The Theology of Extinction

Philip Jenkins on the neglected history of Christianity’s disappearance from the East.

Philip Jenkins is the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Humanities at Pennsylvania State University. He has written over 20 books since 1983 on topics ranging from American history to moral panics to terrorism to clerical sex scandals. A reviewer for the Catholic Herald wrote that Jenkins’ The Next Christendom “has altered the entire public conversation about global Christianity.” His latest book, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – and How It Died, was recently released by HarperOne. Jenkins talked with CWR in November about the book.

The first sentence of your new book is “Religions die.” How does that happen and why does it matter to Christianity?

Philip Jenkins: The reason I stress that is that it’s something people rarely pay attention to. Lots of people read about the foundations of religion, they read about how religions spread. There really is not a literature on how they die. And yet they do die.

If you look at where the centers of great religions are over time, they shift. Buddhism moves out of India, Islam moves out of Spain. Sometimes that’s associated with a full fledged ethnic cleansing. Sometimes it’s just that the religion fades away. There’s a big phenomenon in the history of religion that people don’t study and don’t write about. That seemed interesting in its own right.

Christianity dies in particular places and particular periods. It’s interesting in terms of theology. We don’t have a theology of extinction. No one ever writes about or tries to explain why religions, why Christianity, would fade and die. We’re told all the hymns are about spreading, carrying the cross throughout the world and making disciples of all nations. What happens when you make disciples of all nations, then they stop being disciples? That’s an unexplained thing that nobody ever writes about, so I thought I’d start.

Where was the first Christian kingdom?

Jenkins: There’s a lot of debate there. It depends what you mean, whether you mean one that stays there, or one that is just Christian for a short time. Probably the first place to be converted was called Adiabene. There were a couple of small states in the Middle East in the third century that were converted for odd periods.

How did the eastern Christians differ from the Orthodox or Roman Catholics?

Jenkins: When I talk about eastern Christians, I’m talking about a lot of different groups. The predominant group in Asia is the Nestorian church. The Nestorian church, in terms of its theology, does not differ in major ways from either the Catholic or the Orthodox.

A little bit of background: Nestorius is kicked out of the Church as a heretic in 431. These were the people who followed him.

In fact in terms of their theology, when you look at it it doesn’t differ at all from what regular mainstream Catholic or Orthodox believe. So there aren’t any big theological points. They tend to follow different authors, they use different languages, they use different traditions, but there’s nothing that can’t be reconciled with Catholic or Orthodox belief.

In fact, there’s a story right around 1290, when a Nestorian emissary comes from China to Europe. The Europeans are amazed that he’s from China, and he’s amazed to find Christianity in Europe. And they get him to say, well what do you believe? And he goes through his views, and they say, “Well gee, that’s all very orthodox, that’s amazing.” And then he’s allowed to not just say Mass in England but to give Communion to the king of England because he’s so orthodox.

How wide and how far did Christianity spread in the East?

Jenkins: In terms of geographical scope, we know there are Christian missions all over China, all over India, all through Central Asia and large parts of Siberia. Certainly that’s all true before the year 1000. There are a lot of speculations about how far they get into other places. They certainly get into Tibet. There’s speculation about whether they get into Korea and southeast Asia.

We know that in about 1500, they send a mission to Java. So really they hit most corners. One question I have in the book is: When did the first Christians see the Pacific? Certainly before 500, maybe by 300. There’s a very, very old Christian history in Asia.]

How far did the ancient Christians get into Africa?

Jenkins: There are at least a couple of ancient kingdoms. The most important of course is Ethiopia. But you also have Nubia, in what is now Northern Sudan. For several hundred years, the area from the Mediterranean to the equator along the Nile is predominantly Christian. Even though chunks of it end up under Islamic rule. That’s true for a very large part of the history.

Why was Christianity almost totally wiped out in much of Africa but managed to hold on in a significant way in places like Egypt?

Jenkins: If you look at early Christianity it is very strong in the Roman provinces of Africa, which is what we today call Tunisia and Algeria. And it’s strong
in Egypt. It’s rooted out of Africa within a generation or so of the Muslims arriving, and it just stays in Egypt right up to the present day.

Probably you have in Africa a colonist, a settler religion. When the colonist leaves the religion just goes with them. In Egypt they’re much more successful at converting ordinary people and peasants and they retain the faith, as I say, right up to the present day. It makes a big difference whether you’re just preaching to the elite, or whether you’re actually getting lots and lots of ordinary people as well.

What did Islam inherit from eastern Christians?

Jenkins: That’s a subject of huge debate. At an absolute minimum, what buildings look like, what their prayers look like and how they pray, the structure of their faith.

What do you mean by the structure of their faith?

Jenkins: If you’re a Muslim, there are five things that you have to do. And all of those are exactly the same things that an early Christian would have done in terms of prayer (a number of times a day): almsgiving, fasting, pilgrimage, and a declaration of faith, which is at issue. In the Muslim world, it’s the belief in one God and Mohammed. But otherwise everything you see there is exactly what early eastern Christians would have done. The fact that they prostrate themselves to pray is taken directly from Christians, and it’s something that early Muslims were actually very unhappy about, because they thought it was humiliating. Ramadan, that organized fast, is taken directly from the Christian Lent.

All that is, at a minimum, what people would agree on. What’s more controversial is how much of the Koran comes from Christian sources. There is a lively theory that a large part of the Koran is actually taken from eastern Christian lectionaries—that is, books of readings in church—some of it partly understood, some of it not translated very well. That’s a hot debate. The man who published the book arguing that recently, of course, writes under a pseudonym.

Did that contribute to the conversion of a lot of eastern Christians to Islam?

Jenkins: It probably did. But that’s a very slow process: conversion. You know, most of them managed to stay under Muslim rule for several hundred years before they even think about conversion. But it certainly makes it easier to go over when they do.

If a Western Christian today converts to Islam, it’s a really big deal. It looks like a completely different world. For an eastern Christian, no. It means being in very similar buildings. In some cases being in buildings that are former churches. Similar set of prayers. The other thing that is familiar for eastern Christians is the way women are supposed to behave. Women are supposed to be veiled and stay off the streets as much as possible.

You write a bit about “hidden” or “crypto” Christians.

Jenkins: There are some estimates that say hidden Christians around the world today run to as many as 120 million. If that’s true, and we separate them out from the rest of the Christians, the cryptos would be the world’s fi fth largest religion. There’d be more crypto- Christians than there are Jews, Sikhs, and Mormons combined. So, there’s a lot of them.

This is a very understudied phenomenon through history. People seem to be able to survive for several centuries as distinct underground communities. Formal churches differ in how far they acknowledge this as a legitimate way of surviving. The Orthodox church said it was understandable and they could just about live with it. The Catholic Church said: absolutely no, go out and get martyred decently.

One of the classic examples is in Cyprus, where you have a whole crypto- Christian community that remains intact. It maintains its integrity from 1570 to the 1870s. They are the people called Linobamvaki. They are the folks who have cotton on one side, linen on the other; which garment you see depends which way you turn it.

The other story I like is the Japanese crypto-Christians. They managed to maintain their secret religion from basically the 1640s to the 1840s. And the last survivors of that you can actually see in a documentary on the Internet called Otaiya. The documentary allows you to see the last two priests of this secret order still using Latin prayers they do not understand and cannot quote properly, but being true to that Christianity after almost 400 years. Astonishing story.

Talk a little more about the theology of extinction.

Jenkins: There are any number of different theologies, but nobody ever tries [to answer]: how do you explain the fact that Christianity disappears in particular areas? If everything is in God’s plan, does that mean that mass conversion to Islam is in God’s plan? Well, you know I clearly don’t think so. But no one ever discusses these issues because extinction doesn’t exist as a topic in the literature. They don’t have any sources because there’s no one left to write their histories.

One of the things you write about in the book is that, when a religion dies, there’s usually not any last person to turn the lights out.

Jenkins: Maybe what we need is a theology of that last person. And then the possibility is, well, maybe it’s not dead. Maybe the last person has turned out the lights then and maybe something will come back in a hundred years or 500 years and it’s just a question of time-frame.

You say that most Christian growth is happening, and looks likely to continue to happen, in the global south— that is in Africa, Asia, Latin America. What could challenge that growth?

Jenkins: Religious conflict of course is a very big topic. Look at a country like Nigeria, which should be one of the world’s great Christian countries in a few years. On the other hand, if there was a religious civil war, a major jihad, you could imagine that Christian community being marginalized or expelled.

The other thing that maybe we don’t pay enough attention to is the spread of very intolerant styles of Islam, coming mainly from Saudi Arabia—very well-fi nanced—and setting up sizable networks; you know, university scholarships [with the message]: “Wouldn’t you like your son to be able to go to university? We’ll give him a full paid scholarship. All you have to do is convert to Islam.” Very tempting indeed.

How will this sort of religious confl ict affect the Catholic Church in Africa and Asia?

Jenkins: It forces Catholics especially and other Christians to think about what Islam is. Is it a religion that you can come to terms with on the basis of it being an Abrahamic religion, so we can live together? Or is it a deadly enemy? Just what is Islam?

One of the great issues, by the way, is: how do you talk about Islam? If you talk about the prophet Mohammed, are you already admitting that he’s a prophet? Okay, then why don’t you obey him? If you don’t call him the prophet, what do you call him? A Satanic imposture? Well that’s kind of a loaded phrase in its own right too. So I mean the vocabulary of religious dialogue becomes very loaded.

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