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.