christianity. 3 vol., Leiden/Boston, Brill, 2017/18.

2 In doing so most of them refer to Max Weber’s thesis on « The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism », first published in 1904/05, and much discussed and often refuted ever since.

3 Recently, for example, by Brad S. Gregory, Unintended Reformation. How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2012 ; see also Ingolf U. Dalferth (éd.), Reformation und Säkularisierung. Zur Kontroverse um die Genese der Moderne aus dem Geist der Reformation, Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck, 2017.

4 For important reflections on this theme see Klaus Koschorke (éd.), Etappen der Globalisierung in christentumsgeschichtlicher Perspektive/Phases of Globalization in the History of Christianity, Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz, 2012 ; Ciprian Burlacioiu, Adrian Hermann (éd.), Veränderte Landkarten. Auf dem Weg zu einer polyzentrischen Geschichte des Weltchristentums. Festschrift für Klaus Koschorke zum 65. Geburtstag, Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz, 2013 ; Klaus Koschorke, Adrian Hermann (éd.), Polycentric Structures in the History of World Christianity/Polyzentrische Strukturen in der Geschichte des Weltchristentums, Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz, 2014.

5 Hartmut Lehmann, Säkularisierung. Der europäische Sonderweg in Sachen Religion, Göttingen, Wallstein, 2004, 2nd expanded ed. 2007 ; Detlef Pollack, Säkularisierung – ein moderner Mythos ? Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck, 2003 ; Callum G. Brown, Michael Snape (éd.), Secularisation in the Christian World. Essays in Honor of Hugh McLeod, Farnham, Ashgate, 2010.

6 Hartmut Lehmann (éd.), Säkularisierung, Dechristianisierung, Rechristianisierung im neuzeitlichen Europa. Bilanz und Perspektiven der Forschung, Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1997 ; David Hempton, Hugh McLeod (éd.), Secularization and Religious Innovation in the North Atlantic World, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017.

7 For different points of view see, for example, Lamin O. Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity ? The Gospel beyond the West, Grand Rapids, Mich., W. B. Eerdmans, 2003 ; Jehu J. Hanciles, Beyond Christendom. Globalization, African Migration, and the Transformation of the West, Maryknoll, N.Y., Orbis, 2008 ; Jeffrey Cox, The British Missionary Enterprise, New York, Routledge, 2008 ; Dana L. Robert, Christian Mission. How Christianity Became a World Religion, Chichester, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009 ; Mark A. Noll, The Next Shape of World Christianity, Madison, WI, IVP Academic, 2009.

8 Philip Jenkins, The New Christendom. The Coming of Global Christianity, New York, Oxford University Press, 2002, 3rd. ed. 2011 ; The New Faces of Christianity. Believing the Bible in the Global South, New York, Oxford University Press, 2006.

9 The Missionary Movement in Christian History. Studies in the Transmission of Faith, Maryknoll, N.Y., W. B. Eerdmans, 1996 ; The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History. Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith, Maryknoll, N.Y., W. B. Eerdmans, 2002.

10 The Religious and the Secular. Studies in Secularisation, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969.

11 Hugh McLeod, Secularisation in Western Europe, 1848-1914, New York, St. Martin’s, 2000 ; Hugh McLeod, Werner Ustorf (éd.), The Decline of Christendom in Western Europe, 1750-2000, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003.

12 Hartmut Lehmann, « Nationalism as Poison in the Veins of Western Christianity, c. 1800-1950 », in Jan Stievermann, Randall C. Zachman (eds.), Multiple Reformations? The Many Faces and Legacies of the Reformation, Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck, 2018, p.229-238.

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Universität Kiel (Allemagne)

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