The Future of Christianity: Reflections on Violence and Democracy, Religion and Secularization

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The Future of Christianity: Reflections on Violence and Democracy, Religion and Secularization

By David Martin

Ashgate, 240 pp., $29.95 paperback

David Martin concludes his introduction to this book--perhaps the best introductory mapping I have ever read of a collection of complex essays--with a description of his book as "a modest exercise." But don't be fooled. It is anything but. It is also not a book about the future of Christianity. Martin himself demurs from the title when he writes, "Even the best observers failed to anticipate the crucial events of the past half century."

So what is it? It is the richest, most controversial book of essays I have read in a long time. Martin disagrees with more bien-pensant thinking in fewer pages than any writer I've ever encountered as the juggernaut of his learning rolls across the landscape of contemporary scholarship and punditry, crushing all who get in its way while laying down a helpful road for all who follow.

Professor emeritus of sociology at the London School of Economics (from which he earned his Ph.D.) and fellow of the British Academy, Martin is the greatest living British sociologist of religion and, for my money, the best anywhere at what he does. He immerses himself in historical, ethnographic, sociological and political studies of multiple countries in order to build a mental storehouse of comparative information about religion, politics and society on three continents (Europe, North America and South America)--and he makes astute references to Africa, Asia and Australasia as well. From this storehouse Martin brings forth, in this book, treasures both new and old.

Among the new dimensions of analysis is Martin's discussion of how Orthodox Christianity differs from Catholicism and Protestantism in its typical relationships to power, the state, pluralism and violence. Martin peers more closely at Protestantism and shows how its various forms differ from each other. He also indicates how Orthodoxy and Catholicism themselves contain a variety of themes and resources.

Martin has been articulating this theme of responding variously in various situations since at least as far back as his 1969 classic A General Theory of Secularization. The careers of religions are "path-dependent," Martin has long contended, and are intrinsically related to their surrounding social landscapes. They are definitely in the world, if not entirely of it. Sociological realities, Martin argues, will grind up the unrealistic dreams of missionaries and denominational executives as inexorably as an avalanche will destroy one's brave little campsite. As a theologian trying to read between Martin's lines, I guess that he believes strongly in Providence in the sense that prayer for the extension of the kingdom of God really means praying that God so superintends the Big Things of the world that the Holy Spirit in due time can flow in helpful, influential channels. But a book as disciplinarily chaste as this one offers few hints on that level.

Martin's account of the various forms that secularization has taken in Europe, the United States and Latin America--with remarkable specificity regarding a wide range of countries and even regions within them--ends with a number of controversial conclusions. What follows is a sampling. There are various paths to modernity, and modernity itself has different forms, none of which is necessarily inimical to religion or to Christianity in particular.

There were also various Enlightenments, some congenial to Christianity, some distorting Christianity, and only some that were antagonistic to religion in any form--which helps to explain the vastly different trajectories of religion in the context of two Enlightenment revolutions, the American and the French, as well as the very different polities of enlightened absolutism in Austria, Prussia and Russia.

Also, there is no inherent connection between Christianity and democracy, even though certain forms of Protestantism are particularly congenial to democracy and have in some cases provided terms and legitimations useful to the rise of democratic politics. …