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.

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. 

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