Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Euro-Centric History of Christianity

When I went to school and college what I learned as world history was really a Euro-centric history. For the European historians, Europe was the center of the world, and the history of Europe was the same as the history of the world.  I realized this when I skimmed through the Glimpses of World History by Jawaharlal Nehru.  Nehru, an Asian historian, tried to look at the world from an Asian perspective, and demonstrated that the world is much bigger than how Europeans saw it. This is true of the history of Christianity as well. Until recently Christianity has been seen as a European religion in spite of the fact that Christianity originated in Asia and spread across Asia and Africa as well as Europe.
This affirmation about Christianity raises several questions.
  1. Even Luke, the Biblical historian, tells us that Christianity spread to Europe. If Christianity spread to Asia and Europe, why didn’t Luke mention it? 
  2. If Christianity spread to Asia and Africa, why was it considered a European religion? 
  3. Has there been any attempt to write the history of Christianity from an Asian or African perspective?  
Although Luke calls his book Acts of the Apostles, it is primarily about the acts of one apostle— Paul. It talks a little bit about the acts of Peter at the beginning as an introduction, but goes on to elaborately narrate the missionary trips of Paul. Luke hints that James, the brother of the Lord, occupied a prominent position in Jerusalem, but he fails to tell us how James happened to be in this important position. We also learn that there existed a friction between the varieties of Christianity represented by Paul and James, and that in a council in Jerusalem, the solution offered by James was accepted. It seems that James’ variety of Christianity spread toward the east to Persia, India, and China, whereas Paul’s variety spread to the west in the Roman Empire. Eventually Paul’s variety became far more successful than the other.  It seems that the history of Luke is the history of the victor. He favored Paul and ignored James. I have had the opportunity to read a beautiful book on this subject by Jeffrey J. Butz-- The Brother of Jesus and the Lost Teachings of Christianity.

Christianity spread as a powerful humanizing movement throughout the known world in Asia, Africa, and Europe. In Europe, Constantine, the emperor of the Roman Empire, used the power and influence of the Christian movement to stabilize the empire. Thus Christianity became the imperial religion in Europe. Centuries later when the Europeans colonized most of the known world, they spread their religion --Christianity – throughout the world. The Christianity that originally spread to Asia and Africa did not become a state religion as it did in Europe. Moreover, it was made weaker by the growth of Islam. Christianity survived in Asia and Africa in very small pockets down through the centuries.

Recently I have had a chance to read a church history from an Asian perspective-- East of the Euphrates: Early Christianity in Asia, authored by T. V. Philip, an Asian church historian. The book can be read online. It traces the history of Asian Christianity from 1st to the 15th century, when it was invaded and conquered by the European Christianity. Recently I have had the opportunity to go through Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, authored by Diarmaid MacCulloch, a European church historian. MacCulloch has made a heroic attempt to see Christianity from a global perspective, a deviation from the euro-centrism.

In our own time, Christianity seems to be moving its center from Europe to Asia, its birth place. There are more Christians in Asia and Africa than in Europe and Americas now. Today it is important for the Asian-African Christians to realize that their religion is their own and not imposed on them by foreigners.

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