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Part 8: Faith Without Works Is Dead

This is part 8 of my series ‘There and Back Again: An (A)Theist’s Tale’. This series tells you my story of losing my faith and the slow journey of finding it again but not quite in the same way as before.

Part 8 looks at the turning point in the rediscovery of my faith. Following on from the discussion in Part 7 about the conflict between my Christianity and my Western Individuality Seeker ethic, Part 8 looks at the connection between ideas and place and how this impacted my return to Christian religion.

You can find the rest of this series under the 'There and Back Again: An (A)Theist's Tale' tab at the top of the screen.

Thank you again to Eleanor Vivian for her proofreading and critical feedback.

3,500 words

Image by StockSnap on Pixabay.


What is your ‘calling’? It’s a term familiar to Christians of my tradition. It’s a question fundamentally rooted in the idea of purpose. What is God ‘calling’ me to do with my life? Why has He put me on this Earth? While a secular Westerner may search for their purpose ‘within themselves’, the Christian Westerner searches for their purpose both within and outside themselves. Within because they have certain gifts, talents and capabilities placed by their Creator indicating why they’ve been created, but also outside themselves because ultimately the Christian wants to do what God is asking her to do.

I too used to ask myself that question. In my most profound teenage spiritual encounter, I was praying when this thought, seemingly from nowhere, gently but unmistakeably filled my consciousness – “Would you be willing to give up your ambitions around university for me?” Was this God? Insecure as I was about pretty much everything other than my intelligence as a teenager, the idea of giving up the one thing that would ‘confirm’ my intelligence – and thus my status – in the eyes of those around me shook me to my core. However, after a day’s internal wrestling, I accepted this thought was from God, and I trusted Him, so I gave Him my ambition. The next few years were spent trying to work out what God might be calling me to do instead. Did he want me to go to a Bible College? Perhaps like the 17th century Moravian Christians, I should sell myself into modern day slavery and minister to those suffering most? Eventually, however, like Abraham who was asked to sacrifice his beloved son, God gave me back my sacrifice at the last minute. I got my university application in just before the deadline.

I enjoyed University and I really saw myself grow during my time there. But towards the end, it became apparent that I would once more start having to think about what came next! Again, the low-level anxiety began to creep in. What was God calling me to do? I prayed. I attended Christian seminars on ‘discovering your calling’, but still nothing. Eventually, I got myself accepted on a prestigious graduate scheme. This involved ‘helping people’ so I figured that in the absence of anything clear from God, He was probably happy with this.

That’s when it happened again. A visiting speaker came to my College’s Chapel. He worked with persecuted Christians in the Middle East. I was interested in the topic, but nothing more than that. Then suddenly, out of seemingly nowhere during a Q&A at the end of the service, a thought like the one when I was a teenager impressed itself upon me: “You should work for him.” Was that you God? Three weeks later, I had turned down the prestigious graduate scheme and accepted the job it seemed God had called me to.

Now I’d found my calling, I was going to start living my best life, wasn’t I?


“The West, over the duration of its global hegemony, had become skilled in the art of repackaging Christian concepts for non-Christian audiences. A doctrine such as that of human rights was far likelier to be signed up to if its origins among the canon lawyers of medieval Europe could be kept concealed.”

We like to think that ideas resemble machines. Machines are constructed things which are easily transported from place to place. As long as you have the right materials and components, a machine in location A can be exported to location B without any obvious impact on the machine. But ideas are not like machines. The pastor and sociologist, Oleg Djik, coins the term ‘plural-spatial theology’ to highlight this.[1] Plural-spatial theology recognises that we are ‘embodied minds’: babies who first and foremost taste, touch, smell, hear and move before we eventually think, analyse and reason. Our spaces, cultures, families, nations, religion, and homes all play a part in shaping our perceptions, structuring our movements and directing our thoughts.

Like the minds then from which they emanate, ideas cannot be disembodied. They are intricately linked to the people and places where they develop. As such, ideas are much more like plants than machines. They must be planted, cultivated and grown. But what thrives in one climate may die in another. Still others might only begin to thrive if interventions are made through irrigation channels and greenhouses to replicate the plant’s necessary conditions. Finally, some plants will only begin to thrive in foreign soils when they become new sub-species, taking on fresh adaptations to their new conditions, yet no longer being quite the same as before.

Christianity – like Islam, Buddhism, Communism, Democracy…the list goes on – is a tree that has been planted in many lands. It has thus taken many shapes and forms over the millennia. This is obvious to anyone who compares an Anglican church in London with a megachurch in Seoul, a Catholic church in Sao Paulo, a house church in rural China, and an Ethiopian Orthodox church in Addis Ababa. The problem is that the global reach of ideas is not necessarily evidence of their universality.

One helpful illustrator of this is the Japanese author, Endo Sushake. Himself a Japanese Catholic, Sushake’s writing frequently explores the tension he feels between his Japanese identity and his Western-inspired Roman Catholic religion. In his book, Silence, a sombre tale of the horrific persecution of Roman Catholic Christians in 17th century Japan, Sushake’s protagonist, Fr. Rodriquez, a Jesuit missionary to Japan, is brought by the authorities to the apostate priest, Fr. Ferreira. Ferreira tries to convince Rodriquez of the futility of his missionary endeavours and tells him,

“This country is a swamp…Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot; the leaves grow yellow and wither. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp…Even in the glorious missionary period you mentioned the Japanese did not believe in the Christian God but their own distortion.”

Frerreira points out to Rodriquez that the Latin word ‘Deus’, meaning ‘God’, was translated by the early Japanese converts as ‘Dainichi’, meaning ‘The Great Sun’. Japan is known as the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ because its indigenous religion, Shintoism, upholds the Sun-goddess, Amatersasu, as its most eminent deity from whom all Emperors are descended. In such a world, is it any wonder that the ‘Deus’ sapling of Latin Catholic Christian monotheism evolved into a much more Japanese and Shinto ‘Dainichi’?

Frerreira continues:

“In the churches we built throughout this country the Japanese were not praying to the Christian God. They twisted God to their own way of thinking in a way we can never imagine…No. That is not God. It is like a butterfly caught in a spider's web. At first it is certainly a butterfly, but the next day only the externals, the wings and the trunk, are those of a butterfly; it has lost its true reality and has become a skeleton. In Japan our God is just like that butterfly caught in the spider's web: only the exterior form of God remains, but it has already become a skeleton.”

Now Rodriquez rightly contests the extent to which this mistranslation meant the Japanese converts were not in fact Christians. But Frerreira’s – and Shusake’s – point is an important one. Can ideas, let alone an entire religion, ever undergo translation unchanged? If not, what can we say is the fundamental essence of religion? Because if its essence be ideas alone, then what do we do about the fact that our ideas are not easily separated from the places we dwell?

Westerners more than any others in the world today struggle to grasp this limitation with ideas. This undoubtedly must be partly because while most parochial cultures remain quaint, the geopolitical dynamics of the last two centuries means the West has been lucky enough to spread its parochial, often English-speaking culture and ideas throughout most of the world. In so doing, it has become the gold-standard by which a people mark themselves as ‘modern’, ‘developed’ and ‘civilised’.

Everywhere Western institutions and ideas are constantly framed as universals. Our ‘World Wars’ are so primarily because they involved the entirety of the West. When the rest of the world was involved, it was usually due to their Western colonial ties. While the globally powerful Chinese Communist Party has no qualms with branding its form of communism as ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’, rarely will a Westerner think of democracy as ‘Vote-Based Government with Western Characteristics’. This despite repeated failures of democracy in its ‘purest’ (i.e. Western) form to fully establish itself in most corners of the non-Western world. While Hollywood’s Oscar awards are expected to represent global diversity, neither Bollywood nor Nollywood have the same expectations. American-style shopping malls as opposed to Chinese wet markets or Arab souks are the gold-standard for modern marketplaces the world over. As an English-speaking Westerner, global international culture is much more comfortable for me than it is for those not lucky enough to find that their parochial culture has colonised the world.

It should come as no surprise then that my Western Christian tradition mirrors the wider West in many ways. And not just because it too has a habit of framing its parochial brand of Christianity as universal. It is relatively easy to point out the similarities between progressive forms of my tradition and wider Western culture. But even more conservative and traditional forms of my tradition, though they frequently like to portray themselves as ‘counter-cultural’ and wear this as a badge of authenticity, are counter-cultural more in theory than in practice. For instance, in the ongoing cultural debate around the fluidity of gender identities, counter-cultural Christians affirm traditional understandings of gender whilst failing to appreciate that their insistence on religion being a matter of personal choice with no tie to community or heritage in turn makes it possible to consider what else is a matter of personal choice alone.

In the arena of sexuality, ‘counter-cultural’ Christianities uphold traditional understandings of Christian marriage and prohibitions against pre-marital sex, while nonetheless embracing Western dating rituals which place the individual and romance at the centre of courtship. It is a ritual, like so many others in the West, which minimises responsibility while maximising the potential for pleasure and excitement. The goal of relationships within this context is not the procreation of children, who embody self-sacrifice and loss of freedom, but individual and romantic fulfilment. With marriage understood in this way, is it so unreasonable to extend the sacrament of marriage to same-sex couples who, until recently, would not be able to bear children naturally? When ideologies believed and rituals practiced fail to intersect, confusion, uncertainty and frustration are a natural consequence.

Institutionally too, its most successful churches mirror its most successful corporations. Examples of ‘Starbucks Christianity’ are prevalent in my tradition. They are hip and modern ‘brands’ where individuality is encouraged through informal dress codes and the Christian spiritual journey is focussed on your individual choice to follow Jesus. ‘Free grace’ salvation – again an indigenously Western concept in its modern form – minimises the responsibility of believers to live lives of dedicated sacrificial devotion to their crucified Messiah, while enabling them to nonetheless reap the benefits of his saving work. Church can easily begin to function as a pleasant euphoric distraction from everyday life where you get your ‘hit’ for the week and learn some useful self-help tips before returning to the drudgery of life.

Now, I do not say all the above because I think these are examples of how my Christian evangelical tradition is somehow ‘corrupt’. I merely wish to state the obvious. The Church of the West is…well, Western. It is foolish to think that religion can be so easily separated from culture and vice versa. Of course, the relationship between religion and culture goes both ways. Many of the West’s most distinctive cultural features – its emphasis on equality, the primacy of individual choice, its suspicion of arbitrary authority, and its progressive metaphysics which sees human history as inexorably proceeding to a shining utopia – are fundamentally linked to its indigenous low church Protestant Christianity. Secularism itself is at its heart a fundamentally Western Christian concept born in significant part within the specific European context of the post-Reformation Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th century. The Non-Religious cannot easily shed their place’s religion in much the same way that the Religious cannot loosen easily from their place’s culture. Only in recognising the contingent and embodied nature of our ideas do we firstly learn humility and secondly appreciate the importance of living out faith through ritual, culture and habit as opposed to simply believed ideas.

It was only when I’d lost my faith that I found it again precisely because I had no choice but to live it out.


To return to our story, three months after my atheistic epiphany, I turned up to start the new job that God had so clearly called me too. Of course, now whether there was such a ‘God’ who could call me to anything was very much in doubt. But I had turned up nonetheless because what else was I supposed to do. But hey, I was excited, despite my internal turmoil. The next year promised new, unique experiences. God might not exist, but the promise of an exciting, ego-boosting life still remained.

This excitement burst soon after arriving. Firstly, there was the bruised ego. Within minutes of arriving, it became apparent that I’d misunderstood that this ‘job’ was in fact an internship. An hour later, as a recent graduate of the world’s most highly ranked global university that year, I’d been given my first task: cleaning, sorting and inventorising the charity garage. The second job wasn’t much better: dusting the office. My first day, I sat blankly at an empty desk, made cups of tea, and typed a couple letters. Not riveting stuff. Secondly, there was the disappointment. Part of the undoubted appeal of the job had been the prospect of global travel. Yet within a couple days of arriving I was told it would be at least several months before I would be going on any trips despite several being scheduled during those first months. While my colleagues were away, I was told that my job would be to stay behind and manage the office, keep it clean, answer the phone when it rang, and respond to enquiries – that is, if they arose in the first place. This tied into the final issue. I was bored and lonely. My girlfriend and family were all a long plane or train ride away. We were based in the countryside, and I didn’t drive and had no friends living nearby. Due to caring responsibilities that came with the role, I also couldn’t go out in the evenings to socialise in the local area. I had one day off a week, but due to the remote location, travelling to see anyone took time. All I could think about during that first week was that the future looked very dull indeed. I’d applied to this internship because ‘God’ had called me to it. But 6 months and an atheistic epiphany later, I was wondering if I’d just thrown my life away because of some mental deception played by my subconscious mind.

Now, fast forward to the present, and I realise that a lot of what I was experiencing that first week was somewhat part and parcel of beginning any new starter role. When you arrive in a job, your new employers are often trying to get a feel for you and your capabilities, and they don’t always know what work to give you. More importantly than that, they are still learning to work out what level of responsibility they can trust you with. But that is now, and this was then. It’s not that I couldn’t see in that first week my usefulness for colleagues. The garage needed inventorising; the office needed cleaning; my caring duties were appreciated. But in such a bargain, I felt like I had very much drawn the short straw. Anger, envy and despair began to well up within me. Life was not supposed to turn out like this. This is not what attending Oxford University was supposed to lead to.

Yet, it was at this moment – where everything inside me was angry, upset and disappointed – when the thought came to me.

Who says the reason God called me here has anything to do with me?

Unlike the time I was a teenager pondering university or in my college chapel considering this work, this thought did not seem to come from God. If anything, it was an epiphany much like the one that had led me to the fringes of atheism. But nonetheless, it punctured the depths of my soul. Why did I assume that my life and God’s role in it was ultimately about me? Was God’s calling ultimately about me living my best life, doing great things and becoming a famous figure? What if God had indeed called me here despite there being no obvious career development pathways or opportunities for me to shine on the public stage? What if all there was in my calling was a charity that needed an intern, a family who needed a carer, and a garage that needed inventorising – nothing more? This thought made sense on such an existentially satisfying level that though my feelings of frustration and disappointment didn’t just go, they no longer held mastery over me. Something else had won the war inside my soul – who says my life is about me?

It might sound strange, but the more I reflect on this moment, the more I think this marked the return of my Christian faith. My brain still thought the existence of God to be the unlikelier of two possibilities and it would be at least another year before I felt I could call myself a Christian again with any real sense of integrity. But it was here, when life was not going my way, that the Christian – not the Western – part of my soul was once more awakened. The part wishing to model the Christ,

“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross.”[2]

The culture I had imbibed since moving back to the UK six years earlier was one infused by the West’s Individuality-Seeker ethic. Like many other Westerners, my own atheistic epiphany was foreshadowed by the internal conflict between my Christianity and this ethic. A year before the epiphany, I wrote in my journal, “The idea of doing something purely because God says so has lost convincing power over me. Wanting to obey God or even grant God any space in my life that takes away from my own autonomy has increasingly been a no-go area.” Submission – the act of placing your individuality aside in the embrace of another’s will – now came as unnaturally to me as it did to any other Westerner.

It was this individuality-seeking ethic which taught me to find life in new experiences, maximising my opportunities, seeking out excitement, minimising my responsibilities, and rebelling against anything that might seek to dampen my unique, individual authenticity. There’s no doubting that the convincing power of my individuality ethic grew over my time at university. Here, I lived at the heights of worldly privilege. University is a place that makes it easy to live a life centred around individuality. You are an unknown entity when you arrive with no past to your peers and therefore no expectations. You can make yourself whoever you want to be. If you want sporting glory, intellectual stimulation, sexual conquest, or popularity, you have an institution willing to spend millions to facilitate all these things for you. You have all the benefits of adulthood – the independence and the freedom – without most of the responsibilities. Aside from essay deadlines, it is an environment where little submission is required.

Perhaps if my loss of faith had happened at the start of university or even the middle, it might have lasted longer or even been permanent. But it happened at the end, not the beginning. Instead of finding myself in an individuality-enabling institution, I found myself in the opposite. My freedom was limited. My opportunity for excitement was practically zilch. And my need to submit was self-evident. Of course, I could have left, and perhaps I would have been within my rights to do so. But I stayed. And when I looked to my individuality-seeker ethic, all this brought was anxiety about my future, envy of my friends, and frustration at my colleagues. Only in looking upon the faith I had lost, the faith reminding me that “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it,”[3] did I find a modicum of peace, the strength to persevere, and the trust that it would all be ok.

My faith would have to be lived if it was to be believed again.

-The End-

Notes & References [1] Djik, Oleg, 2020, Church, Immigration and Pluralism, pg. 276, (unpublished manuscript) [2] Philippians 2:6-8 (NIV Translation) [3] Matthew 10:39 (NIV)


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