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  • The Crisis of Authority From Holy Obedience to Bold Moral Imagination in European Christianity
  • Kajsa Ahlstrand

If we speak of a crisis of authority in Christianity we need to have some kind of common understanding of Christianity. The religion called Christianity is found in all inhabited continents and in a great variety of cultural forms. Two recent lists of countries with the greatest number of Christians show that the United States is the country with the greatest number of Christians, followed by Brazil and Mexico.1 The Americas are on the top of the lists, but among the top ten we also find three Asian countries (China, India, and the Philippines), two African countries (Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo), and four European countries (France, Russia, Germany, and Italy). (Australia is not on any of the lists since the total number of Australian citizens is smaller than the number of Christians in the top ten countries.) Although Christians live on all continents, it is a well-known fact that the majority of Christians now live in the Southern Hemisphere.

When we talk about Christianity as an entity we have to be aware that there are enormous variations within Christianity with regard to cultural traditions, standard of living, level of education, and so on. A French Roman Catholic professor of theoretical physics may have very few convictions in common with a Pentecostal Nigerian peasant, although they both regard themselves as Christians.

One way of looking at this diversity of values within Christianity is to go to the Inglehart-Welzel cultural map of the world.2 This map shows eight different “fields” of values located within a grid determined by two axes. The vertical axis goes from traditional to rational-secular values, the horizontal axis from survival values to self-expression values.

The traditional values to secular-rational values dimension is described as “...the contrast between societies in which religion is very important and those in which it is not. [. . .] Societies near the traditional pole emphasize the importance of parent-child ties and deference to authority, along with absolute standards and traditional family values [. . .]. Societies with secular-rational values have the opposite preferences on all of these topics.” [End Page 49]

The other dimension, survival values to self-expression values, is described thus: “Self-expression values give high priority to environmental protection, tolerance of diversity and rising demands for participation in decision making in economic and political life. These values also reflect mass polarization over tolerance of outgroups, including foreigners, gays and lesbians and gender equality. The shift from survival values to self-expression values also includes a shift in child-rearing values, from emphasis on hard work toward emphasis on imagination and tolerance as important values to teach a child.”

When we apply this to the geographical dimensions of Christianity, we find that societies dominated by Christianity or in which there are significant numbers of Christians are found in every field of the map. This makes it difficult to speak of “Christian values” as if there were any values held by all or even a majority of Christians. Instead we find Christians in Africa who tend to embrace survival and traditional values—that is, religion is very important in their lives and they emphasize the importance of obedience to authority, especially within the family—whereas in the opposite diagonal corner (secular-rational values coupled with self-expression values) we find the Nordic countries, where, although the majority of the population belong to a church, religion plays a very limited role in day-to-day life and children are encouraged to rely on their empathy and imagination rather than to obey their parents and teachers.

When we, in the following, move to the topic of a possible crisis of authority in Christianity, we have to remember that the suggested crisis is by no means a universal one. If we use Inglehart’s value map, the crisis of authority is located in the societies that score high on self-expression values, and if they also score high on secular-rational values the “crisis” is further aggravated. What the map does not show, however, is that there are individuals and groups within every...