Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Embracing Life in the Cultural Margins

It is a well-known saying among Anthropologists, that the “journey to the other” (i.e., spending time living in another culture, coming to understand that people, culture, worldview) ends with you returning to yourself, changed, and knowing yourself in a new way.

Another way you might put this, is that the journey among others can, if we are open to learning and changing, be a journey from our original state of ethnocentrism (seeing the world from our peoples’ point of view, and assuming that the way we see things is simply the way things are) to ethnorelativism (or ethnosensitivity), realizing that there are different ways of seeing the world, different ways, you might say, of being human, different cultural practices, etc. – and that my culture and worldview and people are simply one among many.
In one respect, a key dimension of this journey is a growth in cultural self-awareness, becoming self-reflective and aware of the fact that I do in fact have a culture and a worldview, and that they filter and shape what I see and how I see the world. As Milton Bennett points out in his Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (see his article, “Growing in Intercultural Competence”), and as Stephen Covey points out on an individual level in his 7 Habits, self-awareness is key for understanding and relating to others – without knowing ourselves, we cannot truly know others, for we treat them as if they were us.

Another dimension of this journey, as pointed out by Bennett in the DMIS, is that it is a journey toward life on the cultural margins. The longer we live among the different others, the more we change; and when we return to our own people, culture, place, we now to a certain extent have an “outsider’s” perspective – our difference causes us to see our own people from a different perspective.

In my experience, 27 years of living to a large degree among Arab Muslims, has caused me to have a sense of living in the “cracks,” on the margins, between cultures. Though I can “fit in” with Arab Muslims, can adapt to their cultural settings, both they and I know that I am not an Arab Muslim. I have not assimilated; I have not lost my own cultural identity (and note that Bennett’s model is about adaptation, an expansion of one’s cultural repertoire, not about assimilation, exchanging one culture for another). But when I return to the U.S., in general, or to Minnesota, in particular (my original people), I have a sense that I am no longer “at home” there, either – the way I see Islam and Muslims, the Palestinian situation, U.S. foreign policy, Christianity and being Christian, the relationship of faith and culture (including politics), and much more, have changed.
And so I find myself becoming something of a “third culture adult” (“third culture kid” is a way of referring to children who are raised in a cultural setting different than that of their parents, so that they are dealing with multiple cultures and cultural identities; there is a growing body of literature about the experience of TCKs), comfortable to some degree almost anywhere, but not totally “at home” anywhere. And I find myself being something of an “ambassador-at-large,” explaining Americans and Christians to my Arab Muslim friends, and explaining Arabs and Muslims to my American and Christian friends, trying to bridge the gaps of understanding, culture and worldview that keep people apart, and that seem in these days to be widening.

Bennett, in his final stage of an ethnorelative experience of cultural difference, “Integration,” talks about two possible experiences of that stage of being bi- or multi-cultural. One can have a negative sense of life on the cultural margins, which he calls “encapsulated” marginality, where “the separation from culture is experienced as alienation,” and a positive sense, which he calls “constructive” marginality, in which “movements in and out of cultures are a necessary and positive part of one’s identity.” In “encapsulated” marginality, I feel a sense of crisis of identity, not knowing where I belong, where I fit, where my “home” is; in “constructive” marginality, I grow to have a sense of myself as a person who (as I said above) can be comfortable to some degree, almost anywhere, even if I’m not totally at home.

I have experienced some of both. There are times when I long for the “good old days,” when I knew where I was from, and was easily at home there. But then, that’s not me any more, and I have come to appreciate the ability to see things from the perspective of different people, to empathize, to not be afraid of the unknown, but to have a sense that the unknown can become known, if I’m willing to step out and cross boundaries. And I’ve become convinced that our world needs people who are willing to take down rather than put up walls, who are able to find common ground rather than push others away; and I enjoy visiting different places and talking with different people, finding human life and values that I can embrace and appreciate and be enriched by.

And so, though I do not have the privilege of being a TCK (but I have had a small part in raising four of them), I now consider myself a TCA, and look forward to the opportunities that lie ahead, of travel and crossing boundaries and growing in understanding different others, and helping people come to know and understand and respect each other.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Culture Quote of the Day

“The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.” (Wade Davis)

I love this quote. My daughter gave me a poster of it, which I have up in my house:

Why do I love it? Or perhaps more to the point, what does it mean to me?

I guess I like it because it highlights a central trap or pitfall of our natural ethnocentrism - the tendency to see everything (and everyone) from our (cultural) point of view, and then to measure everyone else against that point of view, and find them lacking, less than human (i.e., less than me, than us).

Steven Covey, in his 7 Habits, points out that self-awareness is the key human gift that unlocks all the other unique human gifts. He makes the point that until I gain self-awareness, I treat others as if they were me. The obvious problem with this is, others are not me, and treating them as if they were me does not lead to positive or healthy relationships.

The same is true on the cultural level. Until we gain cultural self-awareness, including awareness that our perception of the world is not the same as the reality of the world, but rather, a model of that reality; and that other peoples, looking at things from a different vantage point, have different perceptions and different models; and that there is much for us to learn from those other perceptions and models - i.e., until we learn that others are different from us, but still human, and that there is a beauty in the difference - we will not relate well to those different others. And we will find ourselves mired in the kinds of intergroup tensions and problems that are manifesting themselves around us on a daily basis.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Role of Religion / Religious People in Society?

There is an interesting synopsis of a new book by J.D. Hunter, To Change the World, accompanied by an interview with Hunter, in a recent issue of Christianity Today (see http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/may/16.33.html?sms_ss=facebook&at_xt=4ca647dc78f83efd,0&start=1), on the subject of the role of Christians in society, and particularly, whether Christians should (and can) try to bring about “culture change.”

One of the things which struck me in reading the interview and thinking about Hunter’s conclusions is that what some Christians and others fear in Muslims these days (e.g., their trying to take over America and impose their will – I have read numerous accounts recently of how Muslims want to eventually impose Sharia law on America), is similar to what many others fear in Christians (with the talk, in some circles, of reclaiming America as a "Christian" nation, etc.). I find Hunter's argument as reflected in this synopsis and interview (I haven't read the book yet) relevant to this whole complex of tensions centered on issues of religion & society.

Hunter's last quote from the interview:
"Christians need to abandon talk about "redeeming the culture," "advancing the kingdom," and "changing the world." Such talk carries too much weight, implying conquest and domination. If there is a possibility for human flourishing in our world, it does not begin when we win the culture wars but when God's word of love becomes flesh in us, reaching every sphere of social life. When faithful presence existed in church history, it manifested itself in the creation of hospitals and the flourishing of art, the best scholarship, the most profound and world-changing kind of service and care—again, not only for the household of faith but for everyone. Faithful presence isn't new; it's just something we need to recover."

For another opinion on the subject, Chuck Colson, who we might characterize as a “Christian activist” for his work in prison reform, responded to the interview with Hunter (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/mayweb-only/29-52.0.html?start=1), essentially arguing that it's not "either/or" when thinking about the role of Christians trying to shape and change the society. Colson is emphasizing another aspect of Christian social activism - not an attempt to reclaim America as a "Christian nation," but an active involvement in working against injustice in various domains, whether slavery (Wilberforce is his hero for Christian political engagement), racism or prison reform (one of Colson's main areas of activism).

A couple of Colson's comments:
"That brings me to my biggest concern about Hunter's argument: The "faithful presence" he advocates most likely will result in Christians remaining silent in the face of injustice and suffering. Instead of seeking the welfare of the city in which God has placed us, we are indifferent to its decay and that decay's impact on the life of our neighbors."

"In his Christianity Today interview, Hunter said, "When Christians turn to law, public policy, and politics as the last resort, they have essentially given up on a desire to persuade their opponents. They want the patronage of the state and its coercive power to rule the day." I doubt he would have said that to Dr. Martin Luther King or to William Wilberforce when they waged long and heroic battles against injustice."

As I thought of a title for this posting, I was uncertain – what are we talking about? Is this an issue of the role of “religion” in society? But “religion” is a concept, a complex of ideas (and prescribed practices and beliefs), but as such, inanimate – i.e., a “religion” cannot think or take action; only people can do that. So, are we talking about the role of “religious people” in society? Or would it be better to say it was about the role of “people of faith” in society? Does it make a difference?

I’m wondering whether it might make a difference. Is the point, taking action that is rooted in religion, i.e., in the teachings of a particular religion, like Christianity (or Islam)? But perhaps that is where others become nervous – Christians are nervous about Muslims acting in the name or the cause of Islam as a religion, secular Americans are nervous about Christians acting in the name or the cause of Christianity as a religion, etc. – because, I think, we are nervous about other people trying to “take over” the society with and for their religion, and impose the beliefs and practices of their religion on the rest of us.

This is a central problem, in a pluralistic society, based on an attempt to find ways for people who are different to coexist, enjoying freedom of belief and practice, protecting everyone from anyone else imposing their beliefs and practices on us, and from our imposing our beliefs and practices on them. Remember that in the beginning, “freedom of religion” in America was almost universally translated into “freedom for us – whoever ‘us’ was in a given place – to practice our religion,” but not for others – whoever was in a majority imposed their faith and practice on everyone else; and we’re talking Christian to Christian here (the exceptions, of course, were Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, both established from the beginning by minority Christian groups who were persecuted by Christians elsewhere, with a commitment to freedom of faith and practice for all, as the foundation of peaceful coexistence).

I think that at least part of what Hunter is getting at, is that Christians should not be acting in the public realm in an attempt to gain the majority or take over, (re) Christianize America, and push through our beliefs or practices on the nation as a whole. What Colson is talking about, I think, is somewhat different – he advocates faith-based activism to work against injustice, exploitation, etc. in society, giving examples of slavery, racism, and various issues in the criminal justice system. He is not trying to change laws to specifically reflect Christian values, but rather, values that would be broadly shared by both religious and even nonreligious people.

Perhaps in the end it is a matter of the language we speak, what we say as we are taking action in society. If we talk in terms that may be readily understood and accepted by people in our own religious circle (however broadly or narrowly defined), we will likely run into resistance from people of other religious convictions. If we can find a broader, more widely accepted value system to appeal to, though, our (for us) faith-based actions might be seen, not as threatening, but as “good news” to others in the society, and we might even find allies in people of other faiths (e.g., Muslims) or none, who do not share our religious convictions, but do share some of our values.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Can People of Faith Rise Above Tribalism? Reflections on the occasion of the remembrance of 9/11

(I meant to post this on 9/11, but my computer crashed, and I only now regained access to my documents.)

In another post on the site “Not the Religious Type,” the author refers to a recent NY Times editorial by Stanley Fish (see http://notreligious.typepad.com/notreligious/2010/09/their-kooks-are-representative-our-kooks-are-lone-nuts.html#more and http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/30/weve-seen-this-movie-before/?pagemode=print). In his editorial, Fish points out the double standard used to discuss violent acts by or against members of a religious community, and concludes the following:

The formula is simple and foolproof (although those who deploy it so facilely seem to think we are all fools): If the bad act is committed by a member of a group you wish to demonize, attribute it to a community or a religion and not to the individual. But if the bad act is committed by someone whose profile, interests and agendas are uncomfortably close to your own, detach the malefactor from everything that is going on or is in the air (he came from nowhere) and characterize him as a one-off, non-generalizable, sui generis phenomenon.”

What is going on here, I think, is something which we humans easily and naturally slip into, a kind of tribalism whereby we assume the best of those who are part of our people, and read their actions in light of our own best values (and with a generous dose of excusing and explaining away bad behavior), but assume the worst of those who are part of a different group, especially during times of conflict and tension between the communities.

(In terms of a model developed by Bennett – his “Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity” – which explains how people progress in their experience of cultural difference, this would fall into the second phase, “Defense,” in which people have a negative experience of difference, and tend to generalize and polarize and talk in “us”/“them” terms, where the “us” is generalized positively and the “them” is generalized negatively. More on the DMIS another time.)

The ability to assume the best of our people and the worst of others is rooted, I think, in lack of self-awareness in the first instance (glossing over how bad “we” are and can be) and ignorance of the others in the second instance. When we don’t know people from the “different” group, it is easy to assume the worst of them.

As a Christian, I believe that Jesus would encourage us to be bigger than our tribal allegiances. (As a human being, I would hope that any religious faith would encourage those who follow it, in this same direction.) In illustration of his most important teaching, that the two great commandments are to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves, he told a parable of a despised Samaritan (whom his Jewish listeners would have nothing to do with, and through whose territory they would not even pass) helping a wounded Jew who was abandoned by the road side. And he himself not only passed through Samaria, he stopped and conversed with a Samaritan woman, someone who would have been looked at by Jewish men as a non-person. By his teachings and by his example, Jesus showed us that God’s perspective on humanity is different than the tribalism we so easily embrace.

My question is, can we – not just Christians, but people of any faith – rise above our tribalism (which is worse when wrapped up with religion – which happens with people of all religions) and learn to relate to other human beings who are not members of our tribe, as if they were people also created in the image of God? And can we defuse the generalizing and polarizing, and work toward a more accurate understanding of those of other groups, that can only come as we enter into relationship with those others?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Should people of different faiths talk with each other?

I experienced something of an online firestorm recently when I posted a link to a new initiative called the Global Faith Forum (see http://www.globalfaithforum.org/; see also the blog site, http://www.glocal.net/). Under the question “Why Attend?” the site says,

The Evangelical Church says we want to reach the world, but do we really understand the world? At the Global Faith Forum, we’re moving from a conversation about other faiths, to a conversation with other faiths. A conversation that allows us to hear from leaders with different faiths, different worldviews and different ideas that shape the way we communicate in the 21st century.”

In posting this link, I commented:

“It seems to me that a question faced by all people of religious faith is, are we prepared to relate to different others? Many religious people have the perspective (of the medieval Catholic church and others) that "error has no rights," and believe in trying to convert others, but not in really relating to and understanding them. In the spirit of Jesus, who "became flesh and dwelt among us," I like this "Global Faith Forum," emphasizing conversing with (and relating to) people of other faiths. And surely, if you are a person of faith, you must see that the strongest way to influence others is to start by actually relating to and engaging them (rather than, for example, burning their sacred books).”

In response, one of my friends commented:

“What a complete error in logic!... "became flesh and dwelt among us," Jesus became a "human" ...In that sense ONLY is there a universal connection. He did not become "flesh and dwell among us” --Jews or Arabs or 'Samaritans' to dialogue about the good points of their religious belief system--the fact that they were "different others" other than to tell them they were lost and wrong! " Christianity is 100% exclusive! Who is this Jesus that you see and preach?? Who is this warm and fuzzy Jesus that you make out to be so inclusive??
I can just see Jesus saying... "I want to hear from leaders of different faiths so that we can talk." Read John 8...let's start there.


“The anemic buzz words of post modern academia..."different others", "co-religionists"...
In the latter part of John 8 Jesus is not in a discussion or dialogue regarding the value or sanctity of someone's religious view. "43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. 44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies." et al...

There is no appeal for "mutual understanding" here--neither is he calling them to repent.

To believe Jesus would sit in on and entertain a "Global Faith Forum" is ludicrous at the least and blasphemous at the outset. Get this mental picture --Jesus sitting at the round table with all those panel members, "speakers" from different faiths --the ONE among many. What a hoot! I wish I were a cartoonist because THAT would be a great cartoon!

"For you, O LORD, are most high over all the earth;you are exalted far above all gods."

At the end point of your fallacious view what would you do once you entered into dialogue and gained "understanding"--THEN tell them you need to believe in Christ and repent?? So your real agenda would be what??”

The question raised for me is, should (can?) people of faith talk with people of other faiths? It is interesting that there are people in every religious community, it seems, who are against “dialogue.” I have heard some say that unless they (the others) are interested in understanding what we believe, etc., “we have nothing to talk about.” In general, it seems, there is an interest in talking to – in the sense of stating one’s beliefs, distinctives, etc. – more than in listening to, those of a different faith.

It seems to me, as a Christian, that apart from the issue of the value of so-called interfaith dialogue, surely Jesus would direct his followers to enter into relationship with others? Many Christians, it seems, tend to sit back and “throw stones,” and live in fear of who we do not know. If we don't enter into relationship with other people, we are simply talking or preaching at them, which does no good (especially in these days of heightened tensions between Christians and Muslims, West and East).

Jesus said that his followers should be "salt" and "light" in the world. (One of the points of Jesus' coming to earth and "dwelling among us," I think, is that God was not content to just give us a book or speak from afar - Jesus' life represents God entering into peoples' lives and relating to us. His disciples wrote of "what we have seen and heard and our hands have touched.") And I think, given that he himself is and is about "good news," that it is at least implied that Jesus' followers should be "good news" to others.

Unfortunately, it seems that the way we Christians relate to Muslims and others is often perceived as bad rather than good news. The New Testament also says that Jesus' followers are his ambassadors, and again, it seems to me that this requires entering into relationship with people. So if a Christian is wanting to share his/her faith with Muslims, the best thing to do is to enter into relationship with them (and love them, which is Jesus' first and foremost command to us re. how we relate to others).

And beyond that, if we are concerned more broadly for our society, it seems that bringing different people together to get to know each other is a key foundational step away from war and toward peaceful coexistence (which is a baseline issue for even having a society). And I do believe that most Muslims in America, as most others in America, actually want to peacefully coexist.

But I headed this post, “Should people of different faiths talk with each other?” not “Should Christians talk with people of other faiths?” I have been talking here as a Christian to other Christians, because that is my life and my people. But I would bring this around to Muslims or those of any other faith – what about you? Do you believe in relationship with (and talking with and listening to) people of other faiths? Do you have a firm belief in the common humanity of those of other faiths? If you believe in spreading your faith, do you believe in doing so through relationship? Do you believe that we should be working together not to build more barriers between us, but to break them down, even to look for common understanding and common ground?

Can we – all of us who are people of faith – have the courage and the strength of our own convictions, to listen to (rather than just talking at) each other, to enter into relationship and get to know each other? I believe that this is good for our faith and for our world.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Do Muslims Belong in America?

In a recent blog at "Not the Religious Type: A Different Conversation About Faith," under the title "What's Our Role Vis-a-Vis Muslims?" (see http://notreligious.typepad.com/notreligious/2010/09/whats-our-role-vis-a-vis-muslims.html), the author quotes from an article in the New York Times about the place of Muslims in America, the difficulties they have been facing since 9/11 and most recently with the issue of the Qur'an burning by the church in Florida, and whether they are accepted by Americans - and asks what the response of his readers might be to Muslims in America.

As a "Christian," I deplore the anti-Muslim sentiments, statements, and actions taken by others who call themselves Christians.
As an American who has studied and taught American history, it strikes me that Muslims are facing what Jews and Catholics both faced, in the progression toward becoming an integrated, accepted part of the nation - suspicion re. their intentions, re. whether they are loyal to the U.S. or to their religion or some foreign authority, and would try to "take over" the U.S. in the name of and for the purposes of their religion (e.g., note the disturbance caused by Kennedy's run for President, with the question being asked, "if elected, who's directives will he follow - that of the American people, or that of the Pope?" It's hard to imagine now, but in 1960, that was a serious issue for people).
The issue for Muslims, then, is to answer the question, are they ready to embrace separation of church and state and freedom of religion? There is little freedom of religion in any Muslim country (which is one of the reasons Muslims enjoy life in America). Will they embrace the American way of free competition in the marketplace of ideas, where they have to win the day by persuading people, not by force? I think that a certain number (I have no idea as to percentages) of Americans are not yet convinced of the intentions and designs of Muslim immigrants and citizens (I hear many people I meet, asking these questions).
So, if you are Muslim, I would encourage you to continue working through these issues, and making your perspectives known. If you truly embrace American values, I am confident that you - like Jews and Catholics before you - will eventually be accepted into the mainstream. And I as a Christian American will work with you for you to be accepted.
In response to these sentiments, a friend of mine said:
"Your comparisons of religious systems is totally flawed. Give me an example of a Jew or Catholic that came to American soil and killed 3000+ people?? Or whose base religion would even honor that?
"The core of Islam is world domination through whatever means possible. Muslims by religion COULD NEVER accept AMERICAN values! Nor should they --it's against their religion! Islam is not about being assimililated into the culture. Islam wants to conquor the culture."
In response to which I would point out that the history of Christianity is very similar to the history of Islam. Well into the colonial period in America, Christians were persecuting and killing other Christians who disagreed with them. I don't think that was due to the core teachings of the faith - I see it as due to "fallen" (faulty, twisted, incomplete, broken - call it what you will) human nature, which is also at work in extremists who are killing in the name of Islam. The vast majority of Muslims I know do not believe what the extremists are teaching. I lived through the first Gulf War in Tunisia, and 9/11 and the second Gulf War in Egypt, and after those events in Lebanon and Jordan, and have never been threatened in any way (even though people were very upset with American policy and actions).
And I would draw another parallel - one of the things which many Americans fear from "conservative" Christians, is that those conservative Christians are out to "take over" America and impose their values on others. Muslims believe that Islam is true, and that the best scenario for mankind would be for everyone to embrace Islam (but I don't think most Muslims believe that should happen "through whatever means possible"); even as Christians desire that all people come to know and follow Jesus (but not through whatever means possible).
And one final "faith and culture" issue - are Christians about "being assimilated into the culture"? Jesus said that his followers should be "in the world but not of it." That doesn't exactly sound like assimilation. In fact, Christians have wrestled forever re. the relationship between faith and culture. H. Reinhold Niebuhr in his well-known "Christ and Culture" discusses 5 different ways in which Christians have responded to culture:
1. Christ against culture
2. Christ of culture
3. Christ above culture
4. Christ and culture in paradox
5. Christ transforming culture
I'll return to these in another post, but suffice it to say that the relationship of Christians to their culture has been anything but simple or straightforward. Miroslav Volf in "Exclusion and Embrace" talks about Christians having one foot "in" and one foot "outside of" their culture, being part of it but also in some way distant from it and able to critique and judge it.
There is much to reflect on, which is a major reason I decided to start this blog. My point here, in response to my friend's declaration about Islam and Muslims, is that Muslims and Christians are in much the same situation, regarding faith and culture. Both have experience with rejection of culture. Both have experience with adaptation to culture (the story of the spread of Islam is the story of the adaptation to the world's different cultural settings, with the faith of Muslims clearly reflecting both central Islamic cultural values, principles and practices, and the local cultural flavor wherever Islam took root - much the same as the spread of Christian faith through time and place). Islam is adaptable, as is Christian faith. Muslims read the texts and the history, and work through how to understand those texts and their history, and how to move forward into new situations. I believe that Muslims are capable of interpreting Islam in a way that will allow them to embrace life in America under basic American values such as freedom of religion and separation of church and state. And I believe it is in the interest of other Americans to encourage them in this process.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Qur'an burning as a way for Christians to honor God?

The news recently reported that a church in Florida plans to burn the Qur’an on 9/11, to remember victims of the attack on the Twin Towers, and to “take a stand against Islam” (see http://edition.cnn.com/2010/US/07/29/florida.burn.quran.day/index.html?iref=allsearch#fbid=q324o5eIM2a&wom=false). (Fortunately – from my perspective – a number of other Christians have denounced and opposed plan – see also http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2010/07/30/national-association-of-evangelicals-denounces-churchs-quran-burning-event/?iref=allsearch.)

I would simply like to comment here that what I see in this group’s denunciation of Islam as “the religion of the devil” and the Qur’an as an evil book that should be burned, is an extreme example of the worst kind of ethnocentrism, that in which a group, believing themselves to be rightly following God, takes into their hands the prerogative (which I believe the Bible teaches belongs to God alone) of judging and condemning others. This certainly seems contrary to Jesus’ exhortation to “love your neighbor as yourself” (how would they respond to Muslims burning the Bible or the Cross?); and Jesus even said, beyond that, that his followers should “love your enemies.”

It is "natural" for people to protect their own group and fight against all others. Religious wars are one example of this, and are a blight on human history. Jesus, however, calls his followers to rise above parochialism and ethnocentrism, above defining and defending our own in-group, to a life of loving the different other as oneself (witness that the example he gave, in his famous parable, was of the despised other – the Samaritan – proving to be the loving neighbor to the injured Jew). And it seems logical to assume that loving one’s neighbor (or even one’s enemy, which Jesus also commanded) would not manifest itself in trashing the neighbor’s religion or burning their holy book.

To be or not to be "Christian"

There is an interesting article by Brian McLaren (author of “A Generous Orthodoxy” and “A New Kind of Christian” and several other books which I find to be fascinating studies in the relationship of faith and culture, or the living out of the life of faith “in context”), on novelist Anne Rice’s decision to “quit Christianity” (see http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2010/08/02/my-take-why-i-support-anne-rice-but-am-still-a-christian/?iref=allsearch).

I would like to add another perspective both on Rice’s decision and on McLaren’s comments on that decision. (I would recommend the article for the full details of McLaren’s discussion.)

From an anthropological perspective, what Rice is reacting against is a parochial, ethnocentric, naturally human phenomenon of creating and protecting one’s group and boundaries – in this case, “Christian” and “Christianity” (however broadly or narrowly defined) – against those perceived to be outside of the group or the boundaries. She came to conclude that to be “Christian” means to be “anti-gay … anti-feminist … anti-artificial birth control … anti-Democrat … anti-secular humanism … anti-science … anti-life.”

I would comment that (a) that definition of “Christian” is one particular group’s definition, not by any means shared by all those around the world who go by the name “Christian”, and that (b) were we to explore the roots of those various beliefs, we would find a mix of Biblical texts / values / principles and cultural interpretations (which would also differ from the interpretations of other groups of “Christians” at different times and places). In other words, there would not be agreement, through time or around the world, that to be “Christian” is to be all of these things. And I would argue, as a person within the broad category of “Christian,” that on several of these points, those arguing that to be true to Jesus is to be these things which Rice feels that she cannot be, are simply wrong – wrong, that is, in arguing that these beliefs are indisputably “biblical,” divine, of God, universal. The human and the divine, in this case (as in many others), have gotten mixed up, in ways that are not relevant to all people in all contexts.

And what Rice is doing, in trying to emphasize attachment to Jesus rather than his followers or what they consider to be “Christianity,” is trying to separate the human and relative and changing from the divine and absolute and universal.

Her reasoning, and McLaren’s in response to her decision, is reasoning that I share. As someone who wants to know and be true to God, through following and living by the teachings of Jesus, I am concerned not to bind up that which is human, connected specifically to a particular group of people or time and place, with my faith. Someone may be a follower of Jesus and (happen to) be anti-Democrat or anti-secular humanism, but those beliefs are not necessarily dictated by Jesus, and other followers of Jesus may have different perspectives on those (and other) matters.

(On the side from this conversation, one of the reasons that I value multicultural “Christian” community and settings another topic, is that we gain insight, through comparing similarities and differences, into what is shared and perhaps absolute, and what is human and culture-bound.)

I would add, further, that “Christianity” is a human religious construction. It has some (perhaps much, in some cases) of Jesus and his teachings wrapped up in it, but also much that is human and cultural. I do not see “Christianity” in the Bible or in the teachings of Jesus, and do not think it helps us to talk about people “converting to Christianity” or “believing in Christianity.” We convert to and believe in and live in relationship with Jesus, not the broad complex of religious ordinances and principles and regulations and rituals and practices, etc., which have come to be known as “Christianity.”

I agree with McLaren that “there’s no escaping the human condition,” with our fallenness and failings. I also agree with him that all religion – which I understand as the complex of rituals and practices, etc., that people have constructed, as they attempt to seek and honor God – is failed (at least, in the sense that all religions have failed to truly change or reform people through an emphasis on external practices and controls, and in the sense that all religious groups have failed to love their neighbor as themselves, to live according to God’s highest ideals for human relationships). And I appreciate his “redefining Christianity” so that it doesn’t mean that he feels superior to anyone by being a “Christian.” (I think he’s onto something in talking about the “Kingdom of God” – a concept which Jesus talked about nonstop – rather than “Christianity.”) His thoughts remind me of what the Korean-American pastor Jin Kim of the Church of All Nations (www.cando.org) calls being “penitently Presbyterian” (or “Christian”) – i.e., accepting one’s background and rootedness, but not being triumphalist, acting as if that way of being “Christian” (or human) is better than that of other groups.

If more of us who go by the name “Christian” were “penitently” Christian (and beyond that, focused more on being true to Jesus, and less on establishing and defending our brand of “Christianity”), perhaps fewer people would feel the need to distance themselves from us. And at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter so much whether people are distancing themselves from “Christianity,” as whether they are drawing closer to Jesus. The greatest tragedy, I think, is when “Christians” have the effect of pushing people away from Jesus.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

First Thoughts: the intersection of the Divine & the Human

From some point in my youth, I have been interested in the life of faith. Both of my parents, and most of the people in my extended family, were what we called "believers," or "committed Christians" - i.e., people who take God, the Bible, and their relationship with Jesus, seriously; people who are seeking to grow in faith and in living out what they believe; people who believe that faith is not about religion or being religious, but about a new way of life, about life-changing relationship with God through Jesus. This is what was modeled to me, as I was growing up, of what I would call "the life of faith," or “being ‘Christian’”; and at some point, I was drawn to this life of faith - I saw something positive, something I wanted, and I began to seek to “know God,” to work things through for myself, to make it "personal." I remember this as an ongoing and deepening process through my teen years, intensifying as I attended a Christian liberal arts college.

Freshman year, the faith-pursuing, God-pursuing trajectory of my life intersected another reality (or is it a dimension of or perspective on reality?): Anthropology. In an "Introduction to the Liberal Arts" class, I had an Anthropologist for a professor. I didn't know what Anthropology was, but the prof was fascinating, and I decided to take an Intro to Anthro course from him spring semester. One class was all it took to hook me on Anthro, and it became my major. I was fascinated by culture and cultural difference, or at least, what I read of it - I had grown up, and was still living, in a strongly monocultural setting, and had little if any actual experience of culture or cultural difference (I had my own culture, obviously, but when that's all you have, you are not aware of it, and being "ethnocentric" virtually means having no experience of culture).

Since college, then, I have simultaneously been pursuing growth in faith and growth in understanding of culture, and I might say that the two (faith and culture) provide my two key grids (or two dimensions of one grid) for understanding life. At least, I perceive my life in these terms.

From my point of view, each of these dimensions and perspectives strengthens and deepens the other. To me, God is real, Jesus is living, my faith in him and relationship with him is not about believing in something that does not exist (as some anthropologists and other social scientists seem to imply about religious faith), but is part of the reality of life (perhaps it is like a dimension of life, as when you move from reality which is 2-dimensional to that which is 3-d, or when you add a 4th dimension to 3-d reality).

I remember Ninian Smart saying that "a science must correspond to its objects" - i.e., if you are studying people of faith, you have to deal with the faith dimension of their life, and with what they have faith in (W. Cantwell Smith also makes this point, in his writings). More on that another time. For now, suffice it to say that my faith has informed, challenged, enabled, and strengthened my anthropology, especially as I have sought to understand the faith of others (primarily Muslims, during my years of pilgrimage in the Arab world).

On the other hand, my anthropology - my learning about culture, becoming more culturally self-aware, gaining insight into all the ways in which to be human is to be cultural, to be culture-bound, to live in a cultural context, etc. - has had an immeasurable impact on my faith. Anthropology has given me concepts for understanding the relationship between faith and culture, enabling me to explore the possibilities of being a person of faith but growing in freedom from captivity to the ethnocentrism which is so destructive to human relationships, and which causes problems both between people of the same religious tradition and - especially, more easily - between people of different religious traditions.

All of this will be expanded in posts to come. For now, let me say this: for me as a person of faith who takes the concept of culture seriously, life is about the intersection of the divine and the human. The divine, of course, refers to God. People of faith believe that he exists, that he is above and beyond the human, in some way outside of (not bound by) space and time. He is eternal, the creator, the life-giver. God has the big picture, we could say, the comprehensive perspective on life, the whole and accurate "worldview" (did you ever think of God having a worldview?). People, on the other hand, are limited by time and space and in every other way, and live in human contexts which are defined historically, religiously, socioculturally, politically, etc. We are dependent. We are finite. We see some things, know some things, but never see or know everything (or anywhere close to it, though in our ethnocentrism we sometimes believe we know it all). In the words of the Apostle Paul, we "see through a glass darkly." Or in the terms of the ancient proverb of the blind men and the elephant, we each only get a feel for part of the "elephant" (which you can take to represent life, or God, or any particular aspect of life or the world).

The life of faith is about the intersection of the divine and the human. The pinnacle of this, for me, is in what Christians refer to as the "Incarnation" - the coming into the human context of Jesus the "word of God," about whom the Gospel of John says that he was in the beginning with God, and that he was God, and that through him all things came into being. The word of God, in Biblical terms, is divine, and yet "became flesh and dwelt among us" - i.e., entered into a specific human context (that of 1st Century Palestine), and fully lived in that human context for more than 30 years.

It is striking, I think, that God chose to limit himself to working with and within the human context. The New Testament says that Jesus "emptied himself," "made himself nothing," "taking the very nature of a servant, being found in human likeness." He was, you could say, "culture bound." He grew up Jewish. He spoke the language of the people around him. He had a human family. And yet, God was able to work in this way to manifest his life and to carry out his purposes. In the Incarnation, we see that God works in and through the human context, through culture. And that he is able to be understood, and known, within human contexts, through human language, etc.

One of the challenges facing people of faith - who believe that they have come to know God (or at least, are in the process of growing to know him), and who are concerned with the perspectives and the ways of God - is to understand that this presence of God is known, experienced, interacted with, in a human context. One of our problems, rooted in our natural ethnocentrism, is that we tend to deify our own culture; another, related to that, is that we tend to denigrate the culture of others. Because we are dealing with the things of God, and because we are ethnocentric, aware neither of our own culture nor of the culture of others, what is of God and what is of our own cultural context gets mixed up, and we assume that everything we do is from God and reflects his truth and his ways. And then when we meet others who have different understanding, vision, practices, we naturally assume that they are wrong, have a wrong understanding of God, etc. In my experience, maturity as a person of faith in a diverse world is at least partly a process of growing in cultural self-awareness, working at separating what is human (i.e., cultural) in my faith and practice, from what is essential, clearly of God. This process is one of the things which I will be discussing in this blog.


I’m writing this blog for myself, mainly, to reflect on a range of questions and issues related to the broad topic of “faith and culture.” I write as a trained Anthropologist, and as a person of faith (you could call me a “Christian,” though for the most part I prefer the label “follower of Jesus”). I write out of my own experience and faith, naturally, but I hope that my reflections might be of some value to other people who are interested in faith, culture, and the relationship between them – whether you are a person of faith or not, and whatever your faith may be. I am particularly interested – given my years of living in relationship with Muslims – in whether Muslims will find helpful and relevant the concepts I discuss. I welcome feedback, input, and discussion. I hope that all interaction on this site, whether or not we agree, will be with the respect due to others who are created as fellow human beings, in the image of God.