by Theo Poward
I have spent much of the past year in Taiwan. While there I have had the unique opportunity to learn about Daoism, the traditional belief system of China, that has been better preserved in Taiwan. In this piece I don’t want to go into why and get myself caught in a political quagmire. I want to focus on my encounters with ancestor worship, or veneration, and what a proper response to the practice might be according to Christian Theology.
The quickest and loudest voice on this issue is often to decry the practice as some form of idolatry. If you type ‘Ancestor Worship Chrsitianity’ into Google the first page may be this one. It argues that the practice is not Biblical and does not fit with Christian Theology. First, it argues, the dead do not remain and influence events in the world of the living. Second, they do not act as intermediaries for God, only Jesus performs this function. The article finishes rather spectacularly:
Satan has always sought to supplant God, and he uses lies about worshipping other gods and even ancestors to try to lead people away from the truth of God’s existence. Ancestor worship is wrong because it goes against God’s specific warnings about such worship, and it seeks to replace Jesus Christ as the Divine Mediator between God and mankind.
This is quite a damning condemnation. It is also false.
The compatibility between Ancestor Worship and Christian Theology
The first thing to say is that the main theological problem that seems to have been raised is the idea of Christ alone being able to serve as an intermediary between the believer and God. What must be pointed out is that this is a position held by a vast minority of Christians around the world, and also is relatively new as an idea in the Christian tradition. It is essentially an idea born of the Reformation, and thus it is generally Western Reformed Christians who are opposed to the idea of intermediaries other than Christ, and thus opposed to the practice of Ancestor worship.
It is important to first understand the thinking behind Ancestor Worship. It is beneficial to look not just at Taiwan, which I am personally familiar, having taken part and witnessed different rituals concerning the practice; but also South Africa, which I have studied and draw a the information in this piece from this article. These two places are generally but maybe not perfectly representative for their respective regions of Africa and East Asia.
There are three ways that the thought is the same or similar:
- In both places Ancestors are seen as directly related to the people performing the veneration, as parents, grandparents, etc.
- They are seen as capable of influencing and affecting the world around us for better or worse.
- They also, to have become an ancestor, must have lived a moral and virtuous life.
The difference between Taiwan and South Africa is twofold:
- First, in South Africa the Ancestors are remembered individually, and thus for a maximum of about four or five generations, after which they become an ‘impersonal spirit residing in the spirit world’. Whereas in Taiwan, there is a ceremony for relative that have passed to join the group of ancestors of their family, the individual ancestor, if accepted, then becomes one with the group and does not need to be separately remembered.
- Second, in South Africa Ancestors are seen as intermediaries for God. It is important to note that this belief in God is part of the traditionally held beliefs in Africa, and was present before any missionaries set foot on the continent. In Taiwan the Ancestors are not said to work either on behalf of God nor are they intermediaries for God.
The one aspect of the practice in Taiwan (I do not know enough to comment on South Africa) is the burning of joss paper (money for the dead) among other things, including small paper cars, houses and shoes. This is done as a form of offering to the dead in order to placate them. While this specific aspect may well be incompatible with Christianity, it becomes difficult to see how the rest is.
To pay respects to the dead is natural, to ask for their help and guidance assumes, for a Christian at least, that they would be working in some form of intermediary for God. The fact that in both cultures the Ancestor is required to be virtuous as well means that there is near perfect overlap between the theological role played by ancestors in these cultures and the saints in western Christianity. In Catholicism saints also act as intermediaries between the believer and God, they are often assigned to have personal relations to individual believers, were of virtuous character and are venerated and shown great respect by believers. The Catholic Church itself has struggled but accepted the practice of Ancestor worship. Non-Catholic Christians, like myself, may still not be familiar with this idea, but that still does not make the practice of Ancestor Worship incompatible with Christianity.
Christ as Ancestor
We should not only speak of how local cultures and traditions can fit with Christian Theology but also how Christianity, as a global faith, can learn from and adapt to local practices, customs and ways of doing Theology.
This is where the South Africa comes into especial focus. The idea of Ancestors being present with us brings a different understanding of both liturgy and tradition; as our ancestors are present with us, so they are able to preserve us in our traditions and help us to remain in good ways of being. As G. K. Chesterton wrote:
Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.
In this way Ancestors serve as a form of ‘social conscience’ for the community. In South Africa, Christians of the Mohlakeng community have taken to naming Jesus Christ ‘The Great Ancestor’. The theological reasoning is that he is the firstborn of a new creation, the first ancestor of a new race of humanity which is the family of God. ‘Children of God live with the eschatological expectation that Jesus will one day restore life for his ‘family’.’ Christians everywhere say that when they die they will be reunited with Jesus, that they will ‘meet their maker’. As we die we become ancestors to our living descendants, we also become part of the body of Christ. To see this body as the Ancestor of all, is no great stretch.
Theology cannot be done outside of a cultural context. Respect for a culture means taking the time to understand that culture, this requires humility when looking at your own as well.
Speaking personally, when I am invited, in Taiwan, to come and show my respects to the Ancestors of the family taking care of me, I take the time to do exactly that. I treat it as a prayer just as the prayers that I am used to saying in Church. Showing respect, honour and veneration of the dead is something to be encouraged, and this is how I have treated the ceremonies and rites that I have taken part in when in Taiwan. My faith teaches me to respect tradition and culture, including ones that are not my own, because this is how God’s voice is heard.