Oh East is East, and West is West, and never the two shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth.”
-Rudyard Kipling, “The Ballad of East and West”
Is Christianity a Western religion? That may not strike us as a significant question, may not register as something necessary to establish as true or false. But there are two reasons why it is important to dispel the illusion that Christianity is a “Western” religion.
- Some enemies of Christ will claim that Christianity is a Western religion, a philosophical development of the Western World that only belongs to the Western World, and therefore is not meant for all men. —Some even going as far to say that Western religion is actually inferior to Eastern spirituality because, among other things, its “closed-minded” insistence on monotheism, reliance on certainty of doctrine, and history of cooperation with colonialism. In this way many people who either belong to or fall in love with Eastern cultures have clung to the excuse that “Western religion” is not for them, therefore Christianity is not for them.
- Some Christians will claim that Christianity is a Western religion, and therefore the West is superior to the East, that the West should rule the East, and/or that in general the West is inherently good and the East is inherently evil. —Some also assume that therefore what is Western is therefore what is Christian, and blend the values of their Western surroundings into their own concept of Christianity. In this way many people assume that Western imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, and/or militarism are not only necessary to further the Gospel, but are even “pillars” of the Gospel.
You can see why many people at first believe this. In the past 200-300 years, it has been white missionaries from Europe and America who have gone to the East to bring the Gospel. In the past 200 years, it has been America that has grown to celebrate itself as a “one nation under God”, many of its citizens claiming some sort of special privileged status under God. In the past 300 years the Eastern hemisphere has been greatly harmed by Western colonialism, which had often been accompanied by missionary work. But this is only a superficial reading of Christianity and its role in the world, a superficial view that is increasingly fading in an age of post-colonialism as once colonized nations now shed their colonial ties and we wait to see what happens to the Christian “outposts” that remain. It is now arguable that Christianity is now stronger worldwide than it was during the heavy days of Western colonialism. Let’s explore reasons why the label of “Western religion” is misrepresentative of the Way of Christ, and why it matters.
I. On Whom was Christianity Founded?
Christianity, so named after Jesus the Christ, centers around a man born, raised, and killed in the Levant (Middle-East), and a Jew at that—a people defined by a religion and polity that arose exclusively in the Levant.
If we’re going to define the religion of Christianity by the geographic region where it began, then it is a Middle-Eastern religion, one of the three “Abramic” religions (including Judaism and Islam). For the most part, the “story” of Christ is set against a backdrop of Greek and Roman culture. Set against. This is a culture completely different from and antagonistic toward ancient Greek and Roman culture. Jesus the man was born in the Middle East and as an adult never set foot outside of the borders of the Roman-occupied Levant and Sinai peninsula. It is important to understand that the religion we are speaking of is one founded on a single, historical individual. Any modern concept of this belief should we weighed against the original writings of this religion, one that centers around the life and teaching of this individual. This is a religion founded on the life and teaching of a Palestinian Jew, not the legacy of Western philosophy and empire.
In the next post we will look a the origin and initial spreading out of historical Christianity.
II. To Where Did Christianity Spread?
Christianity began in the Mid-East and spread from the Mid-East.
The coming of the Spirit on Pentecost took place in Jerusalem, not Rome or Athens, and many nations were there from all around Europe and Asia.
We typically base our understanding of the spread of Christianity on the missionary journeys of Paul of Tarsus. Our Bible addendum come with maps of the Mediterranean basin, with the routes of Paul’s journey laid out in three colored lines. These maps seldom detail the historical outgrowth of Christianity beyond the missionary efforts mentioned in scripture itself.
Within the first 200 years of the birth of Christianity the major centers of Christian populations were in Syria, North Africa, and Mesopotamia. Within that time the Christian religion had spread not only to Rome, but as far as India. Within 500-600 years, all manner of Christian communities were found not only across Europe, but as far as China as well (China may have been reached as early as the 2nd century).
One common misconception is that Rome was the first earthly kingdom to declare Christianity its official religion, but the kingdom of Armenia did so beforehand (301 AD), and Rome didn’t agree to drop persecution of Christians until 10 years later. If we are to define the Westernness or Easternness of Christianity by the first kingdom to declare Christianity, we would have to call Christianity neither Eastern nor Western.
Christianity was indeed successful early on in the Mediterranean, and therefore throughout Southern Europe, but this does not make it Western.
III. Is Not the West the “Cradle” of Christianity?
Isn’t America, the premiere child of Western culture, the “cradle” of Christianity? The notion that America is the “cradle” of Christianity is still very recent in history, and it may soon no longer be true—not to mention that subjectivity reigns in the answer to whether or not America is the current “capital” of Christianity.
If it were true that America, or even the West in general, is the “home base” of Christianity, what criteria would we submit? The location of the Vatican at Rome? The mention of the word “God” in the US Constitution? The number of missionaries sent from Europe and America to Eastern lands? None of these criteria match up with scripture as a basis for establishing a “capital” for the Church, and they conflict with one another. The Vatican is the seat of Catholicism, but not of any other denomination. The US Constitution was not established as a theocracy, and the level to which the founders wanted Christianity to “rule” the nation is up for dispute. The term “missionary” can be deceitful, as it usually applied to people who travel overseas, whereas plenty of evangelistic work is done right here at home. Even if these criteria weren’t suspect in themselves, we must remember that Christianity did not come from any place in America or Europe.
History has given us many so-called “capitals” of the Christian religion: Antioch, Alexandria, the seven churches of Asia, Rome, Wittenberg, Geneva, Edinburgh, Harvard, Nashville, Salt Lake City. Why not Nicaragua, Romania, or Guam?—all countries with a higher density of Christians than America. What is the capital? Sometimes it just depends on what Western denomination you’re speaking to. What we have are cradles of denominations of Christianity and varieties of Christianity, if anything. In fact, our concept of “cradles” of a religion is itself influenced by our Western culture.
Suppose we say that, Catholic or not, you recognize Rome as the first Christian capital Constantine as the first Christian emperor. We would be speaking incorrectly. Constantine himself didn’t even believe Rome would make a good Christian capital, and chose instead Constantinople (Once called Byzantium, not called Instanbul—but that’s nobody’s business but the Turks) as a more compatible location for his “Christian” empire.
This history of advantageous locations for politically recognized “centers” of Christianity says more about politics and culture than it does about religion—whether it be Rome, Constantinople, or Texas. The fact that this religion spread throughout the whole world and still exists throughout the whole world today is what speaks for the religion.
Even during much of the time that Christianity thrived in Europe during the Medieval Ages, Christianity was still seen by countless people as a place geographically tied to Jerusalem, sometimes even more so than it was to Rome. One of the rationales given for the Crusades was the reclamation of the Eastern homeland of Christ and his church, the kingdom of Israel. Even the West itself has traditionally viewed the Middle East as not only the “source” of Christianity, but the home of the “holy lands.”
If history goes on for another thousand years or so, it may be that countless other lands will drift in an out as “cradles” of Christian growth. The prediction is often made of late that China will soon replace America in such a fashion. Europe and the Americas will only fall on the timeline as a few of those lands. As we shall see in future posts, the largest communities of Christians aren’t in America or Europe at all, but in the Southern hemisphere.
Dear Christian West: You are not the center of the work of Christ.
Dear Christian East: Don’t underestimate the work of Christ in you.
The mother of James and John wanted her boys to have some special place beside Christ based on fleshly reasons. Our place in the world does not determine our influence for the kingdom—we are not bound by geopolitics and culture. We are a people who thrive in persecution and turn the world upside down.
The center of Christianity is Christ. Where his people live faithfully, where there are churches of saints, Christ reigns.
IV. How Much Christianity is in the East?
Even though America, the “far West”, has been perceived as a “heartland” of Christianity for roughly 200 years, it has been in the last third of these 200 years that the world’s population has shifted so dramatically that more than 60% of Christians now in the world reside in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
Christian populations are growing rapidly in places like South Korea, Ghana, and Nigeria, while Christian populations are declining in Europe. Christian churches are growing in China, despite persecution, while numbers of “churchgoers” are dwindling in America, where there is virtually no persecution (beyond verbal pressure in academia, the media, e.g.).
If there was a time when America was the “cradle” of Christianity, it hasn’t lasted too long.
Still, this does not make the East the “cradle” either.
V. The Bible Across the World
Is Christianity a Western Religion? Isn’t it written in Greek and translated into English?
The Bible has been translated into more languages than any other book. This reveals three things:
1)the capacity of all cultures to encounter this religion in a meaningful way that reaches them as they are;
2) the more persistent spread of a religion on its own terms, in spite of the colonialism that would rip a nation’s own tongue away and have it speak English or, say, some other colonial language, in order to interpret a religious text on an empire’s terms;
3) The ability for a message rendered in an indigenous tongue to spur social and spiritual change by using the peoples’ own language.
The Bible is the most translated book in the world. The book itself does not demand that it only be read in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, or even English. It does not conform itself to Western language in order to be received and understood. The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew (a language of the Levant), and the New Testament, in Greek, was written in the lingua franca of its time. It is now the most translated book, and countless copies are circulated and memorized around the globe. All this and more speaks of the message’s inherent ability to be received by cultures both East and West.
VI. Eastern Orthodox Religion
Christians in the West often forget about the Eastern Orthodox Church, a schism with the Roman Catholic Church that began around 1054 and spread throughout Greece, Turkey, The Middle-East, and Russia (whereas the Catholic Church spread to the West).
This branch of Christendom is no less legitimate than Catholicism or Protestantism when accounting for the mere presence of Christianity across the globe. Although not as prevalent in what we often consider the “East” (India, Asia, the isles), this church’s adherents are East of what we call the West; it is deeply rooted in the East and Middle-East.
Being the second largest Christian denomination in the world, there are almost as many Orthodox adherents today as there are Roman Catholic. The majority of religious people from Belarus, Moldova, Serbia, Jordan, Lebanon, and Russia, for example, will claim to be Eastern Orthodox. There are also many adherents on all seven continents.
The Eastern Orthodox’s focus on the divinity of the trinity outnumbers some Western, Protestant denominations, some of whom deny the divinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. This Church also differs significantly from most Western denominations in its belief about the fall of man, the nature of atonement, the concept of free will, the existence of purgatory, and the end of days.
During the Crusades, the Eastern Orthodox Church was even persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church. The West persecuted this Eastern denomination.
The Eastern Orthodox Church and its presence in the East is for us in the West a reminder of how we put blinders up as we see the world. We often forget how our legacy is often only part of a greater legacy, and we fail to define the world by anything other than whether something is part of our presence or something not part of our presence as global Westerners.
[A note on the name “Eastern”: While the Eastern Orthodox Church retains the name “Eastern,” this does not make it representative of the cultures of Asia so much as a representation of Christianity as practiced by those who split Eastward from the Roman Catholic Church in a thousand years ago. Geographically, one may call the Eastern Orthodox Church more Middle-Eastern than Eastern. But as we have seen, and will continue to see, this talk merely ends up being mostly about geography and politics anyway, and it has been argued by many (mostly Protestant) that neither Catholicism nor Eastern Orthodoxy reflects the practices of Christianity as accurately or as primitively as was practiced and/or is still practiced across the world by other groups practicing Christianity.]
VII. Persecution in the West
Christianity was terribly persecuted by the West before it was accepted by the West. And even then, the West accepted and would continue to accept Christianity partially on its own terms.
Alongside and in cooperation with the Jews of the first century, the Roman empire was the first culture to persecute Christians. For 300 years, this was the norm. Only a minority of the time was the persecution a result of a single ruler’s orders—rather, most of the persecution was a response from the culture at large.
Christians refused to participate in pagan religion (when following their own religion, that is), and their religious ceremonies and practices were a source of ridicule from the majority of the Roman population. For the most part, it wasn’t so much the government of the West but the culture of the West that hated Christianity. Romans really thought that Christianity was corrosive, and sometimes the higher level government took action.
After the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 that Christianity grew politically in Rome and then traveled further West. Virtually all of the NT letters are dated before 90 AD. Churches multiplied, Rome could not ignore them, and eventually Rome made Christianity an official state religion by its own accord, causing a mingling of Christianity and Roman government that conflicted with the teachings of Christ. The development of the Roman Catholic Institution and Magisterium was a change that occurred well after the establishing of Christ’s church, and reflects a Western state structure and priesthood. Roman Catholicism may be called a Westernized religion, but Christianity as based on the New Testament record of Christ and his initial followers is not by nature Western.
When the Reformation of England in 1534, Christians who did not proclaim loyalty to the King of England were put to death. A Western power sought the death of a religious body, and merely hijacked religion as a motivation. This was one in a string of violent acts perpetrated by Christians against Christians due to the intrusion of Western power struggles in an otherwise peaceful faith. In the tradition of the Roman government it would be brute force, not reason and love, that would settle doctrinal differences.
By the 1600s, scores of Christians had fled further “West” to a land they believed to be the East (America now) in order to escape persecution in the West.
During the French Revolution, which inspired the birth of America, Robespierre’s France took great measures to murder Christian clergymen and efface Christian symbolism from public cultural artifacts, and banning worship. In its place, the “Goddess of Reason” was propped up at Notre Dame Cathedral. This goddess of reason, and her sister, liberty, would become two among many “deities” inspiring the founders of the United States. Liberty’s proud statue stands still today off the coast of Manhattan.
In the 1910s it was Benito Juarez, the President of the Western country of Mexico, who outlawed public worship and restricted property rights for Christians.
And as for the persecution of Christians by a Communist government—we would do well to remember that Communist governments multiplied in the East after the Soviet Union formed in 1922, Karl Marx and Frederich Engels were German economists. Their philosophical predecessor, Hegel, was also German. When Communist thought began to infiltrate Russia, the people saw it as a Western idea. Just as Christianity migrated from the Middle East to the West and became identified as Western, Communism migrated from the West to the East, and is often identified as Eastern. Neither identification is entirely accurate.
Nazi Germany also persecuted Christianity, hijacking Christianity earlier on in order to gain numbers, but later unmasking its anti-Gospel by superimposing Christian belief with a doctrine that Christ was not a Jew. Many Christians who dissented against Hitler were sent to concentration camps along with Jews. Germany is considered a Western country.
Although we have so far looked at persecution that has been a)in the past, and b)militant, we can also look at present anti-Christian sentiment. I don’t have to mention the many anti-Christian groups in both America and Europe. Sometimes these groups merely use propaganda, but occasionally they act out physically. In 1992 at least 9 church buildings were reportedly burned down by anti-Christian groups in Norway.
This post merely refers to elements of direct persecution in the West. I have not even begun to mention the ways in which Western ideas simply aren’t compatible with Christianity, even when persecution doesn’t come in to play.
Of course, the East is no stranger to persecution Christianity either, and neither is the Middle East. And although the Middle-East is currently the most dangerous geographic location for Christians, it is also the location where Christianity was born.
VIII. Western Creeds
By and large (among the denominations that arose after the Protestant Reformation) the denominations of the West and their creeds were influenced by or reactionary against Western thought, but Christianity itself predates many of these Western movements (such as The Enlightenment), and was not a response to any particular cultural wind, certainly not one of the West.
—5-point Calvinism, for example, is a Western form of predeterminism that arose in 16th century Europe and influenced many Protestant denominations, but did not arise from the teachings of the New Testament itself. When all 5 points come together, this doctrine essentially teaches that each of us is created by God to be obedient or disobedient, and that any concept of free will is merely an illusion.
–The development of Calvinism in Europe also helped pave the way for Capitalism to thrive. Although embraced by the West as a beneficial system due to its teaching that an “invisible hand” can guide commerce toward a state of quality for all, Capitalism endorses usury without limitation (which impoverishes the desparate) and exalts profit as the sole end of transaction (which calls the evil of greed “good”).
The so-called “Protestant Work Ethic” is a spiritual endorsement of a works-based “achievement ideology” in order to separate the “elect” from the “unelect” based on financial success.
—Dispensationalism, or “Rapture” theology, for example, originated in Glasgow in the early 1800s. This doctrine teaches that before Jesus comes back all the faithful Christians will be taken up to Heaven right before a giant persecution, so they don’t have to go through with it, and this will be followed by a series of tribulations, tribulations that faithful Christians apparently won’t suffer through. This doctrine represents the arrogance of Western thought, that faithful people will get to escape persecution before the Judgement arrives.
—Individualist salvation, or the concept that Jesus is merely a “personal savior,” has infiltrated many denominations and churches. Time and time again the message is preached that one merely needs to “say the sinner’s prayer” and “accept Jesus into their heart” so that salvation will occur, and then it’s all done with. In such messages little to no emphasis is placed on the fact that we are saved not just as individuals, but as a people, that we don’t just make a deal with God into our individual life, but that we are added to churches as we are saved, communities tied to one another through love and service to God.
—Mormonism, for example, is an incredibly Western off-shoot from Christianity, claiming to have established a brand new testament and church that began in the far West—the early Americas—and discovered in New York.
Until the 19th century, most all Western governments were monarchies. Like the Kingdom of Israel, these cultures chose to let earthly kings reign over them. These governments often played a key role in the reproduction of new doctrines as rule of law in Western Christianity. But sometimes, it was democracy itself that formed new doctrines. People let the culture rule their hearts, even Christian people, and doctrines made for itching ears are mistaken as Gospel.
And I’m not even going to get started on the “Christian Science” movement.
IX. “Born” Into Greek Culture, But Not Of Greek Culture
The New Testament may have been written in Greek, for a Greek audience, using Greek ideas to persuade a Hellenistic culture, (Greek being a foundational culture of the West), but Christianity sought to challenge this Western culture more than it sought to appeal to it, therefore confronting Western culture with a transcultural, transpolitical “counterculture”, a body of belief and practice very alien to its own.
Certainly, in the New Testament we see several instances in which someone is using Greek thought and ideas to persuade a Greek audience. John 1 refers to the “logos,” a Greek concept (made popular by Heraclitus) that stood for many concepts: Word, thought, speech, logic, symbol. He chose this word to refer to both the Word of God and Christ as the Word in flesh. Socrates and the Allegory of the Cave could remotely relate to Christian teachings of the relation between flesh and shadow, although it’s a stretch.
Also, Paul and other writers seem to be using techniques of apologetics as practiced by the Greeks, a method of defending what one believes.The cosmological argument is not far removed from Socrates’s concept of the “unmoved mover,” the cause for the effect of the universe. We also see Paul spending time in the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-34) persuading people in a Greek forum.
However, Paul was often dismissed by Greek philosophers as a mere “seed pecker” who snatched up the worthless crumbs of greater teachers (Acts 17:18,22).
Moreover, these are cases of Christianity reaching out to Greek culture in order to bring people to the Gospel, not allowing the Greek culture to transform the teachings of Christ. There would be found elements of Greek culture and philosophy that would be compatible with Christianity, but there remained too much for the Greeks to reject based on their own culture moors and philosophical paradigms.
Several teachings identified by early Christians as heretical were influenced by Greek culture, including Gnosticism, which taught that the physical world was inherently evil and that there was no resurrection.
One of the largest differences was that Greek religion had numerous gods, but Christianity has one. The Greek gods sprang from the titans, but the God of Abraham is eternal. Christianity rejected animal sacrifice as necessary under the reign of Christ, who had given the perfect sacrifice. The Greeks taught that animal sacrifice was desired by the gods.
And exactly what Greek philosophies would Christianity have been conforming to? Neoplatonism arose after Christianity, and is too vast a set of ideas to be distilled. Cynicism might have agreed about disciplined lifestyles, but for completely different reasons (Diogenes was voluntarily homeless, but a shameless pervert). Stoicism, while in agreement over a life without complaint, taught the sufficiency of one’s own virtue as a means of fulfillment, as well as a form of determinism. Epicurianism was essentially materialism, and is, by far, much closer to Hedonism than it is to Christianity.
But the largest separator between Christianity and Greek culture is the center of Christianity itself: A suffering Messiah was foolishness to the Greeks—the very foundation of Christianity was a point of contention to this Western culture; the idea of a suffering God as something to boast in was not only to foreign to Greek culture, it was considered unthinkably horrific (1 Cor. 1:23). Despite any teachings and philosophies in common, the grace at the heart of Christianity was disdainful to the Gentiles. Christ was an offensive scandal to the heart of Greek culture.
The spread of Christianity, as well as Islam, helped bring an end to Hellenistic Greek culture, and the cultural institutions of Greek culture remained dormant well until the Italian Renaissance, where Western Humanism values would begin to “crowd out” Christian values across Europe.
X. Does Christianity Claim to Be a Western Culture?
Christianity itself claims to belong to all peoples of all nations who follow the Christ, and its initial followers believed it was their calling to spread from Jerusalem (the Mid-East) throughout all the world. This is not a religion that claims it belongs to a certain geographically fixed nation or ethnicity. It never called itself Western, but calls itself global, being called out across the world.
Here are but a few verses highlighting the global nature of Christianity:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Here is a religion that does not claim any allegiance to Western society or culture.
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
All nations are called, not under another nation, but a spiritual kingdom.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
The entire world is loved, not one nation in particular.
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
If there is one people on the earth given “privilege.” it was not the Greeks, but the Jews who would first receive the message.
XI. Where is Christianity Found?
Christianity is the most evenly dispersed religion worldwide, and this is becoming more true in the decline of colonialism. It is still the largest religion in the world.
Christianity thrives where it does, not because of Western ideas, but because of something deeper and more transcendent in humans worldwide. As noted in an early post, churches are growing in restricted countries like China, while numbers in America are declining.
XII. Pillars of Western Values
If we examine founders of Western thought, and if America in particular is to be seen as a culmination or premiere epitome of Western values, then Christianity is an affront to the very country that represents Western values.
We will briefly cover various Western philosophies and values that conflict with Christianity:
Begin with Greek philosophy.
Aristotle saw the study of theology as a branch of metaphysical philosophy. Christianity, on the other hand, teaches metaphysics as a part of the teaching of religion and philosophy.
Democracy, that Western mechanism of government born in Greece and revived in America to be brought again to Europe, is not Christian. Although Christianity and democracy share ambiguous notions of equality and fair representation of leadership, the term democracy itself means “rule of the people,” and communicates an idea that rejects the rule of Christ over his kingdom. Christians submit to one Lord; Democracy rules by majority vote. Democracy leads a people to be “tossed about” back and forth by political winds, not centered and anchored by truth.
In democracy, the wealthy and middle class will only listen to its own voice, ignoring the poor. In return, the poor will remain ignorant, and be used by the wealthy in order to remain in minority, disenfranchised, divided, and/or “bought” by the majority. Near the core of the Gospel, which is Christ himself, is care for the poor, not the moral aptitude of the majority.
Christianity may be more compatible with democracy than with totalitarianism, but rule of Christ and rule of the masses spring from fundamentally opposed roots.
Let’s move on to Europe, and then to America.
Overall, the philosophy of Empiricism, a Western creation of philosophers like John Locke, argued that knowledge was only gained from the senses, and most Empiricists claimed that therefore knowledge of metaphysics and the spiritual realm were beyond our apprehension.
The “Age of Reason” that produced sectarian values of liberty concerned the founding architects of America more than liberty as defined by Christ. This is why they chose to rebel against their government and use violence in order to gain more political freedom. It is not a statue of Christ that greeted immigrants to Ellis Island, but a statue of the neopagan goddess of individual political freedom.
Although Christian teachings inspired many founding architects of America, and although Christian thought was pumped into the stuff of the Constitution, the Gospel as a whole is contrary to the Enlightenment that spawned the Declaration, the Revolution that birthed America, the spirit of the rich men who founded it, and the totality of values esteemed by its citizens over the past two centuries.
Christianity certainly had a role in the formation of this nation called America, but not enough of it to warrant such a title as “Christian Nation” (besides, the scriptures make it clear all the kingdoms of earth are under the control of the enemy of Christ, and that there is only one Christian kingdom—the Church).
There is paganism all over this American nation, and not just recently. You can see it in the violence that birthed the independent colonies, the worship of unshared prosperity that perpetuated chattel slavery, the godless championing of the right of self to do as one pleases, the myth of the self-made man, the nationalism, the waste, the absurdity.
The Declaration of Independence, proposes that all men being created equal is “self-evident,” as opposed to being revealed to mankind, thus demonstrating a reliance on human reasoning to discover that we are created as equal beings (it is no wonder, then, that human reasoning was used to reason out of treating people equally).
This is a picture of a Western nation content to borrow some Christianity and be shaped by it, but not be fully governed by it. It is a Western nation, but a Christian one?
As mentioned in an earlier post, Communism and Totalitarianism are Western ideas born in the West as well. Neither of these ideologies are cooperative with Christianity. They are products of Western thought.
Look at Lady Liberty. Look at the Liberty bell. Our definition of Freedom in America is centered around the political right for an individual to do whatever they wish, so long as it does not infringe on some else’s right. This is not freedom as defined by Christ, under whose name all folks can find, not the freedom to do what one wants, but the freedom from doing what one wants. Freedom from the bondange of sin is much more pure and valuable than freedom from going to prison for speaking the Gospel. The first martyrs knew this.
In recent times, talk of tolerance has become inflated. Bumper stickers preach tolerance. But what does this mean? The Peace of Christ includes a tolerance that does not seek power over others for their difference, certainly. But an examination of the teachings of Christ will show that tolerance of unsound ideas and behaviors is darkness. If tolerance is to be defined as the refusal to speak against anything, then Christianity does not preach tolerance. But of course, the West itself does not tolerate everything, anyway. Sometimes it is Christianity that the West does not tolerate.
The presence of Christianity in the West has certainly been obvious throughout the centuries, but the contradictions that live in America only serve to highlight how different our Christianity is from the Wester values Americans:
- Their Puritanism and sexual exploitation
- Their elitism and populism
- Their individualism and their socialism
- Their activism and their independence
- Their prejudice and their egalitarianism
In the American buffet, Christianity is seen as but one offering, and usually served so saturated with other stuffings that it should be unrecognizable. One might as well attend an American “Chinese” buffet and scoop the dish labeled “crab wontons.”
The pillars of Western thought are not only unstable themselves, but are also incongruent with Christianity. The West exploits all things foreign to itself, including the kingdom of Christ. We would do well to refuse to identify our religion as Western, and purify our faith-practice of anything, whether it be Western or Eastern, that conflicts with the Gospel.
XIII. Western Orientalism
Ironically, The very notion of a “Western” and “Eastern” world is itself a Western invention, a relic of colonialism, and a potentially oppressive ideology. At best, it’s a shallow and arbitrary view of the world.
There is no universal criteria for dividing the world into “East” and “West”. The idea that the world is split into two halves is a kind of geographic dualism first brought forth by the West. Over the centuries this paradigm has furthered notions of an “Orient” and an “Occident”, a vast chasm between “us” and a “them” that could be determined by drawing a solid, polar meridian on a map. Both the “East” and “West” are east and west of each other. The globe is a circle, after all.
Orientalism is a Western discourse used to exploit the non-West for its foreignness to the West (whether to justify war, oppression, or patronizing attitudes).
Sometimes Orientalism is used to say, “these people are naturally worse than us because they are on the dark side of the world, and it is our duty to battle them.” Sometimes it is used to say, “these people are naturally weaker or worse off than us because of the side of the world they are in, and therefore need us to be in charge of their ways.” Sometimes it is merely used to say, “these people are strange, exotic and curious because they are less developed, odd, and even less rational. Let us portray this in our media, in our art and entertainment. Nevermind that we are equally strange, exotic and curious to them.”
Ironically, referring to parts of the world as the West and the East perpetuate a discourse that serves mainly the West. If you are an “Easterner” and you subscribe to this ideology, you are actually perpetuating a colonial ideology that has harmed your people and culture for 300 or more years.
Both the East and West are too complex to essentialize, not to mention draw distinct borders between. There is too much diversity, too much paradox in the midst of the cultures of both hemispheres. This complicates any effort to define a religion such as Christianity as either Eastern or Western.
XIV. Eastern Influence in the West
Such a view fails to take into account how the East has signifigantly influenced the West over the years and, conversely, how much the “East” and “West” overlap one another. Much in the West that has come to be known as Western actually has an Eastern origin.
Since the West is usually defined as Europe and America, we will consider not only Asia, but the Middle-East and pre-colonial America as “Eastern” influences.
The cultures of the American Indies, although geographically “West”, resembled Eastern cultures far more than Western when discovered by the West. American Indian heritage helped shape the Constitution, and persists today in America.
Algebra was invented by Arabs, as well as early advancements in geometry. Newton and Descartes are among Western thinkers who cited Islamic sources in their work. Crusaders often used Arab doctors to heal them. Understandings of medicine, such as the study of infections, came from Arab medicine. The linear perspective in art that blossomed in the Rennaisance was inspired by the Arab language Book of Optics. Some have even argued that Dante’s Inferno may have been influenced by Muslim literature.
Transcendentalism, which has affected Christianity in America since the 1800s, was influenced by Eastern religions.
Numerous influential Western figures have been directly influenced by Eastern culture, religion and philosophy over the ages: Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Blavatsky, Huxley, Lennon, Jobs.
Calling Christianity a “Western” religion makes too many assumptions, which are not at all data driven, about what in our culture is truly Western or Eastern.
XV. Jewish Roots
Sometimes the phrase “Judeo-Christian” comes up, sometimes as a phrase meant to represent, in some way, Western religious values.
Judaism, from which Christianity blossomed forth, not only predated the East and West as we conceive them, but is arguably more Eastern than Western. (Symbolically, let us consider the visual of Hebrew being written right to left. As with Arabic script, Hebrew culture occupies a strange place in between “West” and East” world culture).
Long before the time of Christ, the concept of Gentile and Hebrew as two very distinct and polarized cultures was cemented in the thought of Judaism and the Western cultures surrounding it.
In Western culture, the day begins with the rising of the sun. In Hebrew culture, the day begins at dusk (Gen. 1:5). This is more than a different way to set the clock—It is a dramatic difference in how one views the cosmos. We are talking about evening coming before morning in the order of the created world.
In Greek thought, everything can be categorized;
In Hebrew thought, there are no clear distinctions between aspects of life and the creation.
In Greek thought, all logic is linear;
In Hebrew thought, logic is contextual.
In Greek thought, the universe centers around man;
In Hebrew thought, the universe points toward its creator (Psalm 148).
In Greek thought, time is linear, and events occur once;
In Hebrew thought, time is cyclical, and events repeat themselves (Ecc. 1:9).
In Greek though (Sophistry), Truth belonged to those who had the greatest persuasive skills;
In Hebrew thought, Truth belongs to God and is given to man.
In Greek thought, women were by nature inferior to men;
In Hebrew thought, women and men were equal (though the dynamics between roles in the covenant were determined by creation and by repercussions of the sin in the Garden) [In Hebrew history, women were habitually treated as less than men—by “Hebrew thought,” I refer to the Torah, not cultural traditions].
In Greek thought, spirituality was about truly living outside and beyond the physical cosmos, and was to be strictly mental (hence the term “Platonic relationship”). To Plato, the body was a prison for the soul.
In Hebrew thought, spirituality was physically demonstrative (man tending the garden). To YHWH, the body was a vessel for the soul.
Greeks were polytheistic, and the gods behaved in the image of man;
Hebrew was monotheistic, and man was made in the image of an unchangeable God.
Judaism is not Western by any means. Christ was born a Jew, and he came to fulfill the Jewish law. Neither he nor his religion is Western.
Conclusion: Why It Matters
Dear readers, from all around:
Christianity is Not a Western Religion. It is not Eastern either. But Western and Eastern peoples are called to this kingdom.
Above all reasons, Christ predated the West and East. Embedded in the very teachings of Christ is the notion that the God of Abraham and of the Jewish religion, long ago planned for his Son to be sent to mankind as a “Messiah”, as an anointed one, to bring light to the world, to save it. If this be true, then we are speaking of a religion whose centerpiece, whose focus, whose major gift did not come from earth at all, did not come from either of its hemispheres, but came from “the heavens”.
As said previously, this is important for two reasons. The first is that many Christians believe the Western world to be an ordained ally of Christianity. The second is that many Eastern non-Christians reject Christianity because they perceive it to be Western.
- Some enemies of Christ will claim that Christianity is a Western religion, and s a philosophical development of the Western World that only belongs to the Western World, and therefore is not meant for all men—some even going as far to say that Western religion is actually inferior to Eastern spirituality because, among other things, its “closed-minded” insistence on monotheism and reliance on certainty of doctrine. In this way many people who either belong to or fall in love with Eastern cultures have clung to the excuse that “Western religion” is not for them, therefore Christianity is not for them.
- Some Christians will claim that Christianity is a Western religion, and therefore the West is superior to the East, that the West should rule the East, and/or that in general the West is inherently good and the East is inherently evil—some also assume that therefore what is Western is therefore what is Christian, and blend the values of their Western surroundings into their own concept of Christianity. In this way many people assume that Western imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, and/or militarism are necessary to further the Gospel, and to be a good Christian.
Not only is it misleading to refer to Christianity as a “Western” religion, it is also foolish. Christianity does not “belong” to the West any more than it does to the East. Westerners have no right to claim the privilege of Christ by virtue of being Westerners (and vice versa for Easterners). Easterners have no grounds for rejecting the Gospel of Christ by virtue of it being Western (and vice versa for Westerners). Christ is for all and he is not a respecter of persons.
Christianity is transnational because it is pre-national. It is trans-political because it is pre and post-political. It is global because it is the religion of the one who formed the very globe. It stretches from East to West, and came from above.
Jesus once told a Centurion, a figure of Western empire, that one day many would come from the east and the west, and have a place at a great feast with the faithful, those who lived before the Western empire and would also live after it (Matt. 8:5-13). The Centurion’s Western mind was able, on the one hand, to grasp the notion of Christ having authority. On the other hand, he did not yet grasp the nature of the kingdom, supposing that Christ was merely a great authority figure. As long as he chose to remain merely a subject of the West, that man would be thrown outside the gates of Christ’s kingdom. He was a man of great faith, and his story leaves him with the decision to either embrace his Western cultural heritage or shed it for adoption into the culture of Christ.
We Westerners are given this same choice.
Christianity—not a Western religion. Is the West Christian, then? To some extent, but not in any substantial sense. The West still remains its own animal, for now, ultimately a culture that, like the East, has not fully embraced the Gospel on the terms of the Father of all mankind.
If there is such thing as “the west,” it is nothing more than half the world, and the kingdom of God is not of either half of the world. Rather, it calls people from both hemispheres to come together and transcend their own cultures by uniting in a kingdom that has no borders or boundaries, but can cover all the earth.
West or east, east or west, I hope you are a part of this kingdom.