Gerald W. Schlabach

Globalization and “Catholicity-from-Below”

July 12, 2002

Last April I visited New York City for the first time in 20 years.  I traveled alert to the cultural, economic, religious and symbolic significance of the place not only because of 9-11, but because I have been leading students in the study of globalization off and on over the last few years.

We might define globalization as the very interconnection of new interconnections — cultural, economic, technological, media, and (least dynamic) political.  If such a complex phenomenon can have one global center, it is Times Square.  News headlines, stock quotes, the stylized flesh of advertisements, monuments to commercial power, and the ephemera of ever-changing taste all flash 24/7 at the mix and re-mix of humanity down below — the mix that global interchange and local New York culture cooperate to produce, and consume.  All this, anyone can see.  [Click here, to see for yourself!]

Other marks of globalization go unnoticed in New York, even when they are out in the open.  Among the taxi drivers waiting in queue at La Guardia, one takes a prayer rug from his trunk, slips into the slight seclusion of an underpass, removes his shoes and faces Mecca.  But Muslims are not the only ones keeping this most secular of secular cities religious.  Among the riders on almost every workday subway car is a Latin American or African or Korean reading a Bible.  I would not have noticed without a tip from Mark Gornik, Director of the City Seminary of New York.

Gornik also tells me what a casual visitor cannot see — for even lifelong New Yorkers scarcely notice:  Least invisible or surprising, given the growth of Evangelical Protestantism in Latin America, is the fact that some three-hundred and fifty thousand of New York’s Latinos are evangélico.  (At the same time, the number of Latinos in Catholic dioceses has grown significantly too.)  Less visible are an estimated five hundred or more Korean congregations in the city, many of them probably house churches following the cell-church model that has thrived in South Korea.

Perhaps most intriguing are the seventy-five to one-hundred African congregations in the city, if not more.  Few of them would fit neatly into any denominational grid we might chart if we began with the divisions of 16th century Europe.  While a few do trace their origins to missionary endeavors, and some are newer charismatic congregations, most are what are known as African Independent Churches — whose founders were prophets, healers, exorcists and preachers who began movements and churches with distinctively African styles of worship and biblical interpretation.  Some have been transplanted along with the million or so new immigrants who have come to NYC from all continents since 1990; some are the result of self-conscious missionary efforts towards –not from– the West.

If we add the Korean and African churches, then pad the number only a bit to allow for churches with connections to other continents, we could easily reach at least a thousand churches either too new or too unconventional by U.S. standards to have been included among the 2,500 Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches that The Encyclopedia of New York City cited as recently as 1995.  Here is a sign of much larger shifts in global Christianity.

My point is this:  In order to make sense of that vast complexity which is the “changing face of the world we live in,” some would speak of modernity, of the Enlightenment come of age, or of the triumph scientific worldviews and technological prowess.  Others would argue that we now live in a post-modern, or post-Christian, or post-Christendom age.  And I myself speak regularly of globalization.  But while intellectuals and commentators have been trying to come to terms with the flux of our world at the dawn of a new millennium, ordinary Christians of many races and cultures are already doing it.  They are simultaneously adjusting to, creating, and upsetting this new world.  And the best name for the “it” they are doing is not quite globalism, hardly post-modernism, but instead, Pentecostalism.

Here is an -ism that you might not have expected to come up among a group of Catholics largely drawn to Mennonites for their traditions of peace and discipleship, and of Mennonites largely drawn to Catholics for their traditions of liturgy and spirituality.  But it should come up, it must come up, if we are to understand the context and significance of our gathering.   What matters here is not speaking in tongues, or raising one’s hands in prayer and song.  What matters is not the influence of Pentecostalism as we might trace it through the use of overheads instead of hymnals in our churches.  For if it is possible to speak of a small-c “catholicity” that extends beyond the Catholic Church, it is possible to speak of a small-p “pentecostalism” that extends beyond Pentecostal churches and even beyond neo-Pentecostal charismatic churches.  If I could have my way, I would in fact be tempted to mix, match, and call this small-p pentecostalism “catholicity from below.”  What do I mean?

For the sake of brevity, let us agree on one of many possible definitions of Christian witness — creating communities to proclaim and embody that earliest Christian confession, Jesus is Lord.  The focus of this witness is upon the 2nd person of the Trinity.  “Catholicity from above” would then be the kind of Christianity that extends that witness through authoritative mandates, institutional structures, continuity of tradition, and in short, paternal guidance.  Through the mystery of the Trinity, we may trust in the living, ultimate, unity of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Persons of the Trinity.  But thanks to the overflow of self-giving love that is the very principle of their mutual relationship, we can also expect that God-our-loving-Source-and-Parent is constantly sending the Holy Spirit ahead to work in messier, overflowing, unexpected ways.  As the Holy Spirit creates bonds of community between Christians that are hard to find on the organizational charts of Protestant denominations or the diocesan maps of the Roman Catholic Church, the Spirit is creating “catholicity from below.”  That is the small-p pentecostal principle.

The movements and churches I am describing can be terribly unruly, of course.  They can sometimes be doctrinally conservative even by Catholic tastes, embarrassingly schismatic even by Anabaptist tastes.  Yet while some of us wonder how best to “inculturate” the gospel in non-Western cultures, many pentecostals are doing it already.  While some of us wonder how to promote greater lay leadership, most are doing it.  While some of us teach the preferential option for the poor, often they themselves are the poor and are celebrating God’s favor.  While some of us wish our congregations and parishes did a better job at practicing a biblical hospitality that begins to reconcile estranged ethnic, economic and social groups, pentecostals have sometimes been the first to do so.  Often practicing a social justice agenda without the explicit theology to back it up, enough pentecostal leaders have articulated the agenda and the theology to show that these concerns are not necessarily incompatible with robust convictions about the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in a Christian’s life.

To be sure, their track records are wildly mixed.  The track records of our own churches are hardly spotless, of course.  But there is something about the subjectivity of a pentecostal emphasis on experience, and the emergence of leadership through personal charisma, that leaves it vulnerable to “every whim of doctrine” — and the most powerful heresy of our day is one that claims that to consume ever more is to prosper.  The pentecostal promise of abundant life too often falls prey to the seductions of consumeristic capitalism, both in North America and around the world.

So what does all this have to do with the gathering of Mennonites and Catholics?  Catholicity-from-below and catholicity-from-above need each other — sometimes desperately.  I have offered but one example of why; we will surely discuss others.  The vitality, cultural adaptability, and lay empowerment of small-p pentecostalism needs the ancient wisdom, broader accountability, and liturgical depth of small-c catholicism, at the very least.  And vice versa.

The Radical Reformation of the 16th century, which by turns produced the Anabaptist movement and Mennonite churches, had certain roots in late medieval Catholicism, and some of us are trying to recover those roots.  But the Radical Reformation is also the archetype for modern Pentecostalism — with porous lines between lay and ordained leadership, spreading in messy but creative ways, trusting the Holy Spirit to guide scattered communities as they read the Bible and seek God’s will, allowing unity of doctrine and practice thus to emerge “from below.”

Though I have ideas and dreams, I do not know what new models for being the Church together might emerge as Mennonites and Roman Catholics engage one another more deliberately.  But I do not just believe that we need each other.  Any model for bridging the divide between our two traditions, representing as they do catholicity from above and from below, will be an immense gift for the healing of the Church and its witness to the world.  Through social creativity — to integrate structure and vitality.  Through biblical hospitality — to bridge the local and the global.  Through mutual accountability — to hold together the needs for — well, instead of those scary words “authority” and “dissent,” let me say… — the needs for continuity of tradition and for correcting of tradition.  Would these not be gifts, too, for a waiting world, offering the sacrament of its unity and salvation?