Book Review: Boundless Faith

Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches.
By Robert Wuthnow, University of California Press. 2009. Pages: 345+xi.

As the “first book to look systematically at American Christianity in relation to globalization”, Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches breaks new ground in the area of religion – state – society relations. The basic rationale of this book is that while scholars speak of the “Northern influence” of Christianity in the past sense and the Southern influence in the future sense, not much is heard of the current global influence of American Christianity. Drawing on several hundred in-depth interviews with church leaders and a comprehensive survey specifically conducted for this book, the writer Robert Wuthnow addresses this question and comes to the conclusion that American Christianity is increasingly influenced by globalization and is, in turn, playing a larger role in other countries and in U.S. policies and programs abroad.

After outlining the history of the twentieth century when the United States emerged as a super power, the writer asks some pertinent questions: “Where in all of this are those tens of thousands of flourishing churches? Have they played a significant role in giving the United States a different image than purveyors of soap operas and consumer of world oil?… Or, are American Christians so focussed on themselves that their religious practice is irrelevant to the larger world?” Through a process of focussed research followed by a succinct analysis, Wuthnow seeks to systematically answer these questions in the process shattering some popular beliefs and leading to unorthodox findings. His central argument is that, “as the world becomes increasingly interdependent, Christianity in the United States is becoming transcultural, responding to the realities of globalization by actively and intentionally engaging in activities that span borders” (p. 6).

Boundless Faith has seven chapters. The first two chapters deal with perhaps the most widely discussed trend in global Christianity during the last few decades: the shifting center of gravity of Christianity to the South. Though acknowledging this trend, Wuthnow cautions us that numbers alone cannot be the criterion to judge the impact of a shift. With documentary evidence, he argues that demography has often been employed to the exclusion of other considerations. Chapter 3 deals with four faces of globalization namely, the spread of global monoculture, Glocalized diversity, beneficent markets and immiserating dislocation. It is these larger economic, political and cultural aspects of globalization, the writer argue, that constitute the changing contexts in which the international outreach of U.S. churches takes place.

Chapter 4 traces the transnational ties of the American churches beginning with the founding in 1810 of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission (ABCFM), in the process arguing that the last two centuries during which the American churches became involved in global mission has been a period of great transformation.   Chapter 5 deals with a relatively recent phenomenon: the global role of U.S. congregations. For a growing number of congregations, disaster relief is but one aspect of a highly coordinated global outreach program involving humanitarian assistance, partnering with international agencies and local congregations in other countries. The next chapter discusses how American Christians influence the U.S. foreign policy. Steering away from popular theories, with a well researched methodology, the author outlines the complexities involved in this process. The last chapter briefly outlines some of the challenges ahead. These include, relating the local to the global, striking a balance between service and spirituality and re-defining the historical legacy of the United States.

A few points that emerge from Boundless Faith – namely, questioning the narrative of Global Christianity, Pentecostalism and Secularization – are discussed briefly below. Some other crucial areas covered by the book, notably, the American religions’ effect on governmental foreign policy, are not discussed here. There is ample scope for further study of several key points raised in the book.

Questioning the Narrative of Global Christianity

Missiologists and social scientists have argued in recent decades that the center of gravity of the Christian world is rapidly shifting to the Southern hemisphere. The new Christendom narrative asserts that “Christianity on a global scale has experienced significant growth during the twentieth century and this growth will continue. The majority of Christians now reside outside of the United States and Europe. The growth of Christianity in these other parts of the world… is happening primarily through the efforts of indigenous Pentecostal and other Spirit-filled churches, and for this reason Christianity in the global South is especially vibrant and authentic” (p. 36).

Wuthnow takes a closer look at the new paradigm. First of all, he questions if the ‘shifting of the center of gravity of Christianity to the global South’ is just a recent phenomenon. “… in 1970, 49 per cent of the global Christian population already lived outside of Europe and the United States. The literal geographic center of global Christianity had already migrated to northern Africa by that date” (44). What happened in the other parts of the world earlier was even more spectacular. “… the Christian population in Latin America grew by less than 3 percent annually between 1970 and 2000 but had grown by 5 percent annually between 1900 and 1970. The pattern for Africa was even more dramatic, with 3 percent annual growth from 1970 to 2000 but 17 percent annual growth from between 1900 and 1970” (45). The argument in favor of a recent shift, thus, is not as solidly grounded in empirical evidence as may first appear. The dramatic growth assumed to be taking place in Africa and Latin America was actually more dramatic before 1970 than it is now.

The writer also raises questions about the tendency of Western scholarship to classify Christians around the world into neat compartments. “How is it possible to be so confident about who is a Christian and who is not”, he asks. To add a note to Wuthnow’s point, let me cite a case from personal experience: In a survey conducted in India some years ago, it came to light that about ten percent of the population in the city of Chennai accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior but had chosen to continue in their own religious, cultural and caste communities without conversion to the Christian community. Among them there were those who maintained close spiritual fellowships with other Christians, and others, “who pursue their devotion to Christ without such support” (Herbert E. Hoefer, Debate on Mission, Madras, 1979). Statistical scholarship and descriptive claims on the geographical distribution of the Christian population have their value but there is the need to locate these numbers within the broader social and cultural specificities of each society. The undercurrents and overlaps with regard to faiths and traditions often defy neat categorization especially in culturally and socially diverse contexts.

Further, Wuthnow distinguishes between a shift in the location of the Christian population to the South and a shift in influence as expressed in the ambiguous phrase “center of gravity” (42). He fears that at times, demography has been employed to the exclusion of other considerations. “… in making their claim, proponents of the new paradigm have oversimplified the complexity of these developments” (33)”. A shift in the center of gravity, he asserts, has several dimensions to it. With the analogy of different languages, the author drives home the point that the influence of global Christianity cannot be viewed simply as a function of demography. “Although approximately four times as many people in the world speak Chinese as English, economists and ethnolinguists argue that the global power of English is far greater than the global power of Chinese. For instance, one estimate… places English ahead of Chinese by approximately eight times, with Japanese being the second-most powerful language, followed by German and then Spanish” (94). Wuthnow asserts that although the demographic center of gravity of Christianity is shifting to the global South, “the organizational and material resources of global Christianity remain heavily concentrated in the most affluent countries of North America and Europe.

Wuthnow, therefore, asks: Were theologians making erroneously the truth of Christianity contingent with its numeric success? What exactly do writers mean when they say that the center of gravity of Christianity has shifted to the global South? Where is the global South? In the specific context of the United States, it can also be asked: do U.S. churches have any significant role to play in the further unfolding of global Christianity? Should they retreat into their own communities, perhaps to replicate the vitality of the Sprit-filled churches that are growing abroad (38). These are some of the questions addressed in Boundless Faith.

Pentecostalism

Scholars who study demographic trends in Christianity uniformly agree that Pentecostalism is a growing phenomenon, especially in the global South. Wuthnow, however, would argue that a careful analysis of the situation would throw up a complex picture. He points out two factors: One – If only Pentecostalism is considered, then the rate of growth appears to be high but the total number is considerably smaller if all the Christians are considered. Citing the example of Ghana, he points out that even though between 1990 and 2000, the number of Pentecostals in that country swelled by 44 percent, Pentecostals account for only a quarter of the Christian population there (44). Secondly, the overall Christian population is growing in the South also because of high fertility rates. Which numbers are used while counting the Christians of one location, therefore, becomes a question when we depend primarily on demography to analyze shifting trends in Christianity. “Growth or decline in the Christian population of a particular country is largely a function of growth or decline in the overall population of that country and is in turn shaped by local conditions that affect longevity, morbidity rates and decisions about fertility” (43).

There could, however, be some questions about Wuthnow’s observation that Pentecostal churches across the globe are fairly homogenous and uniform and that they “rely on Western media and thus stand to be accused of importing Western values in the same way that U.S. motion pictures and popular music are said to do” (72-73). At least in some contexts this does not seem to be the case. Studies done in some parts of Africa and Asia point towards a rich diversity with regard to ecclesiastical and social structures that shape Pentecostal groups. The approach of the various Pentecostal churches to Western Christian influence is also diverse. While some depend primarily on human and material resources from the West, others are zealous of their indigenous identity. To cite an instance, the Indian Pentecostal Church (IPC), the oldest Pentecostal group in India, is an indigenous organization which was founded as a counter force against the growing presence of Western Pentecostal missionaries in the country in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Wuthnow also studies Pentecostalism as a social phenomenon, in particular as a faith response to globalization and as a means of reinterpreting and gaining control over the globalizing forces. With regard to the shifting fortunes in the global economy that shaped the Ewe in Southwest Ghana, he notes that “Pentecostalism provided hope of divine intervention and a perspective from which to be critical of people who foolishly spent scarce resources on consumer goods” (88). As helpless victims of the forces that govern the global economy, the Ewe learned to understand its dangers but also benefited from the links to the rich countries that globalization facilitated.

The author further considers Pentecostalism in relation to the free market ideology. Pentecostalism in some contexts is seen as “promoting ideas conducive to the kind of open markets, work ethic, and personal morality that Americans value” (202). He, however, acknowledges the tension and ambivalence between ‘moral asceticism’ on the one hand and the ‘upward social mobility’ on the other with regard to Pentecostalism. The freshness and spontaneity that distinguishes Pentecostalism from the more institutionalized churches makes any clearly defined framework difficult.

Secularization

Wuthnow questions the fundamental premise that secularization and urbanization has led to the waning influence of religion. The historical and philosophical sections that had argued, at least since the eighteenth century, that factors such as scientific rationalism, urbanization and economic development have led to the undermining of religion has influenced a section of the religious leaders especially in Christianity. Such a presumed de-religionization of the society proved to be unfounded. To prove his point, Wuthnow asks: “… if the United States is a relatively scientific, urbanized, and economically developed society, then why does belief in God remain so pervasive and why in recent decades has church attendance not diminished more?” (49). With regard to religion and modernization, our current context can indeed be characterized as the return of religion to the secular city.

Wuthnow, however, like most Western scholars, seems to see secularization as essentially devoid of any redemptive quality with regard to religion. It is important to note that despite the current polarized debate between the secularizationists and the antisecularizationists, there is a history of a stream, at least from early twentieth century, that recognized the potential for a religion – secular interface. Rufus Jones, the American Quaker theologian, in his presentation at the Jerusalem Mission Conference (1928) underscored the dialectical role of Christianity with regard to religions and secular ideologies. While on the one hand, he spoke of the need for Christian missions to look upon non-Christian religions as ‘allies’ in their encounter against secularism and in their endeavor to preserve spiritual values, on the other, he called upon the missions to be engaged in the task of fulfilling the human values of secularism against traditional religious culture. In the post-Jerusalem period, a dialectical theology that evaluated secularization as the result of the impact of the Christian gospel and explored the possibility of a ‘secular Christianity’ as the appropriate faith response in the modern times gained ground. Arend van Leeuwen, for instance, had argued that secularism can be an ally of Christianity against religion where the emergent secular technological civilization is closely linked to prophetic Christianity and has a unique role in revolutionalizing the religious cultures of Asia and Africa.

This segment of history that affirms a positive role for secularism with regard to religion has enormous contemporary significance. The American Religious Identification Survey (2009) and the U.S. Religious Landscape Study conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life indicated a trend in the United States that seems to be more towards an increasing indifference to matters of faith. According to the Survey, “the percentage of Americans claiming no religion, which jumped from 8.2 in 1990 to 14.2 in 2001, has now increased to 15 percent.” The progressive role of secularism in public life is a factor that religions will increasingly be called upon to recognize. Secularism in our times can perhaps be understood not so much as the negation of religion but as the organizing principle for defining the interface between various religions and ideologies in a pluralist society and the coming together of religions and secular ideologies in building up a just, peaceful and inclusive social order.

Boundless Faith makes the crucial point that arguments about the Southern future of Christianity are still rooted in the old categories of the secularization debate. Wuthnow questions such general categories and affirms that changes often occur ‘within a temporal tube’. It is essential to understand a phenomenon in relation to the specificities of that particular location. “Christianity is declining in one part of the world; the tube is that part of the world. Christianity is growing in another part of the world; the tube is that other part of the world” (51). What happens in one location can be compared to what happens in another, but there is a certain danger in treating religious growth or decline as if all shifts are bound to one another and thus happen within a single restricted area. “It is not as if decline in one area causes growth in another area, or vice versa, or even that the two are systemically related.”

As Wade Clark Roof puts it, Boundless Faith “offers an interpretation that is not only more encompassing than any existing work but also very insightful and thought provoking”. Wuthnow’s assertion that demographic and statistical information should be analyzed within a larger socio-religious framework is timely especially as the Atlas of Global Christianity is just being released. Accurate demographic information on global Christianity and a social analysis of such information are both essential to gauge adequately the spread of a movement of such magnitude. More specifically, Boundless Faith refutes a number of prevailing stereotypes with regard to the global role of American Christianity. The author deserves all credit for bringing out a book that illuminates the relatively neglected global aspect of American Christianity and broadens the framework in which we customarily think about the successes, failures, and variations among faith communities. The amount of research that has gone into Boundless Faith is truly breathtaking. The notes and bibliography cover nearly one hundred pages! This is indeed an important and timely work.

~ JMA 

 

 

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