The Last Great Frontier: Currents in Resurgence, Convergence, and Divergence of Religion

By Sanneh, Lamin | International Bulletin of Mission Research, April 2013 | Go to article overview

The Last Great Frontier: Currents in Resurgence, Convergence, and Divergence of Religion


Sanneh, Lamin, International Bulletin of Mission Research


In the minds of many, the events of 9/11 are associated with the unwelcome return of religion on the assumption that modern society has outgrown the religious habit, and what remains of religion can be reduced to polite weekend ceremonies for the recovering few. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 signaled the triumph of the liberal West, leading Francis Fukuyama to venture a triumphalist thesis about "The End of History and the Last Man," the title of his popular 1992 book. Few observers exempted the Muslim world from the new secular alignment of world order in spite of the Iranian revolution of 1979 and its widening repercussions around the world. After all, Europe could now resume its march toward a new dawn of freedom and prosperity unimpeded by the Cold War. President George H. W. Bush had an intuitive sense of an unfolding watershed in the new world order but balked at venturing a prescription for the shape it would or should take. In retrospect his hesitation seems uncannily prescient in view of the subsequent turmoil. (1)

Religion and Huntington's Thesis

From another direction, hidden currents were meanwhile stirring the waters of the coming global cultural shift that would not spare the West. Such was the assessment of Samuel Huntington, who issued a sobering rejoinder in his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996). This volume tempered the heady confidence of Fukuyama's secular prognosis by arguing that new cultural fault lines are about to emerge threatening global stability. The assumption of Fukuyama and of others that the collapse of Soviet Communism has left Western liberal democracy in uncontested control of the field, Huntington argues, is false because there are outstanding ideologies that contest Western dominance, including divergent and hostile religious traditions. Muslims, Chinese, and Indians, Huntington argues, are not all suddenly going to fall into line behind Western liberalism. "The more fundamental divisions of humanity in terms of ethnicity, religions, and civilizations remain and spawn new conflicts." (2)

The issue that in equal measure galvanized and jostled Huntington concerned religion--more precisely, the appeal to new assertive forms of religious activism and identity. The issue of identity in terms of self-avowal and belonging, according to Huntington, is fundamentally a religious question, and for people caught in the currents of change and challenge, "religion provides compelling answers, and religious groups provide small social communities to replace those lost through urbanization." (3) In that sense secularization acts as a mediation of religion.

Huntington's argument has been an unexpected boon for political science, and in an earlier book, The Third Wave, (4) he explores with growing confidence the subject of religion in international affairs. By the response to Huntington and by other indications, it was becoming crystal clear by the end of the twentieth century that neither accelerating secularization nor the rapid collapse of the colonial empires overborne by the surge of nationalist movements had been the decisive setback for religion that everyone expected, leaving observers in turn surprised and disappointed. A sign of the consternation was in the form of a letter I received from the Russian Academy of Sciences in the early 1990s, inviting me to a conference it was convening on the topic "the problem of religion." The expectation that scientific socialism had eradicated religion was found to be unrealistic. Instead, religion had survived the Soviet Empire and was thriving in the most unlikely of places--among student groups and in house fellowships that had spilled over into the empty stadiums designed for party rallies. Why was this the case, and why was it missed by experienced observers?

With its hints alternately of alarm and incredulity, the title of the conference was proof that the organizers were in what classical Islam would call "a state between two states" (manzila bayna manzilatayn), neither nearly persuaded of the truth of religion nor completely dismissive of the fact of its return. …

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