Albeit with a great historical variety of beliefs and practices, it has maintained as a shared element the profession of faith in Jesus, seen as the Son, incarnate, who died and then rose from the dead, of the only God, Lord and Creator, of Biblical tradition, the promised messiah and , as such, the “Christ” (from the Greek christós = “anointed” by the Lord, a translation from the Hebrew word Mashiah, “messiah”; hence the name “Christians” which would soon be used to describe his followers: Acts of the Apostles 11, 26). Like other religions such as Islam or Buddhism, Christianity therefore appeared as a historically based religion, not only in the sense that it started at a given moment in history, but also in the sense that its origins can be traced back to the actions of a real historical person.
One should also bear in mind that, within Christian self-understanding, from the very origins Jesus was seen as the founder also in the sense of the person always present for the community of his followers, who therefore founded his eternal church. Nowadays Christianity is the largest universal religion, with about one and a half billion believers present above all in Europe, in Africa and in the Americas, divided into three main confessions, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox. From the very beginning Christianity appeared as a varied reality, profoundly influenced by the manner in which the original faith in the Risen Christ was interpreted and passed down in the written reports that preserved its memory; an expression of communities competing with one another. Unlike Islam, which had in the Koran a revealed text that tradition presents as unaltered and immutable, the canon or the inspired collection of Christian books is the result of a complex and conflictual historical process between various Christian communities. Already in the course of the 2nd Century, the predominance of a type of organised community subject to an original figure, the bishop, the so-called “Great Church”, is another of the Christian identity’s distinctive characteristics.
It is an institutional organisation, destined to come to our days through thousands of lacerations and changes: the history of the evolution of this institutional dimension, albeit the important and still insuperable differences in customs and doctrines, is the spinal chord of the great and complex body of the Christian churches. This led to the three main Christian confessions, in turn the expression of the manner in which the Christian announcement has been preserved and interacted first in western Europe and then in the Christian East, and then, after the split in confessional unity caused in the 16th Century by the Reformation, in the various national churches especially in northern Europe. Another distinguishing characteristic of original Christianity, that marks its century long history up to modern times, is its particular way of “incarnating itself” within the different cultures it has come into contact with through its universalistic thrust and vocation, leading it, like Islam and Buddhism. to promote a mission with no ethnic borders.
Born and spread within the context of a Judaic culture, in many aspects already in contact with Hellenism, depending on the geographical areas in which it developed and the contacts and influence received from new cultures, thanks to its redeeming message’s capability to adapt, Christianity progressively integrated within itself new cultural elements; in this manner it in turn influenced other cultures, contributing to create new and original ones (in this sense, all attempts to privilege a cultural tradition, such for example as the Hellenic one, risks a betrayal of the complexity of its history). Judaic elements remained preserved more tenaciously in the oriental areas (Egypt, the Near East, Syria, Persia, Georgia), while the Christianities of Greece, Asia Minor and North Africa led to very fecund cultural-religious encounters destined to define the outline of Christianity in the western churches.
Greek-Roman Hellenism worked in depth and was in turn greatly influenced by Christianity’s assimilations. This took place at a philosophical level, above all with regards to doctrinal development: hence the Biblical idea of God’s Wisdom identified with the Logos-Word of God, is at the origin of the development of the Trinitarian theology and the dogmatic definitions if the Ecumenical Councils of Nicene in 325 and of Constantinople in 381; classical anthropology, which identified the soul as the fundamental element, is at the basis of the eschatological concept of the survival of the soul. Equally, classic culture is at the basis of the formation of the great Christian intellectuals of early centuries, just as on the other hand the ecclesiastic organisation came into being on the basis of the empire’s divisions and administrative organisation.
The political-religious conflict with the Roman Empire, which was extremely harsh, allowed the elaboration of the fundamental criteria of political theology turned to innumerable times so as to define relations with state and political powers. The encounter with barbarian populations would be no less important from a historical point of view. Christianity, which until then had basically been an urban factor, turned to the countryside with the objective of evangelising the rural populations which were still pagan. This was a process that developed over thousands of years, with its ups and owns, accompanying the entire history of the western peasant world until its very recent crisis, but that is once again present also in the evangelisation of new worlds. This evangelisation, while it did not alter traditional and folkloristic elements that at times survived in the form of “superstitions” (“all that survives”), more fecund at time, resulted in various forms of syncretism, enacting a complex and decisive process involving a change in customs, although this was often enforced in a violent manner.
Another of the Christian tradition’s distinguishing elements lies in the central role played by theological reflection. More precisely, among the great religions only Christianity has elaborated a real “theology” and hence rational reflections on God. This becomes clear within the framework of the centrality of the faith in Jesus the Christ. On one hand the need, remaining within biblical monotheism, to explain the existence of the Son and his relations with the Father and the Spirit, and on the other to explain the relationship between Christ’s divine and human nature, soon led thinkers to elaborate complex theological doctrines, established then in the ancient ecumenical Councils and the shared heritage of the various Christian churches. Equally, the establishment of this heritage brought about theological clashes and conflicts at times carried out in a ruthless manner, which continuously led to dissent and to heretical movements, opposed by the Great Church and by the political powers that supported it, often in a ferocious manner.
Modernity has profoundly affected the life of Christian churches, enacting the dialectics of rejection and of an extremely complex form of adapting that is still ongoing. Christian churches have reacted to the challenges posed by secularisation in different ways, which cannot be addressed in depth here. It is sufficient to simply observe, restricted to the Catholic Church, that the acceptance of the autonomy of modernity and its values acknowledged by the Second Vatican Council, nowadays seems once again questioned, in the name of a Christian “re-conquering” of society.
Nowadays, after twenty centuries of history, in spite of the profound erosion resulting from secularisation processes, Christianity however seems to be an extremely lively religious and spiritual reality. The irreversible crisis experienced by state atheism in former Marxist countries, the consequence of the epochal “change” of 1988, has certainly reopened new spaces for missions and proselytism, trying hard to bear in mind the new missionary criteria established by the Second Vatican Council. Furthermore, although traditionally Catholic countries such as Latin America have acknowledged profound changes in the traditional religious forms as a result of industrialisation processes, and the last decade of the 20th Century saw an astonishing increase in Pentecostal movements especially in Brazil.
Christianity is also a very vital and lively religious factor in countries such as the United States, while it has been considerably successful in Africa, where it is however obliged to confront Islam’s proselytising efforts. Only in Europe has it effectively lost importance, especially from a practical viewpoint. Within this framework one can better understand the virulent controversies of the Catholic episcopates, in particular in Italy, in defence of an identity profoundly threatened and corroded from within by the ineluctable advance of individualism, with its needs to create for itself a Christian religion removed from hierarchical control and free to move within the field of ethical and political choices.
This new situation, in which Christianity no longer appears as an imported European or Western product, at the start of the third millennium, draws a new scenario with unpredictable consequences, also within the framework of a renewed vitality and importance as far as the political aspects of the great religions are concerned. The demographic factor due to which for example it seems increasingly probable that the Catholic Church is destined to grow more in Africa than in Europe, invites one to reflect upon the increasing importance that different ways of understanding and interpreting the Christian message may acquire. On the other hand, the so-called Christianity of the South, that is spreading also due to different demographic growth, in a context that ranges from South America to sub-Saharan Africa, from the Philippines to South Korea, is an emotional and communitarian Christianity, that never confronted Nihilism and secularism and evolves along lines often lacking in theological depth and basically linked to customs.
In this expansion, the Catholic Church is destined to play a central role. The decisive problem the church must address however is once again exquisitely theological. The pre-Vatican Council redeeming exclusivist philosophy, and hence the traditional idea according to which for non-Christians there is no redemption outside the Church, questioned by the Second Vatican Council, in spite of open dialogue promoted by John Paul II, has once again become the centre of attention, as seen in particular in the recent speech by Benedict XVI at Regensburg addressing the difference between the Christian God and the Islamic God.
The man who spoke on this occasion was not only the professor of theology trained in the great patristic tradition of the encounter between the Christian and the Greek Logos, but also the theologian Ratzinger, the author of the declaration entitled Dominus Jesus, in which the absolutism of the Christian faith deeply rooted in Christology was re-emphasised, against the theological relativism founded on an indistinct doctrine of God. Claiming this specificity is without doubt the Pontiff’s right. If anything has been learned from the century-old history of Christian missions, one cannot however doubt that such a profoundly Eurocentric theological nucleus is really capable of permitting these encounters and acknowledgments, of renewing those hybridising factors, ranging from the Christ of the barbarians to the Christ of the poor in the theology of the Latin-American liberation, which are at the basis of the extraordinary spreading of the Christian message.