Changing Religion

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 Today, foot-washing in many places is outdated.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.

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