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Wilken on Islam

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One of the most thought-provoking articles I’ve read lately is Robert Louis Wilken’s “Christianity Face to Face with Islam,” in the January 2009 issue of First Things. It’s accessible online only to subscribers, but you can find the publication at academic and high-quality municipal libraries and it will be freely available online in a month or two.

Wilken makes so many interesting and informed observations that I don’t know where to start. Among the points to ponder:

“In the long view of history, and especially from a Christian perspective, the Turkish conquest of Asia Minor was of far greater significance” than the Crusades. In the eleventh century, Wilken notes, the population of Asia Minor was virtually 100% Christian; by 1500, it was 92% Muslim.

“Set against the history of Islam, the career of Christianity is marked as much by decline and extinction as it is by growth and triumph.” The missionary impulse in Christianity is strong and its history impressive. But Wilken points out that Christians often view that history selectively and that Islam’s spread is equally impressive and seems at present to be more durable. (On two recent books about the early spread of Islam, see this review.)

Christianity’s fading in so many places undermines precisely those claims on which it prides itself: its catholicity, its capacity to embed itself in any culture, anywhere. “If Christianity continues to decline in Europe,” Wilken cautions, “and becomes a minority religion, its history will appear fragmentary and episodic and its claim to universality further diminished by the shifting patterns of geography.”

“By focusing on what went wrong, on Islamic terrorism, on Wahhabism, or on radical Islamists, we miss ways in which Islam is adapting constructively to a changing world.” The unparalleled success and staying power of Islam, Wilken insists, obligates us to take it more seriously–not merely as a threat, I take him to mean, but as a world view that is immensely powerful and attractive. “If we see Islam as a historical relic, incapable of change and betterment, inimical to reason and science, a form of religion that is disadvantaged in the modern world,” he writes, “we will never grasp the formidable challenge it presents to Christianity.”

For Christians, the article raises some uncomfortable questions. That’s not a bad thing. For its historical insight, for its analysis of the interaction of Christianity and Islam, and for its suggestive glance at the future, it is well worth reading.

Kevin Schmiesing Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D., is a research fellow for the research department at the Acton Institute. He is a frequent writer on Catholic social thought and economics, is the author of American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895-1955 (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002) and is most recently the author of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (Lexington Books, 2004). Dr. Schmiesing holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. in history from Franciscan University ofSteubenville. Author of Within the Market Strife and American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895—1955 (2002), he serves as Book Review Editor for the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also executive director of


  • CT

    I just came across some revealing stats that might explain some of Christianity’s decline in the west. This is from Bill McKibben’s recent discussion of _UnChristian_ in the NY Review of Books:

    “Evangelicals themselves are beginning to notice, to judge from _unChristian_, an interesting new book based on research by the Barna Group, a kind of Gallup for that movement. What they find is that 40 percent of Americans aged between sixteen and twenty-nine are outside Christianity and that, what’s more, they have an overwhelmingly negative perception of it. Eighty-seven percent find it “judgmental,” 85 percent “hypocritical,” 78 percent “old-fashioned,” 70 percent “insensitive to others.” They dislike its single-minded focus on conversion—only 30 percent of those outsiders consider it “relevant to your life.” And the really bad news for evangelicals is that this doesn’t reflect ignorance or lack of information—the great majority have been to church, often for months, and found it wanting….it turns out that the antipathy of the evangelical churches toward homosexuals is the single biggest reason that young people are starting to turn away from them. An astonishing 91 percent in the Barna surveys felt that the church was “antihomosexual,” and of course they were accurate in their feelings. “Because of our opposition to homosexuals, outsiders cannot picture the church as the loving community of believers Jesus envisioned,” write David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons in _unChristian_.”

  • Kevin

    Evangelicals and other Christians should take those statistics seriously. And it could be that some churches’ approach to homosexuality and/or homosexual persons does in fact leave much to be desired. But it would be wrong to infer simply that being more compassionate or, more radically, abandoning the traditional Christian view that homosexual acts are immoral, can be a boon to evangelical influence and popularity. Mainline denominations have taken that route and it hasn’t resulted in any reversal of statistical decline.

  • Re: mainline decline, see the chart [url=]here[/url].

  • See:
    *Bartholomew I: Turkish bureaucracy is trying to make us disappear*