Lost and Found

Jay: In several parables, Jesus talked about people being lost to “outer darkness”. Here are three:

And when Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, imploring Him, and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, fearfully tormented.” Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion said, “Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.” Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled and said to those who were following, “Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And Jesus said to the centurion, “Go; it shall be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed that very moment. (Matthew 8:5-13)


Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. And he sent out his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding feast, and they were unwilling to come. Again he sent out other slaves saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited, “Behold, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and my fattened livestock are all butchered and everything is ready; come to the wedding feast.”’ But they paid no attention and went their way, one to his own farm, another to his business, and the rest seized his slaves and mistreated them and killed them. But the king was enraged, and he sent his armies and destroyed those murderers and set their city on fire. Then he *said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main highways, and as many as you find there, invite to the wedding feast.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered together all they found, both evil and good; and the wedding hall was filled with dinner guests.
“But when the king came in to look over the dinner guests, he saw a man there who was not dressed in wedding clothes, and he *said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without wedding clothes?’ And the man was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:1-14)


“For it is just like a man about to go on a journey, who called his own slaves and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents, to another, two, and to another, one, each according to his own ability; and he went on his journey. Immediately the one who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and gained five more talents. In the same manner the one who had received the two talents gained two more. But he who received the one talent went away, and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
“Now after a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. The one who had received the five talents came up and brought five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you entrusted five talents to me. See, I have gained five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’
Also the one who had received the two talents came up and said, ‘Master, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’
“And the one also who had received the one talent came up and said, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you scattered no seed. And I was afraid, and went away and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’
“But his master answered and said to him, ‘You wicked, lazy slave, you knew that I reap where I did not sow and gather where I scattered no seed. Then you ought to have put my money in the bank, and on my arrival I would have received my money back with interest. Therefore take away the talent from him, and give it to the one who has the ten talents.’
“For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away. Throw out the worthless slave into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 25:14-30)

How does that square with the gift of the grace of God, and with the judgment of which Jesus spoke immediately after telling the Parable of the Talents?…

“But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.
“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’
“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46)

What is this “eternal punishment,” the “outer darkness”? And how does it relate to the gift of grace?

David: These passages link “lost” with sin. But grace (as I understand the concept) is linked with neither, at least not in the Beatitudes, where it is linked primarily with suffering. (I read “Blessed are…” as meaning that those blessed—those “made holy”—are relieved of all suffering; i.e., they receive grace.) In the Judgment scene, Jesus seems to want us to visit people in prison regardless of whether they deserve to be there or not. The point is to relieve the prisoner’s suffering, to pass on God’s grace; it has nothing to do with their sin. Grace does not absolve sin; it takes away hurt.

Don: What is our default setting when we are born? Are we lost? Are we conditionally saved, based on our behavior? Or are we neutral, able to go either way?

Donald: I would say that we are born sinners and therefore born lost. We are thus driven to find salvation, and in doing so we recognize the value of faith in our lives. But we can be lost and not know it, or be lost and be worried about it. We can be lost but have the possibility of finding the way home. The “weeping and gnashing of teeth” among those cast into outer darkness suggests they know they are lost and are in great fear. But most people don’t think much about it, I suspect.

There seems to be a finality in these stories, though. Outer darkness is pitch black, with no hope of finding a way back. It is a place of eternal, not temporary, punishment. It is a place where one is lost forever. But our default state of being lost is not this final state of being lost.

Don: The Parables of the Coin, the Sheep, and the Prodigal Son also deal with this issue of being lost. The coin that is lost cannot know that it is lost, and it cannot be blamed for getting lost; the sheep is at least somewhat responsible for getting itself lost; and the Prodigal Son is willfully lost by an act of premeditation. But in each case, they are found, and the finding is a cause for celebration. So it seems that “lost” is a default position.

But maybe it’s not a one-size-fits-all. Maybe there’s a different default for different individuals. Maybe there’s a different understanding by individuals of what it means to be lost.

Nick: For me, being lost would mean failing to witness, failing to proclaim the Good News as Jesus said we should, when the opportunity arises.

Jay: Are the lost in the parables I read—those consigned to outer darkness—as lost as the coin, the sheep, and the Prodigal Son in the parables Don mentioned? Does lost imply a possibility of being found? Is there a level of lost so deep that the possibility of being found no longer exists?

Donald: Believers have maps—their Scriptures. So in order to know that one is lost, one must read one’s Scripture. Someone who does not accept any Scripture cannot feel lost.

David: Lost is more than straying from the Way mapped out in Scripture, by doing bad things. It is a recognition that one has reached a dead-end with no apparent way back. What I find confusing about the Scriptural map is that when you reach that very point, the Beatitudes ought to kick in and you no longer suffer from being lost. It seems to me the last thing a merciful and gracious God will countenance is the weeping and gnashing of teeth of His children who have reached the end of the line and know it. Surely this is the (or at least a) point of the Beatitudes?

Kiran: That there is outer darkness implies that there is also inner darkness. In the inner darkness, the weeping and the gnashing of teeth may be communicated to others—as well as to one’s self. In the outer darkness, there is no-one else to hear—only one’s self. Introspection helps people realize who they really are. It enlightens, thus lighting the way out of the inner darkness.

But the only way out of the outer darkness, where no light can shine, is through God, in the same way that there was no way back for the lost sheep other than on the shoulder of the shepherd. Once we realize we are lost, there is help. If we don’t realize that we are lost, there is no help, so we remain in the outer darkness until we do.

Jay: So the outer darkness may be part of redemption.

Michael: We start out lost, and we end up lost. It’s a universal condition, regardless of what Scripture we follow.

Don: To what extent is being lost conditional upon behavior? If we are lost, how much good behavior will put us on the road to salvation? If we are neither lost nor saved but in some neutral condition, how much good behavior will put us on the road to salvation and how much bad behavior will put us on the road to perdition? There is something about mercy and grace that seems to ameliorate the impact of our bad behavior. One of the factors apparent in the parables is that the harshest judgment is reserved for those who hoard grace, who are unwilling to share it with others, while proclaiming their own righteousness. If we knew our default position (lost, saved, neutral) would it help us change our behavior?

Donald: In order to know we are in the proper lane we need signposts: Turn left for perdition, right for salvation, straight ahead for neither. There is a general reluctance to invite non-Adventists to participate in our worship. Is that like inviting them into my lane, to follow my signposts, my map? We are generally much more comfortable worshiping with other Adventists.

Nick: We hoard grace by not sharing the Good News. We should not let fear or discomfort prevent us from doing so. But I don’t think hoarding grace jeopardizes the believer’s entry to heaven. Only rejecting Christ can do that.

Jay: Those who hoard their master’s talent are consigned to the outer darkness. People who don’t behave with the faith of the centurion are consigned to outer darkness. Guests at the king’s wedding feast who refuse to wear the guest robe are consigned to outer darkness. But in the parables of the coin, the sheep, and the Prodigal Son, the issue is the behavior of the seeker, not the behavior of the sought. (I would argue that the Parable of the Prodigal Son may be more to do with the behavior of the father than of the son.) In the end, we want to know if there is finality. Can we switch lanes as often as we like in life but be destined to settle in one lane once and for all when we die? We don’t like to talk about being lost for all eternity, yet it seems to me we must, if we are to understand grace.

David: Are we are getting lost in an ocean of words? The concepts of lost and saved float around in a sea of nearly 800,000 words in the Christian Bible, but they don’t make a single appearance in the 5,000 words of the Dao De Jing. To me, the Dao is that very same Way that Jesus proclaimed Himself to be—a way to follow in this life, but the Dao does not specify an end result other than sagacity and enlightenment.

We are trying to define spiritual concepts which, it seems to me, are not amenable to definition.

Nick: I felt guilty about failing to give something to a beggar on the street. I was in the “lost” lane.

Shakir: The question of finality is critical. If we don’t agree on it, then the rest of the discussion is both confusing and won’t lead to any agreement; and we can’t prove to one another the truth of our faith-based answers to the question. If somehow we could all agree on the finality, it would be a different story. Groups tend to gather around agreement on certain finalities because that makes the rest of the discussion easier.
Don: Is there a “lost” condition in Daoism?

David: Only in the sense of straying from the Way. When you step off it, you are in a sense stepping into outer darkness. But again, the focus is on following or fighting the Way, not on straying from it.

Don: How do you know you have stepped off the Way?

David: Not through the intellect, not through behavioral analysis, not through an algorithm. You can know only through an heuristic inner sense. In Christian terms, that would be the inner light, the spirit.

Donald: I don’t want to find myself in outer darkness. I am afraid of hell. This concept is a lot scarier than just stepping off the Way.

David: A mix of Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and a pantheon of earth gods passes for religion among the vast majority of Chinese. This mix and its parts do not promote fear of damnation or hope of salvation. Yet in my observation as one who has lived and worked with them, at the interpersonal if not the political level the Chinese treat one another just as well and as badly as the people of Christian nations treat one another. Their “Way” is no different from ours. Their way, like ours, is human.

Michael: My understanding is that going with the Way is much easier than going against it. It’s just living life as it comes, without all the weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Don: If a Moslem strays from the five pillars of Islam, if we stray from our own Adventist rules and strictures, what are the consequences of straying from our lanes? Is good behavior enough to keep us on the right lane and keep us from weeping and gnashing our teeth in this life but inconsequential in the next?

Shakir: If I don’t pray five times a day, don’t fast at Ramadan, don’t pay zakat, don’t perform the Hajj, does that put me in the wrong lane? If I ask this question of myself, in private, the answer would be Yes. But if an Adventist were to ask me whether I think he is in the wrong lane for not praying five times a day, not fasting at Ramadan, not paying zakat, and not perform the Hajj, I would be quite unable to answer. He is in a different lane from me. If you ask me whether both lanes are right, or whether one is right and one is wrong, I also cannot answer. Should I try to get the Adventist to join me in my lane? In one sense, the answer must be Yes, but I don’t know how. Because it must be acknowledged that the Adventist and I were born and raised in different lanes, and neither of us can answer these questions for the other.

Jay: Next week, we’ll discuss the Unpardonable Sin in the context of finality.

Practicing What We Preach?

Don: How do our doctrines and beliefs influence the way we live? God’s doctrines—the core values, such as loving God—are universal, eternal, and immutable, whereas Man’s doctrines are particular and peculiar. They give us a unique identity and are culturally, geographically, and horologically bound. They are amendable.

We may argue about whether any particular doctrine is God’s or Man’s, but Man’s doctrine—indeed, religion itself—is not without value in providing guidance to the believer seeking answers. God’s doctrines tell us how we should be. Man’s doctrines dictate how we should behave, how to apply God’s doctrines with respect to modesty, propriety, relationships, and expressions in the context of our particular culture, geography, and time. They prescribe how to practice what we believe, which may or may not be what we preach.

In uncharacteristically scathing language, Jesus called out the scribes and the Pharisees for not practicing what they preached:

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men. But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in. [Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation.]
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.’ You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.’ You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering? Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had been living in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the guilt of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell?
“Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, so that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Matthew 23)

In coming weeks, we will analyze these “woes” of the scribes and Pharisees in hopes of answering the questions: What must I do to be saved or, if I am to be saved by grace, why is obedience so important?

There is strong tension between obedience and grace. For non-Christians, grace is one of the most baffling doctrines. Muslims are required to obey the Five Pillars of Islam, namely:

  1. Shahadah: sincerely reciting the Muslim profession of faith
  2. Salat: performing ritual prayers in the proper way five times each day
  3. Zakat: paying an alms (or charity) tax to benefit the poor and the needy
  4. Sawm: fasting during the month of Ramadan
  5. Hajj: pilgrimage to Mecca

Four of the five pillars are behavioral and require strict adherence.

When asked what one must do to be saved, the average Christian will respond simply with: “Believe in the Lord Jesus,” which is the answer Peter and Silas gave in answer to that very question (Acts 16:31). The Christian will not mention prayer, fasting, penance, or pilgrimage.

Intuitively, we assume godly people to be good. I asked a Muslim friend what would happen if he were ever to be lax in his obligations under the Five Pillars. He said there were provisions for such eventuality, such as making up for missed prayers, or fasting on another day, or paying more zakat, provided there were good reasons for the delinquency—sickness, accidents, emergencies, and so on. But ultimately whether a reason is “good” enough is a matter between the believer and Allah. Being merciful, Allah could forgive anyway, my friend said. To me, that sounded a lot like grace.

The emphasis in Islam is on good behavior but there is a recognition of failure and God’s mercy, though grace is not a license to continue sinning. It is the old argument between grace and works. Can we be saved by good behavior but lost by bad behavior? How good do we have to be to be saved? How bad do we have to be to be lost? Are these even valid questions? Are behavior and salvation really linked at all, or do we need a paradigm shift in our thinking on this issue?

Donald: Is Christianity, or indeed is any faith journey, a matter of the head or of the heart? The more we sit and talk about it, the more we develop rules and guidelines without actually going out and doing anything. We use the words “beliefs”, “doctrine”, and “religion” interchangeably, as we do “pleasure”, “happiness”, and “joy”. To me, “pleasure” is a moment in time, “happiness” is something we seek, and “joy” is spiritual. Perhaps it would be helpful to define in greater depth the concepts we are currently discussing.

Jay: The concept of “lost” is one of them. What does it mean to be “lost”, versus “saved”? The concept of grace seems to render it impossible to be lost. If that is so, then the issues of obedience and “faith vs. works” and so on are moot. Is the concept of “lost” a human construct, not a divine construct? Is one “lost” in the physical realm or in the spiritual realm? In this life or in the next? Again, if grace nullifies “lost”, what does it matter? Some definition would be helpful. Some definition of “believe” as in “Believe in the Lord Jesus” would also be helpful. Does it deliver a result, or is it just a mental exercise?

Don: There also the issue of quantification. Nobody can be 100 percent good or bad. But what percentage of goodness will lead to salvation, and what percentage of badness will lead to “lost”? Is it 50.0001 percent, and how would we quantify it? My Muslim friend said it just does not seem right that we can be any percent bad and be saved in the end anyway. So how far can one stray from the Five Pillars? How many prayers can one miss before God’s patience and mercy are exhausted?

Kiran: When I converted to Christianity I felt a sense of superiority, that I was doing all the things I needed to do for salvation. I felt holier-than-thou. But then I thought about Gandhi. What percentage of goodness would he score?

A pastor confused me by saying that God doesn’t work that way. It hurt to think that my efforts didn’t matter. It could have induced dissipation or, as I hope it did in my case, humility and the empathetic realization that I am no better than others and struggle as they do.

Jay: We struggle with the defining point. Even the parables of Jesus, the castings into outer darkness, the gnashings of teeth, the sheep and the goats, and so on all seem to be defining points or definitional devices designed to help the human mind grasp key concepts. If so, there must be something definable that leads to salvation or loss. Are grace/salvation/loss moments in time or are they eternal? If eternal, how can grace and loss be reconciled? Scripture says we can’t understand God’s grace, so should we even be trying?

Kiran: Our current understanding of these concepts is different from that of people in earlier ages. Excommunication is not seen as an eternal death sentence any more. “Believe in the Lord Jesus” might not mean the same to us as it meant to Paul and Silas.

Don: The passage says not only the believer in Christ will be saved but also his or her whole household. Does this make any sense?

David: It seems to me that the paradigm shift Don suggested might be needed would involve not more definition but less of it. Definitions are constructed from words. The more definitions, and the more refined those definitions grow, then the more words. Hence, we end up with a 783,137-word King James Bible. This Bible reflects an intellectual (a scribe and Pharisee) desire to nail down the law in no uncertain terms. But spiritual concepts are by definition indefinable. The Dao De Jing has only about 5,000 words which, furthermore, are strung together in nothing but uncertain terms!

I think we could and should pare down the Bible to similar proportions. We could do so simply by taking the words of Jesus as the whole of the Bible and discarding all the rest. Jesus presented conundra in the form of questions and parables. They don’t make intellectual sense and they were not meant to. He explained the grace/loss issue beautifully through the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We understand the parable perfectly—we recognize the Truth that it contains—until we try to analyze it intellectually, spewing a torrent of words that only serves to sow confusion.

Jesus showed us the Way. The Dao. Believing in Jesus simply means accepting the Way. The moment we try to pin Him—the Way—down in definition, we start to lose it. The paradigm shift religion needed in the time of Jesus and still today is to rid itself of definitions. It needs to rid itself of scribes and Pharisees.

Robin: What is our reaction when we first learn about grace? It seems to me it could go one of two ways. Through the working of the Holy Spirit, who reveals God’s grace to us in the first place, we may eventually choose to feel grateful, to recognize the love that is behind it, to admit that we need it, and to want to emulate it.

Or we might use it has an excuse for, and an indulgence of, our bad behavior. This does not reflect gratitude, humility, and longing. It becomes a game. But God does not play games. How we react to grace when it comes to us—and it is there for everybody—is up to us. It was there for Judas, but he rejected it. We can’t earn it, but we can respond to it.

Donald: I have had the good fortune to participate in a group of all-male, non-denominational Christians over the past few years. All of us in the group are open about saying that we believe in Jesus Christ, accept that He died for us, and are saved. It takes but a minute or two for us to say these things. If salvation is that simple, what is the purpose of our faith journey? Why do we keep the discussion going? Is it for salvation? Is it to ensure we are right and not wrong, to ensure that we see our loved ones again, to meet our Savior, to ensure that we live forever in heaven,…?

I can’t honestly say I know what heaven is, yet I want to go there. God created me and put me in a place where I can get no more than a glimpse of Him, so I can never fully understand Him on this Earth, which is a joyful place in spite of all the sin in it. It has pockets that reveal the glory of God’s creation. So why should I question my ability to understand it? Is it selfish to accept Jesus Christ solely to avoid being lost?

Kiran: Had Judas not committed suicide but waited instead for Jesus to come, he could have received grace. I think the realization of having done something terribly wrong is necessary for grace. Without that self-realization, without looking inside and figuring out who we really are, grace is beyond us. So to me, saying we believe in Jesus, accepting that He died for us, and believing we are saved only works if we first recognize ourselves for who we really are. Perhaps the inability to recognize our true selves, expressed whenever we judge ourselves better than someone else, is the definition of “lost”.

Chris: What happens when someone truly “believes” in Jesus? Their behavior becomes good. If they don’t truly believe, their actions will show it. For example, a true believer will refrain from any act that does not show love to one neighbor. If I do something that does not show such love, I cannot truly believe. Works follow on naturally from faith—we don’t need to fret over them. Nevertheless, we are flawed and will stumble at times. This is where grace comes in.

David: Acceptance of our sinful nature is key. A sinful nature, a tendency to stray from the perfect Way embodied by Jesus, is natural and inescapable for us. But when a feeling of guilt guides our feet back onto the Way, there is reason to hope that we will get to wherever the Way wants to take us. We must accept that we cannot be perfect. The more that we try to map the Way in torrents of words, in misleading thickets of signposts pointing Salvation This Way and Damnation That, the more likely we are to go astray.

When Jesus told the map-making, signpost-painting scribes and Pharisees that “outwardly [you] appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness”, He was saying that they failed to follow their own maps and signposts. But Jesus was also one of the first to show us that this is our way! We are all scribes and Pharisees. Accepting this is key. Acceptance of our sinful nature is the lesson learned by the Prodigal Son and by Job, Jonah, and Jacob. Did any of them go and sin no more after their struggles with God? Did they become perfect? I doubt it. As human beings, this would have been impossible for them.

Guilty acceptance of one’s sinful nature, of having strayed from the Way, is vital because it implicitly recognizes that a better Way exists. This recognition is all we need. We must not obscure it in a veil woven of words.

Kiran: Acceptance is when real works can begin. There seems to be no point in stumbling on and off the path if we don’t put our time on it to good use.

Don: David presents three scenarios:

  • A. We sin but feel no guilt.
  • B. We sin but feel guilty.
  • C. We don’t sin.

Does grace cover A and B but not C? Only A? Only B? Is A the one most in need of grace, and therefore the one most likely to receive it? Is that fair?

David: A is lost, having shut himself off from grace. A was Jacob before his feelings of guilt, before his wrestling match with God. B was Jacob during the match. If one is never a B, either one is already lost (A) or saved (C). But all this is merely human logic, made doubly imperfect by virtue of coming from me. The most beautiful words spoken by Jesus—the Beatitudes—are all about grace yet say nothing of guilt, only of suffering.

Dewan: In some religions, salvation is reserved only for believers in the religion itself.

What’s in Religion for Me?

Don: We might answer the question in the topic in one of at least three ways:

  1. My religion is holy and true. By believing and practicing it, I have my best chance for Heaven, since Heaven is reserved for people of my faith, God is what I am, and God expects me to follow this way.
  2. My religion is holy and true to me. By believing and practicing it, I feel fulfilled and satisfied. In addition, I believe that my religion has a special message from God and I want to be part of that message. I don’t know who will be in Heaven but I feel that what I do here on Earth matters to God and will give me my best chance for Heaven.
  3. My religion is that of my culture or of my conversion. By practicing it, I keep closer to my community. Indeed, much of my community is defined by my beliefs. I believe that God has many sheep of many different folds, but what I practice works for me. I want to be good because I think that God would be pleased with that, but ultimately I rely on God’s grace as the sure way to salvation.

Why do Moslems pray five times a day? Why do Catholics believe that the wine and wafer of communion become the actual flesh and blood of Jesus Christ? Why do Seventh Day Adventists go to church on Saturday? Why do Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse blood transfusions? Why do the Amish shun automobiles? Why do Mormons baptize other members on behalf of the dead?

Such unique beliefs have major impacts on the lives and lifestyle of those who follow them. Why do we hold and follow such beliefs? What doctrinal beliefs and practices are essential for salvation? Are some essential and others optional? Do some matter more than others? Do they all matter? Do none matter? What is eternal and salvific? What is simply directional? Which are doctrines of God, and which are doctrines of Man?

Doctrines of different faith groups have resulted in wars and unspeakable violence. There may be less physical violence today but doctrinal wars within and between churches and religions persist verbally. Everyone—even those who recognize grace as the route to salvation—clings to doctrine as though salvation depends on it. Contradiction and inconsistency within doctrines are not uncommon. We preach grace through faith yet defend our practices as essential to salvation. We argue that our beliefs should influence behavior yet do not change our own behaviors accordingly.

A Pew survey asked Christians to rank the top behavioral essentials of their religion: only 35% thought that attending church was one of them, 32% that keeping one’s temper was one, only 28% were for helping out their congregation, 26% for dressing modestly, 22% for working to protect the environment, 18% for living a healthy lifestyle and for resting on the Sabbath, and a scant 14% for buying only from companies that pay a fair wage to employees.

The apostle Paul wrote:

Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers. Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, men who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and they upset the faith of some. Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, “The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness.” Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work. Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels. The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:14-26) …[F]rom childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:15-17)

What influence do beliefs have on practice, on way of life? What influence should we expect them to have?

Robin: Perhaps some of us take each of the three approaches to doctrine that Don outlined at the beginning, as we mature in our faith. We begin by thinking we need to earn our way to Heaven, and end by accepting grace.

David: I would put in a word for the SBNRs (the Spiritual But Not Religious) and I would put Job, Jonah, and Jacob in this category. God sent Jonah—ostensibly His prophet—on a mission of salvation to the Ninevites, yet Jonah did everything he could to get out of the mission and was himself clearly unsalvageable by any means other than grace. In the Scriptural accounts of their lives I see nothing religious about the three Js but a great deal that is spiritual.

Donald: We tend to confuse the words religion, belief, and doctrine. I think we need to distinguish much more carefully among them. It seems to me dangerous to conflate the terms. A person without religion may be saved, but what about a person without belief in God? With faith in institutions in general decline, we seem more disposed to write religion off while allowing belief to prevail. But if we put religion and belief in the same basket, we put both at risk by suggesting that you cannot be SBNR—you cannot say you believe if you lack religion. I was born into the Seventh Day Adventist church, so I cannot put myself in the shoes of people who were not.

Mikiko: The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that…

…you can distinguish true religion from false by its fruits, or by these identifying features.
1. True religion teaches the truth that is based on the Bible, not on human philosophies. (John 4:24; 17:17) This includes religious truths about the soul and the hope of everlasting life on a paradise earth. (Psalm 37:29; Isaiah 35:5, 6; Ezekiel 18:4) It also does not hold back from exposing religious falsehood.—Matthew 15:9; 23:27, 28.
2. True religion helps people to know God, including teaching them his name, Jehovah. (Psalm 83:18; Isaiah 42:8; John 17:3, 6) It does not teach that he is incomprehensible or aloof; rather, it teaches that he wants us to have a relationship with him.—James 4:8.
3. True religion highlights Jesus Christ as the one through whom God grants salvation. (Acts 4:10, 12) Its members obey Jesus’ commands and strive to follow his example.—John 13:15; 15:14.
4. True religion focuses on God’s Kingdom as mankind’s only hope. Its members actively tell others about that Kingdom.—Matthew 10:7; 24:14.
5. True religion promotes unselfish love. (John 13:35) It teaches respect for all ethnic groups and welcomes people from all races, cultures, languages, and backgrounds. (Acts 10:34, 35) Moved by love, its members do not go to war.—Micah 4:3; 1 John 3:11, 12.
6. True religion has no paid clergy, and it does not give high-sounding religious titles to any of its members.—Matthew 23:8-12; 1 Peter 5:2, 3.
7. True religion is completely neutral in political affairs. (John 17:16; 18:36) However, its members respect and obey the government where they live, in harmony with the Bible’s command: “Pay back Caesar’s things to Caesar [representing the civil authority], but God’s things to God.”—Mark 12:17; Romans 13:1, 2.
8. True religion is a way of life, not just a ritual or a formality. Its members adhere to the Bible’s high moral standards in all aspects of life. (Ephesians 5:3-5; 1 John 3:18) Rather than being grim, though, they find joy in worshipping “the happy God.”—1 Timothy 1:11.
9. Those who practice true religion will be in the minority. (Matthew 7:13, 14) Members of the true religion are often looked down on, ridiculed, and persecuted for doing God’s will.—Matthew 5:10-12.

David: This says that “True religion teaches the truth that is based on the Bible, not on human philosophies.” But, for me, religion breaks down precisely because the Bible (and other Scriptures) are so full of inconsistencies—they do not hold a coherent intellectual philosophy. But at least one thing religion can do, that philosophy cannot do, is to build cathedrals, temples, and mosques that inspire a “sense” of divine presence.

But a “sense” in this context is not a physical nor (I would argue) a psychological state; but, rather, a spiritual state. So religion does something for me in motivating people to build seemingly divine edifices, but what that “something” is spiritual and therefore inexplicable in principle.

Robin: Is there not intellectual philosophy in the parables?

David: To me, the parable of the Good Samaritan does not make an intellectual argument for being good to one’s fellow Wo/Man. It is irrational to interrupt your important trip to Jerusalem because of someone else’s misfortune. But for me (and I suspect for most—though not all—people) the parable destroys the rational, intellectual case for doing nothing in the same way that the cathedral destroys the rational, intellectual case for atheism. The parable and the temple both give a sense of a divine presence (I think they awaken it in the visitor) and it is that “sense” that throws intellect out of the window. The intellect doesn’t apply here.

Robin: I see intellectual cleverness in the way Jesus presents the moral argument through parable. It doesn’t take much thought to understand them.

David: It takes no thought at all. In fact, thought could kill the moral argument for some. How many of us can stand to think too long about turning the other cheek and then actually turn it when the time comes? We grasp the moral argument in the parables and teachings of Jesus through something other than the intellect, and to me that something is the (inner) spirit.

Robin: Does Jesus shut down the intellect, or does He redirect it to where it has always been intended for it to be?

David: Perhaps it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that it works!

Donald: A civil discussion about spirituality involving multiple perspectives seems to me much more stimulating and rewarding than the more common gathering of like minds. Maintaining civility is the problem in the former. The latter is more comfortable, and comfort seems highly desirable to us.

Don: Why do we cling so tightly to our views even at the risk of incivility and far worse? Why are our passions and hostility inflamed when our views are challenged? What drives us to extreme levels of involvement and commitment to an idea?

Kiran: Is it community, born of proximity in place and mind, that drives us? This class can be difficult to join because it makes people uncomfortable. Even in a large like-minded group such as a church (or indeed even in a different denomination) one may find subgroups with which one identifies particularly strongly. I don’t know what drives that identity, but it is not doctrine. Perhaps we have the same inner light.

Dewan: When Jesus Christ lived on Earth there was no Christian religion. I come to church on the Sabbath because the Sabbath is a sign of the Creation and I wish therefore to celebrate it. Salvation is not a matter of denomination. Jesus came to save everyone, not just Christians. He told the disciples to go and preach to the world. His message is for everyone.

Don: I’m hearing a lot of accommodation with other points of view today. What happened to a good old war to establish ours as the dominant viewpoint?

Michael: The world does seem to be progressing morally; that is, people generally are more open-minded and accepting even of things they don’t agree with. The new immorality is to not accept others with their different viewpoints. It serves a good purpose if it prevents war.

Robin: So people have to learn not to be judgmental.

David: I agree very much with Michael and with Dewan. In essence, they seem to me to suggest that a world that believes in Christ, yet is not Christian, is not just possible but is actually developing. The willingness to accept others is as Christ-like as it gets, but it doesn’t matter whether we recognize the name “Jesus” or “Christ” because all humans inherently recognize the truths He spoke and the life He led as the moral Way forward—including His inclusion of Samaritans and other “outsiders” as fellow human beings sharing a oneness with God that transcends doctrine and religion. As we begin to transcend religion, the key (it seems to me) is not to throw out the baby with the bathwater—not to throw out the universal moral principles.

Donald: Civil discourse is stimulating, but on the other hand, it forces us to re-examine our truths. Americans may be coming to accept that more or less “anything goes”, but others around the world are uncomfortable with what they may see as the new “American way”. What are our truths—where are the edges?

Don: The boundaries are blurring, the lanes are starting to merge. It is exhilarating to the progressive, who sees moral advance; but may be deeply distressing to the conservative, who see moral decline.

David: The conservative may see the disappearance of lane markers and consequent moral decline as the prelude to a massive accident on the multilane freeway. In other words, to imminent Armageddon. The end result will be a new Heaven and a new Earth. A progressive like me also sees a new Earth, but one that will arise from accommodation to each other’s driving on a freeway without lanes, rather than a world-ending crash. After all, this happens on a daily basis on the highways of New Delhi!

Kiran: Doctrine has benefits when we are feeling chaotic and life makes no sense, but perhaps it gets in the way after we have emerged from spiritual chaos. The unchanging doctrine that God is gracious is comforting to everyone everywhere.

Michael: But because of the new accommodation of different views, white supremacists can wave the swastika with relative impunity now. Is this a religious issue or a psychological one?

Robin: It serves the human carnal nature to own God, so that we can then have the power to know what is true, what is good, and what is evil, thus making us fit to judge, fit to decide who should live or die—as Christians did in the Crusades. But we stumble over issues such as whether euthanasia is murder. Jesus taught that true power comes from humility, from peace-seeking.

Michael: The need for power and the exercise of violence stem from fear.

Kiran: Is it fear or is it the lust for power that ignites strife? The early Christians died for their beliefs; the later Christians killed for their beliefs.

Don: Why are we afraid? What are we afraid of? Is it losing our salvation? Is it fear of being wrong?

Kiran: Perhaps it is because we just don’t understand the concept of grace.

Robin: We don’t link power with humility. Our carnal nature does not want to submit. It wants to control.

Dewan: Fear of a cruel God is misplaced. He provides, each and every day, food and life for us. He deserves our respect, not our fear, as the Creator and provider of all.

Donald: Churches have been known to split down the middle, with those on one side walking away from those on the other. They disagree on what each considers to be an absolute line. If I am right and I disagree with you, does that mean that you are wrong, end of story? Chaos reigns where there is no absolute certainty. We look to the Bible for that certainty, for the lane boundaries.

Don: How irresponsible of God not to give us clear directions! What kind of God responds to a simple enough question from Job with 77 questions of His own? Is there an answer there?

David: Science too constantly seeks to find absolutes and ultimate truths, and it advances through much competition between scientists and their theories. Yet they seldom come to blows, and never (to my knowledge) go to real war over a scientific disagreement. Why can’t religion be like that?

Don: It seems that in religion, we would rather be wrong than uncertain. We would rather make up an absolute, however manifestly incorrect, than not have an absolute at all.

David: Yet, in science, we would rather be uncertain than wrong. We speak out of both sides of our mouth!

Kiran: We have confidence that science will get to the absolute truth eventually, because we control science. In religion, we lack that confidence because we are not in control.

Donald: I prefer my doctors to be arrogant—to know what is wrong with me and tell me what to do.

Don: If I were to say to a patient: “I haven’t a clue what’s wrong with you,” he or she would not remain my patient very long! Similarly, though, we want our clergy to be quite sure they know who God is and what God wants of us.


“Because they hated knowledge
And did not choose the fear of the Lord.
“They would not accept my counsel,
They spurned all my reproof.
“So they shall eat of the fruit of their own way
And be satiated with their own devices.” (Proverbs 1:29-31)

Don: I am beginning to see doctrine as playing an important role in some but not all stages of faith. In some it is an elective, in others it has a defining value. But it seems to me that too much emphasis on doctrine diminishes the idea of salvation through grace, and that religions generally and antithetically emphasize doctrine over grace, despite their recognition of its salvific power.

It leads us to the question: What is the role of obedience in the life of the spiritual person?

Michael: Doctrine is partly community-building.

Don: Absolutely. The Amish built and preserve their community through doctrine and culture. If that is the value of doctrine, should not all our religions reflect that value, rather than try to value doctrine above grace?

Religion and Faith At Their Core

Technology and globalization have always pressured religion. Historically contrived lines are being blurred at the present time through the mixing of diverse cultures as a result of technology and globalization. Here’s a recent example showing how the Church of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormon Church) has struggled with new things:

Church Clarifies Word of Wisdom, Stance on Green Tea, Mocha, Vaping in Statement


by LDS Living Staff

Aug. 13, 2019

In a recent New Era article, the Church offered some clarifications to the Word of Wisdom, specifically concerning substances like mocha, latte, macchiato, espresso, green tea, iced tea, vaping, e-cigarettes, marijuana, and opioids.

On February 27, 1833, Joseph Smith received a revelation while inquiring of the Lord. That revelation, outlined in Doctrine and Covenants 89, has come to be known in the Church as the Word of Wisdom. But where do new substances fit into this revelation given more than 150 years ago?

Vaping: The New Era article outlines the negative effects of e-cigarettes, stating that “vaping is clearly against the Word of Wisdom.”

Mocha, Latte, Macchiato: While the phrase “hot drinks” in the Word of Wisdom was later defined as tea and coffee, many still have questions about specific drinks or flavors. The New Era provides this advice: “(1) If you’re in a coffee shop (or any other shop that’s well-known for its coffee), the drink you’re ordering probably has coffee in it, so either never buy drinks at coffee shops or always ask if there’s coffee in it. (2) Drinks with names that include café or caffé, mocha, latte, espresso, or anything ending in -ccino usually have coffee in them and are against the Word of Wisdom.”

Green Tea and Iced Tea: According to the New Era, both green tea and iced tea are still considered tea and are against the Word of Wisdom.

Marijuana and Opioids: Despite the legalization of marijuana, the New Era warns against the use of habit-forming substances unless prescribed by a physician for specific medical purposes.

In another New Era article, President Russell M. Nelson spoke of the importance of caring for our bodies, which he calls “a transcendent miracle.” He said, “Your body, whatever its natural gifts, is a magnificent creation of God. It is a tabernacle of flesh—a temple for your spirit. A study of your body attests to its divine design. . . . Anyone who studies the workings of the human body has surely ‘seen God moving in his majesty and power.'”

On August 15, the Church released the following statement:

“The Word of Wisdom is a law of health for the physical and spiritual benefit of God’s children. It includes instruction about what foods are good for us and those substances to avoid. Over time, Church leaders have provided additional instruction on those things that are encouraged or forbidden by the Word of Wisdom, and have taught that substances that are destructive, habit-forming or addictive should be avoided.

“In recent publications for Church members, Church leaders have clarified that several substances are prohibited by the Word of Wisdom, including vaping or e-cigarettes, green tea, and coffee-based products. They also have cautioned that substances such as marijuana and opioids should be used only for medicinal purposes as prescribed by a competent physician.”


When Joseph Smith inquired of the Lord on February 27, 1833, he received a revelation today known as the Word of Wisdom. From the beginning, the interpretation and implementation of the Word of Wisdom was complex. The opening line in the revelation stated: “To be sent by greeting; not by commandment or constraint.”

That wording led to debates about whether the revelation was a commandment or a guideline. A number of other questions also arose, including the meaning of “hot drinks” (D&C 89:9).
The Word of Wisdom received less attention after the martyrdom of Joseph Smith in June 1844. During the exodus from Nauvoo in 1845, a list of suggested supplies for the westward journey was printed in the Nauvoo Neighbor. The list included one pound of tea and coffee and one gallon of alcohol per family.

In Winter Quarters, however, Brigham Young tried to curb the use of alcohol. A sweep at Winter Quarters uncovered five barrels of moonshine in a single day.

After the Saints’ arrival in the Salt Lake Valley and the hardships of pioneering began to recede, Brigham Young made additional attempts to persuade Latter-day Saints to follow the Word of Wisdom. By 1860 President Young had ended his personal use of alcohol, tobacco, tea, and coffee, except for medicinal or sacramental purposes.

Renewed efforts by Church Presidents John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and Lorenzo Snow moved the Latter-day Saints toward total abstinence from the harmful substances. By 1900 evidence suggests that most Church leaders were living the Word of Wisdom. A landmark event came in 1902 when President Joseph F. Smith instructed stake presidents to refuse a temple recommend [permission to enter a temple] to “flagrant violators” of the Word of Wisdom. For the first time, violation of the Word of Wisdom led to restrictions in Church privileges.

This trend continued under Heber J. Grant. President Grant was a fierce advocate of Prohibition and a strict interpreter of the Word of Wisdom. In 1921, observance of the Word of Wisdom became a requirement for admission to the temple. President Grant clearly taught the revelation as a commandment, not as a guideline or a suggestion.

By the 1940s and 1950s, the question was not if the Latter-day Saints would live the Word of Wisdom but how far they would go in their zeal to follow its precepts. In 1945 Elder Joseph F. Merrill preached a fiery sermon against excessive use of meat. Elder John A. Widtsoe and his wife, Leah, wrote a book on the principles of the Word and Wisdom and gave as their opinion, “The expectant mother who uses caffeine-containing beverages is laying the foundation for failure in life for the unborn child.”

Other Church leaders advocated a more measured approach. When a theater employee apologized for giving President David O. McKay a cup with the Coca-Cola logo on the outside, the prophet quipped, “I don’t care what it says on the cup, as long as there is a Coke in the cup.” While individual interpretations have varied since the days of Presidents Heber J. Grant and David O. McKay, most faithful Latter-day Saints settle on the common ground of abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, and harmful drugs.

Why was there such a gradual approach to accepting the Word of Wisdom as a commandment? President Joseph F. Smith offered the following opinion: “The reason undoubtedly why the Word of Wisdom was given—as not by ‘commandment or constraint’ was that at that time, at least, if it had been given as a commandment it would have brought every man, addicted to the use of these noxious things, under condemnation; so the Lord was merciful and gave them a chance to overcome, before He brought them under the law.”


The Amish have a practice designed to deal with change in adolescence, called rumspringa. It gives Amish adolescents some limited license to experience what the Amish call “English” culture as they decide whether to remain in the Amish community. There is some generally sedate partying and other practices which can occasionally get out of hand, with alcohol, drugs, and sex not being unknown, but usually everything is conducted with propriety.

The preamble to the Seventh Day Adventist Church 28 Fundamental Beliefs says:

Seventh-day Adventists accept the Bible as their only creed and hold certain fundamental beliefs to be the teaching of the Holy Scriptures. These beliefs, as set forth here, constitute the church’s understanding and expression of the teaching of Scripture. Revision of these statements may be expected at a General Conference Session when the church is led by the Holy Spirit to a fuller understanding of Bible truth or finds better language in which to express the teachings of God’s Holy Word.

It has always struck me as interesting that the Seventh Day Adventist Church was founded on an erroneous religious idea; namely, that we were set aside for a special transition in 1844. Because of this and the absence of a creed, we above all should be open-minded to new ideas over time, as culture changes.

We’ve seen that the seeds of change have been part of our Church, the Latter-Day Saints’ Church, and the Amish Church, but change affects even religions resistant to change. This week the Moslems celebrate the Eid festival that marks the end of the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and is associated with Abraham’s sacrifice of a goat in place of his son Ishmael (Isaac, in the Christian Bible). As part of the celebration, Moslem families have traditionally slaughtered a goat in the halal (ritually proper) way by cutting its throat and letting it bleed to death. Cairo was little more than a scattering of encampments when Islam was formed, but if all the families in today’s Cairo (pop. 20 million) were each to slaughter a goat, the streets would run red with blood. So now, halal abattoirs all over the Islamic world can be contracted online to slaughter goats and distribute the meat to the family and to the poor as is the religious tradition.

The nascent Christian church was itself highly resistant to change, as this account by Paul illustrates:

Then after an interval of fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along also. It was because of a revelation that I went up; and I submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but I did so in private to those who were of reputation, for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain. But not even Titus, who was with me, though he was a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage. But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would remain with you. But from those who were of high reputation (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—well, those who were of reputation contributed nothing to me. But on the contrary, seeing that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised (for He who effectually worked for Peter in his apostleship to the circumcised effectually worked for me also to the Gentiles), and recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas [Peter] and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, so that we might go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They only asked us to remember the poor—the very thing I also was eager to do.

But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?

“We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? May it never be! For if I rebuild what I have once destroyed, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.” (Galatians 2)

Change is inevitable, but it is not easy. In Europe, as this Pew study suggests, religion is not just changing—it is becoming irrelevant:

91% of the population was baptized as Christian and of those 81% were raised as Christian. 71% considered themselves Christian but only 11% say that religion is important in their lives. This contrasts with 53% of Americans who attend church at least monthly.

Evidently, change causes tensions in the Christian church in the US but is driving people away from church in Europe. What principles—perhaps Godly principles—are at work here? Paul’s account to the Galatians (above) in which he strongly condemned the status quo to which Peter and other leaders of the nascent church clung and argued passionately for change, lays out two principles:

But when God, who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went away to Arabia, and returned once more to Damascus. (Galatians 1:15-17)

Paul’s principles to effect change were [1] not to consult with other people, and [2] to distance himself from the leadership. Would these work today?

Anonymous: If Paul was so adamant about his beliefs, why did he go back to see the leadership after 14 years? He said the Holy Spirit told him to go, but why would it?

Don: Maybe God is a change agent.

David: The principle seems to be: When in doubt, turn to God, to the Holy Spirit, the inner voice. Don’t turn to people.

Anonymous: Could God have wanted Paul to look more into the nascent church and its Mosaic roots? Maybe it’s a hint that we should open our minds to the beliefs of others. Satan is always trying to divide and conquer: Perhaps Satan was urging Paul to reject and withdraw from the leadership.

Paul said that if his actions were to cause someone to fall he would desist. Peter might have been against allowing Gentile culture in on the grounds that it would cause Jews to stumble in their faith. Peter might not have been the hypocrite Paul said he was. Jesus gave us the freedom to be ourselves, and unlike Paul, Peter was personally close to Jesus. Peter was also open to the Gentiles and also received a vision telling him to go preach to them.

Don: Peter talked about all this:

… our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:14-16)

Kiran: Why did Paul have to withdraw to Arabia, a place with a different culture to his own? Was it to avoid having to battle with his own cultural influences?

Don: He did seem to go for a retreat, self-examination, introspection, to get in touch with his inner light.

Pastor Giddi: Jesus ignored culture when it came to mixing with Gentiles:

Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2)

Unlike Paul, when (figuratively speaking) in Rome, Jesus did not try to do as the Romans did. He ignored what they did and just did His own thing.

Kiran: Jesus dealt mostly with Jews. His meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well was a rare exception.

Pastor Giddi: And he broke tradition by accepting water from a lower caste.

Anonymous: All that matters is that we pass on our beliefs and convictions through love.

Pastor Giddi: And for salvation:

“For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” (Luke 19:10)

I believe we can do as the Romans do, without compromising our faith or our religion.

Kiran: Jesus came to save the lost, the doomed, such as me. If I then try to save other people, I need to explain myself. I wonder if Paul felt something like this when he went into retreat. When I left my culture, I fell in love with a person—Jesus—who made me feel that I was not alone. It happened very quietly. I would retreat to the bank of a nearby lake to read the Bible alone. But we will never be saved in this life—we will always be in the process of being saved, so it’s hard to go and preach salvation to others. The best we can do is to live for ourselves.

Pastor Giddi: If we feel we are being saved and then go to preach, we are not doing what God asked us to do. The disciples did not wait to be saved before going out to preach—Peter had even denied Jesus. They went because Jesus told them to. One can save others while in the process of being saved oneself.

Don: The Mormons felt compelled to forbid vaping when it was introduced. Was the ban necessary for salvation? Is ordaining women even worse than vaping? Is the core of religion unchanging, while everything peripheral can change? Where is the line between the core and the periphery? Trivial things, such as what to eat, are the cause of tremendous upset.

David: Paul seems to have concluded that when we have such questions, the church is the last place to go. The only place to go is inside, to withdraw into ourselves. The bumper sticker that asks: “What would Jesus do?” seems trite by virtue of being on a bumper sticker but it may be a critically important question depending on the issue at hand. No doubt Jesus would get out of bed and slip into sandals every morning. Are we supposed to do that too, then?

That is obviously trivial, but what what would Jesus do if a crowd was arguing about the ordination of women rabbis when he showed up at the synagogue? My guess is that He would give a “render unto Caesar” comment: “This is Judaism’s business, not God’s business.” Throughout his life, Jesus taught and demonstrated what is God’s business. Treating women, like all other human beings, with love and compassion, is God’s business. Ordination is not fundamentally an issue of love and compassion, and is therefore not the business of God, it seems to me.

The church has strict rules concerning such issues, but the inner voice, at least my inner voice, is silent on them. My intellect is all for women’s ordination, but on rational grounds. It’s not a matter of love and compassion, it’s not a spiritual issue. Words and rationality do not work at the spiritual level.

Anonymous: We fight about the trivia but don’t discuss the core issues. Mother Theresa said something like: “In the end, it’s not between ‘us and them’—it’s between us and God.” Even the Bible cannot come close to it. Scripture is directional but it cannot substitute for core, central, experience. We do well to listen to those who have had those core experiences. Living in the faith is what leads experience whose meaning cannot be denied. It leads to enlightenment.

David: I bet this is what happened to Kiran when he was reflecting on the bank of the lake. I doubt he was contemplating the divine joy of abstaining from lamb chops and Budweiser. I think he was having that deep, wordless, experience of communion with God, untainted by doctrine.

Anonymous: But doctrine serves a useful purpose in pointing one in the right direction.

Don: This is the key issue of our discussion: What is the role of religion if the core issue is communion with God and communion with God transcends religion? The core issue is centered on God, is immutable, and has been with us all, everywhere, ever since the Creation. Religious direction raises lesser issues yet leads to greater strife.

David: A church situated near a peaceful lake has a sign with an arrow saying: “This way to God.” Does the arrow point to the door of the church, or to the lake?

Kiran: One thing is for sure: I loved the doctrine of my Church because I loved Jesus. If I had not loved Jesus, I would not have cared about the Church or its doctrines.

The nascent church leaders in Paul’s time debated hotly on such issues as whether to eat meat with blood in it. Issues such as the Sabbath were not on the agenda.

Don: The direction from God was simply to take care of the poor. Which leads to the Judgment.

Anonymous: We are finding that some things in the Mosaic law are good for us in purely physical terms. Circumcision, for example: Jesus never mentioned it. It does not affect salvation, but is good for us in this life.

David: Right. The Judgment does not send the meat-eaters to the left and the circumcised to the right. Doctrinal issues are simply irrelevant to things of the spirit.

Don: We seem to have painted ourselves into a corner. If religion is not the way to salvation, what is it good for? Community of faith? Mutual help? People do get reassurance and comfort from belonging and from rules that define and identify. That is good, but it does not confer salvation. Is it feasible for religions to adopt a mission that does not involve salvation?

Religion, Culture, and Change

Don: How do we know when God is behind a push for change? Take, for example, the push for the ordination of women in ministry in the Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) church: Is God behind it? Is He against it? Or is He agnostic, not caring either way?

How can we tell? Prophets interpret the will of God for the people. The SDA was founded on directions received by our prophet Ellen White. Today, it is unlikely that anyone claiming to speak directly for God would have much of an audience. The Mormons have a living prophet and the Catholics have a Pope, who is also an agent for change.

The SDA’s set of 27 core beliefs explicitly acknowledge that these core beliefs could be changed by the General Conference. The problem is that the General Conference is highly influenced by political, social, cultural and economic factors; not just by spiritual ones.

A major impediment to change is the sense that change implicitly acknowledges that previous belief was wrong. This does not sit well with either leadership or laity. Animal sacrifice was once an important ritual in Hinduism, Judaism, and other religions. Even today it is still part of the Moslem Eid ceremony. Catholic priests only became celibate in the 11th century. Visual depictions of the Prophet Mohammed were once part of Islamic art. Some UK churches are likely to begin marrying gay couples soon.

In 1889, Wilson Woodruff became the president, and therefore the “living prophet”, of the Mormon Church. At that time the Mormon church had been struggling with the US government over the Mormon practice of polygamy, for which the government, holding the practice to be illegal, threatened to confiscate the Church’s assets. Woodruff said Jesus told him in a vision that unless the Mormons changed their practice of polygamy, the future of the Church was in jeopardy. While not renouncing polygamy, Woodruff issued a ban on the practice. The ban caused tremendous instability in the Church, affecting many people socially, personally, and theologically. It forced deep reflection on the core principles of Mormonism.

This could happen to any Church, including ours. Ellen White died in 1915. We have not had a voice from God since then. Nevertheless, we still read and quote her writings as an authentic source, even in things that pertain to our modern culture, of which she had no knowledge. It raises the questions: How long can a Church last without a prophet? How long can a prophet’s history be instrumental and authoritative in a Church? In other words: How can a Church exist without change?

Religions today are under pressure to change from two related forces: Science/technology and globalization. These forces have brought all religions out of their previous relative isolation and exposed them to a multicultural and multi-religious environment, which makes it more difficult to sustain a unique identity—the key to distinctiveness. Religion is expressed and practiced in cultural terms. When an individual moves from one culture to another, the individual must reinterpret his or her religion in the new cultural context.

Religion has an internal and an external face. The internal face reflects the held beliefs of the members. The external face reflects how they practice their religion—the rituals. These help establish unique identity, and in a cultural context they are observable, criticizable, and potentially modifiable. The external face is what gets the most attention today. It is no longer perceived as simply subjective imagination, ideas, feelings, and beliefs; but rather in terms of its cultural impacts. No-one cares whether one holds the Q’oran holy, but they care if one wears a headscarf.

In the Book of Ruth we see the complete assimilation of Ruth into the Jewish culture and religion. Ruth, from the land of Moab, married a Jew who also lived in Moab with his widowed mother. When Ruth herself was widowed, her mother-in-law decided to return to Judah where, with neither husband nor sons to support her, she faced a life of penury. The mother-in-law urged Ruth to return to her family and find another husband, but Ruth said to her:

“Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may the Lord do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me.” (Ruth 1:16-17)

We are left with the questions: How does a religion change? What are the forces of change? Can they be managed, or is change only spontaneous? Must change always be violent? Can change occur simply by walking away? What are the boundaries between faith groups, the lanes we must stay in to prevent violent collisions? What is the difference between doctrine centered upon ourselves and our nature and doctrine centered upon God and His nature?

In his book A Letter to my Anxious Christian Friends: From Fear to Faith in Unsettled Times, David P. Gushee wrote that the number of Christians and the cultural strength in Christianity are both declining in the United States. The decline, he said, is noticeable in affecting church life, the culture of America, and our politics. Over the last decade, one percent fewer Americans claim to have a Christian affiliation. Many conservative evangelicals pin Christian decline on mainline liberals, saying that if they had held more firmly to a robust and orthodox Christianity there would not be this decline. On the other hand, many of the mainliners—not to mention the disaffected evangelicals and ex-evangelicals—have quite the opposite claim: For them, the decline is due to excess rigidity in a conservative religion that will not change.

Gushee goes on to list eight reasons for change, of which one is that when hypocrisies and conflicts occur in the Church—which they invariably do—they don’t just drive people to other Churches, as they did in the past. In today’s world, most of the time, these people simply take themselves out of Christianity altogether.

So the interesting thing about change is that it can involve not just a change in lane but a change in the game itself.

Donald: Is change a matter of preference or perspective? To change from opening presents on Christmas morning instead of Christmas Eve seems trite but it is viewed seriously. It calls for a change in a beloved family tradition that might go way back. A change in tradition by a Church is certainly of greater import, but may not really be a game-changer. Game-changers include the role of women, ethnicity, and the family unit. Are these a matter of preference? We have to wait for a General Conference to find out.

KB: Do we introduce change in the Church for practical reasons or just for the sake of change? Most of the time, change moves us closer to our goals. But does this apply to change in the Church?

Jay: Ruth’s change of culture appears to be based not on her fundamental beliefs but, rather, on her close relationship with her Jewish mother-in-law. It reminds us of Ephesians 2 and the entry of Gentiles into the early Christian church, which considered itself a unity; but Paul taught that the unity was in their faith in salvation through Jesus, not in any particular cultural traditions.

Kiran: There is something puzzling about the story of Ruth. Why was it included in the Bible? Was it because of her total change of identity to Jewish? Is that meant to be a lesson for us all? God promised Abraham that through him (Abraham) all families on Earth would be blessed. This was in the era before Moses, when there was no discernible Israelite culture. Christ’s disciples were instructed to go into Gentile cultures to instruct them about God and His practices, but not to convert them into the Jewish culture. Hence, the story of Ruth’s conversion, which was given Scriptural prominence as a Book of the Bible, is puzzling.

David: With regard to technology and globalization: I think that while these can cause change in doctrine from a relatively trite pragmatic cultural perspective, they can also—more significantly—force change in the way we interpret Scripture. Theology is where the trouble lies. This class seems to have interpreted Scripture as saying there is one God for all Mankind. But others interpret it as saying that there is one God, but that God is reserved only for their religion or their denomination.

Our class seems to have concluded that enlightenment about the nature of God can be found through introspection, as Job, Jonah, and Jacob did. It is a private struggle, a personal experience. Their religion, their Church, may provide support for them in that struggle: A quiet environment conducive to meditation and the search for God’s touch. But in a prophet-driven church, enlightenment is channeled though the prophet and the clergy, and off-limits to the individual except as a member of the group.

Donald: Change is generally seen as a step backwards, until we look in the rear-view mirror. Is California the future? Some among us would say it represents decline.

Kiran: Change is always hard. In Egypt, and during the Exodus, Moses mocked the Israelites for demanding a rest day, but at least they had the benefit of a certain answer. They did not have to interpret Scripture, they just had to do what they were told, or suffer the (usually dire) consequences. The abolition of slavery in the uni-cultural, mainly Christian United States was viewed as good or bad depending upon Scriptural interpretations. Some clergy interpreted the Bible as supporting racial equality, some as opposing it. Today, we are fighting over different Scriptural interpretations regarding gender equality, sexual orientation, and so on.

Pastor Giddi: Since the Fall, God has wanted change in humans. Christ told His disciples to go and change the world. He wanted the world to change its perspective of who God is. Change is permanent. God wills it. He wants us to go back to Him. You can see it in all the Books of the Bible. Hence His instructions to the disciples. He is calling us. Martin Luther said we cannot teach the Gospels without confrontation and conflict.

Donald: Andrews University has the slogan: “World Changers Made Here.” It implies that the rest of the world must change, but not us. Will there be change in Heaven?

Pastor Giddi: Our bodies and our thinking will be changed. The nations will be healed by the leaves of the Tree of Life. There will be change, even in Heaven.

David: If change calls for conflict, then conflict with whom? Historically, it seems to call for conflict with our neighbors, with those awful Moslems/Jews/Jehovah’s Witnesses/Daoists—those people next door who don’t know the Truth. If Scripture is telling us that God calls for change, and we know that change calls for conflict, how can that square with the teaching of a gentle Jesus?

It can do so if and only if the change and the conflict is not with our neighbor but with our selves. Jacob underwent this inner struggle and changed from nasty to nice. Job changed from perplexed to enlightened. Jonah changed from running away from God to (grudgingly) doing what God asked of him. If only we would struggle with ourselves instead of with our neighbor, what a better world this would be.

Pastor Giddi: Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, John Wesley, and other Christian reformers had a conflict. They had the right understanding of Scripture. A right understanding of Scripture first causes conflict initially within oneself, and then with family and culture. When Martin Luther was working as a priest he probably never thought he would start a new Church, but he was driven to change by Scripture. Today, people are changing Scripture to suit themselves.

KB: My interpretation of Scripture is undoubtedly influenced by my South African culture and could result in conflict with those from other cultures whose interpretation may differ from mine.

Dewan: God loves everyone, in all religions. There are good people in all religions, but they may not know the Truth. Jesus came to save all God’s children.

Don: The critical question is: Can people without the Truth be saved?

Pastor Giddi: My forefathers never heard the name of Jesus.

David: Was the Good Samaritan a Christian?

Pastor Giddi: He was simply a person who saw a need for compassion. He understood the Truth.

Donald: “The Truth” is a tricky topic, especially when we link knowledge of it to salvation! People can sincerely disagree about it.

Chris: Some people take their tradition to be Truth. Things then run amok. Something triggers change. Something forces it.

Pastor Giddi: It is considered highly unclean in Hindu tradition to touch a corpse, so people won’t even go near one. They believe the dead person’s spirit will haunt anyone who touches the corpse. As a young Adventist convert, I had occasion to accompany a relative to a hospital, where she died in the middle of the night and the hospital refused to keep the body. So to my family’s shock, I took the body back to her home myself. But the result was that two other members of my family converted after seeing the truth that I was not haunted. Truth can change a tradition!

Jay: God existed before there were Adventists or Christians or Jews or Men or Women. Thus, any human definition of God and Truth has to be imperfect. It is impossible for any sinful, fallen creature to define God perfectly through imperfect methods. No matter how hard we want to be pure, we are not. We are sinful and imperfect. We have to accept that God will have ways to save all his children no matter their understanding of a “Truth” we ourselves can understand only imperfectly. We need humility.

Chris: Our Truth explicitly acknowledges that it is based on the Truths of earlier religions, so how can we state that ours is “the” perfect Truth?

Pastor Giddi: Satan masked the Truth. God is restoring it.

Anonymous: Who is saved or not is not our business. But the Truth is simple: It is Jesus. He said exactly that. We can follow the Truth by emulating Jesus, but nobody is capable of such perfection.

David: By this interpretation, the Good Samaritan was a true Christian—one who did what Jesus would do. Jesus Himself set the Good Samaritan as the example for us to follow. The first missionaries were shocked to encounter naked natives in Africa and the Pacific Islands and other hot parts of the world that had no cotton cloth. Those natives must have wondered what was all the fuss about when Adam and Eve discovered they were naked!

Kiran: The Bible has many examples of polygamists—Jacob, David, and Samson, for example, yet Paul tells us God wants us to have only one spouse. So what is “the truth”? As Anon said, we have to accept Jesus as the truth, the way, and the life. We don’t need to wrestle with the contradictions in Scripture.

Donald: Truth really is about Christ, but not everyone will agree with that.

Don: The Moslems claim that they have the final prophet, Mohammed, and a religion that builds upon Christianity. They accept Jesus as a prophet, but it was Mohammed who brought the final word of God, verbatim. To them, there can be no truth more perfect than that.

David: To me, the injunction to change the world by going out to meet other people is not a call to preach or proselytize. I don’t believe that Jesus expected the disciples to go out and read the (Jewish) Bible to people. He wanted them to show that they were living the life of Jesus. This, to me, is true witnessing.

Don: David Gushee wrote that evangelism was dead, in that “no-one really knows how to share their faith any more in a way that connects with people, and many Christians have simply stopped trying.” So evangelism as we see it—as a Powerpoint presentation with charts of the Beast and Revelation and so on—is not the way to go about it. True evangelism is knowing how to share faith in a way that connects.

Donald: My wife and I had the privilege recently of dining in an Amish community. There was no preaching on either side, no focus on our differences at all. It was a rich and wonderful experience.

David: If we define “witnessing” as fellowship without preaching (as I would), then I would say that Donald was a good witness.

Donald: I was in a way in a gray area between their culture and mine. An immigrant is often caught in a similar gray area between the old culture he or she left behind and the adopted new culture. Can this be the beginning of enlightenment?

Anonymous: It is enriching. As an immigrant, I can accept the best but reject the worst of both worlds.

Drivers of Culture and Religion

Editor’s note: A church event limited the number of participants this week to three, with a fourth joining part way through. Don elected to postpone his usual opening remarks until next Sabbath. This discussion was centered around Donald’s recent intercourse with an Amish family.

Don: To what extent is the Amish way of life driven by religious belief? 

Donald: My host seemed more motivated by Amish innovations than by Amish community controls. I would liken the Amish to the Maasai tribe of Africa, whose members choose to accept their internal cultural controls and reject the “freedoms” offered by external cultures. The outside world tends to look upon them with pity for their backwardness—for not playing cards, and so on. But they do so out of choice.

Mennonites, who are similar to the the Amish except that they accept modernities such as electricity, fall somewhere in-between. They are similar in many ways also to Seventh Day Adventists, except for treating Sunday rather than Saturday as their Sabbath. They refer to Adventists as the “English” equivalent of themselves, whose origin was German. 

Don: Do the Amish feel the forces of external cultural pressure? 

Donald: If they do, it is self-imposed. They choose to remain Amish.

Don: Do they offer their young people an opportunity to experience the world outside before deciding whether to remain in the Amish community as adults? 

Donald: That is my understanding. And it is not something Adventists would consider doing. When we were young, radio, TV and worldly magazines were nowhere to be seen. We were sheltered in that way from external influences. 

Don: What then drives the Amish to a way of life constrained by religion? Adventists have constraints, too, such as regarding the ordination of women. Islam too has various constraints, including on elations between the sexes. Are such cultural boundaries—which are more constrained than those of the external mainstream culture—established and maintained by religion? If so, is that a proper role for religion, or does it place religion at risk of obsolescence within the mainstream? 

Challenges brought to religion by the mainstream culture include technologies and globalization, which are themselves inter-related. They are challenges because they subvert and blur boundaries. How do the Amish see this? 

Donald: My impression is that while we Adventists might tend to look at anything that does not allow us to participate in society as limiting—as holding us back in some way, the Amish do not. But they are not as bounded by geography as I thought before I met and talked with them. I learned that one Amish community sells its excess production of metalware, for example, in external markets, and hires drivers to take its goods to market. As you see, they allow some loopholes, some ways around the barriers. 

Don: Do Amish teens appreciate their culture?

Donald: Some families have broken away. But I agree: Boundaries are not as sharp as they used to seem. 

Don: The elements of change that drive culture seem more powerful than the elements that drive culture. Religion seems to be one of those factors that hold culture back, in the conservative sense that of deterring rather than promoting change. 

Donald: Conservatives tend to view change as negative. 

Don: Jay put his finger on it last week when he said that to introduce change in a religion is tantamount to admitting that something is wrong with it. Nobody wants to admit that. It prompts the question: In the absence of a living prophet, is a religion sustainable? The Mormons have a living prophet, the Catholics have the Pope—God’s vicar on Earth. But our Adventist prophet, Ellen White, died in 1915. We read the prophet, interpret the prophet, and argue about the prophet. But we do so in the context of a prophet living at a time when there were few cars, no commercial airlines, no cell phones and so on. 

Donald: If she were alive today, I doubt she would have any issues concerning the use of automobiles or electricity, but who can know? 

Don: In her day, healthcare was a major concern and became a contentious issue among church leaders. Back then, some Adventist Church leaders still ate meat, while others railed against it. It wasn’t until Ellen White’s health reform vision that the leadership all got on the same page with regard to health reform. Can we today, as a faith group, resolve such issues without a prophet? Can we agree on elements of change to rituals, practice, and belief without a prophet to affirm them? 

Donald: I’ve participated in an interfaith Bible study group that prohibits discussion of doctrine. But in church, we could not study the Bible without the doctrinal context provided by the church. 

Kiran: It’s one thing to care (or to stop caring) about a culture; it’s another thing to care (or to stop caring) about those who do care about their culture. As long as there is a bond of love between people in a community, its culture does not matter. A Hindu who converts to Christianity can avoid severing the bonds of love for his family and community by still following at least some of their cultural traditions. 

Don: So love is the driving factor, not the culture per se

Donald: The likelihood of anyone’s becoming an Adventist or Amish without being born into those communities is very low.

Don: So culture determines one’s religion. Those who convert to another religion later in life are anomalies. Marriage can change a woman’s culture, since most cultures expect a woman to adopt her husband’s culture. Therefore, marriage influences religion.  A convert can become stronger in the adopted religion than in the original religion.

Anonymous: To me, culture and religion are separate. Culture can change, but not faith. A convert may find that the new denomination strengthens, but does not change, his or her faith, even to the point where the church (the “new” denomination) is no longer needed to sustain it.  

Donald: It may also weaken. Evangelicals such as Billy Graham brought people to God rather than to a specific denomination. 

Anonymous: I watch a very good and popular Christian TV channel called The Vine. Although the Adventists are sometimes portrayed on the show as a cult, I still find it a valuable and comforting source. 

Kiran: As a young convert, I was angry with my former culture, but I have since learned that I have no reason to be. Nevertheless, I cannot go back completely to the old culture. Part of it is intellectual, part is emotional, part is spiritual. If Adventism were not here, I would feel bereft. 

Donald: It seems to me we are at risk of painting ourselves into a corner. The important question is whether the ultimate purpose of a faith group is to indoctrinate a common set of beliefs. Behavior on the Sabbath is observably different as between an intellectual Seventh Day Adventist church such as is found on Adventist university campuses, and local “blue-collar” Adventist churches in the nearby villages. On campus, un-Sabbath-like practices routinely follow church service, but Sabbath behavior is far more strictly observed in the village churches. Some blue-collar Adventists go so far as to accuse intellectual Adventists of not being Adventist. The Sabbath is the central symbol of Adventism, yet we cannot even agree on what is appropriate Sabbath behavior. 

Don: The internal aspects of religion are about ideas and beliefs and truth, where there can be differences between people. The external aspects of religion are about behavior and how to regulate it. The purpose of the latter, it seems to me, is to establish identity—which explains why the blue-collars do not identify with the white collars as true Adventists. It is a problem, but understanding it may lead to its resolution. 

* * *

Changing Religion

Don: How does religion, or religious culture, change? What are the forces involved? Are they seldom, occasionally, often, or always associated with violence, chaos, disruption? Or are they easily subjected to control and management?

All cultures and religions have elements predisposed to change and elements predisposed and even designed to maintaining the status quo. More often than not, unless the religion was imposed from the outside, the religion is more likely to resist than to promote change, because of the effect change would have on the culture. Religion tends to stabilize culture. Without it, social and psychological chaos would overcome conservative defenses.

Three forces exert pressure to change: (1) Intra-cultural, (2) Inter-cultural, and (3) Environmental forces.

Intra-cultural Forces

Intra-cultural forces include invention, which may be technological or ideological—new ways of doing things, new ideas, new tools, energy sources, transportation methods, communication methods, even trivia such as fashion, and so on. These sociocultural pressures put pressure on the religion as well. Or it may be the complement of invention—the cultural loss of old ideas and old ways of doing things. In little more than a century, the ability to milk a cow or take care of a horse has become a mystery to most people. Such evidences of cultural loss are all around us.

Seventh Day Adventists practice the ritual of foot-washing, in conjunction with the quarterly ritual of communion—the sharing of emblems of the body and blood of Christ. The practice is based on the Bible’s record of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper. It was a token of humility, but at that time and place, it had practical value in cooling and cleansing feet that were hot and dirty from tramping the dusty roads in sandals. It would typically be performed by servants—hence the humility displayed by Jesus in washing the feet of His disciples. Today, foot-washing in many places is outdated. It no longer confers much benefit to clean feet clad in clean socks and protective shoes, and to bare someone’s feet today seems almost an invasion of privacy. Foot-washing has lost its practical value but it remains a symbol of humility.

Other religious rituals such as the Islamic way of slaughtering animals (dhabīḥah or zabiha, Arabic ذَبِيحَة‎,) might also be claimed to have lost their historical value, being rooted in issues and practices of the past.

The role of women has changed dramatically, too. In the West, the change was greatly accelerated by World War II and the employment of women in factories. Changes in the role of women have an effect on the role of men, too, and the needed accommodations exert pressure that can result in conflict, as we see in the case of churches that seek to expand the role of women in the church.

Inter-cultural Forces

Culture crosses boundaries through a process of diffusion. Up to about 200 years ago, there was not much diffusion, because people lived in their own small geographic silos. Today, the problem is that things and ideas diffuse but their cultural context stays behind, such that although the same things and ideas might exist in the receiving culture, they will mean something different.

Acculturation is what happens when an entire culture is displaced by another, such as occurred when native American culture was overrun by European culture.

Transculturation occurs when an individual moves to, and adopts, another culture.

Environmental Forces

Cultural change must also include changes in the environment in which one lives. Degradation of water supplies, arable land, energy sources, and so on have historically been major influences on cultural modification.

These three forces affect society as a whole and religious groups as well. We see it in the nascent Christian church, when a hungry Peter had a vision that God told him to eat foods that were considered unclean:

On the next day, as they were on their way and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. But he became hungry and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; and he saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. A voice came to him, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.” Again a voice came to him a second time, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” This happened three times, and immediately the object was taken up into the sky.
Now while Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be, behold, the men who had been sent by Cornelius, having asked directions for Simon’s house, appeared at the gate; (Acts 10:9-17)

Cornelius was a Roman centurion who believed in the Jewish God and had also had a vision, in which he was told to send for Peter. Peter told the messengers sent by Cornelius to fetch him:

“You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean. (Acts 10:28)

Arriving at Cornelius’ house,…

Opening his mouth, Peter said:
“I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him. (Acts 10:34-35)

This story exemplifies the pressure for religious change and its results. Must change be driven, or can it be spontaneous? Is it inevitably associated with chaos and violence and disruption? What change agents are working on our culture today? How does the changing role of men and women influence our cultures and especially our religions? (Some recent studies suggest that women are more adaptable than men to cultural change.)

Jay: Religious change is typically viewed with trepidation, because it is intrinsically an admission of guilt—that one was doing something wrong before. In the realm of the spirit, that presents a dilemma. Change suggests that how one utilized the religion was either fundamentally wrong or incomplete. Nothing could make a spiritual person more uncomfortable. There is no doubt that culture is ever-changing, albeit slowly. The Adventist culture in which today’s grandchild grows up is not quite the same as the Adventist culture in which the grandparent grew up, but the change is not dramatic. The Adventist lifestyle has changed more than the Adventist doctrine.

Don: When a religion relaxes a rule forbidding meat to be eaten on Friday, what happens to all those who died and went to hell with the sin of having eaten meat on a Friday?

Donald: Have we agreed that culture and belief are the same thing? One influences the other, but beliefs are fundamental, so (in theory) are not subject to change. So must cultural change affect belief? In practice, we do change beliefs, but when we do are we not thereby lowering our standards? Is it possible to say that changing a belief raises our standards?

Kiran: Back in India, when I first became Adventist, I used to read early Church writings that emphasized works. This literature suggested that we must subjugate our body and mind to be obedient to God’s commandments. So I used to run around the track once for each commandment, and for every commandment I broke the previous day I would add an extra round. This made me somewhat arrogant, which I didn’t realize at the time. Recent church literature emphasizes grace and acknowledges that, on our own, we can’t make ourselves holy; that only God can make us Holy. This literature is not a complete departure from the previous literature but it emphasizes grace more than works. This evolution in doctrine, in my opinion, is the best thing that happened to our Church and we are a better church because of it. There are some that do not like this approach and want to stick to old time religion where they would have their own part in owning their own salvation. They think that Church is worse today because of it. 

Donald: The people who make change think it’s for the better, but the people who stay behind think it lowers standards.

Robin: Then we would have to ask: Whose standards? Yours? Mine? These standards, these principles, the things that Jesus taught and demonstrated, are timeless and placeless. They apply to all cultures at all times. But doctrine is not always timeless and is not always clearly spelled out in the Bible. That is culture, too. Take away the spiritual aspect, and culture becomes prejudicial: “My culture, my ethnicity, is better than your culture, your ethnicity.”

Jay: Some schools and colleges struggle with the issue of standards in athletics vs. standards in academics. Students have to maintain a minimum academic standard, set by the individual school or college, in order to be able to participate in an athletics program. They may not play football if they have failing grades. A school might set the academic standard as, say, a GPA of 2.0 (a “C” average). Its athletics department might want to adjust the standard to a lower GPA, which would enable more students to join the athletics program. They would assert that the standard is punitive particularly to African-American students who (the athletics department may claim) tend to be more athletically than academically enabled. Academic members of the school or college may disagree, stating that to lower academic standards will damage the children more in the long run. Everybody accepts the value of the school’s culture, and everybody has the students’ interests at heart. But there is a difference in perception, based on cultural differences in the perceivers: The academic group will often tend to be older and predominantly Caucasian, while the athletic group will be younger and predominantly African-American.

In religion, everybody wishes salvation for everybody else, but how they perceive the way to get to salvation may be very different.

Donald: We have to be careful with our definitions of beliefs, cultures, and standards. The example Jay gives is of a culture being used to justify a standard. The culture says a student can be academic and not athletic, but may not be athletic and not academic. Those are its expectations. But God’s expectations with regard to our beliefs may not be the same as the church’s—the culture’s—expectations.

David: Indeed. God’s expectations are surely reflected in the fundamental beliefs common to all humanity—not just specific religions—regarding goodness, mercy, kindness, and similar standards of human behavior. What happens when religious standards fail to match God’s expectations is visible, I would propose, in South America’s documented and relatively rapid trend away from Catholicism and toward evangelicalism. The force that brought about the change is openly on view: Sex abuse scandals set in a cultural context of unmarried male-only clergy.

But here’s the thing: In turning away from Catholicism and toward evangelicalism, South America’s belief in the fundamental messages of Christianity—of a good, kind, merciful God—has not changed one iota. Catholics and evangelicals, and indeed all of humanity, share in that belief. South America demonstrates that cultural change is possible, though it may be temporarily painful.

From reading and discussions with Indian friends, I believe that the caste culture of India evokes distaste in India perhaps as strong as that which Catholic clergy sex abuse evoked in South America. I can’t help but wonder if at some point this will result in defections from Hinduism, which supports the caste system, to Christianity or Islam, which don’t. The change from Hindu to Christian might be more radical than the change from Catholic to evangelical, but the same principles of goodness and mercy and so on are preserved. [As a postscript, I wonder whether the spread of Islam in India owed something to distaste for the caste system?]

Pastor Giddi: Change brings conflict. A missionary dealing with a Hindu convert to Christianity or Islam has to be prepared for the likelihood of conflict between the convert and his or her family and community.

Robin: In any belief system, I suspect that salvation is viewed as God’s business, prerogative, and gift. I am a sinner, but (praise God!) He loves sinners. So my goal is to improve my relationship with Him through improving my relationship with humanity. I think our focus is intended to be to care for our brothers and sisters. Otherwise, we fall into the trap of believing that salvation can be earned through our works and is not given to us as God’s gift. We must learn to leave to God that which is God’s, and focus on learning how He expects us to behave.

Donald: Is it the role of the church to subsume the development of our relationship with God? If so, is that a form of interference? I made the decision to be a member of church. It seems less challenging to think only in terms of our relationship with our fellow Man.

Robin: How could any faith system deny that? If they did, they would be introducing prejudice.

Donald: They might call it expectations.

Robin: We want to be in the right club.

Kiran: The more I think about salvation, the more I realize that grace is all that matters, and the more I accept grace, the less I think of myself. The same holds for the doctrine or the denomination: The more it accepts grace, the less relevant is its dogma, its exclusivity, its peculiarity. God does not want us to feel special. He wants us to focus less on ourselves and more on Him, since it His job to sanctify people. The role of the church is to share the love.

Chris: My life would be very different if I were not a member of the Adventist church. I doubt I would have followed a career as good as the one I have, attained the same education, live where I live now, married my wife, and so on. The church is like a vehicle. It gets you places. It helps you to love your fellow man. Some people choose different vehicles. Some choose to walk alone. The vehicles are not wrong. They are not bad. The issue is how they are used.

I don’t think that beliefs and culture are the same. Culture affects how we use our beliefs, and vice versa. But organized religion as an organized way of believing can help an individual develop a relationship with God, with the inner light telling them to love their fellow Man and to love God and so on. To go it alone seems to me a more daunting proposition than going in the vehicle with the strength of a group around me, even if that means following the rules of the group.

Shakir: Can religion replace culture, and/or vice versa? Can we live without one or the other? Can we live without either a way of living with one another, or of living in harmony with God?

Donald: A headline in today’s paper read “If you want to be happy today, meet a stranger.” That worked for me recently when I visited Amish country and ended up being invited into an Amish home and having aspects of Amish culture explained to me. The head of the household explained that the impressive and complex heating system for their large buildings without electricity came about as a result of their religion. I expressed surprise and asked was it a matter of culture, religion, or belief? He replied: “We’re all headed in the same direction. It doesn’t make any difference.” But if their faith changed, would their culture?

Shakir: If someone does not use electricity for religious reasons, then that is a matter of religion. But the way the heating is done is a matter of culture. Religion does not specify how to heat a building. Based on the way we live, on our circumstances, on who we are, then we need both culture and religion.

Pastor Giddi: The Bible tells of Ruth, a non-Israelite who married an Israelite who later died, whereupon she undertook to stay and look after her Jewish mother-in-law. Ruth accepted both a foreign culture and a foreign religion.

David: To me, religion is a man-made cultural artifact. It is just a part of culture. It need have nothing to do with spirituality, with a relationship with God. But I respect Chris’s defense of religion and agree that religion probably helps some people establish and develop that relationship. I myself may prefer to walk alone, but I am not anti-religion except to the extent that it may misrepresent God.

But if I am capable of not needing the prop of religion, of not needing the vehicle, then I suspect others—perhaps all others—are too. We need culture, for sure, as a way to organize a stable society, but a religious component is not needed for that, as we can see from areas of the world where religion (in the divine representational form assumed by the Abrahamic and other mega-religions) has not taken root, as in China for example.

Mikiko: In Japan, we used to wear the kimono all the time. My mother did. But growing up, I wore it only occasionally. It is sad, because the kimono is beautiful. But it is also impractical—difficult to put on and wear, compared to Western dress, which we therefore adopted into Japanese culture.

God’s culture can change too. Before eating, the Pharisees carried out ritual washing of their hands up to the elbow. But Jesus and his disciples did not, prompting the Pharisees to demand:

“Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” (Matthew 15:1-2)

It would not violate God’s Law to wash to that extent, but it is not something God requires.

Don: Are culture and religion interchangeable or only related?

Shakir: They overlap.

Don: What happens if one gets ahead of another? I know of two Orthodox Christian men, domiciled in America, both fathers of one-year-old sons. One of the fathers does not wish to teach his son the traditional religious customs, dating back to 1500, of an Orthodox family now living in modern America. He is afraid that in the clash of cultures and religions, the old one will lose out and the son will end up rejecting it altogether. But the other father is adamant that his son will be taught the old culture, believing that it will enrich his son’s life, and that God expects it of him. Which one is right?

Kiran: Organization would have been needed in the early Christian church just to distribute the wealth they were giving away. But if organization grows so big as to crowd out the love and care the religion stands for, what’s the point? We need to balance loyalty to the church with our commitment to sharing the grace of God.

Robin: The challenge of members of every faith organization is to maintain a focus on God instead of on themselves or their institution. On the Day of Judgment, Jesus said:

“But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.
“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’” (Matthew 25:31-40)

He went on the castigate those on the left for not doing these things for their fellow Man. In neither case does Jesus inquire about which church, synagogue, mosque, or temple they belong to. His only concern is how we treat one another.

Shakir: Why didn’t God prevent these problems in the first place, by ensuring that no-one is hungry, or sick, or imprisoned, and so on?

Robin: What then would be the purpose of life? We are here to serve humanity, without prejudice.

Shakir: Then we have to have people who suffer, so that those who don’t suffer can help them. Otherwise the whole scheme collapses.

Robin: There are people who are unsympathetic, unloving, selfish. People can choose whether to do what God wants them to do.

Shakir: In the Judgment, how were the poor, the sick, the convicts, etc., judged? Judgment seems to be reserved for the healthy and free.

David: Religions tend to put themselves (and only themselves) on the right side of judgment. But the one great example Jesus gave of a person who would be on the right on the Day of Judgment was not even an orthodox Jew—he was a Samaritan, who stopped to help a stranger who had just been mugged and was lying injured in the road. While Jewish rabbis crossed the street to avoid proximity to the injured man, the Samaritan stopped and took care of him. The Samaritan was not a Christian (though at heart, I would say he was) and not even an orthodox Jew, yet Jesus chose him as the example the world should follow. Religion was (pointedly, it seems to me) sidelined. [Postcsript: What a different story it would be if the rabbi had stopped to help, while the Samaritan crossed the street!]

Again, I have sympathy for the notion that religions may do some good and help some individuals be better people, but this example shows they cannot arrogate to themselves the inner light that is a part of every human being.

Donald: All religions think they are right, and that their religion should be shared with everyone. Why does God allow evil? My beliefs are mine. Jesus said come as a child, and children don’t form religions. There’s a reason why the Amish end education at eighth grade—it protects young people from too much loss of innocence and keeps them preferring to hold a pair of reins rather than a steering wheel. Why should an outsider seek to interfere with this culture and impose their own?

Don: It calls for humility to recognize that what we hold as “the” right and good way to live may not be so for other cultures. In some sense, we are all have-nots. At some point in our lives, we are all hungry, thirsty, sick, imprisoned and so on—not necessarily physically but emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. All of us are not only in need of ministry, but also are capable of ministering to others. We each have a tool box, more or less filled with tools to help others. Some toolboxes may have only one tool, others might have many. The important thing is that we do what we can with the tools at our disposal.

Similarly, we are all at some point in our lives the Samaritan, the victim, the rabbi who crosses the street to avoid the injured man. We find ourselves playing all of these roles at some point in the road of life. A sense of humility and of appreciation for what God has done for us, directly and through others, seems to me to be very important.

Shakir: Do we do good because it makes us better, or because it is needed in society? Do we behave as good human beings when we have the choice, and in order for us to have a choice does someone else have to be disadvantaged?

Robin: We need to be humble enough to know that we are not smarter than God and that we need His spirit to influence us every day. The people on the right at Judgment were so humble as to be surprised when made aware that they had been doing good.

Don: Whatever the cause, the call to Mankind is to help others in need.

The Culture of God

Don: How do culture and religion influence one another? Nothing shapes us more than where we were raised, where we were socialized. What we wear, what language we speak, what we eat, what sports we follow, what relationship we have with our family, how we picture God, which holy books we read, and how we practice our religion are almost always dependent upon where we were born. The place where we are born and raised influences, more than DNA does, who we are as a person.

Children adopted and brought to America from foreign lands as infants often grow up knowing nothing about their cultures of origin. They may look like they came from Moldova, or Guatemala, or Korea, but they do not speak Moldovan, Spanish, or Korean, do not wear the dress of their origin, do not eat the food of their origin, and may not subscribe to the religions into which they may have been baptized as infants in their country of origin. Knowing next to nothing about the country in which they were born, they grow up speaking, dressing, eating, and behaving like Americans born in America. They are, in fact, as American as apple pie.

The place where we are raised also influences how we see God. Raised as Christians (as Adventists, say; attending Sabbath School, becoming baptized, entering into communion, and so on) and socialized with stories of our (biological or adoptive) family, faith community, and how they see and worship God. We assimilate the same views, rituals, and so on.

It is different for adults who emigrate to another country and culture. It has rightly been said of adults that “You can take the wo/man out of the culture but you cannot take the culture out of the wo/man.” For most of human history, the vast majority of people traveled no more than about ten miles from the place they were born. Their exposure to other people and cultures was minimal-to-none, and their worldview was shaped almost entirely by their immediate surroundings. Cultures were singular and isolated. The idea that another culture could impinge upon one’s own culture, and change some aspect of one’s way of life, was just not conceivable. What one believed to be true was known (by what one saw as the whole world) to be true, and was unlikely to be challenged as untrue.

How things have changed. In just my lifetime, information dissemination has developed radically, to the point where every culture now clashes with one or more other cultures. When such clashes are about food, alcohol, dress, music, language, and so on, they may be relatively muted. But when they are about God and faith, religious beliefs and practices, then things tend to turn ugly.

You may believe in one God. I may believe in three. Someone else may believe in thousands. But if I wear a headscarf to school, or if you kill a cow to make hamburgers, or if someone says something derogatory about my holy book, then it’s war.

There are things about God that we do not know. There is an infinite number of questions about God that we cannot answer. But Mankind is uncomfortable with uncertainty. If we don’t know something, we tend to make it up. This is especially true about religious things and about God. We would rather be wrong than uncertain. We are not satisfied with “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand.” Religions of all kinds have been more than willing to fill the knowledge gap with answers. Sometimes, they may be answers of dubious value.

We no longer have the luxury of a view of a world just ten miles in radius. Today’s view is expansive, comprehensive, and disruptive; while we long for simplicity and narrowness of vision. We want everyone to stay in their cultural lane. It would make our lives so much easier. We want to be Gentile-free Jews, Turk-free Greeks, Moslem-free Christians. But we can’t. We not only have to see each other, but also to confront one another and our differences.

We battle change even within our own cultures. Every generation redefines the culture of the previous generation. What worked for the parent may not work for the child. What works for the grandparent does not necessarily make sense to the grandchild. How can we go forward with God in such a changing cultural milieu?

If God is timeless, unchanging, and unbound by culture, how does our culture work to our advantage or disadvantage in terms of seeing the truth about God? No culture, no religion, no faith group, ever believed that it held an erroneous picture of God. Each sincerely believes it holds the complete truth about God. Each has stories of miraculous interventions by God on its behalf.

Culture is strong, but culture changes. God is unchanging.

David: Indian culture is expressed partly through the caste system. It appears that Christianity appeals to the lower castes.

Pastor Giddi: The lowest caste has no caste and therefore has no identity in the eyes of the higher castes. So when Christian missionaries came calling members of the lowest caste “brother” and saying they were all one in Christ, they were glad to receive and accept the missionaries and their message. But the culture in India is changing, and more upper-caste individuals are accepting Christ.

David: Judging by the Beatitudes, Christ targets the poor, the meek, the oppressed, the suffering. So what can be the appeal to a higher caste person?

Pastor Giddi: Whatever it may be—a dream, a vision, a visit from a missionary—their culture, their caste community, tends to come down on them and shun them. Christianity is identified with outcasts, so if you become a Christian you are casting yourself out, unless you can get your whole family and your whole community to go along with you.

Shakir: In my opinion, culture reflects how much people agree or disagree with one another, and it depends on their nearness (or farness) from one another. We don’t just “have” culture: We need it. By definition, the Creator does not need culture. A person alone on a desert island has no need for culture; but as soon as others arrive, a culture must develop in order for them all to relate to one another through dividing the labor and sharing in the maintenance of order in the society. Culture is needed for survival, which is why it cannot be taken out of the person.

After 18 years living in the US as an adult, I have changed. I have retained most of the culture I grew up with, but I also started seeing some things differently. Why? Because the people around me served as lenses through which to view their lives and culture.

In sum, we need culture, but I doubt God does.

Pastor Giddi: Perhaps God’s culture, if we may call it that, is to reach humanity. Whatever conditions we are living in, whatever religion we follow, God wants to reach us.

Jay: God’s culture has to reflect some of the attributes of what God is. One of those attributes is timelessness. No matter at what point in history, God is there, reaching out to humanity. But mortally limited humanity has difficulty viewing the world in a timeless context. We are born and raised at a certain time, in a certain place, to a certain family. We had no choice in those, and we have no choice but to view the world through those lenses.

It is a blessing to be able to experience the cultures of others, and see how the world looks through their eyes; but God’s culture (if it can be called that) far transcends this ability: His lens is timeless—eternal—and ubiquitous. Neither time nor place enter into it. To the extent we can define God’s culture, we must at least do so within these divine attributes of a God who is all-present and all-knowing, and has been from the foundation of the Earth and will be to the End of Time. It is just not in us to think divinely, to be without bias and prejudice based on the accident of our place and time in history.

Shakir: The Qu’ran begins:

١  بِسْمِ ٱللَّهِ ٱلرَّحْمَٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ
1  In the name of God, the Gracious, the Merciful.
٢  ٱلْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ رَبِّ ٱلْعَٰلَمِينَ
2  Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds.
٣  ٱلرَّحْمَٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ
3  The Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. (The Qur’an 1:1-3 (sūrat l-fātiḥah—The Opening))

David: Logically, could there be anything more merciful, more compassionate than the most merciful and compassionate God? Don’t all the major religions believe in a most merciful and compassionate God? Surely Christianity does. So these—mercy, grace, compassion—would seem to be among the universally recognized attributes of God. To these we may add goodness. Not just every culture but every individual human recognizes goodness and defines it along the lines of the Golden Rule.

Don: The central issue that confronts mankind is that we can only see God through the lens of our own culture. If culture is subject to change, then we have a problem. Unless God is going to do the modern equivalent of writing on the wall by posting the Truth about Himself on Twitter, we are doomed to seek Him through a culture that is not immutable and not constant. Is that our problem, or is it God’s? Shouldn’t a responsible God stand up and declare Himself in terms we can understand, instead of leaving us to grope for Him through the imperfect lens of human culture?

Kiran: Christianity believes in the Golden Rule: Love your neighbor as you love yourself; do unto others as you would have others do unto you. In Hinduism, the duty or dharma of Man is service to humanity and service to God. These are exactly the same. The Moslem practice of giving gifts to the poor during Ramadan is the same: It serves God and humanity. How did different religions come up with the same principle of altruism? A merciful and compassionate God expects us to be merciful and compassionate also. We may add different spices to the meat we give, but meat is meat.

David: The notion that God’s culture is to seek us out is interesting, but we don’t seem to want to wait for His coming—we want to seek Him out first. Unless, that is, we are of the Daoist philosophy, which would have us just wait. Do Nothing. Follow the Way. Don’t try to shortcut it. It seems to me that most religions are out to do just that (take a shortcut hoping to reach the end of the Way.) Christian churches even advertise on their billboards: “Come in and we’ll help you find God.” That is not bad insofar as it gets people thinking about God and being prepared for the time when God approaches them, but the implication that churches can shortcut the way to God is misleading, in my opinion.

Pastor Giddi: In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7)

So we can seek God. My experience in the church is that people who do so tend to grow more kind, more compassionate. So if seeking God leads to compassion…

David: …as it led the Crusaders? All faith-based societies tend to think that societies they regard as Godless have no good in them, yet there are plenty of examples to the contrary. Most notable is China, which embraced (fundamentally) Godless philosophies such as Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.

True, each Chinese village and household may have its own pantheon of earth gods (for rain, fertility, etc.) but they are not the source of the humanitarian goodness we find China as in every other society and every culture. The Chinese call upon no supreme deity to administer goodness and compassion, yet they have both. They are just as good and as bad as everyone else, some doing serious bad and others doing very good things. So I would hesitate to attribute to religion the presence or increase of good in the world.

Kiran: Somehow, the inner light changes people for the better, no matter their culture. We value people who are good and kind when we come across them individually, no matter their cultural or religious backgrounds. It reminds us that we all have that inner light and potential for goodness in common; that we are all the same.

Shakir: The spectrum of belief runs from atheism to dogmatism. Problems occur when the common interest clashes with belief. Islam prohibits alcohol, but some Moslems drink it because being drunk makes them feel good. But they would not want drunk drivers on the highway while they are driving on it, because it would conflict with their personal interests. In other words, although we may all agree on them at some level, at the individual level, good and bad are relative.

In the years immediately following 9/11, polls regularly asked: “The followers of which religions are the least trustworthy?” Atheists consistently scored as the least trustworthy, despite the strong general distrust of Moslems after 9/11. Is it that people think that believers in any God have a moral code while atheists do not?

Mikiko: In Japan, people worship ancestors and bow down to idols. It is cultural. But if God is displeased with a culture, then the culture should change. Exodus 5 prohibits bowing down to idols.

David: Therefore, we should be prepared to change our culture. The crusaders, the old Maori, the Burmese Buddhists, all use or used their Gods to justify murder. Murder is something all human beings recognize as fundamentally bad. Cultures that condone murder are therefore inherently bad and wrong, and should be changed. The question is: How? If the cultures they attacked would all turn the other cheek, as the Moriori did with the Maori, would the aggressive culture eventually be shamed into changing? And are most societies even capable, as the Moriori were, of being like Jesus?

Don: And even before that, one has to ask: What are the pieces of the culture that should be changed? Should a culture drop its prohibition of alcohol? Should Hindus eat hamburgers?

Mikiko: Jesus provided wine for a wedding, and Paul prescribed medicinal wine for Timothy’s upset stomach.

Don: The question remains: What is the culture of God, and what is the culture of Man? Is the culture of Man necessarily bad?

David: If the culture of God, who loves everybody, is “The Most Gracious, the Most Merciful” culture, what does that say about Maori-like cultures? After all, it is just a relative outlier on the continuum of human culture. In recommending the passive, humble, accepting posture of Doing Nothing except go with the Way, Daoism recognizes (in spirit, not words) the surpassing nature of God (the Way, as I see it) and our absolute inability to come even close to possessing that nature. If we try to Do Something, we risk just making a bad culture worse. If, as Pastor Giddi says, God’s culture is to seek us out, why not just wait?

Pastor Giddi: Culture can be changed through economic forces. Our ancestors lived in rough huts and wore little more than loin cloths. Our culture has changed, with new norms of what is considered decent; and culture will continue to change as a result of a variety of forces. Telugu may—as some claim—be the sweetest language, but that is no grounds for Telugu native speakers to hate other languages.

Kiran: No culture is perfect. All cultures, and indeed all individuals, seek to improve, to better themselves. When we feel that that culture we are in is right for us, then we think it must be right for others, too.

Shakir: The question is: Does a difference in culture automatically trigger conflict? Can’t we live peaceably with our differences? Some cultural differences are dictated by environmental and other circumstances to which the local people have no choice but to adapt. Different circumstances dictate different cultural responses. The rights and wrongs of culture are thus relative, dependent on local circumstances. Can we adapt and change in response to our differences?

David: The evidence is that we can. The isolated village with its ten-mile radius is now a global village—rubbing virtual shoulders with villages with vastly differing cultures. Initially, such exposure is bound to create uncertainty; the fear of the unknown. We are living through such uncertainty today, but I see signs of a modus vivendi spreading over the globe and smothering the conflicts. Voices of reason and moderation abound, and while strident voices of unreason and immoderation can drown them out, they lack the numbers to keep up the noise forever. The global trend is for cultures to live together in peace, and sometimes even to learn from one another.

Don: Is it possible for a high-caste Hindu to accept another religion without abandoning his or her caste?

Pastor Giddi: It is possible, depending on the individual. It sometimes involves abandoning one’s property, also.

Kiran: Hindus make it difficult to convert to Christianity.

Shakir: Islam started in a tribal society that had the equivalent of castes, from powerful aristocrats through rich merchants and poor ordinary people to slaves. Resistance to the new religion of Islam arose mostly in the rich and powerful, while the poor and weak and oppressed embraced it. Most religions, in my limited knowledge, assign moral value to equality, which sits ill with those who have acquired their power and wealth by being born into a rich and powerful family. Perhaps equality of His creatures is the culture, or at least the message, of God. Inequality is the culture imposed by some people on other people.

David: We’re asking how might a church or a religion seek to change, to better itself. The answer, or the key to the answer, might lie in accepting that God is the God of everyone and looks upon us all equally. All else is self-serving human propaganda.

Don: Does change occur without conflict? Can enlightenment occur?

David: Paul had an epiphany, was enlightened, and went on to be considered a founding father of a religion that certainly brought its share of conflict to the world.

Pastor Giddi: Christianity and Islam arose out of conflict: Christianity from Christ’s conflict with the Pharisees, and Islam from the conflicts between Mohammed and the authorities in Mecca and Medina. Change may breed conflict, but conflict also breeds change, at least in the religious world.

Don: So should we pray for conflict?

David: Or for no religion?

Culture and Religion: What Would Jesus Do?

Don: How did Jesus relate to the culture of His time and place, and what influence might it have had on Christian doctrine? Does God Himself have a culture?

The practice of religion is based on the accident of birth, on where one is born, what language one speaks, how one is educated, and which holy writings are revered. We cannot talk of God without the baggage of our culture. And yet Christianity has become so identified with Western culture that it is almost impossible to see how it can be adopted in non-Western cultures without significant cultural disruption.

Likewise with Islam, a religion so tied to Middle Eastern culture and to the Arabic language. Becoming Moslem requires a Westerner to adopt a counter-culture with different ways of dress, of eating, and of language of worship.

Tribes, clans, and families have ways of eating and dressing and relating to one another based on shared history, environment, and adaptations to the world around them. It is hard to imagine a vegetarian Eskimo. Only those who live in a first-world culture have the luxury of choices over food, dress, education, living conditions, and travel and transportation.

All this begs the question: What doctrines are Man-made, and what are prescribed by God? Questions of modesty, sensuality, and marital fidelity, of the roles of family members, of what is proper and what is profane,… all are highly dependent on where one is born, on one’s socialization. Burping is polite in some cultures, signifying appreciation after a good meal; but it is impolite in others.

Doctrines of God seem to be broader, more loosely defined, and universally applicable. They include: Respect for a higher power, sharing with others, respecting human and property rights, honesty, and so on. These are timeless and adopted by many cultures, and it would seem they are not bound by culture.

Evidence of how Jesus related to His culture is in the Scriptures, but how one interprets His relationship with His culture depends upon one’s own cultural background. Jewish scholars emphasize His Jewishness. Many recognize Him as the most influential Jew in all of history. They point to His Judaism, which is evident in many stories told in the Gospels. Non-Jewish scholars tend to see Him as counter-cultural and even, in the extreme, as a destroyer of Jewish culture by challenging the authorities and the rules of Judaism. Just beneath the surface of such an extreme argument is the ugly theological underpinning for the Holocaust: Since Jesus was out to destroy Jewish culture, then the Holocaust was just doing God’s work, this argument goes.

At its root is the question: Was Jesus a Jew or a Christian? We know from the Gospels that He was raised as a Jew. He was given His name on the eighth day, the day of circumcision, in keeping with Jewish tradition. In Luke 2, we see Him at the age of 12 discoursing with teachers in a motif that could be a bar mitzvah. Throughout, His clothing and His way of life were Jewish. As Jesus walked through a marketplace, a woman with a menstrual disorder touched the tassel* of his garment, a traditional Jewish religious ornament:

The Lord also spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel, and tell them that they shall make for themselves tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and that they shall put on the tassel of each corner a cord of blue. It shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord, so as to do them and not follow after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you played the harlot, so that you may remember to do all My commandments and be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt to be your God; I am the Lord your God.” (Numbers 15:37-41)

So Jesus lived as a Jew and worshiped—reading Moses and so on—on the Sabbath. When He died He was buried according to Jewish custom—His body was washed, perfumed, and wrapped in linen. But we also see that at times in His life He healed on the Sabbath, breaking the law concerning the Sabbath. He did not insist that His disciples followed the custom of ritual hand-washing. He interacted with lepers (considered unclean) but He then reverted to custom by sending them back to the rabbi after healing them. He interacted with people possessed by demons. He ate with prostitutes and socialized with tax collectors. He did all of this in contravention of Jewish tradition or law.

He decided for Himself what was God’s doctrine:

The Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered around Him when they had come from Jerusalem, and had seen that some of His disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) The Pharisees and the scribes *asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:
‘This people honors Me with their lips,
But their heart is far away from Me.
‘But in vain do they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’
Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.”
He was also saying to them, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, is to be put to death’; but you say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother, whatever I have that would help you is Corban (that is to say, given to God),’ you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother; thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that.” (Mark 7:1-13)

There was a time when, because of the isolation in which we then lived, our American culture could be perceived as being the culture of the entire world. The world was simply that which could be seen by our own eyes, and no more. But today we live in a connected world. When a group of schoolboys became trapped in a cave in Thailand, the whole world watched, live, on TV and the Internet. In this class sit God’s children from the Middle East, India, South Africa, North America, Europe, Asia, and Japan. In God’s world, do cultures clash? Or do they coalesce?

In Acts 15, we see the clash of cultures when Gentiles begin migrating into the early Christian church. James summarized his view on how it ought to be handled, as follows:

Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, … (Acts 15:19)

Is that a rule of thumb that we could live by—not to trouble one another?

For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another. Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense. (Romans 14:15-20)

But I have written very boldly to you on some points so as to remind you again, because of the grace that was given me from God, to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God, so that my offering of the Gentiles may become acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:15-16)

What can we learn from the life of Jesus about the relationship between culture and doctrine?

Donald: The question “Was Jesus a Jew or a Christian?” equates culture with faith, but they are two different things. And therein lies the problem. We link the two so tightly together that we mistake cultural issues as faith issues and have a hard time keeping the two separate. Andrews University receives accolades for its diversity, yet it is also harmonious. Harmony does not necessarily mean that people adapt to one another. I might just mean that they tolerate one another.

The issue is profound and has profound consequences. The culture of Detroit is quite different from the culture of Chicago, which is not that far away. Yet people in one city behave differently and look different from people in the other. There is great diversity in our class. We are fascinated by difference but if we are required to adapt to it ourselves, it is a different matter.

Jay: It seems impossible to live outside of one’s culture. Yet when it conflicted with spiritual matters, Jesus seemed ready enough to step outside His culture. That suggests to me that culture is not inherently bad; that it is natural and that we have no reason not to go along with it for the most part. But not completely—not when it conflicts with our inner light, our conscience. Jesus resisted His culture to such an extent that it cost Him His life.

David: Roughly 200 years ago, an invasion force of Maori people attacked the Moriori people of the Chatham Islands in the South Pacific. The Maori culture was and remains warlike (they precede games of rugby with the haka, a display of violent aggression). The Moriori culture was pacifist. The Maori massacred the Moriori.

Was a person born into the Maori culture evil by accident of birth? Jesus had no choice of culture or religion when He was born in the ancient Near East. The Roman pantheon and the gods of the other Semitic tribes would not have been available to Jesus or any other Jew. If I recall correctly, even Josephus retained his Jewishness despite becoming a Roman citizen. Today, we in the West (at least) may be born into one culture but face a multitude of cultural and religious choices as we go through life.

Jay: If we take the concepts of nature and nurture, and ascribe to nature such things as conscience/the inner light and ascribe to nurture the things needed for everyday existence in society, we can see that the impacts of nurture (as with the Maoris and Morioris) can be dramatic. It is somewhat disheartening to think that nurture can be so destructive.

Donald: Counter-culture is defined on Google as “a way of life and set of attitudes opposed to or at variance with the prevailing social norm.” People born into Adventism in North America have generally embraced their appellation as “a peculiar people” who stand out by the way they have commingled their faith with their culture.

David: So far we have discussed relatively trivial cultural taboos: What to eat, what to wear, when to worship, and so on. But 200 years ago it would have been practically taboo for a Maori to refuse to participate in a massacre. Jesus might not give a fig about pork or alcohol or a suit and tie, but surely He would not approve of killing one’s neighbors.

A Moslem friend thought Jesus would also not approve of being so pacifist as to stand idly by while one’s family is slaughtered. He thought that turning the other cheek was not unconditional. But as I read the Scripture, it is unconditional. Some cultural demands are spiritually far more consequential than others. So what are the spiritual implications of being born a Maori?

Jay: We tend to view our Adventist “peculiarity” with pride. If we did not, it would just look ridiculous. The Bible does seem to call for us to be markedly different. The Sermon on the Mount describes the kingdom of heaven as a place where everything is opposite to what we consider normal, where we are expected to choose the end of the line, to turn the other cheek, and so on. These are counter-cultural and peculiar behaviors. Is it inevitable that kingdom of heaven behavior will be viewed as counter-cultural and peculiar in relation to worldly culture and behavior, or does the accident of birth predispose or bias one toward (or away from) peculiarity?

David: If there were no conflict between kingdom culture and worldly culture, we would all be sitting here naked.

Don: But if we were tropical jungle tribes people, we might all be sitting here naked anyway.

Donald: Once you decide to be peculiar, then you tend to assume peculiarities on purpose to… What? Just to be different?

Dewan: The Indian custom of suttee (the self-sacrifice of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands) was banned under the British Raj.

Donald: So some peculiarities are more significant than others. Some are just silly, viewed from the outside, but may be taken very seriously on the inside.

Jay: The crux of the issue is where is the boundary between the sublime and the ridiculous, between kingdom culture and a human culture that varies over time and place? We are afraid of stepping over the boundary and into an eternal void. In our desperation to know where the boundary lies, we fix it, we define it for ourselves, on the basis of our culture and our interpretations of holy writings. Is that wise? I think not, because we are fixing the boundary at a specific time and in a specific place.

David: A church that abandoned its doctrines overnight would disintegrate, and its individual members would be devastated. So the key is to know what is important for living a physical life in the here and now, in our time and place, and what is important for living a spiritual life in a kingdom without time or place—in the world of the inner light, in the eternity set within our hearts? The two need not be inimical, and the mundane doctrines of religions that also convey divine doctrines of peace and love need not be contradictory. They often are, but I think we can discern progress over the course of history.

Members of the Jesus Movement that assembled after His death were conflicted about letting Gentiles join, because they confused their mundane Jewish doctrines regarding food and dress and circumcision with the divine doctrines of Jesus. They did so in part because they literally did not know any different—they did not know that other doctrines existed that might differ with theirs at the mundane level but not at the spiritual level.

Children today are born into a world where Christians and Jews and Moslems and Buddhists and Wiccans and atheists live more or less next door to one another. We see into one another’s lives and cultures and religions in depth and detail through the modern media. We know all about the Thai kids in the cave, and we know a great deal about the Sunni-Shia conflicts around the world, the Islam–Buddhist conflict in Myanmar, and the Protestant–Catholic divide in northern Ireland. That knowledge and awareness cannot help but have have a mediating impact on people’s psyches and worldview, bringing us all closer together culturally and spiritually. (On the whole, that is; the exceptions can be shockingly violent, but they only serve to prove the rule.)

Members of the Jesus Movement knew a bit about the Gentiles but generally held themselves aloof and apart. But they knew nothing at all about Islam, which simply did not exist at that time, or about Buddhism or Daoism—which did exist but in places the ancient Jews probably never heard of. Today, we see them all, and we see the things we share in common, and we see and can at least ponder and discuss the things that differentiate us.

Donald: I am conservative in the original sense of the word as being true to my principles, but the open-mindedness I have developed in part through travel and exposure to other cultures is unfortunately often mistaken for liberalism!

Robin: Going back to the matter of pride in our “peculiarity,” Paul said of pride:

For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? (1 Corinthians 4:7)

Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered,… (1 Corinthians 13:4-5)

When pride comes, then comes dishonor,
But with the humble is wisdom. (Proverbs 11:2)

Jesus never expressed pride; always humbly deferring to the Father.

* Wikipedia entry on “Jesus healing the bleeding woman” says: Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts specify the “fringe” of his cloak, using a Greek word which also appears in Mark 6. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia article on fringes in Scripture, the Pharisees (one of the sects of Second Temple Judaism) who were the progenitors of modern Rabbinic Judaism, were in the habit of wearing extra-long fringes or tassels (Matthew 23:5), a reference to the formative çîçîth (tzitzit). Because of the Pharisees’ authority, people regarded the fringe with a mystical quality.

The Effect of Culture on Doctrine and Scripture

Don: What is culture? Does God have culture? The word is from the Latin cultura meaning cultivation, the tilling of the soil. Perhaps it is the essence of what is needed for survival. The poet T.S. Eliot wrote:

“Culture may even be described simply as that which makes life worth living.” (T. S. Eliot, 1948. Pp. 294-295 in Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Kermode, London, 1975, quoted here.)

He went on to say that people in society needed not just food, but special, distinctive, and proper cuisine. Culture, he noted, is primarily derived and passed on by the family, both nuclear and extended.

It is not difficult to see that culture influences doctrine and religion, and that religion in turn also influences culture. We don’t approach God or the Holy Scriptures in a vacuum. We read the Bible from the perspective of our own cultural background—our education, our language, our socialization, and our life experiences.

In a study in which 100 North American students were asked to read the Parable of the Prodigal Son and then re-tell the story in their own words, only six students mentioned the famine that the Prodigal Son experience when he was away from home. When 50 Russian Orthodox students were asked to do the same, 42 (84%) mentioned the famine. This may be explained by the differing cultural backgrounds of the two groups: Famine is barely known in North American history, but seems to have been a recurrent event in Russian history, most recently during World War 2. Those famines are deeply ingrained in the psyche of the Russian people.

In Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien point out two cultural dangers to which we are readily susceptible:

  1. When we make our individual selves the center of our search for meaning, we are naturally drawn to passages in Scripture that we feel are immediately relevant to our lives, and we readily ignore or dismiss passages that we deem irrelevant to us.
  2. More importantly, to place oneself instead of God and His actions at the center of doctrine is to claim special spiritual privilege in God’s eyes. We easily fall into the trap of thinking: “This verse is about me (or my country or my time in history,” etc. Non-Western Christians can help remind us that Scripture is about them, too; but more importantly, it is about God and all Mankind.

Seventh Day Adventists worship in about 78,000 different churches and 70,000 different companies in 200 countries and about 800 languages, every week. I suspect something similar is true for many other churches. Can a bare-breasted Borneo woman attend her church bare-breasted? Can a naked Amazon jungle dweller attend his church naked? Can a New Guinean cannibal become an elder in his church? Can a newly converted Zulu with three wives become a pastor? Can an Ethiopian woman with a lip plate serve communion? Can a Bahraini with two wives take up the Offering? Can I teach Sabbath school class with a red dot on my forehead? Must I always wear a white short and a tie? Can I say the five daily prayers in English instead of Arabic? Can I smash coconuts at the foot of the altar?

What actually is Man’s doctrine, and what exactly is God’s? Does God even have a culture? At first glance, the following story about moving and touching the Ark of the Covenant would seem to have little to do with all of this. It gives is a picture of the Israelite culture at that time, in which God is symbolized for the Jewish nation and in reality also with the box—the Ark—God’s presence. For them, it was their God-in-a-box. The name Uzzah, which appears in the passage, means “strength.” The message seems to be that God cannot be managed with one’s own strength:

Now David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. And David arose and went with all the people who were with him to Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God which is called by the Name, the very name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned above the cherubim. They placed the ark of God on a new cart that they might bring it from the house of Abinadab which was on the hill; and Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were leading the new cart. So they brought it with the ark of God from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill; and Ahio was walking ahead of the ark. Meanwhile, David and all the house of Israel were celebrating before the Lord with all kinds of instruments made of fir wood, and with lyres, harps, tambourines, castanets and cymbals.

But when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out toward the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen nearly upset it. And the anger of the Lord burned against Uzzah, and God struck him down there for his irreverence; and he died there by the ark of God. David became angry because of the Lord’s outburst against Uzzah, and that place is called Perez-uzzah to this day. So David was afraid of the Lord that day; and he said, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” And David was unwilling to move the ark of the Lord into the city of David with him; but David took it aside to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. (2 Samuel 6:1-10)

We wish to do with doctrine what the Israelites did with the Ark: To control God somehow with our own strength. This notion that God needs our assistance, that our culture is relevant to God, is fatal religion. It is our way of doing things. But placing ourselves and our thoughts and behaviors—in short, our culture—at the center of religion and doctrine is to engage in fatal religion. We are in God’s service, not He in ours. And yet, how can we know God if not through our culture? Is it possible to avoid falling into a cultural trap in religion? If so, how? Because otherwise we seem doomed to view God from a particular point of view.

Donald: It seems to me that the question “What is the culture of God?” might usefully be framed in terms of the question we discussed last week: “What are the differences between the doctrine of God and the doctrines of Man?” Most Seventh Day Adventists would probably agree with me that a strength of our church is the ability, wherever you go in the world, to step into a familiar culture and enjoy a Sabbath experience essentially the same as we would enjoy at home.

If we could uncouple the doctrine that is God’s from the doctrine that is the Church’s, perhaps the experience could be regional rather than global. It would shorten doctrinal debates, although there are doubtless some who would argue that doctrine concerning nakedness, polygamy, and lip plates are God’s doctrine.

A recent article in the Atlantic suggested that the Roman Catholic Church could put its current troubles behind it if it were to allow regional autonomy, which would take authority away from Rome. Another article takes issue with the prevalent assumption that Christianity is shrinking in America. According to the article, it is only corporate Christianity that is shrinking, while evangelical, congregational Christianity is growing.

David: Regional doctrines are all very well, but the fact is that doctrine must either trump culture or else be abandoned. You can’t ban pork and eat it. Not credibly, anyway. One of the two has to give. But in any case, doctrine is a cultural artifact and culture is inherently collective—communal. An individual in isolation from the the collective has no culture, only character. Culture cannot affect an individual’s relationship with God.

KB: In South Africa, culture gets in the way of relationships with God. Families are torn between church doctrines and tribal customs. For instance, tribal custom demands the shaving of the men’s heads, and the wearing of a black item of apparel by the women, in a family that suffers a bereavement. But these customs are frowned upon, or are perceived as being frowned upon, in some churches. Children of a church family are sometimes forbidden to visit with non-church relatives unchaperoned.

The early missionaries to Africa perhaps did not accept the notion that God accepts people as they are; that culture ought not to become a stumbling block to a relationship with Him, whether that relationship is nurtured individually or through the church. It gets harder for people to be who they are as they ascend the church hierarchy.

We should be able to debate these issues in our church. Clothing and food are cultural matters. They reflect the local environment and local resources. In rural South Africa, the principal food resource is the cow. We use every part of it. Nothing is thrown away. We eat the flesh and use the hide for clothing and other uses. When the missionary knocks on the door and invites the tribal African to live a new life in Christ, the missionary is really asking the visitee to give all of that up. I’m not sure that is what Christ wanted in return for dying for us. He did not lay down conditions about what to eat or wear.

Jay: It seems to me that doctrine is tied to the concept of obedience. Doctrine is a framework for how community can show obedience to God. There seems to be a definite call for us to obey, and we try to define what that is through doctrine.

Should obedience be hard or easy? We tend to think it is hard to do as God wants us to do, that it requires sacrifice and being different and doing things that “normal” people would not do. We have a tendency to set the doctrinal bar high, because reaching it demonstrates our commitment to God.

Mr. Singh: Doctrine of God, of Man, of salvation, of church are all fundamental beliefs.

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

David: Did Paul not tell the early Christian evangelists to adopt the ways of the people they went to evangelize? If so, Christian churches are perverse in practicing the very opposite. Doctrines demanding obedience are church doctrines, Man’s doctrines. I do not see anything in the Bible to suggest that Christ in any way ordained or approved of the doctrines of the Christian church.

Robin: I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a missionary visiting a village of naked people. Where would one look?! It might mean nothing to the people who live that way, but is likely to be disturbing to the visitor to think that such people might attend church naked.

KB: But how would God react? I like the notion of obedience as a demonstration of our acceptance of Jesus as our Savior, and as a way of showing our respect to God. I may abandon my culture and adopt a new one as a step to getting closer to what God wants. Many Christian churches in Africa require a uniform to be worn in church, though the Adventist church is a liberal exception to that.

African critics accuse African Christians of abandoning their culture for a colonialist culture.

Donald: It seems disrespectful to expect another community, in which one is a guest and a minority, to share one’s beliefs and adopt one’s ways. Imagine visiting an Amish community here and telling them they are wrong! Why can’t we appreciate diversity? But first, we need to distinguish between Man’s doctrine and God’s doctrine.

Mr. Singh: If I dress as a Moslem I will be mistaken for a Moslem. In parts of India, that can be dangerous.

David: Robin and Mr. Singh both point to what is an obstacle between people and groups understanding one another and being able to worship together. I would feel just as embarrassed as Robin if I were to walk into a village and find everyone naked. But it would be a purely cultural reaction. It would not preclude my sharing with the villagers a spiritual understanding, to the extent even of being able to worship together with them.

I think it would help me, in that situation, to ask myself: “Who told me that they are naked?” God asked Adam and Eve “Who told you you were naked?” My reading of this is that nakedness is utterly irrelevant when it comes to a relationship with God. Our embarrassment at nakedness is Adam’s embarrassment, not God’s.

KB: People believe that they will be robed when they get to heaven, so they’ll be saved the embarrassment! Being embarrassed, uncomfortable, may be good insofar as it makes us examine the reasons underlying our discomfort. Doctrine does not have to be in conflict with culture.

The Adventist church does better in the cities than the rural areas of South Africa because city dwellers have already “Westernized” to a degree. The cultural change demanded of a villager is much more than is demanded of a city dweller. The church needs to change its approach to cultures, not just in Africa but in India and other areas as well.

Mr. Singh: In 1874 Adventists numbered 7,500, almost all of them in the northern United States. Today, it is in over 200 countries with an attendance in the tens of millions and more than a million new members joining every year. It is our responsibility to nurture that growth.

Donald: Today, though, the northeastern United States has very few Adventists. Does this mean that Adventism has lost its way? I remain concerned about what KB has told us. But even here, how well do we integrate with our local community? My neighbors are out mowing the lawn on Saturday mornings, watching me drive off in suit and tie.

Don: The difficulty of obedience is primarily cultural. It turns us away from our culture and towards a counter-culture. Jesus said “My yoke is easy, my burden is light.” It is not hard. The doctrine of Jesus appeals to universal common sense rather than to culture: Love God, love your neighbor, be truthful, forgiving, etc. Every human being can understand and (by and large) agree with the inherent logic and ethic of this doctrine. But wearing a suit and tie in the African jungle does not make sense to everybody.

Chris: Culture is identified as worldly, and we are called not to be worldly. There is something more than culture involved when Christ talks about “coming out of the world.”

Don: Jesus was constantly at odds with the socio-religious culture of His time. Whether it was speaking to the woman at the well, or touching lepers, we see a pattern of counter-culturalism in the life of Jesus. And in the end, that is what got him martyred. He became so counter-cultural as to be dangerous.

David: I read his actions not as counter-cultural but as acultural. He was indifferent to it. His mission and His message were spiritual, or unworldly as Chris suggests. Culture may be a stumbling block to spirituality, but that’s life, as T.S. Eliot seems to be saying. We cannot avoid culture in our communal, worldly life but we can and must ignore it in our individual, spiritual life.

Donald: I think the problem Jesus had was with the authority of His time. He was a threat to authority.

Don: I do hope we can look forward to more open and frank discussion of diversity in the Christian church as a whole. We must understand that people who have a completely different lifestyle, education, and way of seeing the world, have a cultural and religious experience that is every bit as legitimate as ours. That is a hard thing to embrace, yet it is worthy of celebration. Until we do embrace and celebrate it, not much is likely to change.

KB: Jesus was a Jew. We are told to live as He lived. So maybe we could get some direction by looking at His life within the context of the culture of His time.