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Part 9: The Richness of a Tradition

This is part 9 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 9 looks at the rich history of Christian tradition and practice, and how this led me to to view Christianity afresh.


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 and Miki Kwek for their proofreading and critical feedback.


3,500 Words

‘The Last Supper’ from the Life of Christ by Giulio Aleni (1637), an early Jesuit missionary for the Church in China.[1]

 

“Abba Poemen said that Abba John said that the saints are like a group of trees, each bearing different fruit, but watered from the same source. The practices of one saint differ from those of another, but it is the same Spirit that works in all of them.”


-Sayings XLIII of Abba John the Dwarf [2]


More than perhaps most people, I have spent my life aware of the role that culture plays in my own and others’ lives. My childhood was divided between a secularist, post-Christian, liberal and western society in Britain and an atheistic, communist, (neo-)Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist society in China. I have had the fortune to attend Christian churches in a myriad of contexts from a variety of traditions. I have attended Muslim, Hindu and Jewish religious services and visited many Buddhist temples. I have received hospitality from wealthy expats, penniless street homeless, warm suburbanites and welcoming rural peasants. In short, I have experienced numerous ethnic, religious and socio-economic cultures first-hand.


Yet, despite all this, I am not in the most literal sense a ‘global citizen’. I no doubt contain numerous quirks which give away my eclectic upbringing and life, but my body is planted just like everyone else’s. I am culturally British, Western in my intuitions, low church Protestant[3] in my religiosity and middle class (dare I say ‘posh’) in my preferences. My mind might understand a wide variety of cultures, religions and ways of life, but I still only walk in one pair of shoes. I always err on the side of excessive politeness. I value my personal independence and autonomy and instinctively believe in the equality of all people. The informal strum of a guitar will always stir my soul to worship more than the most beautiful church organ. And English tea and a fine glass of port will forever remain my two drinks of choice.


Why does this matter? Where am I going with this?


The cultural undercurrents we swim within are rarely noticed by us, but they certainly help guide where we end up. When I lost my faith, my intuition was that this was the result of an individual journey. Through my own reading, thinking and everyday experience, I had encountered problems with my faith which all of a sudden had become insurmountable. That other people continued to be Christians was most likely a result of their continuing ignorance or indeed wilful blindness. Of course, this assumption was implicitly quite flattering – I was one of the enlightened ones – but I also didn’t want it to be true. I still hoped that out there somewhere was someone who knew something that I did not that might salvage my faith. But I wasn’t hopeful of finding any such person; after all, if they existed, you’d have thought they’d have come and turned back the tide of secularisation by now. After all, it’s no secret that religion has been in decline in the West.


Or is it? The story of religious decline is often framed as a ‘Western’ phenomenon. But when you actually delve into the census figures, you discover it is much more specific, being confined almost exclusively to just White and Christian groups in the West. In the UK, the two largest Christian ethnic groups are White and Black British. Although White British outnumber Black British by a large margin, it is worth noting that while Christianity among White British declined by 16 percentage points between 2001 and 2011 (76% to 60% of White British identifying as Christian), Christian decline amongst Black British was just two percentage points (71% to 69%). In the same period, while irreligion increased among White British from 15% to 27%, among Black British the increase was much more moderate from 7.5% to 10.5%.[4] Meanwhile, like with Black British Christians, significant religious decline is simply not evident amongst British Muslim, Jewish or Hindu groups. The picture is similar in America where ‘religious’ decline over the last two decades is again almost exclusively white Christian decline. Non-white Christians and other non-Christian religious groups have remained largely stable over the same time period.


It turns out that losing Christian faith as a White British Christian (like myself) is rather unoriginal. And this raises an important point. What I had perceived to be my own individual journey was actually intertwined with a much more specific cultural shift among primarily White Westerners shedding or (perhaps more accurately) moving on from the Christian heritage that has dominated a largely White Western Europe for centuries.


However, it wasn’t until after I’d returned to Christian faith that I began to realise much of the above. Despite growing up across cultures, I was surprisingly blind to the cultural elements of both my particular evangelical Christian faith and my deconversion experience. Like most Westerners, I had fallen into the habit of assuming that the popularity of my Western (and Western Christian) beliefs was evidence that they alone transcended cultural boundaries and were universal rather than parochial. But it was actually when I began to recognise the inescapable link between the ideas we hold and the places, cultures and status we occupy that I began to see Christianity in a new light. Through the discovery of much wider Christian cultures and traditions, instead of finding someone with the answers I was craving for, these new perspectives helped me begin to re-think the questions I was asking and the assumptions I was making.


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When people asked me what religion I was growing up, I would respond simply with “Christian”. Inevitably would then come the follow-up: “yeah, but what kind of Christian?”.


I disliked this second question. People just didn’t get it. I didn’t need to be one ‘kind’ of Christian – I was just a Christian! I mean, if people really forced the question, I would say I was a ‘Protestant’. But I didn’t like using this label. Yes, all the churches I had ever been a member of were Protestant. Yes, 95% of theological books I’d ever read had been written by Protestants (and 90% of these books by Evangelical Protestants). And yes, why Mary was such a big deal in Catholic and Orthodox Churches thoroughly confused me. But hey, I liked the Pope! And anyway, all those differences in services, religious holidays, liturgies, music styles, architectures, not to mention the different theologies regarding priesthood, salvation, the church, Mary etc. – that was just cultural glossing. What mattered was that we all believed Jesus was the Son of God, saved us from our sins, and was coming again. Why put us in all these unnecessarily divisive boxes when we were all essentially the same?

So it was no surprise at university that I joined the Christian Union. This was a place for all Christians to meet, have fellowship, and also invite our fellow students to consider the Christian message for themselves. I became my college’s Christian Union rep and I was eager to involve all Christians in college. I had become aware that there were other Christians in my college who’d never come to Christian Union. These Christians were mostly (though not always) of the High Church variety, and I wondered why they didn’t seem to want to get involved. We were all Christians after all? Yes, most (if not all) the Christians in Christian Union were from 'Low Church', Protestant backgrounds, but why should that matter! We were all the same, weren’t we?


That’s when I met Elizabeth. She was from a Russian Orthodox background. And she wanted to come to the central Christian Union meeting one week. I had a fascinating conversation with her about Russian Orthodoxy on the way to the meeting and we took our places when we arrived. Perfect, I thought. This is exactly what Christian Union is about! Christians from all backgrounds coming together! But when the meeting began, it suddenly struck me how what I was witnessing was not so much universal Christianity but a Christianity that was highly cultural. The ‘Christianity’ of the Christian Union contained no liturgy, involved no formal priesthood, involved worship music played on modern instruments with emotive and informal lyrics, made little to no reference to the role of the Church in the Kingdom of God, emphasised our identity as individuals in the Christian story, and explained that conversion to a Christian life came about through an intellectual decision, not a life of embodied sacramental practice and ritual. Essentially, I realised that the ‘Christianity’ of the Christian Union was exactly what I’d grown up my whole life practicing, but it was definitely not the Christianity my friend Elizabeth had grown up with.


During my childhood in China, I had always attended large ‘multi-denominational’ international churches that only foreigners were allowed to attend. Numerous nationalities were represented in these churches, and every Sunday we would come together to worship the same God. This for me was evidence of the universality of my Christian faith – people of every tribe and tongue really did worship Jesus. Yet, reflecting back, though many nations were indeed represented in these international churches, each church was nonetheless pretty similar. Their theology was always Evangelical, Protestant and ‘Low Church’. Their music was always lively and modern. Taking communion always felt like an after-thought once a month. Sermons tended to implicitly assume life transformation came about by hearing new ideas and thinking the right things. The speakers and congregation never wore church robes. Finally, despite the diversity of nationalities and languages spoken, services were always in English and the cultural influence was undoubtedly Western. The books that were recommended, the songs we sung – these were usually written by Westerners. The more I thought and reflected on it, the more I realised that the Christianity I grew up with was in fact another ‘kind’ of Christianity among many. It’s just that this kind of Christianity called itself… ‘Christianity’.


Several months after taking Elizabeth to Christian Union, my Christianity was in tatters. Yet, what ‘Christianity’ was it I had actually lost?


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“For most of its history, Christianity was a tricontinental religion, with powerful representation in Europe, Africa, and Asia, and this was true into the fourteenth century. Christianity became predominantly European not because this continent had any obvious affinity for that faith, but by default: Europe was the continent where it was not destroyed. Matters could easily have developed very differently.”



The traditional telling of Christian history goes something like this. After a couple centuries of intermittent persecution, the Roman Empire under Constantine converted to Christianity. From this point on, Christianity became the majority religion in the Roman Empire and, after the Western Empire’s collapse, continued to spread across Europe. The rise of Islam, however, in the 7th century quickly put an end to the Christian presence in North Africa and the Middle East. Meanwhile, it wasn’t until post-1500, as European explorers first began to discover and then eventually colonise and conquer large parts of the Americas, Africa and Asia that Christianity finally became a truly ‘global’ religion.


It’s a telling of Christian history believed by many – including most Western Christians. Undoubtedly this is in part because Europe’s two most prominent Christianities – Roman Catholicism and Protestantism – indeed didn’t begin to expand significantly beyond Europe’s borders until post-1500. It comes as quite a surprise then for many to discover that Christianity was a global phenomenon pretty much from the get-go.


In the 2nd and 3rd centuries already, we have evidence of Christianity in places like India, Persia, and Ethiopia. Christianity became the official religion of the Kingdom of Aksum (modern day Ethiopia/Eritrea) and Kingdom of Kartli (modern day Georgia/Armenia) decades before the Roman Empire made it the official state religion in 380AD. In 591AD, Byzantine officials were surprised when Turkish envoys from present-day Kyrgyzstan arrived with crosses tattooed on their foreheads; the envoys replied that their mothers, on the advice of local Christians, had tattooed them when plague had spread through their community as children.[6] Just 40 years after St. Augustine was sent by Rome to begin evangelising my home British Isles, Mar Alopen was sent from Seleucia-Ctesiphon, home of the Church of the East in modern-day Iraq, to the capital of Tang Dynasty China in 635AD to begin his own evangelisation efforts there. From 780-822AD, the head of the Church of the East, Patriarch Timothy I, oversaw bishops from Jerusalem to China and from Sri Lanka to Central Asia – we even have records of him appointing a new bishop in Tibet.[7] In 1000 A.D., roughly the halfway point in Christianity’s history, estimates suggest that just under half the world’s Christian population lived in Asia and Africa, most of whom had been Christians for numerous generations unlike many of the relatively recent converts to Christianity in northern Europe.[8] In the late 1280s, the Mongol envoy and Turkic Chinese Christian monk, Rabban Bar Sauma, travelled to Catholic Europe causing a sensation and even gave the Eucharist to the King of England.[9] Clearly, Christianity existed and sometimes even thrived outside of Europe long before European missionaries arrived.


Early 16th century Ethiopian Orthodox Icon[10]


But by the time European missionaries did begin arriving in larger numbers from the 16th century, they did for the most part encounter lands empty of any explicit Christian presence. To cut a long, complex story short, essentially from the 13th century onwards a series of cumulative blows including violence, invasion, persecution, dislocation and resulting isolation meant most of the churches of Asia and Africa either were destroyed or slowly faded into the surrounding milieu of whatever religious majority surrounded them. Only in Ethiopia, Egypt, southern India and parts of the Middle East did Christianity manage to maintain some sort of official institutional presence. Fast forward to today, and what is left of Patriarch Timothy’s Church of the East is a splinter of churches presiding over a mostly refugee congregation dotted in small pockets in the USA, Canada, Australia and Iraq. Religions die as well as spread.



Palm Sunday Mural from the Nestorian Christian Temple at Qocho in modern-day Xinjiang, China composed in the 7-9th century A.D. [11]

Why does this history matter? In many of these same lands where Christianity disappeared, new forms of Christianity, often West European in origin, have taken root. Large Christian populations can be found across East Asia, most notably in the Philippines, South Korea, China and India. The Americas are thoroughly Christianised, while Christianity has spread throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa. But except in the case of the Americas, the Christianities most frequently found in these places today were not the first to arrive there.



Cross dating from 10th century at St. Mary's Knanaya Valiyapally, Kaduthuruthy in southern India[12]

And this is why the histories of the dead and forgotten Churches matter. They remind us that there has never been just one ‘Christianity’. Most Christianities tend to downplay the existence and validity of other Christian traditions for both good and bad reasons. In practice, what this means is that most Christians are familiar with only a small portion of their very large, diverse religious tradition. Evangelical Protestants of my tradition are rarely familiar with either high church Protestantism or Roman Catholicism, and I imagine it goes the other way too. Yet, move outside the Western world to the Christian worlds of Eastern Orthodoxy, Ethiopian Orthodoxy and more besides and the ignorance increases tenfold. Of course, there is much theological merit to be found in the West European-inspired Christianities that have come to dominate much of the Christian world. Yet, they did not reach such a place of prominence simply through theological merit but in large part for reasons of historical contingency. Europe was the continent where Christianity wasn’t isolated, suffocated or killed.



St Mary Church, Urmia, Iran, the construction of which dates to the pre-Islamic era. Before WWI, there was a plaque in the church dated to 642 AD commemorating a visiting Chinese princess who helped pay for the church’s reconstruction.[13]

What this means is that there is a treasure trove of Christian thought, tradition and theology out there to be explored![14] Believe it or not, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, C.S Lewis, Tim Keller and Pope Francis do not have a monopoly on what Christianity means in its totality. And since Christianity is a tree with many branches, what might be an intellectual problem for one branch is not necessarily one for all the others.[15]


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“It was not you who ate the idea, but the idea that ate you.”

-Fyodor Dostoevsky


“Culture is a product of history, not an invention of the will.”

-James Davidson Hunter[16]


“In science, people were learning that they had to be ready to scrap the past and start again from first principles in order to find the truth. Religion, however, like art often consists of a dialogue with the past in order to find a perspective from which to view the present. Tradition provides a jumping-off point which enables men and women to engage with the perennial questions about the ultimate meaning of life.”

-Karen Armstrong[17]

Essentially, in the months following my atheistic epiphany, I realised more and more that what I had thought for so long as ‘Christianity’ in its entirety was the Christianity of a certain time and place. My tradition of non-denominational, evangelical, English-speaking Christianity was not necessarily the most authentic, truest, nor best form of Christianity out there. It was one among many ‘Christianities’, each formed by the place, culture and history of what has gone before. I was learning to shift my perspective.


I began to notice how the scientific progress of the last two centuries has led my culture to value certainty and to conflate truth with the literal. Any surprise then that many Christianities of my culture prefer to see the Bible as true only as long as it is literal and downplay tensions and contradictions within Scripture. Similarly, I had long been dissatisfied with the gospel message of my tradition. Its view of grace as a loophole to a legalistic dilemma, its preoccupation with people praying the sinner’s prayer rather than living lives of faithful discipleship, and its black-and-white, instrumentalist approach to evangelism were all things I felt lacking in substance and integrity. To then discover the ‘theosis tradition of salvation in Eastern Orthodoxy was an immense relief. Re-framing salvation as a process of transformation into the likeness of Christ makes the Christian journey both more relevant to the here and now and also something more substantive, merely beginning (not completing) at the point of conversion.


Having grown up across cultures, coming to a place where I could acknowledge rather than hide from the cultural bedrock of my beliefs, including my faith, has been rather freeing. While before I would equate anything ‘cultural’ with arbitrary opinion, now I’ve come to see that I am far less an individual with ideas than I first thought. My loss of faith ultimately mirrored a trend within my culture, and my return has largely come about by learning to view my Christian faith afresh through new cultural lenses. Now I see my Christian faith as an embodied pattern of Christian hope, faithfulness and love more than an intellectual assent to a set of beliefs; as something expressed more through my network of relationships than through my individual prowess; as a rich tapestry of tradition through which I find life, beauty and, by the grace of God, perhaps even salvation.

References & Notes



[2] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Apophthegmata Patrum: The Alphabetic Collection: 59, Translated by Sister Benedicta Ward, Liturgical Press, 1975.


[3] 'Low Church' and 'High Church' were two terms that developed within Anglican Christianity. Low Churches hold informal and 'modern' church services and tend to be livelier. They come out of the radical Protestant influence on Anglicanism. High Church services are much more traditional and formal. They maintain older Catholic influences. Low Churches do not prescribe an order of service, set no liturgical pattern, and do not use developed rituals and ceremonies. Clergy also do not wear church robes. High Church services meanwhile emphasise the priestly, liturgical, ceremonial, and ritualistic aspects of historic Christian practice. Read more here.


[4] Nomis, 2001 Census Data , ST104 - Ethnic group by religion, Opened: April 2022. URL: https://www.nomisweb.co.uk/census/2001/st104 & Nomis, 2011 Census Data, DC2201EW - Ethnic Group by Religion, Opened: April 2022. URL: https://www.nomisweb.co.uk/census/2011/dc2201ew


[6] Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, pg. 62

[7] Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, pg. 11

[8] Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, pg. 70

[9] Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, pg. 95



[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murals_from_the_Nestorian_temple_at_Qocho


[13] https://travital.com/attraction/st-mary-church-urmia/


[14] A few I’d recommend for starters would be Gregory of Nyssa, Sadhu Sundar Singh, the Desert Fathers,

[15] Unfortunately, many of the great writings of the Church of the East are lost and those that remain are not always translated into English or easily available. However, what is available in abundance are writings from the orthodox traditions of Eastern Europe and the Near East, particularly some great theologians of the first few centuries of Christianity like Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, and Isaac the Syrian/of Nineveh.


[17] Armstrong, Karen, A History of God, Vintage Publishing, 1999, pg. 359

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