A new photo-exhibition at the Senedd pulls at a lost thread in Welsh life, writes Dylan Moore.
The history of Wales and the development of Western Christianity have been entangled for many centuries. Celtic Christianity and the so-called Age of Saints predates any notion of Wales as a single political entity; latterly, Wales has been known as a land of spiritual revivals as successive generations have turned to and from Christ, inspired by preachers whose names echo down the centuries – Christmas Evans, Howell Harris, Daniel Rowland, Evan Roberts – and hymns still sung, bereft of context, at sporting occasions and national events. As in so many other fields, Wales has had a disproportionate influence on the world, often through the mark made by individuals willing to take Jesus’ Great Commission quite literally to the ends of the earth; as a result, there are still small corners of Korea, Khasia and Patagonia that will be forever Gwalia.
Now, it seems, after a century of secularism, a new and exciting chapter is being written in Wales’ relationship with Christianity. A prominent example is in the rise of ‘faith tourism’; Korean Christians in Wales facilitate the visit of hundreds of Christians from Korea every year, including events organised last autumn to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the martyrdom of Robert Jermain Thomas. Christians in Korea consider Wales to be their spiritual home because Robert Jermain Thomas is the missionary who brought Christianity to the Korean peninsula.
‘Majority World Christians in Wales’ has been curated by Jim Stewart, Public Affairs and Advocacy Officer at Evangelical Alliance Wales. The exhibition intends to highlight the contribution of Christians from Africa, Asia and Latin America to contemporary Welsh life. It opens this week with an event featuring speeches from the First Minister Carwyn Jones and Conservative AM Darren Millar.
‘Majority world’ is a term roughly equivalent to ‘global south’, describing those from non-Western countries. Those celebrated in the exhibition come from a variety of backgrounds, some of which are not normally associated with Christianity, but which nevertheless have significant and growing Christian populations: Chinese, Korean, Fijian, Armenian, Arabic, Persian, Pakistani, Tamil and Malayalam cultures in Asia, plus African churches from Zimbabwe, DRC, Nigeria (RCCG churches), Eritrea (Orthodox church plus Pentecostal church), Ethiopia (Orthodox Church).
The breadth of the exhibition will itself highlight the diversity of Christian individuals and groups who now call Wales home, as well as the many multicultural churches meeting in Wales’ towns and cities every week. Christian leaders in Wales now include Pastor Emori Katalau, a former Scarlets and Fiji rugby player; Rector Mones Farah, originally from Nazareth in the Holy Land; Peter Cho and Gi Jung Song (both from south Korea) and the Rev Irfan John from Pakistan.
Beyond the church, majority world Christians such as Uzo Iwobi OBE, founder of Race Council Cymru, are having an impact on public life, particularly through contribution to third sector organisations. For example, Nexo is a Christian charity based near Caerphilly that brings Christian young people from Brazil and Argentina to work with local churches and the local community.
The exhibition will also bring to wider attention individual stories of majority world Christians, often from refugee backgrounds, who are successful in business start-ups and job creation (for example, an Eritrean in Cardiff who has started up a cleaning business and now employs eight people), as well as others volunteering in ministries such as Street Pastors, food banks or night shelters which offer a lifeline to those from all walks of life who – in these times of austerity – have fallen through the widening cracks in mainstream service provision.
One major effect of this diversification within Welsh churches has been a new and invigorating emphasis on community cohesion. Rev Irfan John’s Guinness record-breaking Nativity play promoted peaceful co-existence and the exhibition details many other examples of how faith has bridged ethnic or political divides, both in Wales and in countries of origin (for example in Sri Lanka and Eritrea). Jim Stewart says: ‘Majority world Christians are building cohesion with their wider diaspora community here in Wales. There is an excellent example from an event in Swansea last year of a Pakistani Christian and an Ismaili Muslim gaining a better understanding of the pressures and persecutions that both groups faced in Pakistan. Majority world church leaders are also building links with the Jewish community and their representative Stanley Soffa.’
Somewhat ironically, some ‘majority world’ Christians in Wales are from countries where Welsh missionaries originally brought the gospel (Rev Sangkhuma from Mizoram in India and Judith Jones, originally from Patagonia in Argentina, who works for the Presbyterian Church in Wales). Like with the Korean celebration of Robert Jermain Thomas, there is some sense in which these individuals have come back home with a mission to reconnect Wales with its own partially lost heritage.
10 thoughts on “‘Majority World’ Christians in Wales”
It is good to see articles like this. Faith is barely mentioned in public life, despite the fact that the history of Wales is basically the history of Welsh Christianity.
It was Christianity that unified the Romano-Britons against the heathen Saes and formed them into a new nation, the Cymry. It was the Celtic Church that was the repository of our national memory. The struggle for control of the Welsh Church against the Normans was, as Gerald of Wales understood, the real struggle for Welsh independence from the English Crown. It was the Chapels which provided the foundation of a distinct and culturally rich Welsh-speaking identity. It is no coincidence that social cohesion in Wales declined with them.
It should perhaps be noted that the ‘century of secularism,’ if that is the right expression, is a Eurocentric phenomenon. The more dynamic nations of what used to be called the Third World also tend to be more dynamic in their Spiritual lives than the decaying powers of the Old World.
That said, perhaps the notion of ‘secularism’ prevailing here should itself be qualified. As the article does well to point out, although ignored by the political class and the media, faith remains a powerful force in Wales, not least in the voluntary sector – in which it is indeed the most committed and progressive element. It remains our best hope of countering the general sense of apathy and drift that seems to permeate our whole culture these days – if we can even say that we still have a proper common culture now.
Whether “faith” is socially beneficial or not ( there are examples of both benign and malign influence ) I do not believe the spilt milk can be put back in the bottle. The spread of scientific awareness among the general population is slow but inexorable. Knowing the size of the universe and our insignificance and transience as a species, and as Darwin and modern neuroscience dissolve notions that we have “souls” distinct from other animals, it become impossible to believe the anthropocentric stories of traditional religion. We might love the old hymns, we might wish we could maintain cultural continuity with our forefathers but we just can’t believe what they did. Consider the lilies, said the bible. Well we have to consider the lilies and the sparrows because it is perfectly obvious that God – whatever that is – does not care for them any more than he, she or it cares for us. As Auden put it we must love one another or die and we have to take care of our biosphere too because we won’t get another. A religion that encourages those things can be tolerated. One that does not need not be regretted as it expires.
Mr Tredwyn, the whole notion of a conflict between science and religion is one of the oldest and most prevalent examples of “fake news.” Put simply, science is how we organise the information we can observe and measure, whereas faith is confidence in things not seen. They are different categories of knowledge. One of the things science tells us is that we do not know everything. Indeed, for all the wondrous scientific progress of the last 400 years, we know very little and, if anything, we are only now discovering how little we know. Faith begins where science leaves off. This applies not only to religious faith – we take most things “on faith” in our daily lives. As the great scientist and Christian Blaise Pascal pointed out, the last gift of Reason, including science, is the knowledge that there is point beyond which she cannot pass. That is the point when faith takes over.
Of course science cannot answer and will never answer all questions. But as Wittgenstein put it: that of which we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent. Ignorance is not a licence to believe any arbitrary thing you choose, however improbable, simply because it cannot be disproved. The mortality of humans, the way they can be extinguished arbitrarily in plagues, earthquakes etc, the fact the whole species is just a few hundred thousand years old and is rather unlikely to last the same again does not suggest that we enjoy the eternal love of a concerned deity as most religions maintain. You can call the view that we do “faith”. An alternative description is a refusal to believe the evidence of your senses because it is too unpleasant. But that’s a matter of personal taste. The real problem is that if you describe as a “category of knowledge” a subjective belief which has no objective grounds, you open the door to people asserting things with no evidential basis, only divine revelation. Given that God seems to reveal different things to different people and nothing at all to many people, how on earth then can we discuss social issues sensibly?
Mr Tredwyn, with respect, it is the atheist who is refusing to believe the evidence of his own senses.
The first thing our senses tell us is that we exist. Our senses go on to tell us that something does not come from nothing. From this we conclude that our existence does not come from nothing. Existence must therefore come from something.
It is about the nature of that something that we disagree. Most of us believe that it has, at some point and in some way, attributes analogous to a will to exist and a will to create. Otherwise, why does it bother existing? It is the atheist who, with absolutely no evidential or objective basis, arbitrarily denies this. Yet when asked to supply an alternative explanation of existence, he has none. He says he has confidence that one will be discovered in the future – which is in fact a statement of faith, because it has no evidence to support it. Indeed, unlike religious faith, it runs contrary to available evidence because the observed Universe provides not a single example of something existing spontaneously without cause or reason.
What Wittgenstein said therefore applies directly to this atheist statement of faith. It does not, however, apply to religious faith, because existence is something of which we can speak, since we experience it. Positivists like Wittgenstein and Russell were uncomfortable with the whole question of existence and sought instead to construct an abstract, mathematical system of their own. The line you quote, the only line of the ‘Tractatus’ that anyone remembers, comes at the very end of the work and is referring to what Ludwig had just written, not to the actual world.
Even Wittgenstein was unhappy with this. The central paradox of Positivism is that the belief that there is nothing beyond the Positivist system is itself beyond the Positivist system. Are there any pure Positivists left any more?
None of this “proves” any particular faith system, but it really ought to be better known that the two foundations of late 19th/early 20th century atheism – Positivism and an unevidenced faith in some form of spontaneous generation – both collapsed some decades ago.
Well I never expressed the belief that existence would be explained in future. My first sentence asserted the opposite. It may well be that existence will always be a mystery to humans.
I do not find the ontological argument, that existence itself proves there is a conscious creator, persuasive but let’s concede it for argument’s sake. My point is that there is nothing in our experience to indicate that the postulated creator cares about the fate of individual humans. Perhaps the creator loves his (her) creation but the sheer size of it, the insignificance of our planet and the evident transience of all species on it suggest that he or she is indifferent to the human race, never mind its individuals. One may love one’s wife without caring about each flake of her dandruff. In the cosmos we are minute dandruff. People imagined a personal God who cared about them when they thought they were the centre of creation, the sky was just above their heads and the earth was 6000 years old. We know better now.
Actually, Hume knew better in the 18th century. He didn’t know how vast the universe was but he knew that the ontological argument, right or wrong, was inadequate to support all the specific beliefs of Christians or any other religion. He didn’t need to be a 20th century positivist to spot that and you seem to concede the point yourself. I thought we were talking about Welsh Christianity, not some vague irrefutable deism.
Anyway, my main point was not metaphysical but practical: anyone can hold unsubstantiated theological views if they wish but those are not an acceptable or sustainable basis for decisions on ethics or public policy. We cannot follow our forbears in accepting ethical arguments based on faith or alleged divine revelation. In that sense we have to move on from our Christian heritage. We need a statement of values and consideration of cause and effect because those can be discussed peaceably, whereas revelation brooks no debate. Moreover it is dangerous to base ethical values on stories that become ever less credible. Better to appeal to our common humanity and our kinship with other sentient creatures on earth. The creator, if he/she is still there, can no doubt look after herself.
Or as Alexander Pope said, (mis)quoting from memory:
“… presume not God to scan.
The proper study of mankind is man.”
I’m sure he meant humankind and included women!
Mr Tredwyn, we are in agreement that the Ontological Argument cannot be cited as a proof of any particular faith, and indeed you are unlikely to find any educated believer talking in terms of an Ontological ‘Proof’ at all since Hume and Kant. However, so long as one does not attempt to use it as a positive ‘proof,’ what is better termed the Ontological Question remains a huge obstacle to positive atheism, as even Russell seems to have conceded. Here the distinction between Deism and Theism becomes crucial. The Deist concept of God seems so detached that one wonders why He bothers existing, let alone creating. He seems to serve no purpose, and begins to shade into the impersonal laws of science. It was against this Deist concept of God that Hume, Kant, and Russell concentrated their strongest arguments. Most of those arguments cannot be advanced against the actively involved God revealed in the Bible and also proposed by all the other Theist religions. This concept of God actually accords better with modern cosmology, which tells us that any Creator must be a Master of Quantum. It was harder for previous generations to imagine a Creator who numbered the hairs of our heads and took an interest in the fall of sparrows, but science now goes even further and presents us with a God who takes an interest in subatomic particles. If that is still hard to imagine, the power of modern computers to process huge amounts of data simultaneously gives us at least an analogy that might help us visualise how He might operate.
It should be obvious that a Deity actively interested in such detail is also capable of taking an interest in his more advanced creatures and their ethics. This consideration is bound to influence the conduct of believers, both in their private lives and as subjects, especially if they are subjects of a democracy, however imperfect. They cannot be expected to ignore what they believe to be true.
This leaves unbelievers with a problem. As Hume himself was the first to point out, attempts to build a system of ethics independent of belief in some form of revelation lacks a solid foundation. If we were, as you put it, no more than cosmic dandruff, the logical response is to maximise our personal pleasure for the seventy odd years that we have here. It must be stressed, as Lord Balfour said a hundred years ago, that this is not saying that atheists are necessarily bad but only that it is illogical for them to be good. If you insist on confining your beliefs to what can be seen, you cannot deny that what we have seen of attempts to construct nonreligious systems of ethics have failed miserably in both principle and practice. The 20th Century in particular saw two positively antireligious but popular systems of ethics, both clothed in the language but not the substance of science, cause immense human suffering. To believe in revelation goes beyond evidence but is not necessarily contrary to it. The same cannot be said of a woolly belief in the goodness of ‘humanity’ – which runs clean contrary to observable fact. The nonbeliever is thus reduced to a choice between the self-indulgence of Epicurus and the egomania of Nietzsche. Again it is stressed that not all nonbelievers make that choice but only that it is the logic of their position. What most seem to do in practice is abandon logic altogether and sink into the mushy sentimentality that almost makes one long for the brutal, selfish honesty of the Epicurean or the Nietzschean. Either way, unbelief provides no firm basis for a system of ethics or a culture based on shared values.
No doubt we are approaching diminishing returns to this discussion, though it has been fun, for me anyway. Just a few remarks.
Firstly Hume regarded revelation as essential to religious belief; he did not regard it as essential to morality. As a benevolent non-believer himself, how could he?
Our ethics are based on our feelings not on the application of cold logic to the question: how can I make myself better off supposing I don’t care about anyone else? In well adjusted people, love of parents, family and friends is broadened in childhood to a concern for the community. Going against that concern makes us feel bad, in the popular phrase it troubles our conscience. Why are we like that? In competitive games it has been shown that the Axelrod strategy of behaving kindly towards other but responding in kind to aggression or offence – the so-called tit for tat strategy – is a successful strategy. That may be why humans have evolved to deploy it. Certainly the notion of fairness and an attachment to it is widespread. A naturalistic account of the development of ethics and ethical feelings is quite possible and at least as credible as the idea that they were implanted by God. That is not to deny that psychopaths exist or that selfishness frequently overcomes ethical feelings or indeed that our ethical feelings can be subverted to evil ends, as you remind us.
I can’t see that a belief in a concerned God resolves any problems at all. If he set the system up why did he arrange for such failures to be so widespread? Come to that if he is the reason for everything, what is the reason for Him? In the end your answers are the same as mine: we don’t know.
Mr Tredwyn, we agree that there is no absolute knowledge, which is why we need to make some sort leap of faith – whether in God or in some alternative – in order to make day to day decisions.
People do not believe because it solves problems but because it is their perception of how things are. Belief is therefore something that is inescapable for believers, not a choice or a state of mind adopted for some practical purpose. That belief does not tell us the reason for everything, only that there is a reason.
Any system of ethics based on feelings is bound to fail, as it is by definition subjective and arbitrary. An objective system of ethics requires a firmer intellectual foundation.
The evidence is overwhelming that we are not innately ethical as you seem to suggest – but this is not a truth most people like to hear. They like to think of themselves as good because they go with the flow, ignoring the fact that the flow is frequently in a bad direction.
Hume was indeed a famously virtuous individual, and one of his virtues was the intellectual integrity that said there was no logical basis for morality if we exclude revelation.
This has indeed been great fun.
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