An Atheist Church?

An Atheist Church – Atheistic Culture Coming of Age

I heard about this new Atheist Church in Britain a few days ago and wondered how would a Christian feel when attending the assembly. My questions are answered by this post, which is an actual account of a person experiencing it on one Sunday.

There are two things mentioned in the post which strike me. First, the talk by a physicist, which reminds me of how my little venture into science years ago actually brought me closer to God. So if the report of the above blog post is accurate, the talk by the atheist church has strengthened my faith for God! This brings us to further questions. Why is it, that I am not experiencing such awe when listening to an ordinary preaching in an ordinary Christian church? I suspect this is due to the way I am wired. I think I am scientific in my thinking, and I am naturally a skeptic  So the scientific method of inquiry suits me. However this method is normally not employed in the Christian church. This in turns, also shows how narrow a Christian experience can be at this age. A typical evangelical, for example, has been accustomed to only a certain ways of thinking. A book which I reviewed, ‘Pagan Christianity’ has much to say about how this come by. Again a study into how modern evangelicalism come into being will also help. With the understanding that the way we worship can actually be richer than what we have experienced so far, the church will be able to look into various ways to redeem the meaning of a Christian gathering and the various creative ways we could worship the Creator.

The other thing which strikes me is how far a certain atheist culture has formed. The video above specifically mentions the cross – the symbol of Christianity, which in the atheist church can only be observed at the first aid box. (Of course the very reason why the cross ended up at the first aid box will again bring us to its Christian root) But one could only be sensitive (read ‘hostile’) to another symbol when one feels that his culture is under threat. It is common knowledge that atheism has been active in Britain in recent years, and as some atheists imply, the movement has become a religion itself. Apparently an atheist wrote to the leader of the atheist church, relating their assembly in a church is akin to Jews in  the concentration camp! Thus, this is a clear statement, that here we have a meta-narrative, a set of symbols (or lack of it), a certain ritual and worldview – all summing up to form an emerging (or rather, to some, already matured) culture. So when an assembly like this takes place, it shows how a certain philosophy has finally move out of the arena of ‘thinking’, into the arena of ‘being’ and ‘doing’, and ‘doing it together’. The ‘atheistic culture’ has come of age.

Inculturation Explained

The standard explanation for the meaning of inculturation is from the REDEMPTORIS MISSIO:

Incarnating the Gospel in Peoples’ Culture

52. As she carries out missionary activity among the nations, the Church encounters different cultures and becomes involved in the process of inculturation. The need for such involvement has marked the Church’s pilgrimage throughout her history, but today it is particularly urgent.

The process of the Church’s insertion into peoples’ cultures is a lengthy one. It is not a matter of purely external adaptation, for inculturation “means the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity and the insertion of Christianity in the various human cultures.”85 The process is thus a profound and all-embracing one, which involves the Christian message and also the Church’s reflection and practice. But at the same time it is a difficult process, for it must in no way compromise the distinctiveness and integrity of the Christian faith.

Through inculturation the Church makes the Gospel incarnate in different cultures and at the same time introduces peoples, together with their cultures, into her own community.86 She transmits to them her own values, at the same time taking the good elements that already exist in them and renewing them from within.87 Through inculturation the Church, for her part, becomes a more intelligible sign of what she is, and a more effective instrument of mission.

Thanks to this action within the local churches, the universal Church herself is enriched with forms of expression and values in the various sectors of Christian life, such as evangelization, worship, theology and charitable works. She comes to know and to express better the mystery of Christ, all the while being motivated to continual renewal. During my pastoral visits to the young churches I have repeatedly dealt with these themes, which are present in the Council and the subsequent Magisterium.88

Inculturation is a slow journey which accompanies the whole of missionary life. It involves those working in the Church’s mission ad gentes, the Christian communities as they develop, and the bishops, who have the task of providing discernment and encouragement for its implementation.89

53. Missionaries, who come from other churches and countries, must immerse themselves in the cultural milieu of those to whom they are sent, moving beyond their own cultural limitations. Hence they must learn the language of the place in which they work, become familiar with the most important expressions of the local culture, and discover its values through direct experience. Only if they have this kind of awareness will they be able to bring to people the knowledge of the hidden mystery (cf. Rom 16:25-27; Eph 3:5) in a credible and fruitful way. It is not of course a matter of missionaries renouncing their own cultural identity, but of understanding, appreciating, fostering and evangelizing the culture of the environment in which they are working, and therefore of equipping themselves to communicate effectively with it, adopting a manner of living which is a sign of gospel witness and of solidarity with the people.

Developing ecclesial communities, inspired by the Gospel, will gradually be able to express their Christian experience in original ways and forms that are consonant with their own cultural traditions, provided that those traditions are in harmony with the objective requirements of the faith itself. To this end, especially in the more delicate areas of inculturation, particular churches of the same region should work in communion with each other90 and with the whole Church, convinced that only through attention both to the universal Church and to the particular churches will they be capable of translating the treasure of faith into a legitimate variety of expressions.91 Groups which have been evangelized will thus provide the elements for a “translation” of the gospel message,92 keeping in mind the positive elements acquired down the centuries from Christianity’s contact with different cultures and not forgetting the dangers of alterations which have sometimes occurred.93

54. In this regard, certain guidelines remain basic. Properly applied, inculturation must be guided by two principles: “compatibility with the gospel and communion with the universal Church.”94 Bishops, as guardians of the “deposit of faith,” will take care to ensure fidelity and, in particular, to provide discernment,95 for which a deeply balanced approach is required. In fact there is a risk of passing uncritically from a form of alienation from culture to an overestimation of culture. Since culture is a human creation and is therefore marked by sin, it too needs to be “healed, ennobled and perfected.”96

This kind of process needs to take place gradually, in such a way that it really is an expression of the community’s Christian experience. As Pope Paul VI said in Kampala: “It will require an incubation of the Christian ‘mystery’ in the genius of your people in order that its native voice, more clearly and frankly, may then be raised harmoniously in the chorus of other voices in the universal Church.”97 In effect, inculturation must involve the whole people of God, and not just a few experts, since the people reflect the authentic sensus fidei which must never be lost sight of Inculturation needs to be guided and encouraged, but not forced, lest it give rise to negative reactions among Christians. It must be an expression of the community’s life, one which must mature within the community itself, and not be exclusively the result of erudite research. The safeguarding of traditional values is the work of a mature faith.

Evangelical’s Definition of Inculturation

Statements from the Edinburgh 2010, in general representing worldwide Evangelical voices, also refers to the above definition, while including other Protestant and Evangelical Conferences’ reports. This is summarised in the section titled ‘Contextualization, inculturation and dialogue of worldviews‘ under the Transversal Topics of the Conference.

My own observation informs me that the main difference between the Roman Catholic and Protestant’s understanding of inculturation is in the belief of St. Justin Martyr’s theory of spermatic Logos and the Paschal Mystery. Spermatic Logos means that Christ’s presence is with human cultures since creation, and Paschal Mystery means that Christ’s presence is with human cultures after His resurrection through the Holy Spirit. These are the areas where most Protestants disagree with. Apart from that latest Protestant and Evangelical scholarship in general recognises the importance of inculturation.

China and the Christian Impact

China and the Christian Impact

Excerpt from ‘A Conflict of Cultures’, the Review of: China and the Christian Impact: A Conflict of Cultures
Jacques Gernet – Cambridge University Press, 1985, by J.S. Cummins:

Translating and closely analysing contemporary Chinese material, Gernet show that it was not merely clerical squabbles, doctrines, rituals or customs which separated missionary and potential convert. The twain were unable to meet because their respective world-pictures differed radically: the Chinese mind-set, for instance, rooted in concepts from the Sino-Tibetan family of languages, found literally inconceivable Christian ideas evolved from the Graeco-Roman- Judaic-Scholastic mental world. And vice versa. The literati, by and large untroubled by metaphysical anxieties, showed keen interest in Ricci’s technology, moral tracts and memory exercises (see History Today, December, 1985) but laid aside with contumely his religion and his Tridentine ‘Ptolemaic’ theology.

Would love to read this book. The above shows that there is an area which students of inculturation should look into – the definition of ‘mind-set’, its relation with language (and vice versa) and how these affect evangelism. If China is having a revival today – how are the barriers of ‘mind-set’ and language overcome? Perhaps inculturation doesn’t work at all if worldview (mind set and language included, philosophy) is to be separated from culture (behaviour)?

Traditionally people ‘blame this first ‘Failure in the Far East’ upon the Jesuits’ ‘narrow-minded’ co-workers, the friars, whose machinations, we read, misled nine successive popes into denouncing, and finally prohibiting the Jesuits’ ‘China Strategy’, thereby destroying the plan to convert Asia.’ But the review highlighted how the author of this book opined that the mistake was Ricci’s as he failed to notice that the key barrier is not cultural (hence Confucianism) but philosophical (Taoism). A more scholarly review from The Journal of Asian Studies summarises the author’s view succinctly: ‘He doubts that many of the early seventeenth-century literati-converts were “really” Christians, because they were so insistent on reconciling Christianity with Neo-Confucian notions; they were attracted to the Jesuits’ behavior and moral rigor, not to Christian doctrine.’ (China and the Christian Impact: A Conflict of Cultures. by Jacques Gernet; Janet Lloyd, Review by: Daniel H. Bays, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Feb., 1987), pp. 114-116)

I will try to find a copy of this book!

Review of ‘Pagan Christianity’ at Amazon

I have finally written a short review for Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices at Amazon. It is published in full below:

Good Summary but needs to Look Deeper and Wider!

This book is a good resource for anyone who wonders why and how some of the current practices in the church which are not directly mentioned in the New Testament have into being. This book is arranged systematically and in general clear and well written. However, it is still lacking in a number of ways.

Firstly, the author(s) seems to be judging these so-called pagan practices without taken into consideration of biblical theology. For example, one would wonder if Old Testament metaphor of the shepherd can be totally neglected as the role of the modern pastor is examined. The author has completely disregard the above when he criticises the modern role of the pastor, taking into consideration only the New Testament text. (A helpful book to compensate this is Shepherds After My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible (New Studies in Biblical Theology)).

Secondly, the book fails to take into consideration of the fact that contextualisation of the Christian faith is ‘the way it has always been’ in the course of history. A casual study on Bosch’s Transforming Mission or Lesslie Newbigin will help to inform us this. Though not perfect, but the following quote more or less capture the missional dimension that is missing in this book – ‘Christianity is, sociologically speaking, certainly one religion; it is the ancient paganism or, to be more precise, the complex Hebrew-Hellenic-Greco-Latin-Celtic-Gothic-Modern religion converted to Christ more or less successfully.’ (Elwood, ed. What Asian Christians are thinking, 361 as quoted in Jones, Wainwright, Yarnold.Sj, (eds) The Study of Spirituality OUP, 1986, 555). The author fails to see that New Testament was not written in a cultural vacuum and we today cannot live apart from our culture.

Thirdly, limited by his own preferred ecclesiology and background, the author writes with much in favour of the Anabaptist and home church tradition (which are also cultures). Though he has by at large kept the balance he has occasionally allowed this bias to cloud his judgement. Thus some of his conclusions are harsh. For example, he has maintained that churches are not supposed to have a large building but has not consider the paradigm shift typical of the modern cell church where the large building is never considered ‘the church’ but a gathering of all home cell group (churches).

So although the author’s points are clear he would have done better by highlighting the dangers of some of these practices in diluting true Christian values without making harsh but inaccurate criticism of others. Nevertheless I have enjoyed reading this book and find it helpful as a general resource for anyone who is interested in critically evaluating church practices of today. If you would like to have a list of allegedly ‘pagan practices’ in the church look no further. However, I would recommend it only to those who are already aware of the shortcomings I mentioned above. If you have no idea about the three weaknesses above I suggest you look them up before reading this book.

Private Truth = No Truth At All


‘A private truth for a limited circle of believers is no truth at all. Even the most devout faith will sooner or later falter and fail unless those who hold it are willing to bring it into public debate and to test it against experience in every area of life. If the Christian faith about the source and goal of human life is to be denied access to the human realm, where decisions are made on the great issues of the common life, then it cannot in the long run survive even as an option for a minority.’

Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, 117.

‘The church could have escaped persecution by the Roman Empire if it had been content to be treated as a cultus privatus—one of the many forms of personal religion. But it was not. Its affirmation that “Jesus is Lord” implied a public, universal claim that was bound eventually to clash with the cultus publicus of the empire. The Christian mission is thus to act out in the whole life of the whole world the confession that Jesus is Lord of all.’
Lesslie Newbigin, , The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, 16–17.

Newbigin’s criticisms above were directed towards the Western society at his time where faith is driven into everyone’s private space from the public arena. Today the situation might be slightly different. People are happy to share what they think about truth and faith, but the tendency now is to form unofficial or casual groups, often even driven by common felt-needs where similar understanding of ‘truth’ or ‘faith’ are expressed and lived. As a result, we have now various groups adhering to their own version of Christian faith, forming their own subculture, satisfied with their own little ‘private space’, and find no time nor necessity to engage with the wider world. So ‘the private faith/truth’ which Newbigin mentioned is today expressed in a typical postmodern form – diversified ‘believers’ groups’ meeting together instead of individualistic, private believers attending a state church or a denominational church, as in the ‘modern’ church. Splinter groups were common in history, but never in such intensity, in such a big number and with so much self-justified confidence as today. Postmodern consumeristic tendency means that people who shares common ideas about ‘truth’ or ‘faith’ tend to  form a group themselves to serve their own needs.’

Thus, the issue we will encounter, in regards to the first quote above, is the fact that people may not find it necessary to ‘test’ the truth of their respective subcultural groups. In the context of the church, it means that believers are not interested to engage meaningfully with the people outside of their realm. It is too troublesome. As a result there is a lack of evangelism and mission. Otherwise when evangelism is done, there will be very little or no effort at all to engage meaningfully with the various subcultures encountered. In short, for mission and evamgelism to happen in a church, a certain amount of cultural clash is to be expected.

According to the second quote above, cultural clash, or in the context of this post – venturing out of our comfort zone and getting in touch with the ‘real world’ or other groups – becomes inevitably the very mark of authentic Christianity. If Jesus is Lord at all, he has to be the Lord of our ‘group’ and the Lord of others, and Christians are to make sure this is the mission and the reason for the existence of their group/church. A missional church will engage with the outside world even with the expense of clashing with the dominant culture of the day.

Revivalism = Pagan Christianity?

My previous review on Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices highlighted the need for works like this to be aware of the cultural context of the historical period involved before making any judgement. One of the mistakes in which ‘Pagan Christianity’ made is to draw conclusion on the effect of the revivalist movement in the 18-19th century America without providing a balanced view. Viola mentioned in ‘Pagan Christianity’ that ‘Frontier-revivalist’ movement has contributed to the emergence and acceptance of individualism within the church. In his own words, ‘the goal of the Frontier-Revivalists was to bring individual sinners to an individual decision for an individualistic faith. As a result, the goal of the early church – the mutual edification and every-member functioning to corporately manifest Jesus Christ before principalities and powers – was altogether lost.’

Firstly, I am not sure if the early church has a single goal of mutual edification, or in fact there is more to a church than merely corporately manifesting Christ before principalities and powers. Secondly, it was the Reformation and then the emergence of Enlightenment and America Independence which set cultural context in which these revivals occurred. The churches in America by the time of Finney were under tremendous challenge from various ‘secular forces’, namely Enlightenment philosophies (some of which later were grouped and generalised as secularism) and were losing their members. Influenced by the need to find an identity after the American Independence, believers embraced the new American ‘popular democracy’, fuelled by an Enlightenment sentiment of appeals to self-evident truths, inalienable rights, and equal creation of all.1 If there were ‘principalities’, they were colonists, who were no more. Meanwhile, they have already accepted the Reformation belief which call each individual to come to salvation by personal faith. The very reason revivalism thrived during that period of time is due to its ability to relate to the people at that time. Finney’s methodology, for example, is the very language that Enlightenment thoughts speak – mechanistic, purposeful and causal. If there were laws governing the physical world, as demonstrated by Newton, there will be ways which governs the making of revival. As much as the means of revivalism – or man-made methods used to create revivals – is questionable, its motive, and subsequently success in engaging a whole generation of Americans to the matters of faith, should not be overlooked. Instead of seeing the revivalist’s method as overwhelmingly pagan, perhaps we could also see it as a form of contextualisation suited for the ‘mission field’ of a new Enlightenment-infested, individualistic age. 1. Noll, M.A. (1992) A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 148.

Institutional Church = Pagan Christianity?

Ben Witherington shared Howard Snyder’s review on Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices by Frank Viola here. I find Snyder’s review helpful . He pointed out that there are three approaches to church history: 1. the “traditional orthodox” approach, 2.the “secret history of the faithful remnant” theory and 3. the “renewal movement view.” Snyder mentioned John Wesley’s renewal attempt within the Anglican church as an example of the ‘renewal movement’, which he sees as the preferred solution compared to the ‘secret history of the faithful remnant’, which Viola prefers, where the institutional church is often regarded as corrupted and true Christianity is seen as carried in history by remnant groups. Of course the opposite of the ‘remnant’ theory is the ‘traditional orthodox’ view which sees the institutional church and its progressive development as a natural development of authentic Christianity and Constantinianism is viewed as a victory for the church.

I would like to respond to both the book and Snyder’s review from the perspective of mission, in particular from the inculturation point of view. I will make some quick attempts here to offer alternative views on the issues of ‘pagan’ practices within the church which Viola seems to suggest for the church today to do away with.

First, I am surprise that Augustine of Hippo and his ecclesiology, especially that was expressed in his confrontation with the Donatists, was not mentioned – neither by Snyder nor Viola! Augustine made some important points regarding the church when debating with the Dontists. Dualistic or Platonic as it may seem, Augustine argued (especially later in his ‘City of God’) for the validity, authenticity and authority of the institutional church, while acknowledging that the institutional church and its ministers are not perfect. Though the debate was much more complicated and involves a lot of theological technicalities, especially on the issue of sacraments, it serves as one of the earlier if not the earliest debate on the authenticity of the institutional church and its ministers.

Secondly, I agree with Snyder, who helpfully sees that the whole issue is about  ‘the nature and practice of the church’. Now there is still a difference between the ‘church’ and ‘Christianity’. The other term which one will think of, which is related but not equivalent would be the ‘Kingdom of God’. Again Augustine linked the kingdom with the church as a means to defend his high view of the institutional church. If we are talking about the church (ecclesiology) let the discussion be on the people or ‘group of people’  who are Christians.

Now that is where I think both the book and the reviewer fall short. None noticed that if we are talking about church – we are talking about the universal and the local church. In each case we are talking about people, and when people is involved culture is involved. It would be better to evaluate ‘Pagan Christianity’ with a larger view. From the mission point of view, the so-called ‘pagan practices’ mentioned in the book are just ‘pagan practices’ in the Western church. Constantinianism was a triumphant victory of Christianity successfully converting not just the individuals but the culture of the time. Since ‘Christianity’ has archived such victory, the ‘church’ or the people groups were then happily Christianising everything in their daily lives. These people were not living in a cultural vacuum. Now zoom out and consider the mission situation and we will see that when the Chinese or Indians converted to Christianity, they do not abandon all that is in their culture.

For instance, language is a a key element of culture. Do we abandon our language and adopt Hebrew and Greek so we could ‘fully’ appreciate  authentic Christianity? We all can imagine how a Chinese, an African and a Westerner would understand the word, ‘Lord” quite differently – each according to his or her cultural understanding. Feudal Lord for the Westerner? Does it exist in the history of China (the word ‘Lord’ is translated as ‘master’, not ‘lord’ in Chinese Bible) and Africa? The is no escape of having to face the trouble of cultural difference when one is in mission field. Hudson Taylor has to dress and speak like a Chinese to relate to the Chinese. Now when the Chinese converted, what do we expect them to change? The same happened when Constantine  and others ‘converted’ to Christianity – ‘what do I do with my clothes, my language, my habits, my hairstyle, my furniture, my pets, my buildings, my life?’ Stripe everything and live like John the Baptist? Even Jesus didn’t do that! Viola did his research in the book and one should rightly doubt Constantine’s conversion, but besides that, I wonder how much would the most powerful man in the Western world then be able to theologically reflect and take time to contextualise his faith?

The other problem which I sense when observing the church, especially the modern church, is the insufficiency in Theology of Creation. Viola traced the development of the church architecture, and highlighted how ‘pagan’ they are. However he failed to see how art was ‘redeemed’ for the worship of the creative God. Human beings are created to be creative by the creative God. Architecture, in particularly church architecture is a way people at different times, bound by their cultural circumstances, expressing their feelings towards God. If any house church today arrange their seating in a certain way or sing songs creatively we fall into the same category.

In conclusion, while Viola’s research and ‘Pagan Christianity’ has been helpful in many ways, it is clear that they suffer from what Snyder calls fallacious syllogism – ‘It holds that because much church practice is pagan in origin, therefore such practices should be jettisoned.’ Instead, as Snyder pointed out, the whole issue of Contextualisation needs to be taken into account. The very fact is that, we do not live in the New Testament times! The Western church is as such because it went through a process of interaction of faith and culture. It may need to further undergo more contextualisation for the postmodern world but lest we are able to consider the issue as a matter of culture we will never be able to progress.