Future of Religion
Protestants, Catholics, and Global Christianity: An Interview with Mark Noll
One sometimes hears professors or historians say, "As a historian I believe X, because I am required to operate according to a certain methodology. But as an individual believer, I believe Y." The question is: is that a stable arrangement? Over the long haul, the more that one practices a methodological naturalism, or something of that sort, will one eventually come not only to practice naturalism as a methodological matter but to accept it as a metaphysical matter? Is it practical to bifurcate ourselves as scholars into one part that draws conclusions according to rigorous methodological criteria and another part that confesses a different set of beliefs?
I actually think it's fatal for long-term Christian thinking and fatal for the long-term health of Christianity per se to live under different basic commitments in professional life and church life. To say that I adopt the rules of the game for academic life Monday to Friday, and the rules of church life on Sunday, that's a real problem.
However, what's required for many domains of learning, and I would include biblical studies, is the serious use of the mind while the spirit is fully cast in a Christian foundation. That can be a difficult challenge where much of the formal thinking about something has been dominated by non-Christian influences for some time, as would be the case in biblical study at research universities.
But the way forward is not to split the personality. The way forward would be following the path charted out by the really significant Christian philosophers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, who have urged more professional abilities, but also more courage in letting Christian foundations dictate how those professional abilities are put to use. I am filled with admiration for people like Robert Adams, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Alvin Plantinga, who have been thoroughly elite and thoroughly professional, but also foundationally Christian in how they put to use their professional wisdom. That, I think, is the model. They have not divided themselves into an academic part and a believer part.
Turning now to global matters: In your recent book, The New Shape of World Christianity, you provide some fascinating statistics about the transformations of the Christian church around the globe. Who was the typical Christian one hundred years ago, and who is the typical Christian today?
In 1900, something like 80 to 85 percent of the world's Christian population was located in Europe and North America. Today it is probably half or less than half, and the fastest growing regions of Christian adherents are in sub-Saharan Africa, China, and Latin America.
So, no longer is the typical world Christian a European or North American male. It would have to be someone from the non-Western world, and probably a female.
In that book, you write: "American Christianity is important for the world primarily because the world is coming more and more to look like America. Therefore, the way that Christianity developed in the American environment helps to explain the way Christianity is developing in many parts of the world. But correlation is not causation: the fact that globalization and other factors have created societies that resemble in many ways what Americans experienced in the frontier period of their history does not mean that Americans are dictating to the world. It means, instead, that understanding American patterns provides insight for what has been happening elsewhere in the world" (pg. 189).
Dr. Timothy Dalrymple is the Associate Director of Content at Patheos, and writes weekly on faith, politics, and culture for Patheos' Evangelical Portal. Follow him at his blog, Philosophical Fragments, on Facebook or on Twitter.