Friday, February 25, 2011

The challenge of culture "giving way to the Word"

I was in a training on counseling skills recently, with a few others who live and work in a cross-cultural (intercultural) setting. We were all Christians, and the specific counseling skills were related to doing what we think of as “Biblical” counseling.

The trainer, in introducing a case study about the cultural dimension of counseling, made a statement to the effect that of course, ultimately, “culture has to give way to the Word” (i.e., the “word of God,” the Bible). And in the ensuing discussion, one of the participants raised the point that there is a “kingdom culture” (i.e., referring to the values of the “kingdom of heaven” or of God, which Jesus referred to constantly) that we as people of faith in Jesus are all being enculturated into, or that we enter into, which is in some way “supra” cultural.

Here are some of my reflections on these ideas, as an Anthropologist who is a reader of the Bible and a follower of Jesus:

My personal conviction is that the Bible is the Word of God, and as such is an external standard. If it is, as we believe, from God, it is in its essence connected to God himself and to “objective” reality (outside of us).

The problem, though, is in applying the Bible to situations, especially when we are dealing with people in different cultures. The Bible – the word of God – cannot come to us in unmediated form. We are human, limited. We deal in perceptions, apprehensions, understandings, etc. We “process” the world – including God, God's Word, etc. – through our minds, through our language, through our categories of thought, through our understandings of the world, etc., all of which are colored by our humanity. Thus, we can't really talk about “what the Bible says” as much as “what we understand or perceive the Bible to say.”

As human beings, we are cultural by nature. We can't escape our culture. We change and grow, yes, but we change and grow in a cultural way, and in a cultural context. I do not find it very helpful to think of us entering “kingdom culture” or some kind of “supracultural” realm (partly because, for any of us, how we define the “supra” cultural will be colored by our own culture and culture-boundedness).

In my view, the Biblical paradigm is that God's word, and God himself (with the prime example of this being Jesus in the incarnation), enters our (human, sociocultural) context, takes on the “clothing” of our culture / culture-boundedness / our humanity, and transforms everything from within. He changes us, of course, stamps us with his image (which, by the way, we all bear as human beings, but which doesn't stop us from being different from each other in how that image is manifested, and the sociocultural outworkings of our humanity, or of his life, after he comes into our lives and our contexts). Jesus enters our life and walks our road with us. In personality terms, for example, Jesus does not change an INTJ (me) into an ENFP (my wife) – he works within the boundaries (and limitations) of my personality, but allows me to blossom and grow into the fullness of the person he created me to be. And so with culture – he doesn't change a Chinese person into an American, etc., or even a “Muslim” into a “Christian” (though we may seek to bring about these changes), for them to follow Jesus.

I find it more helpful to think of the life of God like a seed, that can be planted into any “soil” and grow up within that soil (this is the best way I've seen of expressing what many in Christian circles refer to as “contextualization,” in the writings of Hiebert, Kraft, and others).

There may be human universals, but they work out differently, in different cultural settings. There is a distinction (biblically) between essence and form. I would say, for example, that the essence of basic "peacemaking" teaching (Matt. 18, etc., on dealing with sin and offense between people) is that to follow Jesus you have to deal with sin and conflict, with relational issues that come up between believers, etc. How you do that, however, can be very different, depending on the cultural context (and even on personality). How you "go to your brother/sister" can look different, in an "indirect" or "hierarchical" culture, vs. a "direct" or "egalitarian" one. Or take basic “relational needs.” You can argue that any people anywhere may need respect, comfort, acceptance, approval, security, etc. – but the way people express or receive any of these needs may differ considerably from one cultural context to another. So we can't just say the Bible says, “accept one another.” We have to learn, for different individuals and in different cultural contexts, how people express and receive acceptance (or not).

We need to recognize our own basic tendency to be ethnocentric. We all are. In a nutshell, we see God and the Bible and the world and ourselves, from our perspective (there's a lot to this, it is rooted in our personality, personal history, culture, etc.). And we tend to project “sameness” or “universality” on other people, from our frame of reference. Thus, if I say to you that “we are all human,” and the principles of leadership that I am teaching are “Biblical and relevant to us all,” what I'm usually giving you is “Biblical principles” that I have come to believe and practice and work out, within my context, and which (of course) I assume to be “universal” because (a) they work for me and mine, and (b) they are “in/from the Bible.”  We need to be very careful of our tendency to be culturally imperialistic, to assume that our practices and principles of following Jesus, teaching the Bible, living in community (church practices, etc.), are simply “from the Bible” and thus “universally applicable.”

My overall conclusion, from 28+ years of living cross-culturally and trying to adapt to and understand cultural difference; from all my study (Ph.D in Anthropology, intercultural training, and reading hundreds of books, etc.); and from coaching and observing all kinds of people from all kinds of nationalities, is that we all are far less competent in dealing with cultural matters than we think we are; we have far less understanding of culture and cultural dynamics, than we think we have; and culture is far more significant (and deserving of respect and attention!) than we realize or admit. 

We need a huge amount of basic humility and caution in relating to people of different cultures, to take care not to be overly confident that we know and understand and have answers. History is full of the disasters brought about by people working with this cultural self-confidence (arrogance). And we Americans are particularly bad about this, both in the secular realm and especially when we are dealing in a context of faith and using the Bible (it gets messy when the eternal, the divine, is wrapped up in the human).

So rather than saying culture must "give way to the Word," I would probably say that the Word has to come in and change our culture; and when we are engaged in relating to people of other cultures, we need to be open to listening to and learning from their reading and application of the Bible. Often, what was obvious to us in our cultural context, will look quite different when we see it through the eyes of culturally different others. And this is to be expected, since the God we believes in is certainly outside of the limitations of our cultural contexts (though he works within each of them).

No comments:

Post a Comment