The Decline of Established Christianity in the Western World

Interpretations and Responses

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Paul Silas Peterson
Studies in World Christianity and Interreligious Relations
  • New York, NY: 
    , October
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This thorough and useful volume reckons with ecclesial interpretations and responses to the phenomenon of decline in established and mainstream churches in the West. It comes at a crucial moment for Western Christianity, considering the acuteness of this decline in some areas and among some Christian confessions. Paul Silas Peterson served not only as editor for the volume, he also translated a number of the contributions from German and French, and furnished the volume with several helpful essays which place the decline of established Christianity in the West in its proper historical, theological, and sociological context, filling out the topic well beyond that of the other individual contributions. Although there are a few longer contributions (including Peterson’s), the majority of the other essays are, for lack of a better term, rather “bite sized,” which I found appropriate for the task of addressing their individual themes. In addition to Peterson’s four contributions, the book contains a total of twelve additional essays.

As for the topic itself, both Peterson and his collaborators are well aware of the complexity of the situation on the ground, and that this necessarily merits a discussion of the key terms used in the book. Thus, at various points throughout the volume, terms such as “established Christianity,” “the West,” “decline,” as well as the phenomenon of secularism, are taken up and discussed. This remains interesting and relevant throughout and is in itself a major step towards analysis of the topic as such. The complexity of the topic is again mirrored in the volume by the diversity of contributors and their contributions. First, the volume is interdisciplinary, at least to the extent that the contributors represent practical, systematic, and historical theology, the philosophy of religion, and religious studies. Second, the contributors are confessionally diverse, representing mainline Protestantism, evangelicalism, and the Roman Catholic Church, among others. Thus, the book does not just deal with the officially established churches, such as the Anglicans in England, but also the mainline denominations in America, such as the Methodists and Presbyterians. Furthermore, the term “Western” is not limited to geography but extends to enclaves of Western culture throughout the global South and East. Finally, the volume also addresses the decline of established Christianity in the West from the perspectives of global and African Christianity in contributions from Jorge E. Castillo Guerra and Esther E. Acolatse. Whether or not the individual contributors see the decline of established Christianity as lamentable or a cause to celebrate, they are clearly invested in the furtherance of the Christian tradition in one or more of its existing forms in the world today, and they nearly all generally understand “decline” to also point towards “opportunity.”

A significant point that several of the essays make throughout the volume relates to what is now being called postsecularism, considered by many scholars to provide a better description of contemporary society than secularization theory. In the words of Martyn Percy: “Secular society, whatever it might be, is clearly not that state in which unbelief has triumphed over belief. It is, rather, that space and time where belief is no longer hegemonic … yet remains an entirely reasonable option” (216). In theorizing about this new postsecular society, however, it may be necessary to rearrange or alter some fundamental categories. Thus, as the excellent essay by Eberhard Tiefensee shows, the former East Germany provides a clear obstacle to any theories or theologies that would insist on imputing “religious” belief or practice in some form to all human beings as such. This is the classic notion of the homo religiosus, which has been with us at least since the Enlightenment in one form or another. It has become a mainstay for religious studies, and is, for better or for worse, a starting point for many modern theologies. In the former East Germany, however, as Tiefensee convincingly argues, one now finds something previously uncategorized: the homo indifferens, that is, humans who are simply indifferent to religious matters. Even if this is the result of forced secularization, as Tiefensee acknowledges, it nonetheless problematizes grounding religion universally in anthropology. This has a number of implications for contemporary Christian theology. “Religionlessness” provides a new challenge to Christianity because it has previously never encountered the homo indifferens during its historical development (136): there has always generally been some existing religious point of contact which it could use as a starting point for its proclamation. Additionally, ”religionlessness” problematizes all theologies which attempt to find or maintain some universal anchorage in anthropology. Regardless of whether one wants to impute universalizing notions of existential crisis, faith, or “ontological presuppositions” to humanity as such, these can now at best be considered contextual and limited, not universal. This new category mandates, at least for Tiefensee, a new take on Christian mission, a point which many of the other contributors to the volume also arrive at, though by different means.

Paul Peterson has put together an excellent edited volume which comes as highly recommended, if not required reading. The contributions are concise, well-written, and profoundly informative. This book will be useful not only for scholars and students, but also for pastors and administrators who are concerned for the future viability of the Christian faith in the world today, established or otherwise.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Andrew Gilland is Lecturer in Systematic Theology at the Technische Universtität Braunschweig, Germany.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul Silas Peterson teaches church history and theology at the University of Tübingen, the University of Heidelberg and the University of Hohenheim, Germany. He is the author of The Early Hans Urs von Balthasar: Historical Contexts and Intellectual Formation (2015), Reformation in the Western World: An Introduction (2017) and "The Decline of Established Christianity in Germany: Contemporary History and Protestant Responses," in Religion – State – Society: Journal for the Study of Beliefs and Worldviews (2015).



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