Over the past several weeks, I have been writing that Christianity at the beginning of the 21st century is in some ways profoundly different than it was at the beginning of the 20th century. This is because we have learned from the history of the 20th century. History is a hard teacher. We can talk about our ideal theology all day long, but once we try to live it out in our lives in the real world, we end up learning some hard truths. And yet these hard truths often turn out to be great gifts.
When I say that Christianity is different, I don’t mean that it is a different faith. I believe in the covenant that God made with Israel. I believe that Jesus is God’s Incarnate Son. In his death and resurrection for the sins of the world, he inaugurated the New Creation. I believe in the need for atonement, forgiveness, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. I believe in the Holy Trinity. But I also believe that we have new insights into the Christian faith that our forebears did not have.
Asking New Questions
Isn’t that arrogant? I don’t think so. I definitely don’t think I am smarter than my forebears. What I mean is that in twenty centuries we have learned things. In fact, it would be sad if we learned nothing over that period of time. I believe the dynamic is simple. Each generation asks different questions than the previous generations. And each new question demands a response, and an honest response can’t be the same cookie cutter answer of the previous generation.
A new question generates a new perspective, and each new perspective generates a new insight into the Christian faith. This is the great conversation over centuries. The 20th century generated a flurry of new questions, and as each new question was answered, it generated a new hard-won truth.
The 20th Century: Unique and Transformational
This new series will explore these hard-won truths of the 20th century. I believe that the 20th century was one of the most transformational centuries for the Christian faith. Perhaps outside of the first century, there has never been another like it. Historically, we know the big events: two world wars, the rise and fall of Communism, the great depression, fights for freedom in many former colonies, the Cold War, the evolution of the liberal democracies, and so on. We know the great movements: the sexual revolution, the labour movement, the civil rights movement, Apartheid, the rise of feminism, gay rights, the digital revolution, and so on.
So many transformative events and movements took place in the last one hundred years that it is hard to keep track of all of them. And yet each one of them had a profound encounter with Christianity. Each of them posed a serious question to Christianity.
My Hope for this Series
In this ongoing series, I want to explore many of these encounters. My plan is to write about 20 short reflections about key 20th Century events and movements. Obviously, this is not going to be exhaustive. I hope that people who are not familiar with this material will see more clearly why we are in a different time and space than our forebears, and that this will spark some conversation. I don’t just want to revisit the past. My real desire is to help us in the 21st century to own these hard-won truths, seeing them as ways that the church is being reformed for Gospel living and proclamation in our time. My belief is that we have entered into a second Reformation. Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda (the church reformed, always reforming.)
A Road Map for this Series
Here is my plan for this series. The first two posts actually reach back into the 18th and 19th centuries to talk about encounters that will be crucial for understanding the upheavals of the 20th century. After that, I plan to move through key movements and events in conversation with the Christian faith.
If you think I have left something out, of course you would be right. I am writing from the perspective of a mainline Christian who practices inclusive orthodoxy. Someone else writing this series would make a different list. That is the joy of the being part of the great conversation. If you feel there is a missing piece, please write it. We need to hear it!
Articles in this Series
7. The Great Depression: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker’s Movement
8. Eastern Orthodoxy under Communism
9. Bonhoeffer and the Question of the Suffering God
10. The Question of Judaism, part 1 – Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust
11. The Question of Judaism, part 2 – The New Perspective on Paul
12. Vatican II – The Question of the Modern World
13. Vatican II – The Question of Other Faiths
14. The Ecumenical Movement – Breaking Down Old Barriers
15. Apartheid: Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and the question of Racism
16. Liberation: Oscar Romero and the Salvadoran Church
17. Billy Graham, John Stott and the World Wide Evangelical Church
18. Thomas Merton and the Contemplative Life
19. Civil Rights: Martin Luther King and the Gospel
20. Feminism: the Question of Women in the Church
21. LGBTQ+: The Rise of a New Paradigm
22. Indigenous Voices: Expanding Christian Practice
22. A Global Church: Pope John Paul II