Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
When Facebook first introduced the option to list one’s religious views, a theological school friend of mine jokingly listed his as, “Whatever happened to Marduk?”
The quick answer to that question is that Marduk went the way of the Babylonian Empire that worshipped him. The Babylonian Empire fell, and Marduk, its imperial god, did not long survive that fall.
Nor is Marduk the only deity to meet such a fate. Marduk has been joined in his fate by the likes of Ra, Zeus, Jupiter, Mithros, Quetzalcoatl, Pachamama and others. While at one point, each of these deities presided over an empire of devoted followers, when their empires collapsed, so did their religious cults.
The reasons why imperial religions go into decline with their empires are probably many and vary by the individual. For some, imperial religions have taken on an air of coercion, and newly freed people are eager to be rid of religious coercion along with political coercion. For others, the truth claims a religion makes about the order of the world no longer seem credible when the imperial order collapses and the world becomes chaotic. For others, the religion is no longer able to deliver the this-worldly goods, especially power and prestige, expected of it when it can no longer access those goods through decayed imperial structures. For others, the religion may just take on an air of the past, and they look for something more contemporary.
Whatever the reasons, there is a clear historical correlation between imperial decay and the decline of belief in and practice of the official or predominant religion(s) of a declining empire.
One may wonder why then we expect imperial Christianity to be different than other imperial religions.
These historical and interreligious comparisons are another reason to take seriously the idea that the secularization experienced in the West (first in Europe, then in its colonies such as Canada and Australia, and most recently in the United States) is more a function of those societies’ diminished secular and political role in the world than it is a product of modernity.
That may in some ways be bad news for Christianity in the West. The West is unlikely to regain its imperial power any time soon, nor should it, and one might fairly expect a rather lengthy post-colonial religious hangover. Europe’s has been going on for half a century and shows no signs of letting up.
Yet, at the same time, this analysis is good news for Christianity as a whole. Under this explanation, global religious belief is not doomed to some pre-determined decline based on increasing standards of living or the advance of science and technology. Instead, falling levels of religious belief are associated with particular historico-political situations, and outside those situations, one may fairly expect religion to continue to flourish, as it has in various forms for the duration of human history.
Moreover, there have been instances in which a religion has survived the collapse of an empire. Yet it almost always does so outside the core of that former empire.
One such example is Buddhism after the end of Ashoka’s empire in India. The Emperor Ashoka was a strong proponent of Buddhism, at least in his latter reign. But after his death, his empire began to fracture. When his grandson set about to rebuild the empire, it was Jainism rather than Buddhism that occupied the favored religious spot.
Yet despite its lack of support in India after Ashoka, Buddhism flourished in Sri Lanka, where Ashoka sent missionaries. Indeed, Buddhism continued to spread throughout Southeast Asia. The missionary impulse was strong enough in Buddhism, and the religion was flexible enough, that others were able to find value in it that extended beyond its associations with a single imperial system. They were able to make it their own and use it for their own purposes unconnected to Ashoka’s empire.
In a similar way, people around the world first encountered Christianity in its imperial version associated with Western economic and political expansion. But the missionary genius of Christianity, like Buddhism, has been that those who have encountered it have been able to take it out of its imperial trappings, make adjustments as they see fit, and make it their own.
This process is, of course, widely affirmed by contemporary missiology. Whether called inculturation, contextualization, or something else, the importance of people making Christianity their own is almost universally recognized. This process is important both for the sake of the people appropriating Christianity, that they may fully connect to it, and for Christianity itself, so that it may continue to cross cultural, political, linguistic, and other borders. The endurance of altered forms of imperial religion beyond the borders of empire is just another reason to affirm the continued adaptation, translation, and appropriation of Christianity by peoples around the world in ways that make sense to them.
As people continue to make Christianity their own, some will probably make of it an imperial religion for new empires, and those versions will eventually suffer for it. But the continued endurance of Christianity will come in its ability to connect with the lowly as well as the mighty, the poor as well as the rich, the marginalized as well as the central. Christianity will endure, not because of the might, power, or wisdom of its most vociferous proponents. It will endure because it continues to speak good news to people wherever they are, especially on the margins.