Supporting Article

Why I Would Not Become a Christian

Reflections on God and Culture


Fan Xuede’s article is not an easy one to read.

Here you will find the brutally honest soul of a contemporary mainland Chinese mind, who views the West— and the Christian religion—from a 20th century non-western perspective. You may not be ready for what you will find. A former Marxist philosopher who is now living in the United States, his words will warm your heart and move you to tears. It may also surprise, shock, anger, shame, and convict you.

Our prayer is that it will move you to your knees, to prayer and to action.

For many years I regarded Christianity, with its sense of superiority and strong intolerant spirit, as the representative faith of Western culture. This became my excuse for refusing to believe in Christ. But when I pondered how China might become more democratic politically, and modern economically, I could not evade the whole subject of Western culture.

In the mid-1980s, I read Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I saw that the Puritan ethical spirit in Protestant Christianity was the primary force behind the development of a rational capitalist system.

What a fatal blow to my preconceptions! The Protestant ethic of the Christianity I loathed was the dynamic giving rise to the development of the modern West. How an ancient gospel has blessed millions in the modernization process. How could the Christian faith exert such dynamic life-giving power? I did not believe in God, so I could only explain this phenomenon with the concepts of “historical inevitability” and “historical accident.”

Even though I suppressed the Christian faith in my emotions, my mind could not ignore the transforming power which Christianity has exerted time and again in Western history, especially its impact on the human spirit. Religion provided moral teachings and could nurture many great souls: this was no surprise. The wonder was that in Christianity I found the most basic principle for human ethics: love! Love your neighbor as yourself. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I must confess that these norms were gems of supreme value.

I also knew that these supreme ethical norms were built on the foundation of holy love from God, and our love to God: true love means loving one’s enemies. True love means forgiving the sins others have committed against one. True love means acknowledging the poverty in one’s own spirit. True love means bearing the cross of suffering. True love means serving others. True love means trusting totally in God and committing one’s all to God.

With a passion for democracy, I cried many times during theoretical conferences in China, for democracy transcends all classes; it is a universal political form.

After I came to the United States, I discovered through my readings that the foundation for such a universal democratic system came from the fundamental spirit of Christianity. Man is not perfect; he has defects. Institutions created by man are likewise faulty. Therefore, power must be limited and a checks-and-balances system instituted. Man was created by God. In God’s presence, all men are equal. Therefore, men should enjoy equal rights.

The Glory and the Darkness

When I arrived in the United States, I was first shocked by how the material culture and the environment were so highly developed. There were superhighways going in every direction, automobiles of all sizes in perpetual motion, communications networks and the information highway, supermarkets that were squeaky-clean, the blue sky, the green landscape. I was jealous.

I was even more deeply impressed by the fact that I could just relax and enjoy the lifestyle in this civilized society. It did not matter how much money I spent in the store; I was greeted with a smile and a “Thank you.” When I stood in line, I never saw anyone cut in. When I bumped into someone by accident, he apologized first. The white toilet paper in public restrooms was not stolen. The wild geese that I saw while taking a walk in residential neighborhoods did not end up as someone’s gourmet dinner.

I could no longer deny the greatness of this material culture. So I began to deny the spiritual foundation which produced all these. Since it was invisible, I could argue against it. I reasoned: there is no intolerance in the material culture of the West—in its science and technology, in the universal principles of democratic institutions, in the public norms for everyday public life; all these principles belong to all mankind. But in the realm of spiritual culture and faith, there was intolerance in the West.

Therefore, all I saw was darkness! Conflict between the races, the disintegration of the family, chaos brought about by drug trafficking, guns out of control, advertising everywhere enticing the lusts of consumers, and sex and violence everywhere in the media seducing the flames of man’s desires.

So how did I explain all this darkness? I knew that the moral depravity of society was due to man’s rejection of faith. Money and sex had become man’s substitutes for God. When I reasoned this way, I fell into my own trap. Since I hated Christianity so much, didn’t it suit me just fine that people rejected it? Since I thought that God didn’t exist, wasn’t it just normal that people did not believe in God? How could I hope that this God—such a flimsy fantasy—would be used as a moral restraint on mankind?

To help me shake my doubts, some Christians gave me this explanation: the good things in Western culture came through Christianity; the bad was the evil result of rebellion against Christianity. Such a stark contrast between darkness and light was unbelievable. I admit that many good things in Western culture came through Christianity. But if we were to say that all good things came from Christianity, it would not be borne by the facts. There is much good in Western culture— Homer’s Iliad, Socrates’ philosophy, the logic and poetry of Aristotle, ancient Greek sculpture, Roman law— these did not come from Christianity.

I felt that one could not extricate Christianity totally from some of the dark chapters of Western history; otherwise one could not explain the dark Middle Ages or the need for Martin Luther’s religious revolution. I wanted to ask, “O Christian, what witness have you borne for Christ in Western culture? Did you bring Christ into modern Western culture to Christianize culture? Or did you bring modern Western culture into Christianity to secularize your faith? Have you ever reflected on the reason why people see the witness of your lives and end up doubting the reality of your faith?”

A Spirit of Intolerance?

Many accuse Western culture as well as Christianity of an intolerant spirit; shouldn’t Christians seriously reflect on this?

Christians would often proclaim to me that the Christian faith is the only true faith. They certainly have a right to do so. But, I hope that more than anything else, Christians would dare to say, “Look at my life! If it were not Christ ruling as Lord, it would not be so beautiful and holy.” In this world flooded with human desire, only holy lives, produced by a living faith, can convince me that the Christian faith has nurtured new lives that reject this evil world.

Then, there was all the internal strife and mutual rejection in Christianity. These convinced me that Christianity is an intolerant religion. Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy opposed one another. Catholics and Protestants treat each other as enemies. Within Protestantism, we have Lutherans, Reformed, Anglicans, and Baptists critiquing each other. Even within one denomination, factions hold on to their own distinctive positions and yet claim that their faith is the only true faith in the universe while proceeding to further split the Christian church. The entire religion of Christendom becomes a machine producing divisions, strife and fragmentation. Why did this happen? I pondered for a long time. Is it the intolerance in Western culture that brought about the intolerance in Christianity? Or did the intolerance in Christianity nurture Western culture? Or is it a little bit of both? On one point, however, I am clear: if God exists, there must be an infinite distinction between him and mankind. Besides Jesus, no one can realize God’s will completely in word and deed. Therefore, no denomination has the right to declare that it represents the complete truth of God. No one Christian is perfect and without flaws. A presupposition for unity among Christians and among churches is the recognition of their differences; the condition for Christian unity is to recognize one’s own spiritual poverty in his own life and denomination.

Are Nations “Christian?”

Some Christians and Christian literature, in an effort to prove the greatness of Christianity, say that Western nations are Christian nations. When I hear and read about this, my immediate emotional response is one of anger and hatred. In this statement, I can smell the white man’s sense of superiority. This concept expels non-western nations and places them in a morally and spiritually inferior position.

If Western countries are indeed Christian nations, they must have an intrinsically Christian nature. But Christianity is a spiritual force with the love of God at its core. The nature of a nation-state and the nature of Christianity are different in their power and orientation.

My best conclusion is that even during the periods in history when Christianity and the powers of the state were united, Western nations did not achieve the Christian spirit; they betrayed the Christian spirit.

The unification of church and state has injured the powers of the state. It intensified the corruption of secular powers by adding a divine label to all of its activities. It also polluted the Christian faith. Christianity had to endure the outright interference of the secular powers and bear responsibility for the iniquities of the state.

Christians say ever so casually that Western nations are Christian nations. They probably do not realize how much this injures the feelings of people from countries that have been oppressed by the West. Nevertheless, the greatest injury is done to the Christian faith itself because this makes people associate the colonialism and aggression of the West with the Christian faith. When the British Empire, with her military might, forced the Chinese to receive opium for over half a century, many people identified the gospel of the kingdom of God with the aggression of the expansionist, colonialist and imperialist powers.

This is why I want to cry out: “O Christian, don’t carry this pseudonym ‘Christian nation’ on your lips any more—this doesn’t help your religion at all! It is high time to stop chaining Christ and the powers of the state together. The noble name of Jesus Christ should no longer be insulted by the selfishness of a nation, people or institution.”

Among this great host who call themselves Christians, how many of them truly put their trust in Jesus Christ? Look at their lives: who can believe that they believe in Jesus Christ? When individualism becomes the final authority for moral decisions, when consumerism takes hold of people’s lives, isn’t faith a mere decoration?

I do not believe that there is a Christian nation on earth for this reason: Since “all have sinned,” anything created by people could not be perfect and flawless. Sin must leave its mark on it. Even something as giant as a nation state could not escape the trap of sin. But Jesus came into the world to call sinners to repentance; He did not call sinful nations to repentance. When a person acknowledges that he is a sinner, receives Jesus as Savior, and worships God in Spirit and in truth, the Spirit of God can give the man new birth. He becomes one who belongs to Christ. But a nation-state cannot repent and receive the new birth; how can it become “Christian”?

Western Culture as “Christian Culture”

Just as some Christians call Western nations Christian, some of them would boast that Western culture is Christian culture. I believe this is as ridiculous as boasting that traditional Chinese culture was the only and unrivaled civilization on earth.

This claim created a tremendous barrier to the Christian faith for me. For a person from a non-western country to receive the Christian faith would now mean receiving Western culture; since Western culture is claimed as Christian culture, the two have become inseparable. The issue of whether one accepts the Creator of the universe and mankind becomes an issue of one culture over against another. For me, a Chinese intellectual who loves his land and culture, this is highly injurious.

If Western culture were truly Christian culture, it would be valid for people to criticize Christian missions as cultural aggression from the West. There would be good reason to reject the Christian faith. Because Western culture includes so much degenerate rubbish, why should I be obliged to accept it?

I concede that Christianity has exerted a great influence on Western culture. However, the non-Christian elements in Western culture have deeply influenced Christianity. This reciprocal influence was not all beneficial to Christianity. The anti-Christian elements in Western culture have always stood in tension and opposition to the Christian religion. How can Christians face these facts and still call Western culture a “Christian culture”?

Christians must no longer ignore the explosive power of the anti-Christian elements in the West. They have become abnormal, one-sided; absolutized Man, not God, has become the norm for all things. Reason has become the basis for determining truth, goodness and beauty; self-interest has become the starting point for human activity. Science is omnipotent; man is the master of his own destiny. Therefore, there is no absolute truth; all truth is relative. To move one step further, there is no relative truth because there has never been any truth. Truth, morality and values are mere beautiful words.

It was a very important breakthrough for me to see that Western culture is not Christian culture and the decline of Western culture has been inseparable from the rejection of Christian faith.

Faith has its source in God; Western Christian culture comes from man. The foundation of the Christian faith is the Bible. People from different societies and different historical contexts interpreted the Bible differently and the result was the expression of the Christian faith in a variety of concrete manifestations.

The Christian faith spread from Jerusalem to the Middle East, and then to the West, but it did not require all Westerners to become Jews. Even the Apostles Peter and Paul, during their time, did not require Gentiles to receive Jewish culture. If Chinese people believe in Christ, they do not need to receive Western culture. The precondition to embrace the Christian faith is only to receive Jesus Christ.

It is true that Christians in the West have created all kinds of splendid cultural forms that are appropriate to the cultural characteristics of Westerners and helpful in their worship of Jesus Christ. However, for people from other cultural and ethnic backgrounds, these are only meant for reference. Chinese Christians should not be copies of their brothers and sisters in the West. They should express themselves creatively and produce worship forms and theological works which are appropriate to the spirit and cultural characteristics of the Chinese people.

Epilogue

O heavenly Father! No culture can defeat faith in you. You are in heaven, culture is on earth; you have created man, man lives in culture; you are infinite, culture is finite. Cultures come and go; there are old and new ones: yet you are immutable.

Image credit: The Morning paper  by Bryon Lippincott via Flickr.

FAN Xuede

FAN Xuede was a lecturer on philosophy in China. He is a graduate of Moody Bible Institute and now lives in the U.S.  View Full Bio