We will benefit from a comparative and transcultural frame in studying the decline of mainline Christianity in Europe and America and the rise of religious diversity. Many religions coexisted in Europe before Christianity became the state religion during Constantine’s reign. It was because of imperial formation that one religion and a monolithic culture were forced upon the peoples. Some of the religions of Old Europe went underground but continued to exist in other forms, such as some elements in Celtic Christianity. Today in Europe and America, it is no longer a taboo for people not to attend church and to try out other religious and spiritual paths.

The seeming decline of Christianity leads people as diverse as Samuel P. Huntington and Pat Buchanan to ask “Who are we?” as Americans. In Europe, the debates over wearing headscarves to schools in France and the controversy over the cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper point to the uneasy attitudes toward religious minorities. But the questions about religious toleration and religious rights of minorities are not new. Many countries in Asia and Africa have a long history of struggling with cultural and religious diversity in national formation. They may provide insights for countries on both sides of the North Atlantic to deal with religious minorities and diversity of religious expressions.

Globalization has brought new religious forms. While many have commented on the resurgence of religious fundamentalisms in different parts of the world, some other interesting phenomena have been left off the radar. For example, Confucianism has been revitalized through TV and popular books in China. Even though the Confucian tradition may not be considered a “religion” according to Western nomenclature, it is a form of life philosophy. During the Maoist era, Confucianism was purged as feudalistic and reactionary. But today, it is popularized almost like a form of spirituality, something akin to Chicken Soup for the Soul, to ease stress and competition of modern life.

Religion cannot be studied separate from the larger forces of political economy, cultural changes, and impacts of globalization. Religion has sometimes been constructed as a separate sphere of life concerned largely with the private realm in Western academia and media. Such a notion of religion is based largely on the European experience, especially since the Enlightenment. Christianity is often used as a model or a blueprint to study other religious traditions. Sadly, many commentators in the American mass media still uphold such biases, which will not foster mutual respect and dialogue. It is critical to develop a transnational and transcultural approach to the study of religion to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

 

Kwok Pui-lan is the William F. Cole Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is the author of Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology, Introducing Asian Feminist Theology, and Discovering the Bible in the Non-Biblical World, and editor of a four-volume reference work Women and Christianity and Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology.