God and Government 13: Doctrine and Culture

We’ve been discussing doctrine as it pertains to faith groups. But does doctrine say more about God than about us? Does doctrine have a greater influence on culture (either in the broad sense or in the narrower sense of religion/the church) or does culture influence doctrine more?  

We know from psychological studies that a person’s worldview—how s/he views the world—is typically developed through a stage of maturity between the ages of 18 months and 13 years. Although worldviews can be refined, the basic tenets of how we see ourselves, our community (tribe, faith group, etc.), and God are firmly established by the time we reach the teenage years. So, too, are doctrines, and our view of God. It is not surprising that Solomon said: 

Train up a child in the way he should go,
Even when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)

His instruction was that children should be brought up in the Way. In my view, this is the very viewpoint espoused by Jesus in His teaching and in the passage we are studying.

To be sure, our behavior is subject to change. Our practices can be modified. Our actions can be altered and amended. But a basic worldview seems set at a very early age. Our view of God, of religion, of doctrine is established early, and like life itself, it becomes native to us. Today, people talk of “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” in relation to how things digital are assimilated into the culture. Maybe we can use the same illustration, that in matters of faith there are religious natives and religious immigrants. Like language, religious views are established at an early age and stay in some form, on some practice, for really their entire life. While new languages can be learned, they are nearly always accompanied by an accent, a way of speaking that betrays that they are not our native tongue. 

Someone once told me that only those who are born into a given faith group are truly genuine. Those who join are not “real” [Adventists, Catholics,… name your faith group here]. This is how the Jews felt in Jesus’ day, and explains why they tested His doctrinal pedigree. What did Jesus mean when He told them in response that they knew neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? God is a mystery, faith is a mystery, grace is a mystery. We have an overwhelming need to objectify God, faith, and religion.

The Second Commandment specifically prohibits the objectification of God:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,…  (Exodus 20:4-5)

It is not just about making idols; it is about making concepts of God. We are prone to make God in our image. Our need for a sensory experience of God—to see, hear, taste, smell, and touch Him—is part of our very nature. To me, doctrine is an implied sensory experience because it requires action and is actionable. It is an objectification of God, and seems to be what Jesus was alluding to in the passage under study and even more clearly here:

“You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you:
‘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.’” (Mathew 15:7-9)

Honoring with the lips is sensory worship. Paul put it this way: 

If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence. Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. (Colossians 2:18-23)

Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God. Colossians 3:1-2)

And yet, we must recognize that there is a need for some objectivity, for some doctrine, for some teaching, for some direction. They are not easily to be trivialized and discarded. They seem to have some real value, some importance, in our lives.

Like the stages of social development popularized by Piaget and Erickson, the stages of faith have been studied by Fowler and Scott-Peck. Stage 1 might be called the “antisocial” stage—a selfish, self-absorbed stage where faith is essentially non-existent. It is characterized by chaos, disorder, and recklessness. It is seen in 2-year-olds, in egotistical adults who lack empathy for others, and in some criminals. They are unwilling to accept a will greater than their own. 

Stage 2 is marked by blind faith in the authority of others. The world is seen in binary terms—black/white, right/wrong, us/them—in religion, where stage 2 people are eager to adhere to the doctrine and teaching of their church (which they find easy and unambiguous) and don’t question the decisions of church elders. 

Stage 3 is marked by skepticism and questioning. Stage 2 logic and answers no longer seem clear and unambiguous, and grow harder to live by. But while skeptical of church authority and rules, stage 3 people remain highly spiritual, and constitute the group known to pollsters as “SBNR”—“spiritual but not religious.” They tend to value community and equality, to support local charities, and to be strong humanitarians and environmentalists. But organized religion is not for them. If they somehow continue to seek, to look, to be led by the spirit, then they may find themselves in stage 4.

Stage 4 people value mystery, beauty, and the transcendent nature of God. Strangely, they are often drawn back to formal religion, back to the church of their childhood, that they left long ago. But now, they go for a completely different reason: The divine mystery of it, rather than its certainty. This creates problems for people in the church who are still in stage 2, seeking to understand and preserve the doctrine and rules and live by them. They do not understand the freedom with which stage 4 people seem to treat the doctrine and the rules. The stage 2 people are looking for answers, whereas the stage 4 people are looking for questions. It is a recipe for conflict, with each group pulling in opposite directions. Stage 2 values clear direction on how to act; stage 4 is more concerned with meaning, motive, and message than with action. 

Does doctrine have more value than drawbacks? Or vice versa? Does it define us, or do we define it? 

Donald: I think evangelism factors into this. Regardless of what stage I am in, what right have I to tell someone else they need to move into my lane? Retail is folded with Amazon. Education is folded together with online learning. Change is occurring much more rapidly than ever before. Phase 2 people want to keep things as they are, and so tend to reject phase 3 people. Because of our human need to understand and quickly organize our surroundings and experiences, we tend to rush to enclose it—freeze it—in a picture frame. We show that picture to evangelize others. 

Jay: As with Amazon and online learning, the old way of doing business, of functioning, has changed—replaced by a new way. But the product stays the same, whether it be a dozen eggs or an education in quantum physics. Is doctrine also just a way of doing business, and therefore subject to evolutionary change? If culture shapes doctrine—if doctrine is neither universal nor timeless—then the sacredness of doctrine seems to come into question.

Unknown: That’s why there are so many denominations. They adapt doctrine to culture. There is no grey area in doctrine—God was very specific. Once we start to compromise, then we step into a grey area. 

David: Suppose that during the age of discovery, explorers had carried no doctrinal baggage. How different might their meetings with new cultures have been? How different might our own cultures be? Despite all the inroads the explorers made into the cultures of India, the Pacific Islands, Indo-China, etc, how much of Hinduism, Confucianism, animism, polytheism, etc., did they carry back to make inroads into the their own homeland cultures? The problem is that evangelism is, by definition, a one-way street. And evangelism is a product of doctrine. If we approached other cultures as mysteries rather than mistakes, and plied them with questions rather than drilled them in our answers, what a better world we would have. 

Don: Does doctrine say more about us, or more about God?

Donald: We dislike disruption. It forces change. Words matter. Stage 2 people might find our class discussion disturbing. Should they be encouraged to aim for stage 4?

Don: God loves and saves people no matter their stage. People should be free to relate to God in their own way. 

Donald: Is the current debate about the ordination of women in our church between stage 2 and stage 4? 

Jay: It is an example of the influence of culture on doctrine. Last week, KB gave us a specific illustration involving South African culture and Adventism. It seems impossible to assert that culture—the circumstances of our birth, upbringing, traditions, and so on—does not affect how we perceive, understand, or implement doctrine. The early European explorers carried their culture to “new” lands and their native peoples. It seems arrogant of the explorers to have presupposed that those people could have no true perception of God until they, the explorers, arrived. It seems, even, untrue, because timeless and universal commonalities in the perception of God really did exist between the explorers and the natives, but were denied because they were not wrapped in the explorers’ doctrinal blanket. 

Donald: Time seems to play a major role. Younger generations may take a different view of some aspects of doctrine than the older generations they are destined to replace. Is doctrine timeless, or is time disruptive or even destructive of doctrine?

Jay: Something that can be disrupted cannot be timeless. Something that is timeless cannot experience disruption. 

Donald: So it boils down to the question: What’s essential? “Readers” were texts intended for freshmen, defining the institution in space and providing perspective on who and what the institution is and why it exists and how connections are made with ideas amongst itself. It was used in a variety of classes before it fell apart over disagreement about what was essential. 

Mikiko: As a child, I was taught there was a hell that delivered eternal torment; that if I told a lie a monster would take me to hell, pull out my tongue, and throw me down a mountain of needles. As I grew older, I began to doubt the hellish idea. But today’s generation does not seem to be taught such ideas as children. 

David: I was shocked to see vitriol in an Adventist blog about a conference that had apparently discussed the ordination of women. Both proponents and objectors quoted the Bible profusely in support of their positions, not so much substantively in terms of the actual issue, but more to justify their doctrinal stance and how they applied their doctrinal position to administer the church (for example, defending a refusal to allow every delegate to speak on the issue).  

Jay: If doctrine is about God, who is timeless and universal, then true doctrine must be timeless and universal. It is not time-bound or culture-bound. If doctrine does not reflect these attributes, then it becomes disruptive. 

Pastor Ariel: Culture is like the smell of a house. How do we know what our house smells like to other people? We live there, so we no longer notice it even has a smell. I’ve heard people question whether the gospel that we preach is Biblical or American. We need continually to be mindful about injecting perceptions that we ourselves cannot perceive. [The pastor was sitting behind the microphone, so the rest of his comment was too garbled to transcribe reliably.—Ed.]

Donald: The Adventist blog was a private, internal conversation that we might wish others would not see. What about evangelism? The evangelist says: “I have something you need to have.” Is that cultural?

Pastor Ariel: Our pioneers had to go through the “Great Disappointment,” a very painful experience almost identical to what the disciples went through, to remove the crust of a cultural lens that was blocking and blurring the picture of who Jesus actually was. Even in Acts 1 we still see some of that blurriness, when they are asking: “Are you going to establish another kingdom?” It is a difficult thing to shed, and God sometimes has to use painful, disappointing, experiences to confront us with things that ought not to be there. Our evangelism, what we are sharing with the world, is not something we have concocted ourselves but something that God has led us into. But it is not the complete, full, final word. There is still much cultural crust to shed as Adventists, as Christians. It’s just a very painful process.

Don: Last week we noted that James White noted in a letter that they had just “downed a 200-point porker.” A doctrinal diet is part of the crust that obscures those timeless and eternal principles that are not bound by culture: God’s grace and mercy and so on. But we don’t really have a way outside of our culture to embrace this. The overwhelming need of Mankind is to objectify God and make God a sensory experience. Because of that, God is always bound up in culture. 

Pastor Ariel: God made a very anti-cultural statement in the 2nd Commandment, against the making of graven images—which is a universal cultural propensity. God knows that we will fall short in this respect. 

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