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,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 (, 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.