Todd Johnson - "Our Global Families"
4:23AM Jun 28, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
Today is our honor to be speaking with Dr. Todd Johnson. Dr. Johnson is the director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity and Associate Professor of global Christianity at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. He is the Co-editor of the landmark 2009, Atlas of Global Christianity, and he is co-author of the text that we'll be discussing today, Our Global Families: Christians Embracing Common Identity in a Changing World, co authored with Cindy Wu. Dr. Johnson, it's a pleasure to
be speaking with you today. It's great to be here with you as well.
Dr. Johnson, in the opening of your book you state that quote, our own research shows that almost 90% of all Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus do not personally know a Christian. Why is it important that Christians be conversant with the different religions of the world today and pursue relationships with people of different things.
Well, I think a starting point is really the way in which Jesus Himself God
lived among us,
with all the other ways in which
God could communicate with his people he chose
to actually come and live. And that incarnational model,
you might say, is really important,
in beginning a discussion about contact between Christians and any other human being for that matter. And I think that's a starting place. So it's important because Jesus Himself spent time with in many ways with only 12 people or with primarily 12 people at least. And then all these personal encounters that you read about in the Gospel, I think really gives us a sense that that's, that's the best way to interact with people is face to face. Okay, so starting there. You know, we have a way in which to start to think about this.
Then other research that we've done
has shown a parallel trend, and that is that Christians all around the world are living in increasing religious diversity.
You know it, let's say 500 years
ago as we think about the Protestant Reformation, which we're coming up on the 500th anniversary, most Christians live next to other Christians, not even if they were Christians of different kinds Protestants and Catholics, and that sort of thing. So much of the last 500 years or so Christians have lived in pretty close proximity with other Christians, but not so much with people in other religions. But I think probably all of us are aware that this is changing and changing rapidly. It's frightening to some people. But again, looking back at the way Jesus approached ministry, it's probably not a pet, develop But that Christians would be in proximity with non Christians, people of other religions. Now a Pew the Pew Forum has done research on in the United States, on what people what various kinds of people in the United States know about other religions. And one shocking thing is that evangelicals score pretty low on these tests. So atheists and agnostics, Mormons Jews, all score much higher than evangelicals our knowledge of other religions and 32 questions religious literacy test, and they're pretty simple. You know, like the Quran is the Holy Book of a Hindus be Buddhists see Muslims. So it's not these aren't really not very hard questions. And evangelicals get less than half right in an easy test like that
in the United States. So there's There's a knowledge gap
that we're concerned about, people just don't know. And it's, of course important to know. Because whenever you interact with human beings, you look for commonality, and which is part of the message of our book. You know, it's, it's a good place to start. And religion is so important that it would be important to know, you know, why are you fasting all day and waiting until late at night to eat, you know, as we had in Ramadan, which just finished recently, so. So now that your neighbors have all these different religions, it would be some pretty important to know something about them. But I would say that that's a starting point. But But perhaps more important, and even getting back to Jesus as our model is to actually have friends who are Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists. And of course, our research shows the opposite side of that. We're not sure how many people Friends Christians have, but we're pretty sure that Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists do not
have many Christian friends.
So probably they're related. In other words, most
Christians don't have very many friends in these other religions. And therefore, people in those religions don't know Christians. And this is this is really sad in one sense because Christians have been pretty clear, especially over the last hundred years or so, on commitment to world evangelization. You know, we want everyone in the world to hear the gospel. You know, I was I was with a leader of a Canadian evangelicals yesterday, and we were remembering Oswald Smith, who is the pastor of people's church in Toronto, famous saying that he had and that's that no one should hear the gospel twice until everyone is heard at once. Just a simple phrase. You know that Could be unpacked in a lot of different ways. But just this idea that that we want everyone in the world to hear the good news of Jesus Christ, that then makes it shocking that people don't know us because again, how are you I suppose we could been the gospel over radio, television, of course, now the internet, smartphones, however you want to do it, but in the end, we I think we have to model that face to face as is the most significant. And, and really, you know, we shouldn't be in a great hurry. We should get to know people as well. And that that's another thing that we're trying to emphasize. Dr. Johnson. That's one of the things that
I appreciate about your book, not only do you give us some of the basic information, a basic informational sketch of these other religious traditions in the world, but you also give us the encouragement to go further and to do some of our own Further reading. In those things, and you give us the framework to understand why that's important. Thank you. Dr. Johnson, if I can ask you, perhaps a million dollar question, the question that nobody can probably answer with, with perfect authority, but you have as good of an opportunity or chance as anybody else to be able to speak competently to that, and that is, what is globalization. We understand that some sort of new phenomenon is changing much of our world today. It's bringing it into this global age, making it a global reality. But what is globalization? Precisely? Thank you.
Yes. It's a it's a complicated concept in some ways, and somebody is as a as a well informed as the journalist, Thomas Friedman, we like to what he's said about this. He says that it didn't compute encompasses everything and the opposite. So you have the clash of civilization and the bringing of civilizations together you have environmental disasters, and you have these amazing environmental rescues. You have the triumph of liberal free market capitalism. And then you have a huge backlash against it. And you have the durability of nation states, and then the rise of all these powerful non state actors. And of course, with the rise of terrorism in the last couple of decades, that's a that's a very scary thing. So it's all of those things. It's, you know, it's all of those ways in which people are relating to each other. And I have studied and actually led a course on religions on the Silk Road. And so I'm actually in the camp that says, Look, this has been around for a long time. You know, I I read a piece on a woman in Istanbul, Turkey, who in the year 400. You know, she got up in the morning. And she opened her drapes, which were from Italy. And she sat down with China that was from China and her grapes were from Azerbaijan. And I mean, so this sounds, that's the year 400, which is, so this person's daily life was all of these different things. So the Silk Road was a way in which people were connected. Okay. There's, there's no doubt about that. But it is true that today, we are much more highly interconnected than ever, economically and culturally. And, and it's really, I think, the rise of communication and transportation. You know, I mean, 100 years ago, people were saying isn't an amazing we, we've got steam engine trains and the Telegraph and all of this, but over the last hundred years, we've become increasingly and more closely connected, which really provides It's a backdrop for our book, you know, because this is, this has become even more of an issue now of the fact that you can actually meet people from all over the world. You know, I was I was at the United Bible society's world assembly just a few weeks ago in Philadelphia, and I had breakfast with but people from Botswana and lunch with Mongolians, you know, and and dinner with people from China. I mean, it's it's just remarkable how connected we are today and and how easy it is, in one sense to encounter people from different backgrounds. And of course, we were talking about religion a minute ago, but within global Christianity, this interconnectedness offers us, you know, all kinds of new opportunities to interact. And actually one of the people we mentioned in the Who's a who is a real trend leader in this area is the cellist yo yo mom, and yo yo mom was sitting with the producer about 20 years ago. And he he actually had a napkin, they were at dinner together, he had a napkin. And he drew two different circles, but he drew it so that there was an overlap, you know of that, like a Venn diagram, you know, a little overlap between the two. And he was speaking of music from all the worlds different cultures. And he said, that's where I want to be in the in the intersection of those two circles, because that's where new things take place. Something that's that the world has never seen before is when strangers meet, which is the title of the of the CD that came out after that. And so I think that's terrifically exciting from a Christian point of view. And that's why globalization is is in that sense. So signal If ik for us, because it does put us into proximity, and that proximity gives us a huge new opportunity as a global Christian community.
Dr. Johnson, thank you for that reflection. And if I may ask in the third part of your book,
use this phrase, a theology of interfaith solidarity and you encourage the evangelical community to pursue this theology of excuse me, theology of interfaith solidarity. What precisely do you mean by this phrase?
Yes, this is
it's close to what I was talking about before the fact that you would, you would listen to other people like Jesus did encounter and listen and interact. And a good way to, to interact with other people is to emphasize shared experience and shared values.
As a starting point, and there
are so many of these, and it can be pretty simple. I had lunch with a leading Bohai practitioner here in Boston a few weeks ago. And, and I've had actually quite a bit of contact with the behind around the world. And one of the high points of my contact was visiting the Lotus Temple in New Delhi, in India, it's just a gorgeous, unbelievably gorgeous building, that that people, you know, take pilgrimages to, and many non behinds, like me come to visit and, and so on. So the one of the first things I talked about was the beauty of that architecture and how thankful I was, you know, for the community to build that right there in Delhi. And that that actually opens up a lot of positive conversation about faith and about ways in which we interact and what virtually, with every person you meet, you have that kind of that kind of commonality. So it's really in one's face. It's a starting point. But it's not a, it's not a phony starting place in which you find something, you know, in common, and then you get to the business of evangelization, or that sort of thing. So it really is genuine, it's a genuine interest. Another example for me, which was really one of the earliest examples is when I first got into studying Christianity around the world, I became a member of the world future society. My, my dissertation was on counting Christians into the future, like how many Christians are there likely to be in China in the year 2100. That was part of what I was Doing and of course, it's just projections. These aren't predictions. But it was a lot of fun doing that. And it put me in contact with a whole nother group of people, these futurists and one of my favorite futurists was a professor from New York who was an avowed atheist. But in our very first meeting together, evangelical atheist meeting on we found a common interest in science fiction. And we talked about all the different ways that we had been impacted by science fiction, particularly the the epic science fiction, which, you know, paints a scenario in the future, you know, usually involving other planets and that sort of thing. And we had a common interest there that lasted for many, many years until his death. And we just felt it was an important element of thinking about the future, even though it's fiction. There are many important aspects of science fiction and one that you might remember Is that the first interracial kiss on television was on Star Trek about a ball shows because science fiction often gives you a little bit of room to experiment that you don't get in, you know, under normal social conditions. So anyway, that that for me, I had this wonderful friendship with an atheist who knew that I was an evangelical and he knew the message of the gospel, you know, through me directly and indirectly. But we had this amazing common area. So now that's a little different with an atheist, you know, you're not going to have a faith, a commonality of faith, let's say, but there are other ways in which we can interact with people. And the other aspect of this which we, in the book we talked about what we think is so important is that in the past It's often thought of as the people that are in interfaith dialogue or people with a rather weak personal faith and who give up a lot in order to then get into this group of people who can sort of agree on the least common denominator. But what we see that's exciting, and in somewhat new, although they're been faithful people throughout all of Christian history, of course, is the idea that, that a strong faith could also be one that has a very positive outlook to people in other faiths. And one of this is one of the surprising things is how people with a strong faith that are not Christians, like Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists, have responded so positively to the articulation of a strong faith from a Christian point of view or from an evangelical point of view. And I was reading
Ebo Patel's latest book, we'd be mentioned him in our book. He's the head of the Interfaith Youth Corps. He just wrote a primer on interfaith leadership. It's really a terrific book. But he talks about how he, he appreciates evangelicals, because they speak the truth from their perspective, which then allows him freedom to talk about his faith. And I think that's so exciting. And that's part of what what we're talking about. So we're not talking about some kind of watered down, weak version. But that strong faith can be associated with benevolence rather than hostility. There's been kind of a hostility narrative in the past, and we're really hopeful that that the that you can, you can both be a faithful and true, evangelical Christian, that's our tradition, and yet have terrific interaction and friendships with people in other face so that goes all the way back to Your first question we're really asking for, for much more contact between Christians and non Christians and making sure that that's genuine and positive, and so on. I
really appreciate those comments. And I think those who have had interfaith friendships will relate strongly to what you're saying. I remember some of my first conversations with new Muslim friends, and realizing for what, for me was a discovery that they really enjoy talking about faith. And so I didn't need to hide my faith either. Sometimes in Western society, we think of religious issues as perhaps impolite. And so it's difficult to bring up with people and it can be socially awkward to do so. But with other people who also have faith, Muslims or others, sometimes that can be a very natural conversation, because you really do enjoy talking about these things and you find the differences, but there can be a joy in in those conversations. So thank you, Dr. Johnson. If I can ask Our next question in the fourth and final part of your book, our global families, Christians embracing common identity in a changing world, you offer some sobering reflections concerning the limitations that we may experience as we tried to, quote, change the world. At the same time you encourage the reader that it's impossible that it is possible for individuals to make a real difference in our society. How do we as Christians, as individual Christians approach global problems?
Yes, very carefully, very carefully. Indeed.
I think the main one of the main problems we face particularly those of us in the Western world who are looking out at all these different challenges across the world, which we tried to catalog a little bit in the book, which is impossible. I think the UN came out with a book in the 1990s The Encyclopedia of human problems, and I think it listed 64,000 problems or something, some huge number. So what are you going to do about all of that? So it's overwhelming in one sense. But there is one thing in particular, to be very careful about. And that is that, even in general with, you know, in with all of humanity, not just the Christian side, there's been a strong tendency for rich people, which is most of us in the Western world, to tell poor people what to do. And that's probably the single greatest challenge in solving human problems and poverty and disease and, and these sort of things. Things which we hope is pretty clear that it is a Christian responsibility to do something about these things. But it's really only been relatively recently that that rich people have began to listen to the voice of the poor back, there's an issue Famous series I think we mentioned in the book called voices of the poor, which was the late 1990s put out, you know, it's done by the United Nations. And they just thought, you know, we've been trying to help the poor what what, why don't we go out and interview them and see what they really want. And there was a shocking finding in that series that that rich people did not expect. So rich people felt like the main thing that poor people need is stuff. They don't have enough stuff, you know, stuff to survive material goods, which which of course are important water and food and shelter and all that sort of thing. But when they interviewed the poor, the poor came back and said, almost consistently said, what we want is meaning and purpose. We want to be able to get up in the morning and know what we're supposed to do. And and and of course, not having stuff impacts, you know, the meaning and the purpose, but it was really quite shocking. And I think, again, it this is sort of a common theme in our book, I guess, is that it's pretty important to listen to other people, and especially in development. You know, in the field of development under which this idea of changing the world comes there, there is not enough listening that goes on. And, you know, Christian writers in this field, you know, like the famous book when helping hurts, give all kinds of examples of how good intentions can go wrong. And then famous examples like bringing a lot of used clothes into Africa to make sure people have clothes. This is a classic one, which sounds like a good idea but has the tendency to not people out of their business locally in Africa. people struggling to You know, to in clothing business, suddenly, all this free clothes, all these free clothes, knocks them out of business. So unintended consequences are a big part of this.
The other problem we have, which we mentioned in relation to Christianity is, you know, there's 45,000 Christian denominations in the world. So we have a real problem with competition and lack of cooperation, and that sort of a thing. And that's, that's really sad, because who we are, as in our Christian faith, you know, is meant to be united to people that are watching us serve the poor, and if we're pushing each other over, trying to get to the poor that that doesn't, that's not a good witness. So we have a lot of work to do there. And then another thing which relates kind of begin to what we were talking about with religion, other religions is Nick As Christoph, who has written several books about this Half the Sky, and a Path Appears in a path appears, which is a survey of what NGOs are doing all around the world to change the world. He laments one very significant thing, and that is that he has seen all the good that evangelicals are doing around the world. And he's seen all the good that secular NGOs are doing. And he's noticed what he calls the god gap. And that is that evangelicals do not trust secular people. And secular people do not trust evangelicals, and yet they're there together, trying to you know, rescue people and, and change the world, save the world, you know, in poverty, all the things that are important to both of these communities. And he says, Why don't we Why don't we overcome the god gap and see people work together and there are very significant examples of that going on around the world. World Peace. You know, groups like World Vision go out of their way to interact with secular governments or even Muslim governments and that sort of thing. So so there's encouraging signs, but in general, we do need to work better together. And we also need to work with other people as well outside of the Christian community. Dr. Johnson On a side note, I cite
the statistic every year that I received from your Atlas of global Christianity that I thought there was 43 843,800 different denominations in the world today and I just heard you cite 45,000 has his number crept up to 45,000 denominations today.
Yes, it goes up every year and I think 45,000 is our is our mid 2015 estimate. So it just creeps up every year. You know, there's it's a difficult thing I that, you know, we're also Trying to offer, you know, help and advice to the on the subject of division within our book. So
Dr. Johnson, is us survey global Christianity today. Do you see centrifugal or centripetal forces prevailing? That is do you see global Christianity spinning further apart or coming together at the coming century?
Yes, of course, this is very important to us. And we write quite a bit about this. And I'm afraid the answer is that, to me, it seems that both are happening simultaneously. So, again, there's there's great examples of cooperation locally. I love to hear that pastors in a particular town are meeting together, you know, for breakfast once a month. I hear it all the time when I try travel considerable amount. And I hear about it not just in the United States, but You know, all around the world, pastors are trying to get to know each other. And congregations are working together. You know, here in my little town of just 8000 people where the seminary is located. We have many churches working together on behalf of the homeless to provide housing and meals, and that sort of thing. That's, that's wonderful. And I think that's part of, you know, part of what we're seeing as people come together. But in my own little town of 8000. We also have one church, a very dynamic church that fairly recently split into three different churches. I mean, it's only 8000 people in it, you know, so, so so we have both forces at the same time. And I would say the same is true globally as well, right, let's say nationally. You know, in Korea, South Korea, there's over 150 Presbyterian nations. And there's new ones, you know, every month of groups that are splitting into two or three. So at the national level, you have that challenge. But then you have other countries where everyone gets together, you know, nationally from all these different backgrounds and tries to work together. And then globally, of course we have. We have the world Evangelical Alliance, we have the World Council of Churches, of course, the Vatican, and the Orthodox. For those who are paying attention in the last month or so, the Orthodox had a meeting. They haven't had a meeting and a long time. And unfortunately, certain parts of the Orthodox Church refused to participate in this global meeting. So so there's a tent there's, there's meetings where people are unable or able to get together and there's ones that it's just not Possible people can't Christians can't seem to get along. So I'd say you have both of those forces. And it's really difficult to know, at any given time, which of these is going to win the day? You know, I think it's probably more realistic to say that we have to live with both, both of those dynamics. But of course, so people like me are, are trying to, you know, encourage positive engagement. But it wouldn't make any sense for me to say you really need to get to know your Muslim and Hindu neighbors but not your Christian neighbors. You know, I mean, in some ways, it's closely related because it's the same skill set that you get, you can also use with Christians you can then use with people in other religions. I would hope.
Dr. Johnson is you look out to the future, what are the factors that you look two today that you believe will most dramatically shape the future of Christianity
Yes. Well, demographically speaking, the I think the most shocking future trend is that probably around 2050 or so maybe a little before the laughter. Over half of all Christians in the world will be African. And I would say that's true. You know, if we said evangelicals, I'm sure it's true in the evangelical world. Protestants, even Pentecostals, no matter which of these major categories you use, half of all Christians will be African. And I have to say, it doesn't feel like that's the case right now. I mean, Africans have done wonderful in these global meetings we were just talking about, but if half of all Christians are African, then after then that should be an indication a strong indication of who we are what we look like. That's sort of a thing. So I think I think that's something that we need to get ready for. That's one, one thing. The other thing, which we've already mentioned, is with this increasing religious diversity, I think one of the features of Christianity in the future will be that it will it will be increasingly adept at interacting with people in other religions. Because again, it wasn't so long ago when the vast majority of Christians did not have any non Christian neighbors. You know, I mean, the idea of Christendom where everybody's together and most Christians living in countries that are 80% or more Christian, I think 100 years ago, I think it was over 80% maybe 90% of all Christians lived in countries that were almost all Christian, you know, it's only 15 percent now. So what that means is that Christians are, again living among non Christians as sort of a normal part of their lives. And what I think will happen is that Christian Christianity will become more friendly and more, more engaged than it has been in the past. And again, I think this is probably a central theme of our book. And it's that there's a demographic reality. It's not like, like I'm saying, we should all go to the other side of the world so that we can get along better. We're saying that people are living them from all over the world, you know, virtually everywhere that we're living now. And I think it probably is,
you know, obvious that we're saying that's a good thing. I would say it's a good thing from a Christian point of view just to be around people from other faiths that that makes you a better Christian, or at least there's a potential for you to be a better Christian. And from a theological point of view, it's surely good news that, you know, people from around the world are in contact more with Christians. And this probably flattens out missions a bit too. In other words, it was you always just in the past, you train people who then disappear for long periods of time, write back letters of amazing things that happens far away. Now it's very different. For example, I went to Thailand, as a missionary in 1979. I grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Lutheran, Evangelical Lutheran Church. I'd never met a Buddhist or a Thai person, in my in my life, you know, and I went all the way to the other side of the world and began to have these experiences. Coincidentally, of course, I'm going back to Thailand. again for another sabbatical. And part of it was that amazing experience I had as a young man, you know, my first strong cross cultural experience. But here's another interesting piece to this. In just a few days, I'm going back to Minnesota to visit my family there. And living right next to my mom in the house that I grew up is a Thai woman, a Thai Buddhist woman. So I went all the way to the other side of the world, you know, 35 years ago. Now we're living right next to my mom is someone from Thailand. I think that is the difference and that is a terrific opportunity. The one caution I hope that comes across in the book, and this is very important is we try to emphasize the common out the human commonality, so that you don't start to think of this this movement of people into from other faiths in proximity with as some sort of a operation of targeting people, we're really talking about friendship people shouldn't be thought of as targets. You know, I think that's, that's not that's not a mature Christian way to think about others. Yes, we're going to share our faith. But I've run into too many people that have made these significant friendships and then drop them when it's apparent that people are not going to become Christians. And that is not the future for us. You know, I've encouraged courage people, you should have lifelong Muslim friends, lifelong Buddhist friends, people who, who never convert, but build a strong gospel witness and relationship in that context. I think that's what we're talking about. Thank you, Dr. Johnson.
If I can ask you one final question that had been asking the guests on this program and that is this. What would it mean for the church today to be united? How would we recognize This unity and what can we as Christians do today to pursue real Christian unity? Thank you.
Yes, of course, this is a it's a big question and people have have offered all sorts of answers. So, in the 20th century, we pointed out that a lot of the method to try to bring unity was structural, you know, put together organizations and there was even a fairly strong movement, you know, about 6070 years ago for one world church, you know, try to bring all the churches together structurally. And, and that's just not gonna work, and maybe isn't even desirable, because actually there is, you know, apart from all the divisions within Christianity, there is something to be said, for the beauty of diversity within Christianity. And, and so we don't want to give up on that and and We want to find a way to present a beautifully diverse of faith to the rest of the world. Okay, so But probably the best strategies again coming back to listening to each other communicating and meeting together. And and of course, I've been in a lot of global meetings that happened like that. And I'm you know, we're we mentioned the the global Christian forum as a kind of a new initiative in that area. And I think those are healthy and positive ways of dealing with just unity is to have people to come together. But I but I think it's probably for most people reading the book. It's going to be more important to engage locally. And I think we all can do that. We can all get to know people in other Christian traditions better. I've had a sort of an unusual opportunity. Here in Boston, because in one sense, I'm in a quick Christian bubble here, if you visit us, you'll see we're on top of a beautiful Hill, out in the countryside, you know, all by ourselves here. So it's a challenge and how do I, I shouldn't be talking about this if I can't do anything personally, myself. And so I've done things in my local church right up here, outside of Boston, but I also have had terrific opportunities in Boston because I'm a professor. I belong to a consortium of other professors interested in world Christianity and in ecumenical relations. And we meet on a monthly basis from Roman Catholic, orthodox, liberal Protestant. You know, we have all different varieties of Christians here. And that has been such a rich time for me personally.
And you know, it's it's good because
People in, in non evangelical Christian traditions often have stereotypes of evangelicals. And I've been able to, you know, over time, you know, reduce those, I hope, in some sense, and the same is true going the other direction, you know, maybe as an evangelical, I'm
about Catholics and their theology and so on. And yet I have I have forged beautiful friendships with Catholics who are committed to mission and unity. And that sort of thing. Same is true with the Orthodox Church, just terrific. You know, terrific dialogue and, and learning from, from orthodox practice. Now has this has this made me less of an evangelical? I'd say no, I think, I think I think it's in some ways, similar mented my evangelical identity. But I'm an evangelical now who is who is quite comfortable spending time with people in other traditions within Christianity and in other religions as well. And that's what I'm really trying to, to build in my own life. And of course, Cindy and I are commending this to two other evangelicals in our book.
It's been our honor today to be speaking with Dr. Todd Johnson, co author of our global families, Christians embracing common identity in a changing world. Dr. Johnson, thank you so much for joining us today.
Thank you. It's been a pleasure.