The Shifting Experience of Self   /   Spring 2011   /    Essays And Short Takes

The Future of Christianity

Hans Joas

Former Protestant church, the Netherlands; flickr.

To write about the future is a risky undertaking for a social scientist.11xThis article is adapted from “Die Zukunft des Christentums,” Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 52 (2007): 976–87. You probably know the old joke that predictions are most difficult when they refer to the future. The new discipline named “Futurology” that came up in the 1960s was only a rather short-lived fashion in a moment of exuberant belief in science. In reality, one has to admit that a whole series of the most spectacular developments of the last decades was in no way foreseen by social scientists. They span back to the international student revolts in the late 1960s, which broke out just as experts had diagnosed an absence of readiness for political participation on the part of academic youth, and forward to the rapid economic growth in the Far East and the breakdown of the communist rule in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.22xDavid Martin, “Secularisation and the Future of Christianity,” Journal of Contemporary Religion 20.2 (2005): 145–60. All these developments surprised social scientific experts, but also journalistic observers and even government intelligence services. No reason, therefore, to disparage one another, but ground enough for modesty on all sides. 

With respect to religious developments, such a warning has even more weight. The history of religions is especially rich in surprising outbreaks, awakenings, and transformations, which make a mockery of any idea of linear historical progression. The rapid rise of a politicized Shiite Islam in Iran first came into general knowledge with the fall of the Shah, and the sensational expansion of the Pentecostal movement in Africa and Latin America during the last decades has not really penetrated the European consciousness even today. Christians should not really be surprised by the phenomenon of such fundamental surprises, for they expect divine intervention and have hope against all probability. But even secular thinkers will admit that optimism and overestimation of oneself are fundamental preconditions of individual and collective creativity and that faith in a particular future helps to bring it about. One calls such phenomena self-fulfilling prophecies. 

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