I rolled over to see an officer’s face floating above me. Mass at the airport? Religion must be more central to Filipino culture than I’d expected.
Emerging from my sleeping bag, I deflated the $4 neon pool mat on which I’d spent the night behind a statue of Jesus. I’d wondered at the statue’s presence in the airport, but hey—it made for a safe-looking place to sleep.
Several hours and one flight later, I arrived in another Filipino city. There, I’d be spending a week with local students and campus ministry leaders as part of my mission to travel 360° around the world in 180 days documenting Christian students’ experiences at secular universities. How would universities here compare to those I’d visited already—and what would that mean for the future of faith in the Philippines?
The foundations of cultures’ thinking:
So far, I’d only visited universities in secular Western nations. From stories of hostility against campus Christians, to cartoons outside professors’ offices mocking Christianity, to secular messages screaming from university bulletin boards, I’d encountered evidence in Canada, Australia and New Zealand illustrating how far these nations have fallen from the biblical worldview on which they were once mostly founded.
A seminar I’d heard long ago by Ken Ham, Founder of Answers in Genesis, had showed me how these nations’ freefall from Biblical thinking—and Biblical morality—began when evolutionary interpretations of science led Western cultures (and many churches) to dismiss Genesis 1-11 as inaccurate. But because all other major Biblical doctrines, including the Gospel itself, ultimately rest on Genesis, undermining Genesis meant undermining the entire Christian worldview. Now, centuries down this road of Scriptural compromise, God’s word is as foreign to modern Western cultures as it was to the Greeks of Paul’s day.
As Ken Ham’s book Gospel Reset explains, first century Greeks—unlike their Jewish contemporaries—had no foundational understanding of the God of the Bible, the origins of sin, or the need of a Savior. Instead, Greek thinking rested on the foundation of man’s word. That’s the same basic foundation of thinking in current Western cultures, which essentially states, ‘man determines truth’. Without foundationally believing that God’s word is the authoritative revelation of truth, first-century Greeks dismissed the Gospel as ‘foolishness,’1 as Westerners often do today.
Meanwhile, even though many first century Jews stumbled over the message of salvation in Christ because of their misconceptions of how the Messiah would come, their thinking already rested on the foundation of God’s word from Genesis to the Prophets. So, thousands of Jews responded readily to the brief cross-to-resurrection message which Peter preached in Acts 2. But in Acts 17, Paul needed to adopt a different approach for evangelizing the Greeks: he preached the gospel from its foundation up, beginning with the Creator revealed in Genesis. Even then, only a few listeners responded, because the culture’s thinking rested on a totally different foundation (man’s word) to Paul’s (God’s word).
Like Paul’s audience, Western nations are figuratively “Greek” in founding their thinking on man’s word. That’s why apologetics, the intellectual defense of God’s word as the foundation for our thinking, plays such a crucial role in reaching Western nations. By showing why the Bible is worth believing, apologetics gives Christians reasoning to keep their foundation, and non-Christians reasons to switch foundations. Apologetic training, therefore, is vital for equipping Christian students to keep their faith in “Greek” cultures like the ones I’d visited earlier. But what about in the Philippines?
Evidence of “Jewish” thinking in the Philippines:
If universities in Canada, Australia and New Zealand showed me how these nations are “Greek” in their thinking, the religious emblems in the Filipino airport provided my first clues that this nation is more “Jewish,” so to speak. In other words, the Filipino culture possesses a foundational familiarity with God’s word, like the Jews did in Paul’s day.
Indeed, a little research showed me that the Philippines are about 80% Catholic, 8% Protestant and 6% Islamic,2 meaning that nearly all Filipinos are likely to hold some idea of a Creator God who formed the first man, Adam. Most people would also understand the concept of sin, which separates us from God and exposes our need for salvation. However, like the Jewish culture of Paul’s day, not everyone in the Philippines would understand that salvation is through Christ, rather than through human works. Still, the foundation for understanding salvation is already present in both Jewish and Filipino thinking.
Passing through the walled campuses’ main gate, I initially didn’t see the portrait of Jesus which hung above the sign-in booth. But I did notice what adorned the walls of the first hallway I entered: Bible verse posters! In a classroom just across the hall, I also found oversized multicoloured letters displaying the full text of Joshua 1:9 across the front wall.
But the surprises weren’t over. When several new friends invited me to join them at the university for campus evangelism, I watched students immediately accept Christ and attend follow-up discipleship after a brief gospel presentation! When I mentioned that Canadians are harder to evangelize because they often believe science contradicts the Bible, my friends answered, “We just respond, ‘Who created science?’”
The other side of spirituality in the Philippines:
Certainly, these experiences showed me that the Philippines are culturally “Jewish,” possessing a foundational familiarity with God’s word and concepts like sin and the need for a Savior. On the bright side, this makes evangelism much simpler than in “Greek” cultures like Canada. However, local students explained that Filipinos’ openness to spirituality also results in highly active cults. In fact, almost as many Filipino households belong to one powerful cult called Inglesia ni Christo (2.4%) as to Evangelical churches (2.7%).3 Moreover, although the Philippines are largely Christianized, religious practices here may still be mixed with animism and superstition. People constructing buildings, for instance, commonly sacrifice a chicken or pig to protect the building against unwelcome spirits.
Beneath this surface of spirituality in the Philippines, however, there may also flow an undercurrent of skepticism. One campus minster, for instance, told me how some students “don’t believe the truth of the Bible; they think it’s human-made.” Similarly, a Christian professor I spoke with mentioned that secular humanism is gaining momentum in the Philippines.
Secular humanism, which claims that humans evolved naturally and therefore must set our own moral standards, is the mainstream worldview in many Western nations. As a student, I’d experienced how forcefully Canadian secular education pushes both humanism and naturalistic evolution. So, considering that evolution is a core belief of humanism,4 and that the Philippines rank among the scores of nations which have pledged to teach evolution in public education, I supposed that rising humanism in Filipino universities shouldn’t be a surprise.
“How is humanism increasing here?” I asked the professor.
“There’s a lot of Western influence in the Philippines,” she replied, explaining how Western speakers pack the post persuasive punch if they appear intelligent, well-educated and scientific. “I’m starting to see that we’re becoming humanist in the sense that God is no longer being talked about. It’s more about humans; human ability is being magnified compared to God, who is the source of everything.”
The moral of the story:
Ultimately, my week in the Philippines gave me a memorable glimpse of a “Jewish” culture, foundationally familiar with God’s word, compared to the Western “Greek” nations I’d visited earlier. In a sense, the Philippines resembled what older Christians might remember Western nations being like years ago.
From religious relics at the airport, to Bible verses posted around a state university, to students’ responsiveness to evangelism, I’d seen open doors to spirituality around every corner of Filipino culture. Sometimes, this door swings as wide as cultic practice and animal sacrifice, but other evidence suggests the door may be slowly closing. Between the pledge to teach evolution in public education, the sway of secular Western influences, and the increasing popularity of humanism, the Philippines seem to be taking the first steps towards becoming a “Greek” culture.
All this suggests that the most strategic time for apologetics ministry in the Philippines is now. Western nations, after all, transitioned from Jewish to Grecian thinking extremely rapidly when the Church neglected to defend the foundation of God’s word against attack from mainstream culture. But if the youth representing the future of Filipino Christianity are equipped biblically and scientifically to defend the foundation of God’s word in their culture, perhaps the Philippines can avoid making the same mistake.
(Stay tuned for part 9!)