Beyond The West New Cultural Concerns

In the past, discussions about Protestantism and culture have been shaped by Western concerns—precisely because of the widely held assumption that Protestantism is a Western religion, located in Western culture. The twentieth century has challenged both assumptions, not only through the emergence of Protestantism outside the West but also—and perhaps more significantly—through the transformation of Protestantism in those other regions as its foundational legacy of theological and cultural recalibration is carried out there. To put it bluntly, Protestantism is no longer a "Western" religion.

In the twentieth century, Protestantism found itself caught up in the "clash of civilizations."84 Thinkers of the Enlightenment assumed that there was a moral and intellectual system common to all peoples and that its universal extension to all was simply a matter of time. Its ideas and values were already embodied in the West; globalization—which was simply the extension of Western values to the world at large—would lead to the universal triumph of those ideas and values in due course.

This is no longer believed to be the case. Political and cultural resistance to the West has grown significantly in recent years, and Islamic and Asian nations have reasserted their value systems. Thus, Western human rights policies have been seen as "power politics in disguise"— an instrument for the covert advancement of Western political and economic interests.85 The impact of the reassertion of traditional Asian, African, and Islamic values in the many regions of the world where Protestantism is a growing presence is significant.

Demonstrating this impact is the issue of the ordination of homosexuals, which has been the subject of debate within many Protestant denominations since 1990. The issue has proved especially divisive within Anglicanism. In the United States, the Episcopal church has seen itself as spearheading a progressive agenda that embodies the best of American liberal values. The ordination of homosexuals has been seen there as tantamount to a human rights issue. Although the debate has proved divisive within the Episcopal church, it is strongly in line with the American liberal ethos that the Episcopal church has come to represent since the 1960s.

Yet Anglicanism is now a form of Protestantism that is predominantly located in the developing world. There are more Anglicans in the west African state of Nigeria than in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand put together. Nigerian Anglicans see no need whatsoever to endorse what they see as the intrusion of liberal American cultural values into the church. Within the Nigerian cultural context, in which Islam is a major presence, homosexuality is regarded as a cultural abomination.

Paradoxically, an approach that affirms that Protestantism should reflect the cultural norms of its environment thus leads to totally different outcomes in New England and in Nigeria. The tensions over this issue are now so great that it is difficult to see how these two churches can remain in the same denomination. The only realistic outcome is for Anglicanism to follow the trend already established by Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists and recognize a "denominational family," with tensions and fissures over significant issues.

The ordination of homosexuals, however, is only one issue among many to confront Protestantism in its new phase of development. Demands for the "de-Westernization" of Protestantism are growing, both as the strength of the movement in the developing world increases and as the spiritual and theological robustness of the Western churches seems to decline in comparison with the rest of the world. A new agenda is developing, and it can only lead to the transformation of Protestantism. Global Protestantism is leaving the traditional agenda of the West behind as it reflects on its engagement with Islam, its relationship to traditional Chinese religion and customs (such as "grave-sweeping"), its attitudes toward indigenous tribal practices in the Amazonian rain forests, and the use of Taoist or Hindu ideas as points of contact for the proclamation of the gospel.

What the discerning observer notices is the emergence of local Protestantisms that seek to interpret and apply the Bible within their own cultural contexts, without feeling any pressing need to introduce Western assumptions, ideas, or values into their reflections.86 In many ways, this represents a return to the first days of Protestantism, when Luther and Zwingli faced the challenge of trying to apply their vision of the gospel to the very different situations in Wittenberg and Zurich. Their twenty-first-century descendants are trying to do exactly the same thing, yet in contexts that Luther and Zwingli could not have imagined.

Protestantism, as we have stressed throughout this book, is above all a method rather than a fixed set of outcomes, and it is capable of rapid and extensive adaptation to new situations without loss of its original core vision. Its detachment from Western culture appears to have led to its growth and the development of new forms that often bear a remarkable resemblance to what we know of the church in the first three centuries of its existence. Might the development of Protestantism in these new contexts, set free from its cultural imprisonment in the West, let us see it as if for the very first time?

Thus far, we have considered how Protestantism relates to culture in the most general sense of that word. But what of its relationship to culture in T. S. Eliot's subtly developed sense of the word? Or in Matthew Arnold's sense of the term, summed up in his famous definition of culture as "the best which has been thought and said in the world"? What of more recent extensions of this theme that hold that culture is defined and manifested, more broadly, in terms of the embodiment of its values in sport? In the following chapter, we consider the ambivalence of Protestantism's involvement in the development of the arts, sports, and natural sciences.

Mauritshuis, The Hague, The Netherlands; Photo: S cala/Art Resource, NY
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