Chapter 5: The Christian Stream of Influence

The World to Come: From Christian Past to Global Future
by Lloyd Geering

Chapter 5: The Christian Stream of Influence

If Christian civilization is no more, if Christian orthodoxy is disintegrating and if Christian Modernism has failed to rescue it, where does this leave Christianity? Is it also facing its demise? This depends on what we understand by Christianity -- a question which, rather problematically, cannot be answered in the same way for all who call themselves Christian.

Many assume Christianity to be identified with what became the classical Christian doctrines (orthodoxy), yet it was several centuries before these were explicitly enunciated in the creeds by the ecumenical councils. Christianity is older than the orthodoxy it later produced. (In any case, since the Reformation, there have emerged several ‘orthodoxies’, each claiming to be the true one). Something which might be called Christianity clearly existed from the time the first followers of Jesus proclaimed him to be the Christ and found themselves referred to as Christians (Acts 11:26). Yet the study of Christian history shows there has never been a time when all Christians have agreed on what it is to be a Christian. The first sharp difference of opinion is documented in the New Testament -- it was the difference between the original (or Jewish) form of Christian allegiance to Jesus Christ and the Pauline (or Gentile) form. That rift was never healed. The ecumenical councils later achieved the only true form of Christian teaching only by declaring to be heretical all who failed to accept their definitions. But those ‘heretical’ movements also claimed to be Christian. Thus, over two millennia, there have been innumerable different ways of understanding what it means to be a Christian and during the last 500 years they have been multiplying.

Today, some think of Christianity as a matter of holding certain beliefs, while others think of it as a particular lifestyle. Some regard Christianity as a set of values to be honored as a guide to living; others experience it as a conversion in which one accepts Jesus Christ as one’s personal Lord and Savior. Some see themselves as incorporated into the church as the body of Christ; others believe everything in the Bible and call themselves bible-believing Christians. The Christian path of faith has been walked in many different ways by innumerable people through the centuries. What links them together is their common respect for the Bible (though they interpret it in different ways) and their desire to give their allegiance to Jesus as the Christ (albeit in many different forms). To avoid adopting a sectarian viewpoint, it is necessary to include in the broad stream of Christianity not only what has been at the center but also what has been on the margins -- and that includes what some have judged to be heresies. We should remember also that what has been heretical to one age has sometimes been approved by another, and vice-versa.

A precise answer to the question ‘what is Christianity?’ thus remains elusive. However, W. Cantwell Smith in his book The Meaning and End of Religion (1964) opened up other ways of apprehending the Christian experience. Objective names such as Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism have only come into use in recent centuries; this phenomenon, implying that religions are ‘things’, is described as ‘reification’. Instead of using the term Christianity, Cantwell Smith suggested that we would do better to focus on two quite different components present throughout Christian history -- the first he calls the Christian cumulative tradition and the second is the personal faith and commitment of people who think of themselves as Christians.

By the Christian cumulative tradition is meant the sum of all the objective data that has marked the complex path of Christian faith through the centuries. They are, for example, the Bible, creeds, confessions, theological systems, deviant heresies, moral codes, myths, buildings, social institutions -- everything that has been left as an extant deposit within the developing Christian culture, and which can be studied by the historian. It is not the historian’s place to prefer one set of Christian data to another, or to side with the orthodox over the heretics but only to decide whether the datum is definitely linked with the cumulative Christian tradition as a whole.

Faith is something quite different. It is the attitude of trust and hope with which humans can face the future and all the challenges life brings. Faith is an attitudinal response of the whole person, involving the emotions and the will as well as the mind. It is not therefore to be identified just with beliefs, for these are solely cognitive. Being personal and subjective, faith is not open to historical and objective study as the cumulative tradition is, yet without such faith there would have been no such tradition.

Faith is not the sole prerogative of any one cultural tradition, though Christians have often shown a tendency to think faith was exclusively a Christian phenomenon. Faith is a potential universal to the human species and is to be found in people of every cultural tradition. That is why it has become common to speak of the various traditions as ‘paths of faith’. Each particular culture fosters and shapes the faith of those within it by the way it provides a world-view and helps them to understand life. The religious dimension of a culture promotes particular qualities and aspirations which give that culture its identity and even a name. There is no one path of faith which is ideal or exclusively true. Moreover, in the life of an individual or a community the experience of faith may be found to ebb and flow according to changing circumstances.

Long before the modern term ‘Christianity’ came into use, people used to speak rather of ‘the Christian faith’. This term acknowledges (at least tacitly) that there are many different ways of experiencing faith (or trust). The qualifying epithet ‘Christian’ was used to denote the particular qualities this path of faith was believed to possess, namely, that it drew inspiration and strength from the one known as Jesus Christ.

While faith is so personal and subjective that it is not open to objective study, the religious observance which stems from faith is observable. Instead of asking about the fate of Christianity in the modern world, we can more usefully ask what is happening to Christian observance.

Widespread Christian observance within Christendom not only survived the fragmentation of the church at the Reformation but even seemed to show a new burst of vitality. This was because the focus shifted from participation in Christendom (by virtue of birth) to personal experience and belief (by active choice). Instead of being baptized into ‘the one and holy catholic church’ as a matter of universal practice, people were being challenged to make a personal choice between the Catholic and the various other Protestant forms of Christian allegiance. This had the effect of intensifying devotion and commitment. Unfortunately it often led to bitter animosity between Protestant and Catholic and even between various forms of Protestantism. What, in theory, should have been allegiance to a common Lord Jesus Christ, often turned out in practice to be sectarian allegiance to a particular confession or denomination. After the rather grudging truce between Catholic and Protestant was entered into at the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, the resurgence of active ‘Christian’ commitment initiated by the Reformation began to ebb.

Yet there was still no question of abandoning Christian affiliation. This even survived the corrosive effect of the Enlightenment. In doing so, however, Christian allegiance became even more personal, inward and subjective. Protestantism, in particular, survived the rationalism of the Enlightenment through a shift of emphasis from doctrines (products of the mind) to inner experience (feelings of the heart). The Pietistic movements, initiated by such people as Philipp Spener and Count von Zinzendorf, and spread by the Moravian Brethren, did much to revitalize Protestant church life. These movements, followed by Methodism and the evangelical revival, focused on inner subjective experience, just as the charismatic movements have been doing in the late twentieth century.

Personal religious experience and inner feeling, therefore, began to take precedence over religious thought and dogma at the very time when traditional Christian doctrines were becoming increasingly out of kilter with the new ideas and advancing human knowledge of the last two centuries. Even so, the number of people with serious doubts about the basic Christian concepts and doctrines was still extremely small in the eighteenth century. This did not increase until the nineteenth century, by which time the leading edge of western thought was moving beyond the limits of doctrinal orthodoxy. A great gulf began to open up between what intelligent people were thinking and saying on the one hand, and what the church continued to teach on the other.

At first all these changes were quite gradual. Even the decline of Christendom was hardly noticed until after the end of the nineteenth century. In 1900 it would have been absurd to suggest that Christian allegiance was in any decline, for the opposite appeared to be true. It has been only in the second half of the twentieth century that people of the Christian west have abandoned affiliation to Christianity in some numbers, openly confessing they are no longer Christian. Even when church attendance was becoming more irregular, between 1850-1950. people did not think of themselves as abandoning Christianity but only (what they called) ‘churchianity’. Since the end of World War II, however, there have been alarming signs that it is not just Christendom that is vanishing and not just Christian orthodoxy which is disintegrating. Christian allegiance is itself suffering from a deep malaise. The proclamation of the age-old Christian message is no longer bringing forth a firm response of Christian commitment. Since the beginning, the Christian message has been boldly presented as the Gospel -- ‘good news’. Today it is no longer widely heard as any sort of news at all, good or bad.

This first became noticeable in Protestant areas, but predominantly Catholic countries now appear to be affected too. In 1982 the World Christian Encyclopaedia noted the number of white westerners practicing Christianity was dropping at a rate of 7,600 per day; in 1986 the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Küng observed that, of the some five billion inhabitants of the earth, only 950 million were nominally Christian and only a fraction of those took any active part in the church. Although this decline in Christian allegiance, occurring mainly in one century, is quite sudden relative to the length of the Christian era, it has been sufficiently slow and unspectacular relative to a person’s lifetime that most churches have, until recently, been hardly aware of it. Many church leaders have flatly refused to acknowledge any decline at all in Christian allegiance.

People born in recent decades have no first-hand experience of what active Christian allegiance was like at the beginning of the twentieth century, when practically everybody in the western world other than Jews claimed to be Christian. Churches were full; Christian festivals dominated the calendar; there was strict Sabbath observance; and the various patterns of Christian morality were enforced by peer pressure, even more than they were by law or from the pulpit. Christendom may not have existed at the beginning of this century, but the Christian practice was still very much alive.

At the end of this century things are very different. In Europe, and in countries to which European culture has been transplanted, there is evidence everywhere of decline in outward Christian observance. Many churches now have very small congregations; some churches have closed altogether. Congregations are commonly made up of people aged 50 and over; young people rarely participate. Seminaries for the training of clergy and priests have been closing down. Roman Catholic monastic orders have very few novices and often consist of a few elderly nuns or monks. The great cathedrals have become historic monuments to a past age, chiefly of interest to tourists.

Church-going remains more common in the United States and in some of the African countries; the charismatic and fundamentalist groups are the most active of all the churches. Fundamentalist Christians regard themselves as the last bastions of orthodoxy because of their commitment to the literal text of the Bible, and this meets the needs of people looking for certainty in a time of rapid change. The attraction of the charismatic churches is their emphasis on inner feeling and their ability to foster a sense of emotional fulfillment; there is little critical examination of what the Christian doctrines really mean in a world very different from that in which they were first formulated.

To many, of course, this evidence of decline in Christian allegiance is only too obvious. But there has been a strange reluctance within the churches to acknowledge it. Some insist on interpreting the twentieth century as a period of unfortunate but temporary setback in Christian advance, comparable to those which occurred prior to the Reformation and to the Evangelical Revival. They confidently predict that this decline too will be followed by a renewal. Some claim that this is already happening in the rapid spread of the charismatic movement, while others, like Keith Ward in The Turn of the Tide, express optimistic hopes for the future of Christianity. Yet others are sure that radical measures could be taken to reverse the current decline, if only the church were of a mind to adopt them.1

The belief that the classical form of Christianity will come through every crisis in the long run is, of course, an essential component of the Christian faith. Over the centuries Christians have said of their church founded by God, ‘not even the gates of Hell shall prevail against it’, so to contemplate the possible demise of Christianity we have to suspend Christian faith and step outside it, at least temporarily. When we do this the traditional expectations of Christianity’s future look very much like wishful thinking.

Already by the end of the nineteenth century, theology was losing credibility as an academic discipline, often finding no place in the new secular universities in the twentieth century. It has sometimes been replaced now by the historical study of all religion as a human phenomenon. The Christian churches have been reluctant to follow the lead of even their own liberal scholars. John Cobb has gone so far as to say: ‘The church has lost the ability to think. Unless it recognizes that its healthy survival depends on the recovery and exercise of that ability and acts on that recognition, talk of renewal or transformation is idle.’2

Modern historical, philosophical and scientific thought has come into conflict at so many points with traditional Christian teaching that the latter has been losing its power to convince ordinary people (to say nothing of the intelligentsia). While most people still affirm what they call ‘Christian values’, an increasing number at all educational levels find themselves quite unable to embrace traditional Christian beliefs. The Christian views of history, of the nature of the universe and of the human condition are no longer consistent with the understanding that most people have through experience and general education. Many who have tried to remain faithful to the church feel guilty that they are unable to reconcile their personal views or convictions with Christian teaching; they live a kind of schizophrenic religious existence. Others have resolved the tension by distancing themselves and openly saying they are not Christian. During the twentieth century the mainline churches have become the oldline churches and now find themselves to be the sidelined churches (to use John Cobb’s words).

We have seen that Christian faith can be described only in very general terms. There is no such thing as the Christian faith, but there have been countless people through the ages who have found that their capacity for faith has been nourished and strengthened by drawing on various elements of the now extensive Christian cumulative tradition. In the course of 2,000 years this has not only spread around the world geographically but, like a river fanning out into a delta with streams and tributaries, it has diversified its forms and expression. Its organizational manifestation is to be found in a great variety of churches, denominations, sects, associations, movements and house groups. It has gradually penetrated into different cultures, so shaping and coloring them, that even when the ecclesiastical organizations begin to decay, its influence leaves behind a more permanent deposit. This may not be recognizable as any form of conventional Christianity; yet it is there because of the influence of the Christian cumulative tradition and remains part of that tradition.

To illustrate this, let us look at another religious tradition, that of Zoroastrianism. Zoroaster’s teaching also developed into a civilization. It had two main periods of flowering, one about 540-330 BCE in the time of the Achaemenian rulers, and the second about 225-650 CE in the time of the Sassanian rulers. Zoroastrian civilization has now long since disappeared. yet Zoroastrianism still lives, in two quite different ways. It is preserved and practiced in one form by the descendants of the earlier Zoroastrians, the Parsis, who now number only about 100,000. More remarkably, however, Zoroastrianism continues today in the ideas, values and mythical themes transmitted to the Jews and through them, to Christianity and Islam. Some of the Zoroastrian influences were described briefly in Chapter I; they include, as noted, our current concern with ‘the millennium’.

The components of Zoroastrianism which survive in the three monotheistic traditions of the Middle East are, of course, no longer known as Zoroastrian, nor are they usually acknowledged to have a pre-Jewish source. But today we are much more aware that no religious tradition evolves in complete isolation. Most, on examination, reveal more influence from other traditions than they are usually ready to acknowledge. Some gems of wisdom travel from one culture to another, yet each regards them as its own. This interplay between cultures and between religious traditions means that few, if any, of the great cultures ever wholly disappear; they leave deposits of their most compelling ideas and themes. In our clocks and watches we still observe the long-term influence of the culture of ancient Babylonia, for it was the ancient Babylonians who began to use the number base of 6o for counting time and for measuring angles.

The modern secular world cannot be properly understood without acknowledging all it owes to the many human cultures which have preceded it -- in particular, the culture of western Christendom. Indeed western Christianity, however unintentionally, was chiefly instrumental in bringing the modern world into existence. Thus, just as parts of Zoroastrianism may be said to have survived in Christianity, so much of the Christian cumulative tradition lives on in the secularized modern world, and will continue to do so. It would be almost impossible to stamp out that influence.

What survives of the classical form of Christianity appears thin when compared with the substantial body of teaching in its heyday. Yet it has gained enormously in breadth. The cumulative Christian tradition is now spreading out so widely, both geographically and in shape, that it is coming to include a variety of forms which are inconsistent with others. One cannot today define ‘a Christian’ without cutting out people who, quite legitimately, wish to count themselves as Christians, or including some who wish to deny any allegiance to the Christian tradition.

The question of whether we are facing the demise of Christianity does not, therefore, admit of any straightforward answer. We are certainly coming to the end of orthodox or conventional Christianity -- that is, the Christianity which is Bible-based, and which affirms God as a divine personal being and Jesus Christ as the only Savior of the world. But the cumulative tradition still goes on. Just as the ancients used the terms ‘wind’ and ‘breath’ metaphorically to refer to the invisible ‘spiritual’ forces that operate in human societies and motivate their cultures, so we may need to draw upon such vague and indefinite terms in order to understand what is happening in this tradition. Viktor von Strauss, the first to notice the ancient cultural change that was later named the Axial Period, described what he observed as ‘a strange movement of the spirit [which] passed through all civilized peoples’.3 Such ‘movements of the spirit’ may be the key to our understanding of the next phase.

Instead of thinking of Christianity as something which has an unchangeable essence we should view it as a continuing, yet changing, stream of cultural influence. The history and culture of ancient Israel was the chief source from which this stream issued but there were many other tributaries, such as Persian Zoroastrianism and Hellenistic philosophy. Through the centuries were added the thoughts, feelings and personal experiences of countless generations of people who were both shaped by the stream and contributed to it. The development of the mediaeval church, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Evangelical Revival and the advent of modernity have all been significant features of the stream itself, sometimes strengthening it, sometimes modifying it, and always changing it.

As change has taken place, some have accepted it readily, while others have resisted change as inconsistent with some immutable essence. Today such people commonly speak of the danger of ‘throwing out the baby with the bath water’. The metaphor is misleading. There is no ‘baby’, no eternal essence of Christianity. Christianity is the stream itself. The stream is continuous in its flow but ever changing, with new elements entering and others falling out of sight. As Heraclitus noted, one cannot step twice into the same stream.

The stance on human rights is an excellent example of the way radical change can take place in this cultural stream. Many in Christian circles now see it as their duty to give strong support to human rights, yet for nearly 2,000 years the concept of human rights was never acknowledged as a Christian value. There is no explicit mention of such rights in the Bible, nor do they figure in traditional theology and Christian ethics. Even in Emil Brunner’s weighty volume on Christian ethics, The Divine Imperative (1937), there is no discussion of human rights as such. In pre-modern times the emphasis was always on the duties and responsibilities that lie with us humans -- duties to God, duties to the monarch, duties to our fellows. Conventional Christianity asserted that, as sinful creatures in a fallen world ruled by an Almighty God, humans had no rights at all but were at the mercy of a gracious God.

And so the papal encyclicals did not speak about human rights until 1963. In 1864 Pope Pius IX declared that it was insane to teach that citizens had rights to all kinds of liberty,4 but in 1963 Pope John XXIII, in his encyclical Pacem in Terris, said:

Every man has the right to life, to bodily integrity and to the means which are necessary and suitable for the proper development of life. These are primarily food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care and, finally, the necessary social services. Therefore a human being also has the right to security in cases of sickness, inability to work, widowhood, old age, unemployment, or in any case in which he is deprived of the means of subsistence through no fault of his own . . . right to respect, right to freedom in searching for truth, right to share in the benefits of culture . . . the right to choose the state of life which they prefer’ 5

Within 100 years the Roman Catholic Church had completely reversed its position. If such a radical shift can occur in the most conservative bastion of Christian orthodoxy, how much more change is likely in the more indefinable stream of influence, referred to in the past as Christianity? The Catholic Modernist Loisy, argued against Harnack, as we have seen, that Christianity has no permanent and absolute essence. It is free to evolve where the spirit leads it. Thus, if it is true, as has been claimed, that the idea of Christendom and the doctrines of Christian orthodoxy, were not at all what the historical Jesus had in mind when he spoke of the Kingdom of God, we should not be surprised if the continuing stream of cultural influence which he was so instrumental in re-directing should in the future manifest itself in ways very different from the conventional Christianity it later became for a period.

The modern world is definitely not Christian in any traditional sense, but neither is it anti-Christian, as many traditional Christians assert. What was once the ‘Christian west’ may be legitimately described as post-Christian, a term which acknowledges its continuity with its Christian past. This ongoing ‘Christian’ stream of cultural influence 6 is once again in a fluid state, has widened considerably, and is changing quite radically. It is now becoming part of a larger stream, as all the cultural streams of the past begin to mingle in a global sea.

The Christian presence in the emerging global culture may not always be readily identifiable, but the new global sea of faith cannot help but be continuous with the Christian past. Just how the Christian stream is to relate to the other streams flowing into the global sea may become clearer when, in the next chapter, we acknowledge the phenomenon of relativity.



1. See John Shelby Spong in such books as Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism and Why Christianity Must Change or Die; John Cobb, Reclaiming the Church.

2. Cobb, op. cit., p. 56.

3. Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History. p. 8.

4. See Chapter 4 for quote from Pius IX.

5. Anne Freemantle (ed.), The Papal Encyclicals, pp. 393 ff. (italics added).

6. This loose but useful term will be taken up again in the last chapter.