The many faces of Christianity

Is Christianity a Western religion? A holistic and cultural perspective on the topic

Nowadays, it seems that pop cultural references to Christianity depict the religion through a Western paradigm. In what follows, I argue that it is misleading to call Christianity a “Western” religion, and this can be seen through (1) who practices Christianity and (2) how it is practiced. Of the first point, historically, Christianity originated in the Jerusalem, and demographically, the practice of Christianity is ubiquitous; that is, Christianity has had practitioners in non-Western parts of the world such as Asia and Africa. Of the second point, Christianity is molded by socio-cultural circumstances of its practitioners. I cite the cases of missionary works and christians in Kerala to illustrate this.

Here, I discuss who practices Christianity. Historically, Christianity’s conception took place in the Arab world; more specifically, in Jerusalem, which is also known as the Holy Land. As Palestinian Lutheran Minister Mitri Raheb puts it, due to its origins in Jerusalem, Christianity can be said to have a stamp claiming that it was “made in Palestine.” Further, though modern-day Palestinian christians are becoming an “invisible people”—comprising 11,000 people out of a population of 800,000.It should be noted that for centuries, this group of people was once a powerful minority shaping the development of the religion. Thus, one sees that Christianity was initially conceived by, and was influenced by, the Palestinian christians. Despite the diminishing of Palestinian christians, christians from the West flock Jerusalem and Bethlehem as tourists. Consequently, to call Christianity a Western religion ignores its non-Western origins and influence which suggests otherwise.

Demographics indicate that Christianity has not been solely practiced in the West, and even suggest a growing shift to the predomination of non-Western Christians. In 1900, the Global Christian population was noticeably European (68 per cent) and North American (14 per cent), with smattering figures of Christians from other parts. However, by 2010, this shifted to a sizeable South American (24 per cent), African (19 per cent), and Asian (17 per cent) group of practitioners. Particularly in Asia, the practice of Christianity can be roughly dated back to the 1500s. In Japan, this was known as the “Christian century” and ended only by the Tokugawa Shogunate. As one can see, Christianity’s prevalence is growing in non-Western parts of the world, and as such, its identification with the West is diminishing as different groups adopt its practice.

Christianity may be dubbed a “missionary religion,” given that its tenets place an emphasis on evangelization. The specific evangelization tenet is Matthew 28:16-20, known as “The Great Commission,” encouraging christians to “make disciples of all nations.” This is exemplified through the works of biblical figures such as Paul and his missionary journeys. In Paul’s case, he traveled to Jewish communities to spread the faith. Additionally, apostle Mark helped the development of Coptic Christianity and many cathedrals bear his name as homage. Feldmeier notes that the apostles spread the faith “to whomever would listen,” and this means that they did not cater to a Western audience. Because of these evangelization missions, christian converts appeared in the Middle East and northern countries such as Russia. Thus, Christianity’s central evangelization mission emphasizes the conversion of a nondescript group of people, and makes no specification that these people must be Western.

The practice of Christianity cannot be divested of its cultural influences, or, as Smith says, “Christianity is never separate from the people who practice it.” For example, St. Thomas christians found in Kerala, India, have developed a unique conception of Christianity. An Indian minister describes St. Thomas christians as “christians in faith,” and “hindus in culture.” Indeed, St. Thomas Christians blend Christian practices with hindu elements: Liturgies are sung in Syriac, the Aramaic language of Christ; manuscripts are written in Syriac and Latin; churches are built deriving inspiration from hindu architecture; and incense, candles, and fires are employed during their ceremonies, akin to those in hindu ceremonies. It is also important to mention that Christianity arrived in India not via the West, but rather, through the Middle East. Christianity in places like Kerala was not introduced by Westerners; Christianity’s presence in Kerala was established long before Western christians arrived. Hence, Christianity is heavily influenced by the differing interpretations of cultures that practice it, and for some places, the West did not play an instrumental role in introducing Christianity.

 

KASSANDRA HANGDAAN
A&E EDITOR