How do culture and religion influence one another? Nothing shapes us more than where we were raised and socialized. What we wear, what language we speak, what we eat, what sports we follow, what relationships we have with our family, how we picture God, which holy books we read, how we practice our religion,… all of these things are almost always dependent upon where we were born.
The places where we are born and raised influence and define more than DNA itself who we are as people. Children adopted and brought to America from foreign lands as infants often grow up knowing nothing or little about their cultures of origin. They may look like they came from Moldova or Guatemala or Korea but they do not speak Moldovan or Spanish or Korean. They do not wear the dress of their origin, they do not eat the food of their origin. They may not subscribe to the religions into which they may have even 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 were born also influences how we see God. Raised as Christians, perhaps Adventists—attending Sabbath School, becoming baptized, or volunteering for missionary work or Pathfinders or church school—we become socialized through stories of our family’s faith community and how they see and worship God. We assimilate the same views, rituals, and religious practices of our adopted family.
It is of course different for adults who immigrate into another country and culture. It is 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 10 miles from the place that 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 on one’s own culture and change some aspects of one’s way of life was just not even conceivable. What one believed to be true was known to be true because of the small world and was unlikely to be challenged as untrue.
But how things have changed. In just my lifetime information dissemination has developed radically to the point where every culture now clashes with another culture. When such clashes are about food, or alcohol, or dress, or music, or language, and so forth, they may be relatively muted, but when they’re about God and faith and religious beliefs and practices, then things tend to turn ugly.
You may believe in a single god, I may believe in the Triune God, someone else may believe in thousands of gods. But if I wear a headscarf to school, or if you kill a cow to make a hamburger, or if someone says something derogatory about my holy book, then it’s time for war.
There are innumerable things about God that we do not know. There’s an infinite number of questions about God that we cannot answer, and mankind is uncomfortable with such uncertainty, particularly in the religious world. So if we don’t know something, we tend to make it up. This is especially true about religious things and about God. We’d rather be wrong and uncertain. We’re not satisfied with “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand.”
Religions have been more than willing over the centuries to fill knowledge gaps with answers. Sometimes, however, they may be answers of dubious value, or even untrue. We no longer have the luxury of a worldview just 10 miles in radius. Today’s view is expansive, comprehensive, and disruptive. We long for simplicity and narrowness of vision, yet we want everyone to stay in their own cultural lane. It would make our lives so much easier. We want to be Gentile-free Jews, Turk-free Greeks, Muslim-free Christians, but we can’t. We not only have to see each other but also we have to confront one another in our cultural differences.
We battle change even within our own culture. 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 a God who never changes 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 his behalf. Culture is strong, and religious culture is even stronger. But culture changes—even religious culture. But God is unchanging:
“For I, the Lord, do not change;…” (Malachi 3:6)
I’m proposing that we spend the next few weeks looking at the subjects of God, culture, religion, and technology; addressing some of the following questions:
- Has technology impacted religious practice and beliefs?
- In what way has it transformed or enhanced the relationship between God and humans?
- Is religion a cultural product or an inherent aspect of human nature and spirituality?
- How does culture shape religious beliefs and practices and how have religious beliefs and practices shaped culture?
- Can we reconcile the traditional spiritual aspects of religion with the modern technological aspects of contemporary society?
- Are these two aspects inherently in conflict or can they coexist?
- How has the use of technology and religious practices impacted the community and social aspects of religion?
- Has it led to an increase or decrease in social connectedness within religious communities? How can technology be used to enhance religious education and understanding?
- Are there any potential drawbacks to relying on technology for spiritual development and for religious education?
- How can religion and spirituality help us navigate the challenges posed by modern technologies such as the social media, artificial intelligence and the internet?
- Are there any ethical or moral considerations that we should be aware of in the use of these technologies?
- How has globalization impacted religious practices and beliefs?
- Has it led to the spread and diversification of religious practices or to greater homogenization of religious cultures?
- How can we be sure that technology is used in a way that is consistent with religious and spiritual values and demonstrates love, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, even grace?
- What role can religious leaders and institutions play in shaping the use of technology in society?
- How can we reconcile the differences and conflicts that arise between different religious cultures, particularly in the globalized and interconnected world that we find ourselves in?
- Are there any universal values or principles that can be shared across different religious traditions?
- How has technology impacted our understanding and our relationship with God?
- Can we use technology to deepen our spiritual connection and understanding of God or does it invariably lead to shallow and superficial understandings of the Divine?
- Are there biblical illustrations where culture interfered with the correct picture of God?
- How dangerous is our culture concerning our picture of God?
- And finally, how does the non-changing God adapt to a changing world?
Religious culture is rooted in traditions, beliefs, and practices that have been passed down from generation to generation. As a result, religious culture is slow to change. However, there are, I believe, certain pressure points that can be leveraged to effect change in religious culture. There may be others.
1. Education. Education is a powerful tool for promoting change in religious culture by teaching new generations about alternative interpretations of religious texts and traditions. Educators can challenge long-held beliefs and promote new ways of thinking and acting. Education can broaden a worldview.
2. Social movements. Social movements can also be a powerful force for change in religious culture. By organizing around a specific issue or cause, social movements can raise awareness of social justice issues and mobilize individuals and communities to take action—pro-life or pro-choice and Black Lives Matter are examples in recent times of social issues that I think have put pressure on religious culture.
3. Technology. Technology can also be used to effect change in religious culture by creating new ways for people to connect and to share information. Technology can break down barriers and promote dialogue and understanding across different religious communities.
4. Religious leadership. Religious leaders play a critical role in shaping religious culture by interpreting religious texts and teachings, emphasizing and applying them to contemporary issues. By promoting new interpretations or by retrenching old interpretations of religious traditions, religious leaders can help to effect change in the way that religious communities think and act. As an example, think of our General Conference president and his influence on the religious culture of our church, or the Pope and the influence that he has on the religious culture of the Catholic church.
5. Generational shifts. As each new generation comes of age, it may bring with it different attitudes and values that can challenge and change religious culture. By promoting new perspectives and practices, younger generations can effect change in religious culture over time. How do my children and my grandchildren view God compared to how I view God?
I propose that we look at each of these pressure points in turn, both historically and in their present day application. By working together to promote change through these pressure points, individuals and communities can affect meaningful change in religious culture over time. Just last week in church we sang a hymn written in the 1700s. It prompted me to go to the Seventh Day Adventist Church hymnal and look for hymns written in the 1700s or before. Here’s a list:
- All Creatures of Our God and King, written in 1225 attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.
- A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, written in 1529 by Martin Luther.
- Amazing Grace written in 1779 by John Newton.
- Come Thou Almighty King, 1757, attributed to Charles Wesley.
- Crown Him With Many Crowns was written in the early 1700s (revised in 1851) by Matthew Bridges.
- Jesus Lover of My Soul, written in 1740 by Charles Wesley,
- Joy to the World, 1719, written by Isaac Watt.
- O God Our Help in Ages Past, 1790, written by Isaac Watt.
- Rock of Ages, 1776 written by Augustus, Montague Toplady.
It caused me to wonder what else in my culture have I used in the last month that’s the same as it was in 1700? Religious culture is resistant to change. I thought about language. I thought about food, traditional crafts, how we grow things. But everything I could come up with was radically different from what was practiced in 1700—except, of course, my church hymns.
So what role does technology play in shaping the relationship between God culture and religion? How has technology influenced the way in which we practice and express our religious beliefs? What ethical considerations should be taken into account when incorporating technology into religious practice? How has the widespread availability of information through technology affected religious education and understanding?
In what ways can technology be used to promote positive change in social justice within religious communities? Why do we so fear religious change? Can a rigid religious tradition grow old and out of date? Are the hymns written in the 1700s and earlier still applicable and lively today? How does a timeless God adapt to our changing culture?
David: To set some of the larger background relating to what Don said about the 10 mile radius of the village, I would note that the biggest single thing I think technology has done to impact our relationships among ourselves—and I think ultimately will impact our personal relationships with God—is to produce a global village with a circumference that spans the entire globe.
Information and communication technologies turn cultures once utterly foreign into our village neighbors; and, as Don said, we have to deal with them. We’re not only meeting them in the flesh through air travel and immigration, we’re also meeting them increasingly through Zoom and the like.
That seems to me to be the biggest single impact, and I think it’s going to affect all of the other pressure points Don mentioned—education and so on.
Most Western villagers 200 years ago would never have heard of Daoism. Today Daoism is not uncommon in people of Western cultural background. I myself have kind of adopted it. I don’t think such impacts are trivial—I think we’re coalescing into a single global village culture. That will have ramifications both during the journey to it and at journey’s end. We’re not there yet, and there is a risk and likelihood even of resultant cultural clashes.
AI will have more specific and perhaps deeper implications than information and communication technologies and technologies in general, whose broad implications and potential impacts on spirituality are big enough.
It was remarked last week that bringing us all back together is what happened in Babel, and the question is, are we making the same mistake? Are we going to try and build another tower to reach to reach heaven through the technologies we have? And if so, what is God likely to do about it?
Sharon: I’m fascinated about this core characteristic of God and his inability to change. Could it be that if God is completely all-inclusive he doesn’t need to change because we change? And could it be that his inclusivity is so broad and so big that things can evolve from one generation to the next and the core character of who God is—the unconditional love, the acceptance, the understanding and appreciation for each of us being totally unique individuals—doesn’t need to change?
God’s love doesn’t probably ever need to ever change. It’s only the human challenge of trying to put God into our small box that creates the technology challenge, because we’re so used to thinking in the context of our own worldview. Don started with “We are where we’re raised.” I totally agree with that. Part of that, obviously, is is genetics; but a large part of it is the exposure, the opportunities, the bigness of the world that your parents allowed you to experiment with, and the attitudes of acceptance and unconditional love that we have for people around us.
I think technology actually allows us to look at God through a much bigger, almost magic, lens. It allows us to use a variety of tools. If we thought about all the roles right now in which we use technology in the spiritual life of our students, and in socializing our students, we would be hard pressed as an Adventist University right now to do without it, because it is where our kids connect to the Lord and to each other. It is their social contact.
So I don’t have any answers, but I think we have a very big God who, from one generation to the next, is not going to change, because his core values and who he is isn’t going to change regardless of the technologies that we use to try to share his message.
Donald: A photographer shooting portrait photographs in the studio usually points two or three lights at the subject from different directions, with different intensities and different diffusions, in order to create a desired dimension of the individual being portrayed. So it is, too, with our one God: He can have many dimensions that can be brought out by the way in which he is “lit” (metaphorically speaking).
Two people sitting next to each other may cast different lights on God and see things differently. Age is one factor that changes perspective. God, of course, does not age and does not change, but we do. That doesn’t mean a given perspective is right or wrong. Perspectives change based upon our own understanding of what we bring to the table.
So can different perspectives on God coexist in this world? With technology, perhaps.
Don: Sharon’s contention is that the circle of God is big enough to accommodate not only your differences and my differences but also the changes we both have undergone in the past and will undergo in the future.
Donald: The problem is, we’re not very accommodating to the next person’s perspective on this. This is one area that we say: “You’ve gone too far now.”.
Don: When you’re right, you’re right. What can one say?
Donald: But on Sabbath morning, how many churches are needed to accommodate different perspectives? Some of it is cultural, but some of it involves classification along the continuum from conservative church to open-minded church.
David: One thing people have agreed on, I think, throughout history—all cultures, all countries, all civilizations—is that the things Sharon talked about—the core values of God (goodness, love, mercy) never change. Politically, we can and do disagree on whether other things have those values but humankind has never, I think, disputed the notion of goodness itself. We would know it when we see it and would not argue about it; at least, I can’t see that we ever have and I have never seen an argument positing goodness as something different from what we all suppose it to be. To me, goodness has persisted unchanged throughout history and and will continue to persist, because goodness is the unchanging God.
Carolyn: When it comes to love, goodness, “judgementalness,” and acceptance of others, I think God loves us all and expects us to be equally committed to loving others. God does not like the sin but he loves the sinner. Even like-minded believers in a church or community tend to have have decided views on who’s right and who’s wrong. But it’s hard to have the love we are commanded to have toward one another if we are judging one another and the rightness or wrongness of their perspectives.
Reinhard: Things are very different today in the US compared to when I moved here after high school. As well, I had to adapt to the language and Western culture. Living standards are higher today. Most people can afford a cell phone and can access information through the internet, including religious texts and sermons and podcasts.
So in terms of access to information, there is pretty much equality right now. There are online translators and subtitles to overcome the language barrier. As a result, people are learning a great deal more, including more about different religions, and this can impact culture in a positive way or a negative way. It can lead us to love others more—or less.
There was a time when ATMs were new and people were willing to help one another use them. Now, we distrust anyone near us at the ATM, because we’ve gotten the messages about the dangers. So ATM technology had a positive impact at first, but it turned negative later.
Scripture tells us:
And I saw another angel flying in midheaven with an eternal gospel to preach to those who live on the earth, and to every nation, tribe, language, and people;… (Revelation 14:6)
Perhaps the new media will lead us closer to the second coming by enabling the everlasting gospel to be preached to every nation before the end comes. The gospel can penetrate the remotest reaches of Earth. God can accommodate everyone, while remaining the same. It is we who just need to adjust to new information and new technology and choose those that bring us closer to God, rather than take our faith away. I believe there is a positive aspect to innovation.
Michael: I fail to see why the impact of technology on religion is an important topic and why we have to spend so long discussing it.
Don: I’m trying to broaden it to culture in general—the effect of cultural change on religion and the pressures that it places on religion, and vice versa.
Sharon: I think there’s a lot of potential in technology to undo some of the religious atrocities. I was sitting in church today with my students. The African culture is very spirited, animated, and energetic. But all we were doing was singing The Old Rugged Cross and I just grieved for my missionary predecessors who said: “You need to wear a suit and tie. You need to sing The Old Rugged Cross, you need to stop practicing your local traditions or adding local flavor to your spiritual expression to your God.”
It’s truly a cultural atrocity that we imposed Western culture on this amazing, rich, colorful culture, and made it as boring as ours. I wonder if technology, in our faith walk with our young people here in Africa, could undo some of the multi-generational cultural atrocities that I continue to see on a daily basis in my work here.
Donald: In a visit to Africa in the 1990s I noticed, in stops at Adventist institutions, that the original pictures in Mrs. White’s illustrated books had been replaced with pictures that tried, but failed, to make the books seem more culturally appropriate.
Sincere as the missionaries were, their work entailed importing a new culture, no question about it. In that sense, I understand what Michael is saying: “Let’s move on. We got it.” The problem is that as soon as you move away from this group, you’re going to be impacted by somebody saying: “No, you don’t do it that way. You do it this way.”
How do we get through that? This group is probably pretty good with: “OK, you do it your way and I’ll do it my way, and we’ll both be okay!” But I don’t think that’s the way it works in many faith circles on Sabbath morning.
David: My fear is that that’s not going to be the way it works. We’ve talked about technology in general having already had quite some impact but we are moving ultimately to a discussion of a new form of technology: Intelligent technology, or AI for short.
An AI like ChatGPT has the ability to change a person’s perspective on things in ways that go beyond what “dumb” technology (such as an ATM) could achieve. It can change your mind, your perspective on something, through intellectual argument and persuasion.
In an ideal world, ChatGPT would be utterly and totally unbiased, completely neutral. But it’s not an ideal world, and ChatGPT sometimes makes mistakes, tells untruths, presents erroneous perspectives and biases that you might not be aware of. At least as bad is that other people can insert bias into ChatGPT sufficient to actively control your perspectives.
Think about what Joseph Stalin would have made of ChatGPT. Even without it, he managed to drive religion deep underground. Such is the danger we’re facing now. There are still Stalins in this world who want to have control over our minds. So our relationship with God could be impacted extremely severely by these technologies, and I think that’s why it’s worth talking about it.
Michael: We can easily look at history to see the impact of technology, and see that the world hasn’t been destroyed. It’s just gotten better. Everything has gotten better. Our lives have gotten better.
We tend to look at the world or human nature from a negative point of view. We view most people as bad. “Given half a chance, they will do harm. They’re racist, they’re biased, they’re going to try to hurt me and steal from me.” But that doesn’t seem like the truth, except perhaps in movies.
The truth is that most human beings are quite decent, if not good. False assumptions cloud our vision and make us see things from a negative point of view. So even though there are biases, for the most part, it’s a bias for the good, not for the bad..
Carolyn: If technology is telling us what is good, how does that fit with the injunction not to judge other people? If technology tells us dogmatically: “That’s the way it’s going to be,” it presents a challenge for religious or cultural beliefs. Will we have a right to say something is good or that someone is wrong if technology lays down down a law about it?
I think the future has many good things to expect from technology but when it starts telling us what we should believe, we have to stick to our own beliefs.
Jay: There are universal principles and characteristics of God that extend across all of space and time: Goodness, grace, and love for example. Yet we relate to those principles based upon when and where we were born and our upbringing. Technology seems to be leading us toward a global culture. What does it mean if we relate to the universal principles of God through our culture (which I think we do) and our culture is starting to flatten to the extent that already we start to see ourselves all perceiving and relating to God in ways that have more in common than we thought?
Is that what God wants? Is that what what he’s looking for—to be uniform in our thinking and in our relationship to God, through technology? We may be good at heart, but we do we tend to look at life through negative lenses. If we used positive lenses we’d indeed see a lot more good than we see evil in the world. But when humanity becomes uniform in culture and thought, to me, history suggests that it might be a problem, not a positive, for us.
I’m wondering, as the global culture becomes more and more defined or strengthened, what will that really mean for how we perceive and relate to God? I’m thinking of Sharon’s example of missionaries who, rather than seeking to preserve the diversity they found as they covered the globe, sought instead to unify the cultures.
Donald: As we age perhaps we tend to view the past through rose-tinted glasses, but looking at cities in the USA right now things aren’t what they used to be. When people are left to their own devices, I’m not sure that things work out. I think most people are good but things can go bad really quickly. Economic inequalities, tented communities in cities, did not exist in their current extent when I was a kid.
The behaviors that seem to present themselves in our most significant cities in America don’t look too good. I don’t I don’t know that that has anything to do with technology. It has to do with with a common set of behavioral rules. I don’t think we’re agreed upon the way we should behave anymore.
David: I think we’re moving towards that. Tumult accompanies our attempts to achieve a common set of behaviors. The different perspectives that result from different configurations and balances of lights and so on enrich the field of photography; but if someone were to impose—as seems to me possible through the mind-manipulative capabilities of AI—a single perspective, how much poorer the world would be. A single perspective on God seems awfully dangerous, to me.
Michael: I’m not sure how we’re all coming to one perspective on God. But I’ve always been fascinated with the success of the LGBTQ movement in changing people’s minds about their ethics and whether they are good or bad. It used to be easy to say they were bad but now people are reluctant to accuse them of being ethically bad, even if they think so.
Maybe it’s not technology, but it is progress. Instead of being labeled as outcasts, they’ve been included as part of our diversity. I think this is social progress that technology can help bring about.
Don: I think that’s exactly right. It’s part of the social movement pressure that I alluded to as one of the points of view that does affect religious culture.
David: I’d say that’s certainly true in Western democratic civilizations, but try being LGBTQ or a Jehovah’s Witness in Russia today, or in China, or in a whole bunch of other countries, too. Their dictators are all fighting very, very hard against the very notion of diversity that the Western democratic tradition tries to promote.
We think our diverse traditions and cultures are good. The dictator thinks they are bad, or at least inimical to his interests. There is a battle going on between good and evil in the world right now. And I do think we’re in danger.
Michael: THe LBGTQ movement is a fascinating example in part because it’s happened in our lifetime. But even in Western culture, I’m sure many people in churches are still finding it hard to accept what the movement stands for. I don’t come from a Western culture—I come from a culture that is still very much against it. Even here, I sometimes feel conflicted about it. It is not a simple issue.
But it has been shown that we can deny our inherent biases. I find it so fascinating that LGBTQ morality was once considered bad, without question; but now it is not. It’s fully acceptable. It’s completely fine. And as a minority, it may even receive a disproportional degree of support at times.
Reinhard: In Indonesia, Christians of many denominations have been receptive to Western culture—adopting Western dress and so on. But other religions very much reject it, although government leaders like to wear suits and ties. Some extremists hate Western dress and songs, and accuse local Christians of being agents of the West.
This is an ongoing cultural conflict in Indonesia, although its government is very much a Western-style democracy. Of course the culture is going to have on-and-off conflict in the future, despite technology. This is about culture and modernization.
Don: Thank you, friends, for your input, for the discussion. More on culture and religion and the relationship between the two in the future.
* * *