Religion, Culture, and Change

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.

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