12 juni 2017

#488. Att lära av historien…

"But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent." (Revelation 2:4–5)
"Men det har jag emot dig, att du har övergett din första kärlek. Tänk på varifrån du har fallit, och omvänd dig och gör samma gärningar som förr. Annars kommer jag till dig och flyttar bort ditt lampställ, om du inte omvänder dig." (Uppenbarelseboken 2:4–5)
From the long history of Christianity stretched out before us we may perhaps be able to discern particular themes and currents that enable us to make some generalizations about Christian history. Such generalizations may enable us to consider some aspects of the Christian faith itself, and thus take us from history to theology. And the generalizations come most naturally if we carry out the survey within the historical study of religions.

The first generalization is that Christian advance is not progressive, but serial. To compare the history of Christianity with that of Islam is to see two religions which have much in common in their origins, have both spread across most of the world, and both gained the allegiance of very diverse peoples. But there has been a great difference in the extent to which the two faiths have retained the allegiance of the peoples who have embraced them. Here Islam seems to have been notably more successful. It is hard to think of Arabia, for instance, without thinking at once of Islam; yet Yemen was once a Christian kingdom. Jerusalem is the mother church of all Christians; yet the name today does not immediately evoke its Christian connotations; nor do those of Egypt, Syria, Turkey or Tunisia, all once leading centres of the Christian faith. Generally speaking (there are some exceptions), lands that became Muslim have remained Muslim.

The same cannot be said of the lands that became Christian. All the places named were once the very heartlands of Christianity, centres of Christian devotions and Christian scholarship, nurseries of Christian martyrs. Today, Christians in all these places are marginal. Nor is that the end of the story. There was a time when the greater part of the population of what is now Iraq professed the Christian faith; when from thence churches spread across much of Iran, and from thence across Central Asia. There was a time when Britain sent out more missionaries than any other country, and when Europe seemed the core territory of Christianity. Yet British cities are now full of churches that no one wants, except for stores or bars or restaurants, and the European Union can devise a constitution which makes no reference to the Christianity which was once so powerful a constituent of European identity.

It would seem that in this respect Christianity has historically lacked a certain resilience that Islam possesses. The reason for this we must consider later; for the moment we need notice only that in each of the cases noted, the Christian community in what was once a Christian heartland, Christian core territory, faded. As the Book of revelation puts it, the candlestick was taken out of its place. But in none of the cases mentioned did the fading of the Christian heartland community issue in the fading of the Christian faith itself; rather the reverse. When the Jerusalem church, the church of the apostles, was scattered, the mission to the Greek world, begun by a few of its refugee members, spread the faith further and faster then the Jerusalem-based church had ever done. When the churches in Iraq began to decline, those in Iran increased. As the great Christian centres in Egypt and Syria passed under Muslim rule and were eroded, so the barbarians of Northern and Western and Eastern Europe were coming to appropriate the faith. In each case, withering at the centre, the focus of apparent strength, was accompanied or closely followed by blossoming at or beyond the margins.

Christian advance is not a progressive process, a steady line of success. Advance may not produce further advance, but recession. Christians dare never proclaim permanent gains, of the sort that can be spotted on a map and claimed as occupied territory. There is no especially Christian territory in the sense that Muslim claim Arabia, nowhere where the faith belongs by right of ownership. There is no Christian equivalent of Mecca, no cosmic centre of the faith. Christian advance is serial, rooted first in one place and then in another, decaying in one area, appearing new in another.

It would seem that there is a vulnerability at the heart of Christian faith; and indeed the Cross stands a reminder of that vulnerability. There is a fragility of another kind, also; for, as we shall see the effectiveness of Christian faith within a culture depends on translation, and the process of translation may become inhibited or atrophied. In the passage from revelation just alluded to, the Lord says that it is he, not his rivals, who will remove the candlestick of a failing church. There is no permanently Christian country, no single Christian culture, no single form of Christian civilization. Historically, different areas of the world have provided its leadership at different time, and then passed the baton on to others. All expectation must be that this process will continue.

  • Walls, Andrew F., 2005: Mission History as the Substructure of Mission Theology. I: Swedish Missiological Themes; Svensk MissionsTidskrift Vol. 93, No.3. Uppsala: Swedish Institute of Mission Research. S 367-369.

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