Christianity may be going through serious self-searching for two reasons. First, it is suffering from a proliferation of competing denominations, sects, and cults in their thousands.
Each claims to be the true interpreter of the meaning of Jesus and what he stood for. Second, is the questioning of some long held beliefs in Euro-Christianity that is associated with Pope Francis, the head of over 1.2 billion Catholics?
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Pope Francis is the symbolic head of modern Christendom. He towers above other Christian “leaders”, whether they are Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Evangelical, or Lutheran. He also attracts more attention than leaders of assorted factions in Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, or Buddhism.
Since he managed to endear himself beyond Catholicism, whatever he thinks or says impacts the rest of the world. He appears to reorganize tenets of Euro-Christianity that was made universal through imperial conquests. Francis sends people thinking by raising doctrinal issues and questions about accepted rituals.
His latest controversial thought questions the existence of hell. Although the concept of hell was not original with Christianity, given that the pre-dynastic Egyptians and the Persian Zoroastrians had it before Jesus, it acquired special place in the evolution of Western Christian doctrine. It was, along with heaven, a governance concept warning people to behave while on earthly transit.
Although the Vatican has denied this, it has sparked debate and anguish in Catholicism.
It would not be the first time, in his push for “healthy realism” of reducing global violence by taking other people’s views into account and avoiding being judgmental that he forces modern thinkers to re-examine the forgotten points in the early political/doctrinal debates among the founders of Christianity.
There was opinion difference on Jesus between Thomas and Mary Magdalene on one side and John, James, Peter, and Paul on the other. Although Thomas and Magdalene ultimately lost the debate, could they have had points that Christians should reconsider? By elevating Magdalene to “apostle of apostles” and declaring Thomas the first to call Jesus “God”, Francis implies so.
In re-examining forgotten points, Francis finds strength to reach out to other forms of belief. For him, Christianity is the best way to reach God, but it is not the only way because Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and assorted faiths could also be right. Francis also raised controversy over the accuracy of the many Bible translations losing the original meaning in the Lord’s Prayer. Did Jesus actually say “lead us not into temptation” which implies that God tempts people or did he say “do not let us fall into temptation”?
This kind of papal thinking bothered top Catholic clergy. Retired Pope Benedict VI wondered what the point of evangelization was if people can reach God without going through Jesus. Raymond Cardinal Leo Burke asserted that Christians could defy papal deviations from the “Apostolic … ministry.” George Cardinal Pell actually questioned Francis’ authority on environmental/scientific pronouncements.
Francis promotes interfaith dialogue. He calls for the Church to make mistakes doing something positive than relax in the indolence of caution. His appealing attribute helped to reconcile the United States and Cuba and almost converted President Raul Castro back to Catholicism from Communism.
In Central Africa, remembers Father Elias Opongo, Francis entered a Mosque and came out with hostile Christians and Muslims abandoning their fights to follow the pope.
He had also visited Kenya, talked ordinary about corruption being sweet like sugar that leads to diabetes, and made people hold hands as “brothers”. He probably, as he did to the Americans, influenced Kenya to develop closeness to Cuba. Encouraging countries to develop close relationship is also part of his “healthy realism”, reducing global tensions.
While most people have little understanding beyond rituals and are not bothered by the doctrinal issues that Francis poses, African religious theorists face theological challenges. They contextually have to deal with the implications, to Africans, of the emerging Francis thought on the accepted basics of Christian beliefs and practice. Are they up to it?