Eaten away by the acids of modernity

The Cambridge History of Christianity, Volume Eight, World Christianities c.1815-c.1914 - Volume Nine World Christianities c.1914-c.2000
December 8, 2006

The power of the Church has been eroded by various factors, none more so than a growing sense of individual worth, suggests Linda Woodhead

In one of his volumes of autobiography, Nirad Chaudhuri confesses perplexity that a religion that preaches self-sacrifice and unworldliness should manifest itself in such worldly and aggrandising energies. It is a paradox that comes to mind as one contemplates the two centuries of Christian history in these two volumes of essays. Why does a religion that has at its heart a crucified saviour and an ideal of selfless service present so many instances of the accumulation and exercise of dominating power?

The volume on the 19th century focuses on the Church's struggle to retain worldly and spiritual power over the peoples of Europe and Latin America.

In the papacy's battle against Risorgimento and the loss of its wealth and power in Italy, Rome zigzags between embracing limited reform, then changing tack when conservatism seems more expedient. With its condemnation of "progress, liberalism and modern civilisation", Pius IX's Syllabus of Errors (1864) reads like a starkly honest admission of preference for papal monarchy, in contrast with which the Church's later slow accommodation to democracy appears forced and grudging.

There is little comfort here for Protestants who might think their Church more enlightened. The power struggle between Catholic and Protestant intensified in the 19th century at home and on the "mission field".

Wherever Catholicism has power, Protestants tend to suffer prejudice and hostility; where Prote stantism has power, the obverse applies.

Neither Protestantism nor Catholicism fares much better when it comes to championing equality and human rights - especially for women and non-whites. Although some evangelicals were active and partially successful in fighting slavery, many Christians in North America were vociferous in support of what was, after all, a biblical institution.

The churches' record on supporting women's political enfranchisement is even more dismal. They sanctified a model that set men free to be active wage-earning heads of households while confining women to the unpaid labours of love, charity and domestic service. Even the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), often cited as evidence of a Catholic willingness to embrace social reform, seeks to enshrine male economic and social dominance in the context of industrial modernity by endorsing the sole right of the male head of household to a "family wage".

There are telling instances here of how Christianity was routinely used to secure and maintain the vested interests of elites, who were drawn to Christianity's ability, to normalise economic inequality and dampen social protest even when they were personally dismissive of its beliefs. The background to these struggles is the disruption of social relations in the 19th century by industrialisation, urbanisation and colonialism. The fixed social hierarchies, privileges, restrictions and jealousies of the village and small town were exchanged for more fluid arrangements in which an "individual" might emerge with more freedom, choice and money.

Such changes were bound up with the growth of nationalism as a political force. A great strength of the 19th-century volume is its survey of the churches in different national contexts. Where the Church is closely allied with the forces of reaction and conservatism (as in Italy, France, Spain and parts of Latin America), secularism becomes a cultural and political force. Where it accommodates change (England and Scandinavia), it keeps its "established" status though it loses much of its social power. And where Christianity becomes the means to defend a threatened identity (Ireland and Poland), the churches maintain power and influence. Whatever the context, the churches and their clergy tend to give up their power reluctantly. Even when forced to surrender economic and political power, they fight to retain control over welfare and education.

The final section of the 19th-century volume shows how Christianity compensated for losing power in the West with missionary advances in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Such work was aided by the rapid expansion of colonial power. In an insightful overview of missionary activity, Andrew Porter notes how a Western sense of ethnic, cultural and religious superiority grew rather than diminished over the century.

Although missionaries were more likely than colonials to retain a faith in the potential of all humans to be "civilised", they were wary of ceding control to indigenous clergy.

Not only does this tendency to hoard power characterise Christianity in the 19th century, it also helps explain many 20th-century developments. Above all, it helps make sense of declining levels of Christian influence and activity. As Hugh McLeod puts it in his authoritative introduction: "The most powerful and effective criticism of Christianity in the 20th century has been the charge that it has been too closely identified with the rich and powerful, and too ready to legitimate the status quo."

Theories of secularisation tend to identify structural processes of modernisation as the cause of Christian decline. Much of the evidence presented in these volumes suggests that it was not simply that the acids of modernity ate away at a sacred canopy that sanctified and dignified premodern life, but that once the opportunity arose, many people chose to turn their backs on a religion that did not serve, or even opposed, their interests. Men leaving village life to enter the city, for example, might throw off deference to squire and social "betters", and with it the church attendance that sanctified the local hierarchy. Supporters of political reform might turn to a labour club as more likely to support their struggles than a church. Others might simply find enjoyment of the material benefits and leisure opportunities now open to them, activities incompatible with Christian teaching and Church attendance.

Women seem to have stayed loyal to the church for longer than men, perhaps because they had fewer options. For some, Christianity offered relief from the home and domestic duties. Even though churches of every kind strove to ensure that women operated only under male authority, significant numbers carved out meaningful work for themselves in charitable, temperance and missionary work. Only after the 1960s, when women could contemplate full lives outside the home, did support for Christianity begin to wane. Many feminists rejected Christianity as a force of oppression; others tried to reform it from within, with limited success.

Despite some accommodation of feminist sensibilities, Christianity retains its commitment to a male God and priesthood. The late 20th century saw a renewed emphasis on male headship and female domestic submission, particularly in conservative Protestantism. As the Southern Baptist Convention put it in a statement in 1998: "A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the Church willingly submits to the headship of Christ."

Secularisation is, however, by no means the only theme to emerge from the 20th-century volume. The rapid decline of many churches in the West after the 1960s is compensated for by the equally swift growth of Christianity in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. Most notable has been the growth of charismatic Christianity, with its emphasis on the gift of individual empowerment by the Holy Spirit. Many independent and colonial churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, have also fared well, particularly where they have allowed indigenisation. Generally speaking, the churches in the southern hemisphere seem able to perform roles now closed to them in the West: easing the transition to modernity by offering individual empowerment in a context of supportive sociality and material assistance.

An exclusive narrative of secularisation is also challenged by the rise of new political religions in the 20th century. In one sense, communist and fascist regimes were secularising forces that suppressed organised religion with vigour and cruelty. But these "secular" regimes were direct rivals of the religions they tried to destroy. Like Christendom, they were marked by an aspiration to control and explain everything - and by a tendency to be hijacked by privileged elites who strove to maintain power for themselves whatever the cost to others.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the rise and fall of political religions, combined with the declining influence of Christianity in the West, has had the effect of chastening the churches and dislodging their totalising tendencies. From being a fierce opponent of human rights and democracy, the Roman Catholic Church has performed a volte-face to become a champion of humanity and human rights. Denominational rivalry has tended to break down over the 20th century, giving way to a spirit of ecumenical co-operation.

Claims of Christian superiority have collapsed or diminished along with chauvinistic claims about the superiority of Western civilisation and its mission to the world. The missionary enterprise has been rethought, with much more emphasis being placed on the value of indigenous religions and cultures.

Nevertheless, there remain counterforces that continually draw Christianity back to a logic of domination. Pope John Paul II was happy to work for democracy outside the Church, but he liked to repeat the statement: "Church is not a democracy." The ordination of women in some churches has been offset by a growing Christian conservatism about sex and gender roles and campaigns against homosexuality. And Christianity in the US has become a more conservative force in the past 50 years. As a fascinating chapter by Dianne Kirby shows, the latter development is bound up with a concern in the Cold War era to combat the threat of communism by drawing on Christianity to create an opposing religion of American values.

These well-edited volumes consolidate some of the most recent and informative scholarship on the recent history of Christianity. The volume on the 20th century is particularly effective in breaking new ground in terms of topic, sources and, sometimes, method. Together, the works confirm Chaudhuri's observation and offer some explanations for it. The easiest is that any religion - that is, any systematic and successful attempt to articulate and represent the sacred - is liable to be harnessed to the purposes of those who seek to mobilise others and to win their loyalty, dignify their own worldly ambitions and disguise their true motivations.

Less palatable is that there are elements in Christianity's symbolic logic and structural organisation that lend themselves to such exploitation. Of these, the most important may be a systematic preference for asymmetry in human and divine relations, a preference evident in the privileging of images of father and children, master and servant, shepherd and flock, saviour and sinner. A religion that imagines the highest virtue in terms of martyrdom, crucifixion and self-sacrifice deals out an ambiguous legacy. It can inspire lives of heroism and service; but it can also justify those in powerful positions who demand such service from others. And it leaves people who serve with no real means of defence when service turns into exploitation.

To judge by the evidence here, the most corrosive aspects of modernity for Christianity are not science and philosophical atheism but commitment to equality, the belief that all of us have the right, duty and the ability to make the most important decisions in life for ourselves, a chastened sense of human ability and a distrust of authority, certainty and absolutism.

Linda Woodhead is professor of sociology of religion, Lancaster University.

The Cambridge History of Christianity, Volume Eight, World Christianities c.1815-c.1914

Editor - Sheridan Gilley and Brian Stanley
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 683
Price - £100.00
ISBN - 0 521 81456 1

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