How do culture and religion influence one another? Nothing shapes us more than where we were raised, where we were socialized. What we wear, what language we speak, what we eat, what sports we follow, what relationship we have with our family, how we picture God, which holy books we read, and how we practice our religion are almost always dependent upon where we were born. The place where we are born and raised influences, more than DNA does, who we are as a person.
Children adopted and brought to America from foreign lands as infants often grow up knowing nothing about their cultures of origin. They may look like they came from Moldova, or Guatemala, or Korea, but they do not speak Moldovan, Spanish, or Korean, do not wear the dress of their origin, do not eat the food of their origin, and may not subscribe to the religions into which they may have been baptized as infants in their country of origin. Knowing next to nothing about the country in which they were born, they grow up speaking, dressing, eating, and behaving like Americans born in America. They are, in fact, as American as apple pie.
The place where we are raised also influences how we see God. Raised as Christians (as Adventists, say; attending Sabbath School, becoming baptized, entering into communion, and so on) and socialized with stories of our (biological or adoptive) family, faith community, and how they see and worship God. We assimilate the same views, rituals, and so on.
It is different for adults who emigrate to another country and culture. It has rightly been said of adults that “You can take the wo/man out of the culture but you cannot take the culture out of the wo/man.” For most of human history, the vast majority of people traveled no more than about ten miles from the place they were born. Their exposure to other people and cultures was minimal-to-none, and their worldview was shaped almost entirely by their immediate surroundings. Cultures were singular and isolated. The idea that another culture could impinge upon one’s own culture, and change some aspect of one’s way of life, was just not conceivable. What one believed to be true was known (by what one saw as the whole world) to be true, and was unlikely to be challenged as untrue.
How things have changed. In just my lifetime, information dissemination has developed radically, to the point where every culture now clashes with one or more other cultures. When such clashes are about food, alcohol, dress, music, language, and so on, they may be relatively muted. But when they are about God and faith, religious beliefs and practices, then things tend to turn ugly.
You may believe in one God. I may believe in three. Someone else may believe in thousands. But if I wear a headscarf to school, or if you kill a cow to make hamburgers, or if someone says something derogatory about my holy book, then it’s war.
There are things about God that we do not know. There is an infinite number of questions about God that we cannot answer. But Mankind is uncomfortable with uncertainty. If we don’t know something, we tend to make it up. This is especially true about religious things and about God. We would rather be wrong than uncertain. We are not satisfied with “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand.” Religions of all kinds have been more than willing to fill the knowledge gap with answers. Sometimes, they may be answers of dubious value.
We no longer have the luxury of a view of a world just ten miles in radius. Today’s view is expansive, comprehensive, and disruptive; while we long for simplicity and narrowness of vision. We want everyone to stay in their cultural lane. It would make our lives so much easier. We want to be Gentile-free Jews, Turk-free Greeks, Moslem-free Christians. But we can’t. We not only have to see each other, but also to confront one another and our differences.
We battle change even within our own cultures. Every generation redefines the culture of the previous generation. What worked for the parent may not work for the child. What works for the grandparent does not necessarily make sense to the grandchild. How can we go forward with God in such a changing cultural milieu?
If God is timeless, unchanging, and unbound by culture, how does our culture work to our advantage or disadvantage in terms of seeing the truth about God? No culture, no religion, no faith group, ever believed that it held an erroneous picture of God. Each sincerely believes it holds the complete truth about God. Each has stories of miraculous interventions by God on its behalf.
Culture is strong, but culture changes. God is unchanging.
David: Indian culture is expressed partly through the caste system. It appears that Christianity appeals to the lower castes.
Pastor Giddi: The lowest caste has no caste and therefore has no identity in the eyes of the higher castes. So when Christian missionaries came calling members of the lowest caste “brother” and saying they were all one in Christ, they were glad to receive and accept the missionaries and their message. But the culture in India is changing, and more upper-caste individuals are accepting Christ.
David: Judging by the Beatitudes, Christ targets the poor, the meek, the oppressed, the suffering. So what can be the appeal to a higher caste person?
Pastor Giddi: Whatever it may be—a dream, a vision, a visit from a missionary—their culture, their caste community, tends to come down on them and shun them. Christianity is identified with outcasts, so if you become a Christian you are casting yourself out, unless you can get your whole family and your whole community to go along with you.
Shakir: In my opinion, culture reflects how much people agree or disagree with one another, and it depends on their nearness (or farness) from one another. We don’t just “have” culture: We need it. By definition, the Creator does not need culture. A person alone on a desert island has no need for culture; but as soon as others arrive, a culture must develop in order for them all to relate to one another through dividing the labor and sharing in the maintenance of order in the society. Culture is needed for survival, which is why it cannot be taken out of the person.
After 18 years living in the US as an adult, I have changed. I have retained most of the culture I grew up with, but I also started seeing some things differently. Why? Because the people around me served as lenses through which to view their lives and culture.
In sum, we need culture, but I doubt God does.
Pastor Giddi: Perhaps God’s culture, if we may call it that, is to reach humanity. Whatever conditions we are living in, whatever religion we follow, God wants to reach us.
Jay: God’s culture has to reflect some of the attributes of what God is. One of those attributes is timelessness. No matter at what point in history, God is there, reaching out to humanity. But mortally limited humanity has difficulty viewing the world in a timeless context. We are born and raised at a certain time, in a certain place, to a certain family. We had no choice in those, and we have no choice but to view the world through those lenses.
It is a blessing to be able to experience the cultures of others, and see how the world looks through their eyes; but God’s culture (if it can be called that) far transcends this ability: His lens is timeless—eternal—and ubiquitous. Neither time nor place enter into it. To the extent we can define God’s culture, we must at least do so within these divine attributes of a God who is all-present and all-knowing, and has been from the foundation of the Earth and will be to the End of Time. It is just not in us to think divinely, to be without bias and prejudice based on the accident of our place and time in history.
Shakir: The Qu’ran begins:
١ بِسْمِ ٱللَّهِ ٱلرَّحْمَٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ
1 In the name of God, the Gracious, the Merciful.
٢ ٱلْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ رَبِّ ٱلْعَٰلَمِينَ
2 Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds.
٣ ٱلرَّحْمَٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ
3 The Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. (The Qur’an 1:1-3 (sūrat l-fātiḥah—The Opening))
David: Logically, could there be anything more merciful, more compassionate than the most merciful and compassionate God? Don’t all the major religions believe in a most merciful and compassionate God? Surely Christianity does. So these—mercy, grace, compassion—would seem to be among the universally recognized attributes of God. To these we may add goodness. Not just every culture but every individual human recognizes goodness and defines it along the lines of the Golden Rule.
Don: The central issue that confronts mankind is that we can only see God through the lens of our own culture. If culture is subject to change, then we have a problem. Unless God is going to do the modern equivalent of writing on the wall by posting the Truth about Himself on Twitter, we are doomed to seek Him through a culture that is not immutable and not constant. Is that our problem, or is it God’s? Shouldn’t a responsible God stand up and declare Himself in terms we can understand, instead of leaving us to grope for Him through the imperfect lens of human culture?
Kiran: Christianity believes in the Golden Rule: Love your neighbor as you love yourself; do unto others as you would have others do unto you. In Hinduism, the duty or dharma of Man is service to humanity and service to God. These are exactly the same. The Moslem practice of giving gifts to the poor during Ramadan is the same: It serves God and humanity. How did different religions come up with the same principle of altruism? A merciful and compassionate God expects us to be merciful and compassionate also. We may add different spices to the meat we give, but meat is meat.
David: The notion that God’s culture is to seek us out is interesting, but we don’t seem to want to wait for His coming—we want to seek Him out first. Unless, that is, we are of the Daoist philosophy, which would have us just wait. Do Nothing. Follow the Way. Don’t try to shortcut it. It seems to me that most religions are out to do just that (take a shortcut hoping to reach the end of the Way.) Christian churches even advertise on their billboards: “Come in and we’ll help you find God.” That is not bad insofar as it gets people thinking about God and being prepared for the time when God approaches them, but the implication that churches can shortcut the way to God is misleading, in my opinion.
Pastor Giddi: In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7)
So we can seek God. My experience in the church is that people who do so tend to grow more kind, more compassionate. So if seeking God leads to compassion…
David: …as it led the Crusaders? All faith-based societies tend to think that societies they regard as Godless have no good in them, yet there are plenty of examples to the contrary. Most notable is China, which embraced (fundamentally) Godless philosophies such as Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.
True, each Chinese village and household may have its own pantheon of earth gods (for rain, fertility, etc.) but they are not the source of the humanitarian goodness we find China as in every other society and every culture. The Chinese call upon no supreme deity to administer goodness and compassion, yet they have both. They are just as good and as bad as everyone else, some doing serious bad and others doing very good things. So I would hesitate to attribute to religion the presence or increase of good in the world.
Kiran: Somehow, the inner light changes people for the better, no matter their culture. We value people who are good and kind when we come across them individually, no matter their cultural or religious backgrounds. It reminds us that we all have that inner light and potential for goodness in common; that we are all the same.
Shakir: The spectrum of belief runs from atheism to dogmatism. Problems occur when the common interest clashes with belief. Islam prohibits alcohol, but some Moslems drink it because being drunk makes them feel good. But they would not want drunk drivers on the highway while they are driving on it, because it would conflict with their personal interests. In other words, although we may all agree on them at some level, at the individual level, good and bad are relative.
In the years immediately following 9/11, polls regularly asked: “The followers of which religions are the least trustworthy?” Atheists consistently scored as the least trustworthy, despite the strong general distrust of Moslems after 9/11. Is it that people think that believers in any God have a moral code while atheists do not?
Mikiko: In Japan, people worship ancestors and bow down to idols. It is cultural. But if God is displeased with a culture, then the culture should change. Exodus 5 prohibits bowing down to idols.
David: Therefore, we should be prepared to change our culture. The crusaders, the old Maori, the Burmese Buddhists, all use or used their Gods to justify murder. Murder is something all human beings recognize as fundamentally bad. Cultures that condone murder are therefore inherently bad and wrong, and should be changed. The question is: How? If the cultures they attacked would all turn the other cheek, as the Moriori did with the Maori, would the aggressive culture eventually be shamed into changing? And are most societies even capable, as the Moriori were, of being like Jesus?
Don: And even before that, one has to ask: What are the pieces of the culture that should be changed? Should a culture drop its prohibition of alcohol? Should Hindus eat hamburgers?
Mikiko: Jesus provided wine for a wedding, and Paul prescribed medicinal wine for Timothy’s upset stomach.
Don: The question remains: What is the culture of God, and what is the culture of Man? Is the culture of Man necessarily bad?
David: If the culture of God, who loves everybody, is “The Most Gracious, the Most Merciful” culture, what does that say about Maori-like cultures? After all, it is just a relative outlier on the continuum of human culture. In recommending the passive, humble, accepting posture of Doing Nothing except go with the Way, Daoism recognizes (in spirit, not words) the surpassing nature of God (the Way, as I see it) and our absolute inability to come even close to possessing that nature. If we try to Do Something, we risk just making a bad culture worse. If, as Pastor Giddi says, God’s culture is to seek us out, why not just wait?
Pastor Giddi: Culture can be changed through economic forces. Our ancestors lived in rough huts and wore little more than loin cloths. Our culture has changed, with new norms of what is considered decent; and culture will continue to change as a result of a variety of forces. Telugu may—as some claim—be the sweetest language, but that is no grounds for Telugu native speakers to hate other languages.
Kiran: No culture is perfect. All cultures, and indeed all individuals, seek to improve, to better themselves. When we feel that that culture we are in is right for us, then we think it must be right for others, too.
Shakir: The question is: Does a difference in culture automatically trigger conflict? Can’t we live peaceably with our differences? Some cultural differences are dictated by environmental and other circumstances to which the local people have no choice but to adapt. Different circumstances dictate different cultural responses. The rights and wrongs of culture are thus relative, dependent on local circumstances. Can we adapt and change in response to our differences?
David: The evidence is that we can. The isolated village with its ten-mile radius is now a global village—rubbing virtual shoulders with villages with vastly differing cultures. Initially, such exposure is bound to create uncertainty; the fear of the unknown. We are living through such uncertainty today, but I see signs of a modus vivendi spreading over the globe and smothering the conflicts. Voices of reason and moderation abound, and while strident voices of unreason and immoderation can drown them out, they lack the numbers to keep up the noise forever. The global trend is for cultures to live together in peace, and sometimes even to learn from one another.
Don: Is it possible for a high-caste Hindu to accept another religion without abandoning his or her caste?
Pastor Giddi: It is possible, depending on the individual. It sometimes involves abandoning one’s property, also.
Kiran: Hindus make it difficult to convert to Christianity.
Shakir: Islam started in a tribal society that had the equivalent of castes, from powerful aristocrats through rich merchants and poor ordinary people to slaves. Resistance to the new religion of Islam arose mostly in the rich and powerful, while the poor and weak and oppressed embraced it. Most religions, in my limited knowledge, assign moral value to equality, which sits ill with those who have acquired their power and wealth by being born into a rich and powerful family. Perhaps equality of His creatures is the culture, or at least the message, of God. Inequality is the culture imposed by some people on other people.
David: We’re asking how might a church or a religion seek to change, to better itself. The answer, or the key to the answer, might lie in accepting that God is the God of everyone and looks upon us all equally. All else is self-serving human propaganda.
Don: Does change occur without conflict? Can enlightenment occur?
David: Paul had an epiphany, was enlightened, and went on to be considered a founding father of a religion that certainly brought its share of conflict to the world.
Pastor Giddi: Christianity and Islam arose out of conflict: Christianity from Christ’s conflict with the Pharisees, and Islam from the conflicts between Mohammed and the authorities in Mecca and Medina. Change may breed conflict, but conflict also breeds change, at least in the religious world.
Don: So should we pray for conflict?
David: Or for no religion?