Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Routes Forward from Imperial American Christianity

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.

Last week, I suggested that it is possible to interpret American Christianity as an imperial religion, that is, a religion whose symbols have served and continue to serve to affirm the ways in which the United States as an empire has sought to order the world and the power structures that have allowed the United States to do so. Moreover, I suggested that interpreting American Christianity in this way offers an account for the current decline of Christian adherence in the United States--it is a function of the declining imperial power of the United States.

In my analysis, I highlighted a conundrum for American Christianity: If American Christianity remains an imperial religion, it will continue to decline as American imperial power continues to wane. However, merely critiquing the imperial meanings behind the symbols of American Christianity will not transform it into a non-imperial religion. Instead, it will leave those symbols meaningless, leading to further decline.

For those interesting in the vitality of American Christianity as a religious tradition, the path forward must involve adding new, non-imperial meanings to the symbols of American Christianity. In this post, I would like to suggest three important ways in which that can happen: through contextual theology, cross-cultural theology, and constructive theology.

First, though, two important caveats:

1) American Christianity is an amazingly diverse religious tradition with many different symbols and adherents of many different social backgrounds. This short blog post cannot adequately account for all of the ways in which this diversity intersects with the project of constructing a non-imperial American Christianity.

2) While a full accounting of the diversity of American Christianity is beyond the scope of this post, race must be recognized as a critical factor. For white American Christians, as Robert P. Jones has shown, American Christianity has functioned not only as an imperial religion, but as a religion of white supremacy. The two phenomena are closely connected. This makes the challenge of creating a non-imperial religion that much harder for white American Christians.

On the other hand, because the Christian traditions of other racial/ethnic groups in the United States contain elements that are opposed to or distinct from the ordering of the world to which white Americans have aspired, those elements constitute resources for the construction of non-imperial religion, as evidenced by higher resilience in Christian adherence among many non-white groups.

These non-imperial resources within what have traditionally been labeled "contextual theologies" (at least by dominant white theologians) represent the first path forward for constructing a non-imperial theology. These symbols that either directly resist imperial orderings or direct the attention of believers to aspects of the world outside the imperial order are important sources of meaning that are not tied to the continued success of the empire. They are meanings that can and should take on more importance within a non-imperial American Christianity.

(Though anti-imperial meanings are in some way still dependent upon the empire for their significance. Thus, a religion that is merely a protest against empire may face challenges similar to an imperial religion upon the decline of that empire--loss of meaning stemming from loss of its central referrant point. That is why pointing beyond empire is in some ways even more important than resisting empire.)

Another resource for elaborating new, non-imperial meanings within American Christianity is cross-cultural theology. Theologies from outside the direct reach of American imperial power are especially valuable resources for creating a non-imperial Christianity because they are already relatively separated from the imperial power structures of the United States. Not all of these religious meanings will be able to be easily imported into American Christianity, but they represent an essential trove of theological riches that should be eagerly examined by those interested in the future of American Christianity.

The need to import and thus adapt religious meanings from other cultures leads to the third important way in which a non-imperial American Christianity can be fashioned: through constructive theology. This constructive theology, ideally using the resources of contextual and cross-cultural theologies, must rebuild American Christianity on bases of meaning not dependent upon secular imperial power. This project of constructive theology should thus engage seriously with themes neglected by imperial theologies focused on the power and success of empire. Thus, theological topics like suffering, pain, loss, death, weakness, and trauma will probably take on increased importance within this type of constructive theology.

Because of the diversity of American Christianity and because of the way in which transitions between paradigms happen, it is likely that what will be necessary, at least in the short term, is a proliferation of various attempts to construct new non-imperial meanings within American Christianity. Some of these attempts will ultimately prove to be more successful than others.

There are several open questions with regard to this approach. First, there is the large question of whether those at the imperial center, even if they recognize on some level that they and their religious system are in trouble, will have the humility to open themselves to learning from those at the imperial margins. Empire does not cultivate that sort of humility, so it goes against the conditioning of those at the center to be willing to learn in this way.

It is also an open question whether any of these new meanings or even all of these new meanings together will be enough to reverse decades of decline within Christian adherence in the United States. The 60+% of Americans that were members of Christian churches in the early 1960s may stand as an all-time high water mark. Nevertheless, such contextual, cross-cultural, and constructive theologies remain the best hope for an alternative to the hastening obsolescence of imperial American Christianity.

Moreover, whatever happens to American Christianity, the good news is that Christianity as a world-wide religious traditions is sufficiently diverse and well-distributed that it will keep going, with or without a robust American Christianity. What I am suggesting is not about how American Christians can save the world; it is about how they can save their own souls. And giving up the notion that God will save the world through you and instead admitting that you need God to save you through the world is the first step towards God's grace as it breaks in to imperial decline.

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