One of the great ironies about the whole modern period in Western countries is that people cannot escape a sense of the sacred. One way this yearning comes out is by weighing culture as sacrosanct. We build a way of life which necessarily excludes the Deity from society and our personal lives yet are haunted by our need for that Other which transcends our limited experience and perception of the world. We do not need God because we have technology and superior technical skills yet persistently find that these provide no ultimate meaning. This is the arrogance of modern thought, in its many differing variations, and the emptiness that it leaves.
Modern Western people think that they have a superior culture and are so much more knowledgeable and sophisticated than anyone who came before them. The intellectual movement which we call the “Enlightenment” epitomizes this perspective of superiority. The practical outworking of this ideology has manifested in several different guises.
One form has been the inflated corporate social ego which was rationalized in American history in the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny”—white Europeans were destined for and responsible to dominate the American continent. Now I have no doubt that God allowed for the development of the United States of America (for his own sovereign purposes) but that does not justify the prejudices and injustices which were inflicted upon Africans (slavery) and upon the Native tribes (with the U.S. government breaking most of the treaties with them). Another form is the presumption of racial superiority by Europeans and the deep-seated racism which was formulated in slavery, in “Jim Crow” laws and in social and legal segregation in America.
No nation is above God’s just judgment for such injustices and Scripture demonstrates that when God declares punishment upon a people or individual he always exacts his decree. That God desires to give grace to people, as demonstrated in the Lord Jesus, does not change God’s holiness nor his exacting just retribution upon wicked people. If anything, the testimony of the Gospel actually accentuates the necessity of retributive justice by God upon those who refuse to believe the Gospel.
Another example is a notion which reigns particularly in the Universities today: Specifically, forms of aggressive quota driven “multi-culturalism.” This idea is being applied to all sorts of differing categories which define people into groups—categories self-chosen or put on them. This is an ideology which foments tribalism in the name of encouraging diversity. This ideology presumes and dictates, under threat of penalty, that human cultures are sacrosanct (though not necessarily all human beings) and thus cannot be questioned or critiqued (thus dishonored). With “multi-culturalism” we all must revere other cultures and cannot critique them without committing the sins of racism, xenophobia, etc.—unless, of course, we are talking about Western culture and Christianity.
These are just a few examples of what I mean by people weighing culture as sacrosanct. Those living in Western countries, and particularly in America, could give more examples from different walks of life. We could all name examples of it, regardless of our ethnic or national background, because this tendency to deify culture is rooted in the human heart and our insatiable bent toward manufacturing idols for ourselves. The overarching point here is that these examples I gave are rooted in unbiblical ideologies which many Christians uncritically accepted and perpetuated—or do so now. (For similar arguments, see The Heresy of Racism, Part 1 and The Heresy of Racism, Part 2.)
We use this term “culture” routinely but I think it is helpful to make an effort to define the word. This term comes from the Latin word cultus, which primarily conveys the ideas of cultivating or caring for the earth (it has agricultural roots). The term is used to capture the dynamic of human activity—the tilling of the soil for crops and the preparation of the intellect for living life well. (Thus we can speak of culture and the arts together.) Another sense it has taken on refers to the established behavioral and thought patterns, customs and social expectations of a social group. This is the specific sense of meaning of “culture” when we use it to differentiate between nations, people groups or even sub-groups within a country (for example, the “youth culture” in America).
When I was growing up my parents almost always went on vacations by camping. We would load up the van and tent trailer and travel most of each day till we found a camp site and then make camp. The next morning we would all get up and eat breakfast and then pack up again and get back on the road. I am very grateful that I was exposed to the beauties of the National Parks in the U.S.A. and was able travel through most of the United States in this way.
Those experiences in my immediate family helped to shape my perceptions and appreciation for the created world and to reinforce the cultural norms of my own family. I learned from this that “vacation” equaled being outdoors (often isolated from other people in the middle of a National Forest), that the individualism of American culture was just and right (as a way of determining your way in life) and that there was a wider array of people in the world who I did not know nor how to interact with or how to think about. This assessment merely scratches the surface but I hope that this conveys an accurate picture of culture making.
Culture making and culture preserving is what human beings normally do. We form bonds and develop commonly understood concepts and standards for acceptable behavior and relating together. The cultivation of common life and shared experiences necessarily becomes a work of making and remaking the definitions and descriptions of acceptable thought and behavior. This dynamic pattern of social formation and reinforcement of norms has been happening since the beginning of human history.
God’s people have been apart of that culture formation in every generation and have contributed to it—for good or ill. This is by God’s design and we will be held accountable for our actions and legacy we leave in our time. As image-bearers our ability to make and shape culture can be exceptionally good and benefit all those around us.