In past centuries the ancestors or those famous leaders (kings, priests, poets, military men) were revered. In contrast to antiquity and biblical times, we modern people tend to despise and discount the past generations contribution to ideas and our way of life. And with that disregard, many people tend to be indifferent or hostile to religious teaching or claims to revelation in Scripture (or other religious claims). The cry is always for what is “new” and different and cutting edge. Yet even for modernity the sense of the sacred haunts people. I think this is why we see today this irrational insistence that culture is sacrosanct.
Everyone becomes aware at some point that merely seeking material goods, bodily pleasures or knowledge does not meet a deeper inner need. We were not made for ourselves and even those who do not read Scripture or care to listen know that inner satisfaction depends upon Something outside of our minds. Thus to try to fill that void people have deified human culture(s).
Everything that we do is infused with meaning because of how God created us. And what we make reflects our individual and corporate sense of identity. Precisely because human culture is a human invention it is morally ambiguous or even evil in what it affirms and enforces.
“Now culture is the complement of nature. What is ‘natural’ is God-given and inherited; what is ‘cultural’ is man-made and learned. Culture is an amalgam of beliefs, values, customs and institutions developed by each society and transmitted to the next generation. Human cultures are ambiguous because human beings are ambiguous. ‘Because man is God’s creature, some of his culture is rich in beauty and goodness. Because he is fallen, all of it is tainted with sin and some of it is demonic.’”[i]
Cultures are like buildings which are slowly constructed by many hands. They must change because they must be maintained, rebuilt and refurbished over time in order to survive. Though they are intangible, they are nevertheless real and the givenness of cultural assumptions can both help and hinder people toward seeking to know the living God. And because culture is invented and shaped by human hands it is that much more likely to be a stronghold of idolatry and to reflect the warped world-views and sinful patterns (iniquities) which that human group has embraced. This is also true of “Christian culture”—that of societies which have been profoundly infused by Christian teaching and of Church traditions. (Many examples of this can be listed.)
People generally are looking for some way to ground themselves in something substantial and ultimately “real” and satisfying; cultural norms, even though they can give a kind of soothing psychological familiarity, are not adequate to answer the deep cries of the heart and mind. As I noted above, the contemporary mood is to amplify those characteristics or behavior which distinguish people from each other. Yet this emphasis has forced many people today to openly wonder how it is possible to live together amidst our differences! The focus on real and imagined differences has provoked a new kind of tribalism which is very appealing. (We see this particularly in the uncivil state of political conversation in America today.)
What is this but a competition among rival gods (formed from more finely refined cultural differences)? The deification of culture as sacrosanct has led us to this point. And modern people, who want the benefit of being in a post-Christian and post-modern culture, have no answers to the heart cries which people have for a meaningful and healthy communal life.
The main aim here has been to reflect on the force and shape of culture in America, North America and Western countries. In that context, I argue here and in prior blogs (see The Foundation for True Progress and The Evangel as Resistance) that people in Western countries have deified culture as sacrosanct. Due to the reality of how Western culture has shifted, pressure is now coming upon believers to conform to what I call the “rule of fluidity” regarding the morality of behavior (especially sexual), assessing ethical norms and theological convictions and assessments of the authority of Scripture. A seismic cultural paradigm shift, like an earthquake, has occurred and we Christians are now coming face to face to with the ramifications of that.
I would suggest that instead of looking to our contemporary sages and intellectuals and faddish “5 steps to church growth” programs we make a thorough search of the Scriptures to discern the whole counsel of God. In Scripture we will discover that unity amidst diversity is only possible in the exalted Person of the Lord Jesus. We will all think and draw conclusion based upon our life experience and cultural backgrounds—how can we not do so? But what we can do is become more aware of those inherited cultural assumptions and learn to be self-critical and critical of one’s tribe.
We can learn to be humble and hold our opinions lightly and be careful to establish and hold fast to essentials while giving liberty to each other regarding non-essential matters. In this way we can model for others what vibrant community in the Body of Christ effect for the good of all people. This will require us to be generous towards each other while also being truth-tellers. Given that Christian faith has often been blended uncritically with cultural norms this is even more important to strive for. It seems that God’s truth must necessarily work its way out through cultural formation and reformation; truth is filtered by people and thus always falls short of fully articulating the meaning of the Word in one way or another. Is it not amazing that Holy Spirit sorts out and clarifies God’s truth as he works among God’s people over time?
Cultures are not sacrosanct and thus people’s truest needs are not met in them. They reflect people’s warped perspectives and truest and noblest aspirations but they are not the Truth. There is only One who is the Truth and in whom we can find a common point of unity. Let us give ourselves to the Lord perpetually so we can see and put truth into practice, according to biblical revelation, and so discern from a vantage point which transcends and critiques cultural differences. Then we can be positioned to recognize the difference between our ways (as formed through cultural norms) and the Lord’s way (in the Kingdom) and so utilize cultural forms to help lead people to faith in Jesus the Christ and contribute to the formation of righteousness in cultures and communities.
[i] John Stott, New Issues Facing Christians Today (Zondervan:1999), p.255; quotes citation from The Lausanne Covenant.