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.
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.
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.
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.