A brief survey of missiological literature and some of the issues being raised today creates curiosity about the possible futures of Christianity in the world.
There are themes that seem to leak out when you read between the lines of missiological literature. Some of these themes center around outdated anthropology still employed in missions (Rynkiewich, 2011). Pulling this theme back further reveals an underlying assumption that mission has predominantly been perceived as an activity that happens in the direction of West (whatever that encompasses) to East and South (whatever they encompass).
Much of missiological literature, as of late, points to a question that Lesslie Newbigin voiced in a series of lectures he gave entitled: Can the West Be Converted? (Newbigin, 1984). Not all missiological literature addresses this very question, but much of it is predicated on the prevailing narrative that Western culture was pervasively Christian at one point in time. That body of literature tended to be developed in the direction of how the West was reaching the East and South. The predication of a Western Christianity filters every missiological conversation, but especially in matters of how the West should continue to engage the East and South–and even perhaps how the U.S. Bible Belt should engage the rest of North America.
So no matter which direction you come at missiological literature, you are confronted with Western Christianity. Which returns us to the realm of Newbigin’s question:
Can the west be converted?
In posing this question, Newbigin embraced a decline narrative of the Western Church and began a line of thinking that returned the West as the object of Christian missions. He also proposed this question, “Can the experience of cross-cultural missions to the many pre-modern cultures of our world in the last two centuries illuminate the task of mission to this modern world?” (Newbigin, 1987) Newbigin seems to propose that Christians in the West could learn from how they at one time reached pre-modern people and maybe upon that reflection, Western Christians can employ similar methods or lessons learned to reach what appears to be a quickly secularizing culture. But in order to get there, it’s important to first ask what is the West?
THE SPIRIT OF THE WEST
The precision with terminology is especially crucial when used in a binary fashion such as “West” vs. “East.” Leo Strauss, the renowned political philosopher, provides a broad yet helpful understanding of what we mean when we speak of Western people. Strauss explains:
Western man became what he is, and is what he is, through the coming together of biblical faith and Greek thought. In order to understand ourselves and to illuminate our trackless way into the future, we must understand Jerusalem and Athens. (Strauss, 1997)
Strauss’ explanation of the Western man seems to indicate one irreversible world birthed out of the intertwining of two different cities: 1) Jerusalem, the birthplace of the Church at Pentecost and 2) Athens, the birthplace of Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
This world has not gone away since then.
Today, we still live in Jesus and the Apostle Paul’s world. Acts 2 records the story of the Holy Spirit coming on the meeting in the upper room in Jerusalem giving birth to the Christian Church. To think of it another way, Jerusalem was the city that God released the Spirit at Pentecost to penetrate an Athens world.
There is something akin to a “spirit” that God is “exorcising” from the world, and it was introduced in the Garden as the “Tree of Knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:17), and manifested itself in the goyyim translated nations (Genesis 10:5; Exodus 34:24; Leviticus 18:24), and in these “last days” (Acts 2:17; Hebrews 1:2) it became very pronounced in Athens on into the first century. The Jews of Jesus’ time grasped the host of this spirit to be the ethnos or the Gentiles (Matthew 4:15; Matthew 28:19; Acts 4:25; Acts 13:46; Romans 15:9).
Is this to say that Gentiles were somehow demon possessed? No, not at all. However, remember the clear distinction in the Old Testament between God’s promised goy, Israel (Genesis 12:2)–which is fulfilled in Christ (Luke 22:30; Hebrews 8:8; Romans 11:26)–and then the goyyim who are the pagan nations (Deuteronomy 12:30; Deuteronomy 18:9; Judges 3:3). The goyyim seem to have a worldview that excluded the Hebrew God and perhaps can even be categorized as an antithetical spirit. They were not led by the Law, but instead were led by their own instincts (2 Peter 2:12; Jude 1:10). And this instinct (or spirit) was present in the world birthed out of Athens (1 Corinthians 2:12; Ephesians 2:2; Colossians 2:8; 1 John 4:3). Maybe even more so, because the Messiah didn’t come during the dominance of Egypt, Canaan, Babylon, Persia, or Alexander.
There was something about Greco-Roman Imperialism that God had to personally start a subversive intervention in Jesus’ incarnation.
Now, if we fast forward a millennium ahead through the establishment of the Roman Church, the decline of the Roman Empire, and the preservation of its culture through the Western Church, is this spirit still there?
The works of those like Thomas Aquinas–for all the good they’ve done–have hints and shades of the spirit of Athens. Of course, Aquinas and others like him were not supporting demonic activity by bringing theology together with rational and natural philosophy. But, there’s no doubt the “spirit” of the Tree of Knowledge is there. And, could it be there also in how the Crusades were rationalized? And how the violence in the Reformation was rationalized? And could it be most obvious to us, now, that it was there in the Enlightenment thinkers like Kant, Locke, Hume, and the others?
Adding to this conspiracy, let’s ask the question, was America ever a Christian nation? By the time of its birth, it was out from underneath the shadow Anglican Christendom. So, was it ever really a Jesus ethnos? Has it ever been a Christian goy?
For now, we have to overlook things like how the Puritans rationalized slavery, Manifest Destiny and what happened to the indigenous people of America. Let’s just look at the five primary founders of this America ethnos: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, John Adams, and James Madison. They founded what has become the modern world’s greatest and most powerful nation. But it’s common knowledge that these men were sons of the Enlightenment, more deists than they were orthodox believing Christians.
Do their ideas trace back to Pentecost or are they descendants of Athens? Was their wisdom from God or from the Tree of Knowledge?
MODIFYING NEWBIGIN’S QUESTION
Today, we’re trying to convert North America through apologetics, church growth techniques, and even simple church (Paas, 2016). But do we know how deep this “spirit” is? These are the percentages of the rise of the “religious nones” in America (Liu, 2012; Cox and Jones, 2017):
One qualitative explanation for the growth of these numbers is the backlash against the politicization of faith and the correlation between political parties and religious conservatism. People distance themselves from any religious affiliation of conservative politics (Hout and Fischer, 2014). This trend of deconversion and disaffiliation with religion due to politics indicates to me that, perhaps, America has always been more aligned with Athens than it ever was with Pentecost.
So, let’s re-ask Newbigin’s question differently:
Was the West ever really converted?
And that question is perhaps even more complicated. Because, of course, people were converted. And yet, alongside the Holy Spirit, there seems to be a strong persistence of the Athenian spirit.
In conclusion, it’s interesting to read the book of Daniel and Revelation in light of this. Because, now, the apocalyptic portions (Daniel 9:26-27, 11; Revelation 17) have more of a literal basis. Regardless, Revelation clearly tells of the future that anything that isn’t from the Spirit of Pentecost will completely be exorcised from the world and all we’ll have to look forward to is the New Pentecostal city:
The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations (ethnos) walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. (Revelation 21:23, 24)
Cox, Daniel, and Robert P Jones. “America’s Changing Religious Identity.” PRRI, Public
Religion Research Institute, 9 Sept. 2017, http://www.prri.org/research/american-religious-landscape-christian-religiously-unaffiliated.
Hout, Michael, and Claude Fischer. “Explaining Why More Americans Have No Religious
Preference: Political Backlash and Generational Succession, 1987-2012.” Sociological Science, vol. 1, 2014, pp. 423–447., doi:10.15195/v1.a24.
Liu, Joseph. “Nones’ on the Rise.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, 8
Oct. 2012, www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/.
Newbigin, Lesslie. Can the West Be Converted?: Friends of St Colm’s Public Lecture. St Colm’s
Education Centre and College, 1984.
_____. “Can the West Be Converted?” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, vol. 11, \
no. 1, 1987, pp. 2–7., doi:10.1177/239693938701100101.
Paas, Stefan. Church Planting in the Secular West: Learning from the European Experience.
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016.
Rynkiewich, Michael A. Soul, Self, and Society: a Postmodern Anthropology for Mission in a
Postcolonial World. Cascade Books, 2011.
Strauss, Leo, and Kenneth Hart. Green. Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity: Essays
and Lectures in Modern Jewish Thought. State University of New York Press, 1997.