UPI, Dec. 8, 2002
By Uwe Siemon-Netto, UPI Religion Correspondent

WASHINGTON (UPI) — The world’s major religions are facing both promising and gloomy times in 2003, theologians and laity from many faiths agree. The challenges are of enormous magnitude.

1. Christianity. The media circus over the sex scandal in the Roman Catholic Church has almost drowned out developments of more far-ranging significance in all of Christianity. When the scandal broke, this columnist predicted that being forced to deal with it would ultimately strengthen Catholicism.

Today, astute observers, ranging from Richard John Neuhaus, president of the New York-based Institute on Religion and Public Life, to Methodist theologian Thomas C. Oden, acknowledge that this has occurred. As Neuhaus said, “The Church is in better shape than some years ago.”

A separate article in this series will consider the world’s largest Christian denomination in the aftermath of this emergency, and in the light of the evident frailty of Pope John Paul II. In a sense, however, a rule of the thumb that applies to the dramatic changes within Protestantism also holds true for the Church of Rome:

Anthropocentric theologies, which have contributed significantly to the crisis involving homosexual and pedophile priests, are in steep decline in all denominations. At the same time a robust new orthodoxy is emerging. Even more stunning is the rapid growth of evangelical Christianity in the developing world, about which United Press International repeatedly reported since this spring.

Nowhere is the failure of 19th and 20th-century theological liberalism more evident than in Germany, the homeland of the Reformation, where the membership in the state-affiliated Protestant churches dropped from 47 million in the 1950s to 23 million today.

A recent poll showed that the German churches ranked at the bottom of 17 public institutions enjoying public trust. The police, the military, the United Nations, the media, even the troubled Deutsche Telekom corporation were among those that fared better.

What is true for Germany applies, in varying degrees, to much of Europe and North America. Because mainline churches “have become secularized and are cowering to the zeitgeist,” to cite German author Gabriele Wohmann, they have lost their relevance and are losing members.

Corresponding to this development, the World Council of Churches in Geneva and the National Council of Churches of Christ in New York are mere shadows of their former selves, teetering on bankruptcy and incapable of formulating theological concepts of any relevance to the contemporary world.

There is, however, a flip side to this story. While these denominations and organisms are shrinking — and their leaderships seem often more preoccupied with accommodating all kinds of sexual urges than with spreading the Gospel — confessional movements within these same churches are growing fast and sturdily.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Presbyterian Church, USA, whose neo-orthodox grassroots movement will before long count half a million members. Perhaps equally important is what Thomas C. Oden, the father of neo-confessionalism in North America, describes as a “new ecumenism” that is emerging among these Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian and other groups on the one hand — and between them and Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy on the other.

While similar movements are underway in Europe, albeit on a lesser scale, Christianity is experiencing an astounding growth in South America, Asia, and especially Africa, where it is locked in an often deadly struggle with radical Islam, which is also expanding.

This burgeoning Third-World Christianity is mostly charismatic in nature, even in Roman Catholic congregations, because they consider the Charismatics’ emphasis on the Holy Spirit especially efficacious in combating witchcraft, which African theologians describe as the scourge of the Southern Cone.

What will be one of the perhaps most dramatic Christian development to keep an eye on in 2003? Arguably the drive of orthodox theologians from Africa, Asia and Latin America to re-evangelize Europe and North America and guide their churches back to classical doctrine.

2. Islam: The pace of radical Islam’s battle against “Jews and Crusaders” (Christians) — in other words, much of the West and its allies anywhere — is bound to accelerate, most observers interviewed for this article agree.

Expect more horrific incidents such as the deadly riots against the Miss World contest in Nigeria, or death sentences against unwed mothers, or terrorist suicide attacks in Israel or Kenya, bombings of nightclubs and the launching of surface-to-air missiles against civilian aircraft.

Yet this, too, is only one side of the story. Islam’s problem is that it has no pope and no universally recognized magisterium. Therefore no single person or organism speaks competently for the entire faith. This is why the noisiest and the most radical agitators receive the most attention. However, in telephone conversations with Muslim scholars from many parts of the world, a parallel picture emerges that looks quite different.

Moderate Muslim thinkers in North America and Europe and, increasingly in traditionally Islamic countries as well, are beginning to network in an effort to guide their faith to a future that may in some ways resemble its glory days 1,000 years ago.

Abdulwahab Alkebsi, who heads the Washington-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, has just returned from a series of meetings with like-minded co-religionists in Morocco, Egypt, and Yemen. He was stunned by his interlocutors’ desire to discuss topics such as freedom of religion, women’s rights, and the role of Islam in democratic societies. Until now, only Muslims in the West seemed to be interested in these issues.

Not that we can expect instant changes. However, Alkebsi’s report corroborates this correspondent’s findings that a wide variety of Muslim theologians and jurists are busy trying to bring about a reformation — not of the basic tenets of the faith, which would expose them to the charge of heresy, but of their application to the contemporary world.

This, then, is something the Western world must keep an eye on in 2003 — though with utmost discretion.

3. Judaism. Carl Feit, an Orthodox rabbi and celebrated cancer researcher at Yeshiva University in New York, makes the point that Judaism cannot help but be influenced by trends in other great religions, especially Christianity and Islam. Like Christianity, Judaism experiences a revival of traditional beliefs.

In the United States, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, have stimulated an intense search for values and roots even among secular Jews. Feit said his non-practicing colleagues in the sciences surprised him by their sudden need to speak with him about Jewish traditions.

For Jews, of course, this “reflective new trend in the world,” as Feit phrased it, has one added significance — “the wrenching situation Israel, on which the consciousness and minds of Jews of all stripes are focused. For Israel is at the heart of our religious understanding of what it means to be Jewish.”

4. Hinduism. Outrages committed in the name of Islam have overshadowed an equally troubling phenomenon — Hindu extremism. In 2003, acts of violence by Hindu mobs, especially in northwestern India, are expected to accelerate as more and more Dalits, or untouchables, convert to Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, religions whose doctrines do not allow for discrimination by race and class, although all faiths on the Indian subcontinent, including Pakistan, are steeped in the caste system. Christian bishops, too, are primarily descendants of upper crust families, for example.

During the past years these acts include massacres, rape, the murder of clergymen and nuns, and the destruction of non-Hindu sanctuaries. Now that both India and its predominantly Muslim neighbor, Pakistan, are nuclear powers, the world community has added cause for concern about this hostility, especially as Islam is its premier target.

Two right-wing organizations allied with India’s ruling party, the BJP, are the principal authors of this violence. One is the Rashtria Swayamsevak Sangh, whose khaki-clad shock forces Indian newspapers frequently compare with Hitler’s storm troopers. The other is the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which is heavily financed by overseas Indians.

According to the British Broadcasting Service, the VHP’s objective is to “Hinduize” this entire nation of one billion, and to purge all non-Hindus from it (there are about 200 million Muslims and 27 million Christians in India). It has of course the opposite effect. This year, 50,000 Dalits became Buddhists in one single ceremony in reaction to injustices inflicted upon them by extremist Hindus.

While the RSS and the VHP are by no means representative of all of India’s 750 million Hindus, they are this religion’s most energetic organizations. One theological aspect is particularly troubling in this context. Many of the extremists believe that the world has entered the aeon of Shiva, the destroyer within the Hindu trinity.

Hindus believe that the universe moves from the age of Brahma, the creator, to the age of Vishnu, the sustainer, to that of Shiva, who has to do his destructive work in order for Brahma to put the world right again by recommencing his cycle of creation.

Hindus thinking that the Shiva cycle has begun make up only a minority — but they are a vocal and belligerent minority nonetheless. What’s more, the Shiva cult has been in the ascendance for a considerable time now outside India as well.

The long guerilla war of the Tamil Tigers against the Sri Lankan government has been linked to this worldview. Their chief, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, is an ardent worshiper of Kali, the black goddess of life and death who is a manifestation of Shiva’s wife. He had her image carried before him wherever he went during this conflict, this writer learned while covering this conflict, which now appears to be ending.

Shiva worship has even entered non-Hindu religions, such as the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo sect, which tried to initiate World War III by detonating chemical devices in Tokyo subway trains.

Although Aum Shinrikyo presents itself as a neo-Buddhist group, some of its leaders, all scientists, told this correspondent that they viewed the world like a computer, whose malfunctions can be put right by pressing the reset button. In this case, the “reset button” would be war.

They said they were called upon by Shiva to fight the Battle of Armageddon, which in the Christian Bible pits the forces of Christ against the forces of the mighty of this world. When asked who Christ was for them, they answered, “The incarnation of Shiva — the God of destruction.”

In a particularly absurd way, this reply underscores the perils of syncretism, the mixing of religions, which in history has frequently led to disastrous consequences.

Buddhism. Generally, Buddhism is considered one of the world’s most peaceful faiths, although this is not always true, to wit Buddhist violence against Christians and Muslims in Sri Lanka. Since the 1960s, Buddhism was still on the ascendance in parts of Europe and North America, especially because of the charismatic personality of its most prominent leader, the Dalai Lama.

This correspondent’s research in Europe has shown that Buddhism in the West may be about to peak — for one curious reason: Buddhist divines report that a thorough misunderstanding of their faith has attracted many Westerners to it.

As a prominent lama in a French monastery phrased it: “They come because there is no God in Buddhism, and they are at heart atheists. Yet they like the Buddhist concept of reincarnation because to them it promises life after death.

“But this is dead wrong. Reincarnation is part of the cycle of suffering. And this is precisely what Buddhist doctrine endeavors to end.”

It also runs counter an ever-growing trend among young people the West. And this trend, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and other clerics from around the world agree, is an enormous hunger for transcendence — for God.

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This post was last updated: Monday, November 30, -0001 at 12:00 AM, Central European Time (CET)