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2012 Archives

The Challenge of Proximity: Guidelines for the Global Church


Fred Schmidt, theology professor, wrote this post for, which ran on Jan. 16, 2012.

January 19, 2012

By Frederick Schmidt

In this common space we share that is our newly flattened world, all Christians everywhere are obliged to listen again for what we have yet to hear.

I teach a class called "Making Sense of the American Spiritual Landscape"—which my colleagues have described as a neat trick if you can do it. In it we discuss the trends at work in our culture that shape spiritual understanding and practice.

One of the obvious features of that landscape is pluralism. This phenomenon is not as new as some argue. Nor is the pluralism we experience quite the shape that some suggest. Harvard's Diana Eck is a case in point. To read Eck, one would think that the pluralism we encounter today marks the rise of a polyglot culture that will be dramatically and decisively less Christian than in the past.

Factually speaking, that simply isn't true. And Baylor University's Philip Jenkins makes that clear. The country (and the world, for that matter) is becoming increasingly Christian. In the United States the church will be largely non-white, Catholic, Pentecostal, Pentecostal-Catholic, and fundamentalist. Around the world the church will be larger below the equator. Globally it will be less European in its character and heritage.

What neither Eck nor Jenkins grapple with at length is the issue of proximity—the non-stop, transparency of global differences—the phenomenon Thomas Friedman describes as the "flat earth" effect. Though in all fairness, it lingers and looms behind their work and explains why we are talking about these issues at all.

The earth has always been a diverse place. What has buffered that experience and rendered it less significant and urgent has been the way in which we have been insulated from one another by distance and limitations in our ability to communicate.

That's no longer the case. Decisions made here today are heard around the world moments later. And the reverse is true as well. Having occupied separate countries and sometimes separate continents, we suddenly find ourselves drawn into a common space where we can't avoid noticing and reacting to what others are thinking, saying, and doing.

It is that proximity that will try our capacity for patience and tolerance as Christians. The Anglican Communion has been testing its capacity for patience and tolerance in the last decade and now the United Methodist Church is beginning to test its limits.

It turns out that progressives are no more tolerant than their conservative counterparts. Bishops in The Episcopal Church have berated African church leaders, arguing that they need to experience something akin to the European Enlightenment. And now Methodist bishops are suggesting that a global church may be untenable. How this is different from any other kind of "imperialism" or "hegemonic thinking" is difficult to discern and harder to defend....