Culture and Faith

Today we will explore the relationship between culture and faith. Can you have faith without culture? Can you have culture without faith? With a few exceptions, I would have to say that most of us who are in this class come from different cultures, different countries, different backgrounds. We speak different languages, have different dreams, different hopes, different aspirations. What about our faith? Is that different too? Are culture and faith related? If so, how?

Religious faiths and rituals are found in every society that’s ever been studied by anthropologists. This implies that belief, faith, and religious rituals are universal to the human experience, and are just as characteristic of being human as the ability to see color. There is, it seems, something in the human mind programmed to seek the divine. Faith would not be so universally found if it wasn’t useful to help mankind solve the problems of life, to provide answers and reassurances in times of strife. In addition, this universal faith has apparently proven useful to raise children as well, who successfully then propagate and pass on this supernatural belief system to their offspring.

There is evidence from the study of neuropsychiatry that the brain plays an important and even a leading role in the spiritual experiences of humans. Although there apparently is no single “God spot” in the brain, feelings of self transcendence—that is the sense of something out there that is greater than ourselves—based on studies of functional MRI, seem to be associated with reduced electrical activity in the right parietal lobe of the brain (that’s the area of the brain above the ear.)

Self-transcendence, or focus on the other-worldly, is the opposite of being self-focused and is seen as related to spiritual experiences and what we might call faith. Spiritual experiences themselves involve several different areas of the brain. So we might say that the “God spot” or what I would like to call the connecting point of faith is a functional spot, not an anatomic one. What is the value of such a connecting point? As Jason and Jeff have argued, the primary purpose of faith is to serve as an emotional coping mechanism, a way of dealing with the difficulties and the pleasures of life. Faith is that point of connection between God and man that re emphasizes that God is in control. It is the functional equivalent of Romans 8:28, which says that all things will work together for good for those who love God.

What we want, however, is a faith that solves our problems. We want a faith that heals our disease, takes away our sorrow, puts food on our table. But that’s not what faith does, it seems. Faith is that point of connection with God, the “God spot” that assures that we have a sense of something which is better, higher, stronger, greater than ourselves. There is something that transcends ourselves, and this transcendent divine being—what we call God—is in control of our lives. He is our Creator. He is our sustainer and he is our Redeemer.

We want to plug into God. But it seems that God wants to plug into us. By that I mean we want God’s power to do our will. We’d like to take our lives and supercharge them with God’s power. But God is not in our service. We are in his service. In that sense, God wants to plug into our lives so we do things his way, do His will. And that I think is what faith helps us do. A plug or a port, it is a connecting site, in order to be empowered by God and to do his will. Faith is giving up on our own control, in spite of the outcomes, and plugging into God’s control. Faith takes us up to God—it does not bring God down to us.

Regardless of the short term outcome, we want to play faith like a slot machine in the casino, hoping that we might win the spiritual jackpot. But as Paul wrote:

… but just as it is written: “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, And which have not entered the human heart, All that God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9)

We want to traffic in weak, cheap, ineffectual faith. We wish to commoditize faith. That’s why we’re often riddled by doubt. That’s why you see the doubt in Moses and Gideon and Abraham and all the others that we’ve studied as well. They substitute fake faith for the real deal. We have not kept the God spot active. The faith connecting point that actuates us with God’s power is dull. The stories of faith that we have studied so far are stories of connection. They are stories where men and women of faith have found their power and their connection point. And because of it, they’ve taken on the power and the might of God.

It brings us back to the question of culture and the role of culture in faith. Culture is often contrasted with nature. Many times they are seen as opposites. What belongs to nature cannot be the result of human interaction or intervention. On the other hand, cultural development is a man-made phenomenon. Can faith be separated from culture?

For most of the history of mankind, one lived one’s life within a roughly ten-mile radius from one’s home. Your culture was local, ever present, controlled, and isolated. Your view of God was what was laid out before your five senses and what they told you. What you would see and what you would hear and what you would feel was all that you had of a worldview. But from the dawn of the 20th century, building upon the backs of the Industrial Revolution, cultural changes become swift, unrelenting, and utterly transformational.

There is no such thing as cultural isolation anymore. Given the ways in which we assimilate culture, what does it do to our faith? Do we share faith like we share a culture at a time when cultural appropriation is taboo? Is faith appropriation taboo as well? Or is that acceptable?

It turns out that I like koshary, an Egyptian street food made of rice, macaroni, and lentils mixed together, topped with a spiced tomato sauce and garlic vinegar and garnished with chickpeas and crispy fried onions. I also like aloo gobi, a vegetarian dish from the Indian subcontinent made with potatoes, cauliflower, and Indian spices, and I like Spanish rice and French fried potatoes and Italian ravioli. But what about faith? Can I also like the commitment of Islam, the devotion of Hinduism, the logic of Taoism, and the grace of Christianity?

What are your thoughts about faith and culture? About the relationship between the two? How can faith in our culture be? How can faith affect our culture? And how can culture affect our faith?

Jay: I think of faith as more of a universal constant. When I try to think about God and the characteristics of God and goodness, I believe that those things are timeless, therefore not bound by culture, geography, or time. If faith is from God, then it has to be in that category of timeless-ness and cultureless-ness. So I see faith as a universal constant. There is no doubt in my mind, though, that how we exercise or relate to faith is definitely shaped by things that are not universal, such as geography, culture, and time. So there’s no doubt that my cultural perspective has a large impact on how I exercise the faith, how I utilize the faith. But in the end, faith is faith, no matter what culture, time, or geography you find yourself in.

David: I agree absolutely. Because our culture was once constrained to a 10 mile radius of where we live, various differences arose in the way that we organized our culture, and part of that was how we organized our religious faith. But I don’t think it made any difference whatsoever to our spiritual faith, which as Jason has indicated is essentially universal.

Ancient Chinese and Arabic poetry reflect the same spirituality in people; they reflect the same sense of a Greatness and a Goodness in the universe. And there is absolutely no difference whether it’s a poet living in a Chinese village or a village somewhere in the middle east, or in Indonesia, or wherever. The ten-mile radius makes no difference whatsoever to every human being’s universal sense of God.

But culture spoils that universality by putting a gloss, a veneer, a stamp of exclusivity upon this great sense of oneness with a universal God. And culture is what we do inside our ten-mile radii. We imagine things to embellish that feeling and call the result our religion. That’s what we do within our own communities. That’s what we grow up with. And it’s hard not to fall in line and follow it. But it’s not real. A village with its own 10 mile radius but thousands of miles distant develops a completely different culture and religion, but it too is irrelevant to the universal God we all recognize and in whom we all have faith.

Donald: For most of their existence Seventh Day Adventist universities described themselves as “Seventh Day Adventist institutions of higher education.” But for the last ten years or so, they have described themselves as “faith-based institutions.” I don’t know how or exactly when that happened. But words matter. Being described as a faith-based institution softens the edge of being part of a religious, highly organized, developed, Christian denomination. It somehow makes it more palatable to people looking over to see what it’s about.

Culture is right up there with personality, it seems to me. When we’re born, we’re a blank sheet of paper without much personality, but it starts filling up pretty quickly. The way you go about doing Christmas is highly developed based on family tradition, which becomes the “right” way of doing it. If you’re not doing it that way, you’re doing it the wrong way.

What is common amongst the 11 people Zooming into this class this morning? What can we say is the common reference point? I think faith is probably pretty close to being it. We can’t say it’s religion, because we don’t all have the same religious experience. I don’t think we all have the same personality. We don’t all come from the same culture.

Carolyn: I would like to just interject the word “prayer,” because faith and prayer have gone so much together in my life. Does faith change our viewpoint on prayer?

Reinhard: Culture maybe affects our faith or our worship. Our belief in God maybe affects our culture. In early Christianity, when the apostle Paul preached to the Gentiles after Jesus went back to heaven he found resistance among them. If a culture, a people already has a deity and a form of worship, their resistance to a new one will be very high. Christians are commanded to go preach the gospel to the ends of the earth. I come from a culture not introduced to Christianity until the seventh century. In my experience, most of the Adventists in my area came from another Christian denomination. I think it’s easier than coming from a different religion or from no religion at all.

Every culture has some give and take with regard to some things but not in terms of belief in a supreme being. If the authority embraces a faith, the people will mostly follow. This is true for Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. People know that believing in their faith, in their religion, is the right way to believe in God. If people act in accordance with their beliefs, is God going to judge them for it? If we believe that God is the supreme being who loves us, we just need to increase our faith by knowing him more. It is our duty as followers of Christ to put into practice what we learn about our faith. Our actions reflect our faith. I think that’s the key.

Jay: We tend to use the words faith and religion interchangeably, which I think is part of the dilemma. The words “Seventh Day Adventist faith” roll off our tongue. But in saying that you bind faith to culture, you make faith not universal, not the result of a universal origin. If faith is a universal constant, then these interaction points—if they are interacting with God, if that’s what they’re really truly seeking to do—wouldn’t matter. Pick one!

If your system of beliefs, if your culture helps you to connect to God, relate to God, acknowledge that God is in control (which is kind of what Jeff and I have been saying faith is) then that seems like a pretty good thing, whether that’s interaction as a Seventh Day Adventist, a Catholic, a Muslim, or whatever. It acknowledges that there’s a God of goodness and a God of grace that is in control. Then, the mechanism by which you interact isn’t really that profound, or a matter of right or wrong.

The real issue is that we want to propagate ourselves, leave a legacy of other people who think and do as we do. If we could change our concept from leaving a legacy to helping others to interact with Goodness, with God, we would have a very different view of what faith is. But we have bound the idea of faith to very specific practices. To me, that seems so God-limiting. To say that God can only interact with me or God has a preferential way of interacting with me—which, by the way, happens to be really good in 2020 but 1,000 years ago must not have been as good, or in China is not as good—seems so to limit what God can do. To me, it just doesn’t make any sense to limit God that way.

David: It speaks very much to what Carolyn was asking about the interface between faith and prayer. Every religion has its own way of approaching prayer, prescribing how prayer is to be done. But go back to a village with its ten-mile radius that has not yet developed a religion, and you will still find prayer. You will hear it in their poetry. Many a poem is essentially a prayer to God, and poetry is universal. You can see prayer in Chinese poetry, in Arabic poetry, in poetry everywhere. It’s universal.

It doesn’t depend upon the external imposition of rules of prayer. There is no rule. The God spot, the interface with God is unmediated. It is an interface strictly between you and God. The world’s literature and poetry attest clearly that the interface to God is not unique to any culture or to any individual—it is common to every individual and every culture on the planet.

Kiran: When I compare my culture and my faith as a former Hindu to the faith and culture I have now, I realize I had a lot of fear back when I was a Hindu. I believed that if I did certain things, something bad would happen to me; if I did certain other things, the bad things would not happen to me. I retained the same mentality for a while even after I became Christian.

To me, fear is the opposite of faith. The great deal of fear I had as a Hindu is gone now. I accept that it is what it is, that I’m in God’s control, that he’ll do whatever he wants to do with me, and that at the end of the day, it will be okay, because he’s going to take care of me. I think I came to this conclusion because I had a glimpse of grace. Grace is a mighty concept but even a tiny glimpse of it was enough to make me realize that if you take it away, there is no difference between my Hindu faith and my beginning Christian faith. But the moment you bring grace into the equation, it’s like being thrown a curveball. It’s hard to explain.

I have seen a few people in other faiths also give themselves up to God and say: “God’s in control, and whatever happens, happens.” But the majority of people, whether Christian or Hindu, worry a lot, scared about how things are going to be, and wanting to control it. My definition of faith means giving up that control, letting God do what he wants to do, and being okay with it. So that’s that. Maybe others have faith like this but it’s hard to tell. Most people worry about what they should do. Should I be more vegan? Should I read the Bible more? Should I pray more, so that I can overcome this sinful nature of mine? We think that we can exert some control over these things.

So if I have to define universal faith, it is as Jason said: Giving up your attempts at control and accepting the reality that God is in control. Prayer is universal. I used to pray a lot back then because I wanted God to change things. I thought that prayer was a tool that I could use to control or change the mind of God. Now my prayers are short: “You’re in control, do whatever you want to do, but help me accept, just help me bend my will to your will.”

Don: Anyone want to stand up for the rituals? Anyone want to stand up for how we practice our faith as an important tool for faith?

Ahmed: I have two thoughts about this very interesting topic. I had a German education and I lived for a while in France, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and here in the US. The US is a perfect example of different cultures, people from different backgrounds and different ethnic origins living together. The more I am in contact with these different cultures, the more I recognize how much we have in common and how similar we all are in our aspirations and hopes and even in our reactions to faith and religion.

The other thought this topic brings to mind is that the revolution wrought by the Internet and its global reach, with everyone sharing a common community in a common world, gives us a glimpse into what’s going on everywhere in the world and enables communication between different cultures. How different are we? It is challenging. Have we become a common global culture yet? Have we discovered how much we share in common?

Donald: That’s a fascinating thought. It appears that we are more divided today than we’ve ever been. We throw out ideas without really caring whether or how other people take them (think Facebook). We drive a stake in the ground and declare: “This is my position.” We have a common tool to make a common culture, a universal culture; yet it doesn’t appear we are using it that way. We’re actually using it in just the opposite way, it appears to me.

Ahmed: For me, faith is a journey. This life is a trip. It’s a work in progress, a working process of reflecting upon your experiences, reflecting upon others’ experiences, and learning from the things that happen around you—trying to reflect and see why these things happen, figuring out the rationale behind them and how we can put them in the context of our faith and our beliefs in God. Like this pandemic, and what has been going on since March of this year, and how everything turned upside down, and how we are facing now a second wave. It’s very interesting to reflect upon these experiences and try to put them in context of the bigger picture of mankind and our journey on this earth.

David: Ahmed and Donald have brought up something that’s absolutely critical and that we occasionally start to discuss: The future, and how faith will be manifested in the future. The Internet has given us the so-called Global Village, it has unified us up to a point, it has enabled us all to see inside one another’s cultures understand and accept one another. But perhaps only the early Internet was like that. The modern Internet, and the future Internet maybe even more so, is more like a new Babel. We are being dispersed into a myriad channels, little highways and byways that we feel we belong to, while other people go their myriad ways.

The global village is breaking up into millions of micro-villages. We’re no longer a unified world. We have our own little walled-off, ten-mile radius, virtual villages. It was one thing when everyone lived in real villages set in nature, where you’d feel the heat of the sun and the texture of sand or grass under your feet depending on where you lived. You were part of nature. Most children of tomorrow are not going to be part of nature. They will inhabit a world complete with sense of touch and smell but the objects touched and smelled will not be real sand, not real grass, not the heat of a real sun. Their pet dragons will not be real dragons. What about their God?

If the sense of God, from old times through today, arose through nature, as poetry clearly represents it does, then God has always been reflected through people’s views of nature. What difference will it make when people no longer see real nature but a virtual reality that is anything but natural, that can be anything the human imagination can dream up? What happens to the representation of God, and to faith in God, when the virtual, the unnatural, becomes the new reality?

Donald: Thirty years ago, we couldn’t even conceptualize what we’re looking at today, on our screens. The idea of being able to talk to each other like this, on Zoom, with Don apparently sitting in front of the pyramids of Egypt, would have seemed nonsensical. But even today, how would a stranger to our meeting know that Don is not actually at the pyramids? We all know that nothing is real anymore. How can a child ever come up in a world and plant a pole? Parents, I would assume, struggle to create teach reality to their children. I don’t know.

When we were kids, Americans weren’t as politically correct as we seem to be today. We would boldly say we are a Christian community, and “I’m a Seventh Day Adventist.” About ten years ago we softened such statement and became just people of faith. Is that what Macy’s is doing? Macy’s got the big word out there: “Believe.” But they wouldn’t dream of using the word faith; rather: “Believe in Christmas!” Children are being brought up in a different context of “believe” from that in which I was brought up in the 50s. Things change, and it defines who we are as people.

Don: But does it change faith?

David: If you believe in Santa Claus versus believing in God, yes, it changes faith.

Don: How about if you believe in both?

Jay: It only changes faith when faith is dependent upon culture, dependent upon words, dependent upon time. That’s when it changes faith. And that’s why I would argue that it’s not faith. If it’s of God, if it’s a gift of God, then it has to be culture-less and timeless. It has to be. Macy’s will never use the word faith because it has a religious connotation. It’s a religious word, It’s not a universal word. The word faith is always used in a cultural context, not in a universal context.

The word believe is used in a universal context. What is Macy’s asking you to do believe in? They’re asking you to believe in the Christmas spirit. Which is what? The spirit of giving, the spirit of goodness, the spirit of selflessness. That’s what they’re asking you to do. It’s a culture-less thing. Nobody’s going to argue against giving, being gracious, being good to others. But we’ve given the word faith a very specific religious connotation—It is the Seventh Day Adventist faith, it is the Catholic faith, it is your-religion-here faith. To be quite honest, I believe this has poisoned our minds a little bit about what faith is.

And so to stand up for culture: Human beings have to have a way to relate to God. There’s no way we can do that without creating some kind of construct. Some of us are very comfortable with extraordinarily loose constructs, such as God is Goodness, and some of us need more specific constructs by which to relate. I would not say that makes some of us more evolved than others, or that some of us have greater faith than others. It just means that personalities are different, Some personalities require different constructs by which to relate.

In my opinion, the parents, religions, and family groups that instill the principles we so desperately seek to propagate are the constructs by which we relate to God. The issue arises only when you want to say that your construct is better than somebody else’s. Having a construct is not an issue: We need them. There’s no way that we’re going to be able to relate to God or put our minds around something or even be able to discuss something without a construct. The trouble comes when you think your construct is better than somebody else’s.

Kiran: I think we can’t avoid that. Whatever you do, there is always an element of comparison. True maturity is to accept that. Some parts of my culture are good, others not so much. I became a Christian and an Adventist when my friend came to reach out to me when I was into gangs and all that bad stuff. He was the weirdest guy—imagine going to church on a Saturday! (I thought). I had never heard of such a thing. But my culture didn’t help me to reach out to God in a way that would dispel the fear in me and give me a better life. But this weird person reached out to me. And when he started sharing some of the Adventists doctrines, it liberated me.

For example, I was so scared of ghosts I would never take a shortcut that passed through a cemetery. I would take a three-mile detour to get home. But when I became a Christian, I realized that dead people are simply asleep, and I drove through without fear.

There were several things like that, that the Seventh Day Adventist culture, or faith, liberated me from. It wasn’t difficult at all for me to give up my own culture. It was so easy, though my family put obstacles in my way. They even wanted to kick me out. But it wasn’t a big deal for me. Now, when I go back and see my culture I realize parts of it are good and I embrace those parts a little bit.

We could say that culture is a construct through which we can reach God. And then we can always say that ours is better than others. But at the same time, none of these constructs are the best tools to reach God. Only God can reach to us, and he can pick any way—he can pick the weirdest of the weird things to reach out to us. And when he reaches us, things change.

Reinhard: I can relate to what Kiran just said about liberating us from our bad habits in life, because there is a lot of cultural influence in our actions everyday. I can feel that the truth makes you free, when you have faith in the system. I think that is really liberating

But I like to add with regard to universal culture that the advancement of IT can be seen in Indonesia, with even children in school already having cell phones. Some have them for prestige, some to find out what’s going on in the world. People set up laptops in McDonald’s and stay there all day. To me, this advancement is going to help my faith. It helps us have this meeting and share our company. It is only going to strengthen us, by practicing what we preach.

This advancement with positive influence is good, because we can read more about the Word of God, or we can listen to Christian music. But of course, there’s always negative things out there too. We need to watch for them and not be influenced by all the bad stuff out there. But as a Christian I believe our faith in God helps us see the changes in this world, what’s going on. As Christians, when we apply our faith, I think we can come out okay, as our principles are going to lead us to the right way as God wants.

Donald: When Jason was talking about the difference between belief and faith and religion, he almost touched upon a word we are not using here that I think would help us and that is: Practices—religious practices, rituals. If they’re just my practices that really softens the “Do it my way” rather than: “Here are my practices, let me share them with you. They could be your practices but they don’t have to be.” Where we stumble, it seems, is when we do evangelism and we use the word truth, then we’re all: “You just got it wrong. We’ve got it right.”

That’s where things become difficult. So tone it down. Jason is suggesting maybe we shouldn’t take it all the way to the word believe. But just tone that down a bit and we could certainly appreciate each other’s religious practices. That’s fascinating. But when you impose them upon me, or tell me that I’ve got it wrong, and I need to do it your way, everything changes.

Don: But if I’m right, why wouldn’t I want to tell you that you’re doing it wrong?

Donald: Exactly. Forty years ago, we put huge speakers on top of cars and we’d waltz through the neighborhoods and we go up to the door and collect monies for the way we do our practices. That was done in the spirit of generosity, but it was exclusive and it was a bit bizarre. You wouldn’t do it today.

Anonymous: I like the idea of the connection point, which really describes the fact of faith. If you have that connection point with God, then you have faith. I liked it so much.

Transcribed by

Leave a Reply