Saturday, May 28, 2011

Does the Bible Support (should Christians embrace) Ethnorelativism?

I think it’s worth asking the question of whether the Bible supports Ethnorelativism, because people of faith tend to be skeptical about “secular” models, and about the concept of “relativism.”

This time, I would like to reflect from a different angle, asking whether New Testament teaching supports Bennett’s Ethnorelative stages of Acceptance and Adaptation.

(1) Acceptance

It seems to me (from personal experience and observation) that there is (or can be) a tension between faith conviction, and accepting those who are different. I suppose the tension comes partly because in talking about faith in God, we are in the realm of seeking to know and live by truth, which connects with the idea of living in the “right” way. But what easily happens, it seems, is that we handle our understanding of truth in an ego-centric and ethno-centric way – i.e., we begin to act as if we are “the people,” we are “right” and everyone else is wrong, we are “better,” etc. I’m not saying that all people of faith act like that toward everyone, or all the time, but that it’s a tendency I’ve noticed, and a danger that we need to be aware of.

My point is, there seems to be some reaction against or tension between having truth convictions, and the idea that we should accept other people.

The Teachings of the New Testament
Which is what leads me to ask, does the New Testament encourage us to accept people who are different?

Consider these verses:

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you… (Romans 15:7)

Show proper respect to everyone… (1 Peter 2:17)

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:18)

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. (Romans 12:10)

Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not think you are superior. (Romans 12:16)

Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. (Romans 14:13)

All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, "God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble and oppressed." (1 Peter 5:5)

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. (1 John 4:7)

At the top of this list are commands to accept and to respect others. These are traits that Bennett lists prominently as characterizing the ethnorelative stage of Acceptance.

Note some of the other statements: “honor one another”; “live in harmony”; “do not think you are superior”; “stop passing judgment”; “live in peace”; “bear with each other”; “love one another.” All of these traits are central to accepting others who are different. If we practice them, we will be growing in acceptance. And I would argue that accepting others, in their differences – letting them be themselves, not trying to force them into my mold – would be central to living out what Jesus said is the overarching command, to “love our neighbors as ourselves.”

But a question arises in my mind, as I reflect on these and other New Testament teachings about relationship. Who is the “one another” referring to? Is it referring to others who are members of the family of those who believe in Jesus? Given that much of the New Testament was written to groups of Christians, and is teaching how they should relate to each other in community, it seems reasonable to conclude that this is the main emphasis. But where would this leave us (believers in Jesus) in relationship to outsiders? Do we owe them acceptance and respect, too?

The 1 Peter 2:17 reference exhorts believers to “show proper respect to everyone,” which is broadly inclusive.

In Romans 13:7 we are encouraged to “Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” I would argue that the Bible teaches that all men and women are created in the image of God, and worthy of respect as such.

In 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 it says, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? … God will judge those outside.” The Bible teaches that judgment belongs to God, not to us; and by implication, we should treat others as given freedom of choice by God, with God alone holding them accountable for their choices. Whether we agree with others or not, we owe them respect.

Jesus illustrates the command to “love our neighbor as ourselves” by using the example of a despised Samaritan, who Jews viewed as half-breed idolaters. Not to mention the fact that he even commanded us to “love our enemies.” And given that love includes accepting and respecting others, it seems easy enough to extend this teaching to cover accepting people in their cultural difference.

Finally, Galatians 6:10 exhorts us, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people…” I hope it is obvious, given what I have previously written on Ethnorelativism, that accepting and adapting to difference is a form of “doing good” to others.

Beyond those specific teachings, I would look to the example of Jesus, and to the Jewish-Gentile issue regarding how to properly follow Jesus.

The Example of Jesus
Did Jesus accept different others? I would say so. Take, for example, his encounter with the Samaritan woman (John 4). Not only did he pass through Samaria (Jews would take the long way around, because they despised the Samaritans); he talked with a woman… Not only did he talk with a woman; he accepted her – talking with her, in itself, was a way of showing acceptance. And in talking with her, he didn’t focus on her culture, ethnicity, or religion (all of which, the Jews of his day looked down upon), or to try to get her to abandon her religion to become Jewish; rather, he sought to draw her attention to God, and how to truly worship. But by truly worshiping God, he did not mean, “do it my way, our way, the Jewish way, and not your corrupt, inadequate Samaritan way” – rather, he changed the focus away from the Jewish way vs. the Samaritan way, regarding the outward form of worship, declaring,

… a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  … a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.
(John 4:21, 23-24)

Jews and Gentiles
Take, as a final example, the case of Gentiles coming to faith in Jesus (Acts 10 and following). At the time, the Jews who had come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, thought that He was Messiah (life-giver, savior) only for the Jewish people. They still saw the Gentiles as outsiders, far from God, unclean, etc. Then God sent Peter to the house of Cornelius, over his objections; Peter told Cornelius and his household about Jesus; and the Holy Spirit “fell” on them – they were given life, “saved,” if you will, to the amazement of Peter and his fellow Jews.

Immediately, once the Jewish followers of Jesus saw that Gentiles, too, could know Jesus as the Messiah and receive life through him, they decided that to rightly follow Jesus, the Gentiles needed to be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses.

There arose a controversy over this, a meeting was held (Acts 15) between the leaders of the church and the apostles (Paul and others), and it was decided that Gentiles did not need to “become Jewish,” i.e., be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses, in order to know life through Jesus.

I would argue that what we see here, among other things, is that God “accepted” the Gentiles, as Gentiles – Peter himself said to Cornelius that he had learned from God that “God does not show favoritism but accepts people from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34-35) – and commanded his people to do the same, stating that they did not need to outwardly change to become culturally or religiously Jewish, in order to be acceptable to God.

The clear message, in my opinion, is that we also should be people who accept others as they are, who do not try to change them outwardly to conform to our image of being human (including our ways of responding to God), but who embrace them as fellow human beings, created in God’s image and loved by Him (however different they may be).

(2) Adaptation

I would argue that the New Testament commands to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to do good to all people, should lead us to seek to adapt to them in their cultural difference – to enter into their world, seek to see life from their point of view (to empathize), and to live in a way that does not cause unnecessary offense. I see this approach to people rooted in the examples of Jesus and the Apostle Paul.

The Example of Jesus – the Incarnation
Jesus is the supreme example of love in the Bible; and I would characterize the Incarnation as the ultimate example of adaptation.

We are told, about Jesus:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. (John 1:1-4)

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.  (John 1:14)

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8)

We are told that Jesus is the Word of God, one with the Father, the source of life and light – and that in the Incarnation the Divine essence took on human flesh, entered into our (human) life, so that we could be touched by the life of God.  Because of love, Jesus left his position, “made himself nothing,” came into the human setting as a Jew in First Century Palestine, was born as a baby, learned language, and grew up in a particular sociocultural setting, adapting the cultural practices and living within the religious and political context of the day.

I cannot think of a greater example of adaptation, than this. And Jesus said to his followers, “as the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21).

The Example of Paul – “all things to all people”
The next great example I see of adaptation is that of the Apostle Paul. Consider his teaching and example:

Everything is permissible"—but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible"—but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others. Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it." If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if anyone says to you, "This has been offered in sacrifice," then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience' sake—the other man's conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another's conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.
(1 Corinthians 10:23-33)

The key points, in Paul’s teaching (here and elsewhere):
  • he, and other followers of Jesus, are free;
  • this freedom includes the freedom to eat or drink anything, and by implication, to adapt to different situations and circumstances (Paul taught elsewhere that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” [Galatians 5:6] and “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation.” [Galatians 6:15]);
  • the principle to not cause anyone to stumble, goes even further – the point of adaptation is to not cause a roadblock to people knowing Jesus, through the outward patterns of living (forms, traditions, etc.) – and the “Jews, Greeks or the church of God” is comprehensive, covering religious people, irreligious people, and other Christians;
  • Paul’s motivation is that people would come to know and receive life through Jesus; he advocated any outward adaptation that would facilitate this.

This is taken even further in another passage:

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.
(1 Corinthians 9:19-22)

When Paul is talking about “winning” people, he is not talking about converting them from one religion to another; i.e., he is not talking about “winning” them to “Christianity” (which did not exist as a concept then) or to Judaism. He is clearly talking about “winning” them to Jesus Himself, to life in God (through Jesus). And for this, he felt free to adapt in outward practices (which I would call, “cultural” practices) – eating, drinking, circumcision (or not), following the Jewish religious law (or not), etc.

In a famous example of adaptation, Paul when speaking in Athens at the Areopagus, quoted pagan writers and referred to an altar “to an unknown god,” in looking for ways to make his message about Jesus understandable in their frame of reference (Acts 17:18-34).

There are plenty of New Testament teachings, as well, that clearly state that outward forms are not essential, from God’s perspective – these include circumcision (central to the Jewish law and custom), keeping one day as the/a Sabbath, food and drink, and other practices.

I would conclude, therefore, that we should adapt to others based on the law of love (the highest law binding and guiding followers of Jesus); that we are free to do so, based on the example of Jesus, the example of Paul, and the rest of the New Testament teaching about essence and outward form; and that we are exhorted to, based on Paul’s teaching and example, for the sake of people coming to know Jesus as their life (but not for the sake of converting them in outward form to our way of life, our way of following Jesus, or our religion).

As a follower of Jesus, I not only do not see a problem with embracing a goal of intercultural sensitivity (becoming ethnorelative); for me, my faith demands that I seek to grow in this direction.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Culture Quote of the Day - the basis for ethical choices

“The third assumption of this model [the “Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity”] is that ethical choices can and must be made for intercultural sensitivity to develop. However, these choices cannot be based on either absolute or universal principles. Rather, ethical behavior must be chosen with awareness that different viable actions are possible.”
Milton Bennett, “Towards Ethnorelativism”

So how does this fit with Bennett’s idea of developing a “meta-ethic” (based on “life itself”)? Isn’t he saying, here, that ethics are only and totally rooted in a sociocultural context?

How do I as a person of faith in God, respond to this statement?

To a certain extent, I agree with Bennett. I think he’s probably right that if you take a wide spectrum of people, from different cultural backgrounds, you will not be able to reach agreement on “universal” ethical principles. One dividing line is that between people who believe in God and those who don’t. Those who don’t, admit that they have no “absolute” or outside-a-human-context basis for ethical values, whereas those who do, believe that there are ethical values rooted in the existence and nature of God. (I think that among people who do believe in God, it may be possible to come to some agreement on “universal” ethical principles.) To talk about ethical choices, among people who are from different backgrounds, we must take into account the fact that we will have different perspectives based on our different backgrounds.

On the other hand, I believe that a person can be ethnorelative / interculturally sensitive, and believe in ethical values that are rooted outside of human culture, e.g., in the existence and nature of God. Jesus, for example, taught that the guiding principle of life is love – love of God and love of neighbor. If God exists, and if Jesus came from God, that would be an “absolute” or “universal” principle, whether people recognized it as such or not (though how it is worked out, would depend on the context, and would be shaped by worldview, culture, etc.).

In other words, I don’t believe it is an either/or choice – either you accept cultural difference, an ethnorelative perspective, and Bennett’s model of intercultural sensitivity, or you believe that ethical values and choices can be rooted in absolute principles. For Bennett to insist on this choice, is to extend his model beyond its limits (and he himself points out, at the end of the article, that there is growth beyond the model, and that the model itself is only one more construction of reality).

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Culture Quote of the Day - towards a "meta-ethic"

"And if there is ever to be a 'meta-ethic' (Barnlund 1979) that can restrain the worst excesses of cultural value conflict and guide respectful dialogue, it must come from those whose allegiance is only to life itself."
Milton Bennett, "Towards Ethnorelativism"

For the most part, I like Bennett's model, and think it is full of insight into the process of experiencing cultural difference. At some points, though, I find his worldview falling short. Like in this quote. Bennett is limited by his apparently "secular" worldview, seeing nothing beyond the human, the cultural, dimension.

Developing a "meta-ethic" (i.e., one relevant to people of different cultures) by having an allegiance "only to life itself"? What does this mean? I don't think Bennett knows. This sounds nice, but it seems empty (to me).

To develop a "meta-ethic," applicable across cultures, we're talking about having an ethical framework that people of different cultures can agree to. This means finding something shared, "universal." 

I would find this "meta-ethic" rooted in Jesus. Jesus, in fact, presented himself as "life itself" ("I am the bread of life"; "I am the resurrection and the life"; "I have come that you may have life"; "the person who has the Son, has life"). 

Could Jesus be the source of the "meta-ethic" Bennett refers to? Not the "Christian" Jesus or the "Muslim" Jesus (and are there others?), but the Jesus of history, of the New Testament?

I have found that Muslims and Buddhists and unchurched people, and others (and E. Stanley Jones would say, Indian Hindus), are interested in, fascinated by, the person, life, teachings of Jesus - as long as they can meet him unencumbered by a particular group's way of "packaging" him. Jesus, as a historical figure, you could say, a historical reality, is not a product of human culture (though our images, our "packaging" of him, is, to one degree or another). And if Jesus is who the New Testament presents him as, and who Christians through the past 2000 years have understood he is, the Incarnate Word of God, one with the Father, the source of life, then he certainly exists outside of (as well as within) human sociocultural contexts.

Can we construct a "meta-ethic" that peoples of different cultures agree to? I don't know, the challenge seems daunting. But in my mind (and experience), we'd have a better chance starting with Jesus, than starting in a secular vacuum.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Culture Quote of the Day - faith at a metalevel

"I will argue here that marginality describes exactly the subjective experience of people who are struggling with the total integration of ethnorelativism. They are outside all cultural frames of reference by virtue of their ability to consciously raise any assumption to a metalevel (level of self-reference). In other words, there is no natural cultural identity for a marginal person. There are no unquestioned assumptions, no intrinsically absolute right behaviors, nor any necessary reference group."
Milton Bennett, "Towards Ethnorelativism"

I have experienced the marginality that Bennett is talking about, in the faith context. Growing up within a particular faith context (a Swedish Baptist denomination in Minnesota), my original faith experience was ethnocentric, in the sense that what I "knew" of being Christian was only what I experienced in my setting. I was not aware that there were different interpretations of certain Biblical teachings, different ways of doing theology, different practices. I did not know that groups of Christians had different views of women in ministry (e.g., "complementarian" vs. "egalitarian"), or different interpretations and practices regarding drinking alcohol, the working of the Holy Spirit, observing the "Sabbath," baptism, church government, not to mention activities such as dancing, playing cards, and going to movies. 

Over time, as I began meeting Christians from different churches (ranging from Lutheran to Catholic to Pentecostal to Methodist to Anglican to Orthodox to Quaker), I became gradually aware of the range of difference of interpretation, theology, practice, lifestyle, etc. I was often "shocked" at first, by what other Christians (who I initially often thought of as "so-called 'Christians'" - how's that for breaking the exhortation to "judge not, lest you be judged"?!), but over time, as I got to know people, saw the depth and strength of their faith in Jesus and the quality of their life, I came to realize that there was a much wider range of working out "being Christian" than I had been aware of.

Now, to get back to Bennett's quote, I tend to see questions of "being Christian" at the metalevel he speaks of. I cannot hear someone say, "the Bible teaches," or "Christians must" or whatever, without thinking at the level of how other Christians might interpret the texts or teachings in question, or work out the practice. I am fine with a community of Christians saying, "we have decided that in our community, we will not drink alcohol" or “we do not have women as pastors” (or “we have women as pastors”), as long as they don't base their practice on "the clear teaching of the Bible," acting as if anyone who reads the Bible or claims to be Christian will necessarily agree with them. And the same can be said of baptism (whether to baptize infants or adults, etc.), how to do worship (what music to sing, what instruments to use, etc.), and so on. 

The upside is that I can feel fairly comfortable almost anywhere, appreciating opportunities to see different ways of Christians living out their faith in Jesus, love for God and love for others. The downside is that nothing is as simple or straightforward as before, it is harder to feel comfortable with Christians who are (ethnocentrically?) strongly self-confident in their interpretations and practices (this is an area in which I am still working at growing in “acceptance”), and it is harder to find a people to settle in with, because I appreciate and even long for the breadth of diversity that I have found to breathe life into my faith.

The thing I have found most positive, in encountering different Christians and being challenged to reevaluate my understanding of the Bible's teachings and of what it means to be Christian, is that I have been pushed to distinguish "cultural baggage" (which we all have - we can't escape being cultural) from the essence of being Christian (which I mean not in the religious or cultural sense, but in the sense of being of Jesus). That is the great treasure I have found in my “journey among different Others.”

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Culture Quote of the Day - becoming different people

"Most of our behaviors are habitual. We grow up acting and speaking in a certain way as a reflection of how we've been socialized to see the world. So there's little hope we can deal with our cross-cultural behavior in any kind of sustained way unless we actually become different people. As we think about relating to the Other with love and respect, we have to get beyond behavior modification approaches wherein we appear culturally intelligent and respectful and move toward actually becoming more multicultural people who genuinely love, respect, and appreciate the Other and his or her differences."
David Livermore, Cultural Intelligence

The key question is, how do we change? How do we become different people, in how we relate to the different Other?

Do Muslims & Christians worship the same God? 5 perspectives

Here are five articles addressing the question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God:

The brief articles are by a Jew, a Muslim, and 3 Christians, including one of African and one of Asian background.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Culture Quote of the Day - the limits of cultural relativism

"Anthropologists continue to express strong support for cultural relativism. One of the most contentious issues arises from the fundamental question: What authority do we Westerners have to impose our own concept of universal rights on the rest of humanity... [But] the cultural relativists' argument is often used by repressive governments to deflect international criticism of their abuse of their citizens.... I believe that we should not let the concept of relativism stop us from using national and international forums to examine ways to protect the lives and dignity of people in every culture.... When there is a choice between defending human rights and defending cultural relativism, anthropologists should choose to protect and promote human rights. We cannot just be bystanders."
Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, quoted in Timothy Keller, The Reason for God

"If you believe human rights are a reality, then it makes much more sense that God exists than that he does not. If you insist on a secular view of the world and yet you continue to pronounce some things right and some things wrong, then I hope you see the deep disharmony between the world your intellect has devised and the real world (and God) that your heart knows exists. This leads us to a crucial question. If a premise ('There is no God') leads to a conclusion you know isn't true ('Napalming babies is culturally relative') then why not change the premise?"
Timothy Keller, The Reason for God

The challenge of the interface between the "relative" and the "absolute." It is heartening to see an Anthropologist wrestle with this issue.

On the one hand, there is the issue of ethnocentrism, seeing things (only) from our point of view, not realizing that there may in fact be different visions of good and right, at work in different cultural contexts. The role of women in society, for example, is a challenging one. What one group considers "repressive," another group finds rooted in their understanding of God and His ways for them. And I'm not talking (only) about Muslims, from a Western perspective. Even in the West, Christian groups differ on issues about the role of women (e.g., whether women should be allowed to be in positives of church leadership or not), not to mention the difference in perspective between Christians and secularists. We can argue over whose perspective, whose interpretation, is "right," but the problem is, we can't agree...

This relates, too, to the area of law, because ultimately, laws are passed based on an idea of what people should not be allowed to do (e.g., rape women, murder people, steal others' belongings, produce child pornography, go nude in public, etc.). There is no society without a code of ethics and morality, without law. But societies do differ in what is prohibited (and prescribed). Western societies prohibit a man from having more than one wife; Islam allows up to four. Many societies ban homosexual marriage; some societies it. There is no end of the examples we can come up with, where what is morally wrong for one group or society, is considered fine by another.

The question arises, when societies differ, what do you do about it? Does one nation or group have a "right" to intervene and enforce their moral code or view of law or right? Who decides? Where is the "line"? (And note that this may look different if you are on the "giving" or the "receiving" end - no group or society likes another group or society stepping in and enforcing their morality.)

And then another dimension of the issue raised in the above quotes: in the U.S., law used to be based on the Bible, which gave it an "absolute" foundation (allowing for the differences in interpretation and application of the Bible). A change eventually took place, and law was "cut loose" from its biblical foundations, and now rests on what the society (majority, or Supreme Court) determines to be the guidelines. Keller points out that in a secular worldview, with no absolute (God, or the Bible), there is really no firm basis for believing in rights. And Fluehr-Lobban's quote shows that even Anthropologists (I'm not sure if she's "secular" or not) struggle with understanding what is "true" or "right." 

I wouldn't say that people who believe in God or in Scripture have the right to impose their understanding on others (add in the question of whose God or vision of God, and whose Scripture); God himself does not impose His will on people, but gives us choice (for which he will one day hold us accountable). But the question of who does have the right to intervene, in what circumstances, by what guiding principles, is a critical one.

Should we seek to prevent child pornography, sexual slavery and other forms of abuse of women and children (and others), ethnic cleansing, etc.? Absolutely. But when we move away from the extremes (which most people will probably agree upon), it becomes harder to navigate the boundary between what is culturally relative and what is not. As a person of faith, I need to admit that the cultural dimension needs to be taken into consideration; and Anthropologists need to admit (as Fluehr-Lobban does) that it's not so simple as to say that everything is culturally relative - it's fairly easy to show that everyone has a core of what they believe to be "true" or "right," and a sense that some of those values at least have reality outside of (across) cultural boundaries.

Culture Quote of the Day - "the real culture war"

“There is no way out of this conundrum. The more we love and identify with our family, our class, our race, or our religion, the harder it is to not feel superior or even hostile to other religions, races, etc. So racism, classism, and sexism are not matters of ignorance or a lack of education. Foucault and others in our time have shown that it is far harder than we think to have a self-identity that doesn’t lead to exclusion. The real culture war is taking place inside our own disordered hearts, wracked by inordinate desires for things that control us, that lead us to feel superior and exclude those without them, and that fail to satisfy us even when we get them.”
Timothy Keller, The Reason for God

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Is Ethnorelativism Compatible With Faith?

It is time to address an underlying question that arises for people who believe in God, regarding Milton Bennett’s "Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity" (DMIS) that I have been reflecting on. The question could be framed in different ways:

Are people of religious faith bound to be ethnocentric?
Are people of religious faith bound to reject ethnorelativism / Bennett’s model?
Is faith compatible with ethnorelativism (and vice versa)?

I will look at several statements from Bennett’s “Towards Ethnorelativism,” and attempt to address these fundamental questions. I do so for myself as a person who is both an Anthropologist, and as such, committed to understanding culture and growing in intercultural sensitivity and competence, and as a “Christian,” a person who believes in the New Testament teaching that Jesus is the incarnate Word of God and the source of life to all who receive him. So in a way, for me the question is, can my faith in Jesus be reconciled with my Anthropology? But I offer these reflections for people of any religious faith, be they Christians, Muslims, Jews, or any other. I think the issue is common for all of us.

Bennett’s statements, which I want to consider:

“The ethnocentrism of transcendent universalism is nevertheless evident. The principle or supernatural force assumed to overlie cultural difference is invariably derived from one’s own worldview. I have yet to hear anyone at this stage say, ‘There is a single truth in the universe, and it is not what I believe.’ [emphasis mine]

“A more pernicious manifestation of ethnocentrism based on transcendent universalism is derived from any of a variety of aggressive conversion activities. Whether the conversion sought in another culture is religious, political, or economic, it rests on the assumption that there is a single truth, or best way, and that with sufficient education all people will discover this truth within themselves. These overtly ethnocentric conversion efforts may be accompanied by a high degree of interest in cultural difference, perhaps with the rationale that knowledge of difference is necessary to implement conversion effectively.” [emphasis mine]

“Fundamental to ethnorelativism is the assumption that cultures can only be understood relative to one another and that particular behavior can only be understood within a cultural context. There is no absolute standard of rightness or ‘goodness’ that can be applied to cultural behavior. Cultural difference is neither good nor bad, it is just different… One’s own culture is not any more central to reality than any other culture….” [emphasis mine]

“a state of ethnorelativism does not imply an ethical agreement with all difference nor a disavowal of stating (and acting upon) a preference for one worldview over another. The position does imply, however, that ethical choices will be made on grounds other than the ethnocentric protection of one’s own worldview or in the name of absolute principles.” [emphasis mine]

I think that Bennett is guilty of reducing everything to an outworking of culture (though I would like to talk with him face to face about this, to see if I am understanding him correctly). In my view, Anthropologists who do this, especially when talking about matters of faith/religion, tend to do so because of imposing their own secular worldview on reality, and on others (which would seem to be a violation of ethnorelativism).

(Ninian Smart points out that “a science must correspond to its object,” and that those who study religion and religious people must take seriously what religious people believe exist, what they are responding to – God, the sacred, etc.; thus, any approach to matters of religious faith that proceeds on the assumption that God does not exist is seriously lacking. Wilfred Cantwell Smith is another scholar of comparative religions, who does a good job of creating a framework for understanding religion, that takes seriously what religious people are responding to.)

I remember Clifford Geertz talking about the dimensions of culture as “model of” and “model for” reality. I would point out the “of reality” part of this view. In other words, it is assumed, taken for granted, that “reality” exists – there is something “there,” that people are responding to, talking about, etc. Granted, as human beings we are culture-bound; we deal in models of reality, because we can only perceive, respond to, talk about reality, through the media of our senses, language, thought categories, etc. But there is a reality out there, which we do perceive and respond to, and can talk about, etc.

A parallel would be the realm of maps and mapping. Maps are human creations, they involve an understanding and vision of the world, and a certain way of portraying reality. But they do represent something that is “there,” that exists – or they would be pointless. You can compare different maps and talk about the degree to which they adequately represent reality (and maps have changed over time, with an increase of knowledge and an improvement of mapping techniques and technology). You might not agree – especially if we are dealing with different cultures’ ways of mapping the world – but you can have the conversation, and the conversation assumes that reality exists, and that’s what we’re talking about, trying to understand.

Take Jesus, for an example. If he exists, he is not simply a creation of one or another culture. We must admit that there are different images, understandings, you might say constructions of Jesus, “Christian” and other (including Muslim); but all of the ideas about Jesus, all of the workings out of who he is and what his impact is on us, are based on the assumption that he exists, and can be taken back to historical records like the New Testament writings, with eyewitness accounts of his life, teachings, miracles, death, resurrection, and ascension.

Take the Bible, as another example. Christians throughout history have believed that it is in some way the “word (or communication) of God,” revealed or inspired by Him, through different authors using different languages. If God does exist, it is possible that He would be able to speak to and through people, to communicate things about reality, about how we should live, etc. God, and his word to us, would be somehow different from our human culture and cultural context, though he and his word would only be known to us within our cultural context (this is parallel to the “incarnation” – to Jesus, the living Word of God, “becoming flesh and dwelling among us”). Granted we have issues of reading and understanding the Bible, and we/our culture gets wrapped up in the mix; but again, we have a sense of referring to, touching on, thinking and talking about, something which exists apart from ourselves and our culture.

With all of that said, let me return to elements of Bennett’s quotes.

First, the statement in the third paragraph above, One’s own culture is not any more central to reality than any other culture….” If culture is the product of people living together in society, their rules for behavior, worldview, model of reality, etc., then I agree. And at the same time, if there is “reality” outside of human beings – for example, the existence of God, including the existence of Jesus as the incarnate Word of God, alive today and working in the world – then this reality is different than (has an independent existence from) cultural models of it, etc. (the same could be said of the physical world, the universe, laws of nature, viruses, microbes, etc.).

Ethnocentrism exists, and is a danger for people of religious faith, or in the realm of religious faith, more than in other realms, because when we’re talking about the claims of God on human lives, we have a tendency to end up deifying our cultural understandings, assuming that our (ethnocentric) understandings and practices (for example, that a particular way of understanding and performing the Sacraments, or of organizing the church) are the Biblical way, the way revealed by God (people of faith have to come to grips with the fact that we have readings of sacred Scriptures, not direct access to truth). But it is possible for people of religious faith to grow beyond ethnocentrism in relating to other cultures, without losing the essence of their faith (though we may need to recognize and deal with “cultural baggage” along the way, and our faith may change significantly in the process – I think E. Stanley Jones in India is a good example of this.)

Then, the statement in the first paragraph, “The principle or supernatural force assumed to overlie cultural difference is invariably derived from one’s own worldview.” This is shortsighted of Bennett, and reductionist. If God exists, He exists outside of human culture, and we may (we must try to) distinguish between the reality of God, and our cultural formulations, models, practices, etc.

In the second paragraph, Bennett says “Whether the conversion sought in another culture is religious, political, or economic, it rests on the assumption that there is a single truth, or best way, and that with sufficient education all people will discover this truth within themselves.” There is certainly a danger here, which he rightly highlights in his Minimization stage of ethnocentrism (and which I have discussed elsewhere). Ethnocentrism exists, and it presents a barrier to interacting effectively with people who are culturally different. It is quite likely that any conversionist model is ethnocentric and needs to be challenged (for the sake of those of us who believe in whatever it is we are trying to convert people to – I believe that ethnocentric religious practices are not healthy for people of faith, or for those we relate to; but note that the conversionist tendency that Bennett is talking about is not limited to religion).

On the other hand, suppose that God does exist, and that He has plans and purposes for people? We may conclude as religious people that we should not seek the “conversion” of others, because we are likely to be attempting to recreate others in our image. And that we might talk with others of different cultures or faiths about what we understand of truth, without trying to “convert” them to our view or experience (leaving that up to God – which, by the way, plenty of religious people practice; I remember the first time I heard Father Elias Chacour, a Palestinian Maronite Priest, speak – he said, “my job is to live the life of Jesus in relation to everyone I meet; it is God’s business to ‘convert’ people”).

In the fourth paragraph, finally, Bennett says, “The position does imply, however, that ethical choices will be made on grounds other than the ethnocentric protection of one’s own worldview or in the name of absolute principles.” I agree that being ethnorelative means that we will not make ethical choices on the grounds of the ethnocentric protection (or projection) of our worldview – and coming to this point, I think, is important for people of religious faith.

I don’t think I agree with the second half of this statement. I suppose it depends on what Bennett means by “in the name of absolute principles.” All Christians, Muslims, and Jews, I think, agree that there are absolute ethical principles – e.g., not to murder, commit adultery, etc. We might not totally agree on what they are, or on how they are worked out. For example, people of religious faith (within the same faith or between traditions) disagree as to whether “do not murder” includes war, capital punishment, or abortion at various stages of pregnancy. But I believe one can be self-reflectively ethnorelative in our belief in absolute ethical principles, i.e., in tune with the cultural dimension of one’s faith, and the fact that what we assume to be “real” and obvious, may turn out not to be, as we interact with other Christians or others of different faiths.

In other words, I believe it is possible to be an ethnorelative person of religious faith; i.e., to be culturally sensitive, to be working through, working out of, the ethnocentric stages of Denial, Defense, and Minimization, and to be growing in relating to other cultures through the experiences represented by Bennett as Acceptance, Adaptation, and Integration. It is possible to accept, adapt to, and even integrate cultural difference, relating to those who are culturally different in an ethnorelative way, and yet to believe in, to know, to live in relation to, God. I don’t know that Bennett would understand this; I do appreciate his challenging us to think through these questions, even if I conclude that he is not totally right in his views; and I think that his model is critically important for religious people, as we consider the reality of culture and how to relate positively to cultural difference.

I don’t know if this is clear, or if I have made my case in a compelling way. I presume there is always more to think about and to talk about, for (even though I believe I know something of reality as well has having some cultural self-awareness) as the New Testament teaches, “we see through a glass darkly.”

Note to any reader: if you have other thoughts either on Bennett’s quotes or my reflections on them, I would love to hear them.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Culture Quote of the Day - avoiding being "fluent fools"

“To establish a more fundamental intercultural understanding, the foreign partner must acquire the host culture language.  Having to express oneself in another language means learning to adopt someone else’s reference frame.  It is doubtful whether one can be bicultural without also being bilingual.”  

“Without knowing the language one will miss a lot of the subtleties of a culture [e.g., humor] and be forced to remain a relative outsider.” 
Pedersen and Hofstede, Exploring Culture

“If we view languages only as communication tools – sets of words that can be exchanged for other sets and yield the same meaning – we court the role of ‘fluent fools’ as we translate words without their original cultural context.  Language serves as a tool for communication, but in addition it is a system of representation for perception and thinking.”

“Americans, like everyone else, recognize that differences in language must be dealt with in cross-cultural situations.  But since most Americans speak only one language, they are usually dependent on finding English speakers or translators.  Once they success in their search, Americans are likely to believe that the problem of language is solved.  They assume that words alone are conduits for conveying meaning and tend to ignore the more subtle role of language in communication.” 
Stewart and Bennett, American Cultural Patterns

Friday, May 20, 2011

Culture Quote of the Day - learning to love

"What do you do when you encounter someone who isn't like you? How do you feel? What goes on inside you? How do you relate to him or her? ... Few things are more basic to life than expressing love and respect for people who look, think, believe, act, and see differently than we do. We want to adapt to the barrage of cultures around us while still remaining true to ourselves. We want to let the world change us so that we can be part of changing the world. And we want to move from the desire to love across the chasm of cultural difference to the ability to express our love for people of difference. Relating lovingly to our fellow human beings is central to what it means to be human..."

"The billions of us sharing planet Earth together have so much in common. We're all born. We all die. We're all created in the image of God. We eat, sleep, persevere, and care for our young. We long for meaning and purpose, and we develop societies with those around us."

"But the way we go about the many things we have in common is deeply rooted in our unique personalities and cultures. So although we have so much in common, we have as much or more about us that's different. Asian. European. Tattooed. Clean-cut. Male. Female. Old. Young. Pentecostal. Emergent. Republican. Democrat. Suburban. Rural. Urban. These points of difference are where we find both our greatest challenges and our greatest discoveries. And as the world becomes increasingly more connected and accessible, the number of encounters we have with those who are culturally different are growing daily. Most of us are more comfortable with people like ourselves. But seeking out and loving people of difference is a far greater challenge. Therefore, learning how to reach across the chasm of cultural difference with love and respect is becoming an essential competency for today's ministry leader."
David Livermore, Cultural Intelligence: Improving Your CQ to Engage Our Multicultural World

The world is shrinking. Even areas of the world which were traditionally "homogeneous," with little diversity of any kind and little contact with "foreigners," have changed and are changing. Diversity is everywhere. When I grew up in white, middle class, suburban Minnesota, I experienced very little diversity (cultural, racial, ethnic, religious). Now, several decades later, when I visit Minnesota I encounter people who are different than "my people" on every hand - Lebanese at the grocery store; Arab, Indian, Vietnamese and many other restaurants and delis; a Tunisian woman working in the coffee shop of the university I attended; a second hand shop we frequent, in which I now hear Spanish more than English; Jordanians, Lebanese, Indians, and more, in my brother's suburban neighborhood; Somali and Ethiopian taxi and shuttle drivers; and more.

As Livermore points out, we have a sense of sharing much in common with other people; but the similarity is clothed in some deep cultural difference, which tends to make us uncomfortable. I remember Tom Brewster, who taught language learning and cultural adaptation, saying "people like to hang out with people of their own ethnicity." And so the question becomes, how will we respond to the difference around us, which is increasing "bumping into" us? Will we seek to run and hide from it, or will we learn to engage "different" people in constructive ways?

I like Livermore's emphasis on love. For those who have Jesus as a model and guide in life, love is the great imperative (and remember, the example Jesus gave to illustrate his command to "love our neighbor as ourselves," was the despised religiously and ethnically/racially different Samaritan, people that the Jews of Jesus's day would avoid at all costs).

Indeed, as Livermore concludes, "learning how to reach across the chasm of cultural difference with love and respect is becoming an essential competency" - for all of us.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Culture Quote of the Day - developing an intercultural worldview

"The crux of intercultural adaptation is the ability to have an alternative cultural experience. Individuals who have received largely monocultural socialization normally have access only to their own cultural worldview, so they are unable to experience the difference between their own perception and that of people who are culturally different. The development of intercultural sensitivity describes how we gain the ability to create an alternative experience that more or less matches that of people in another culture. People who can do this have an intercultural worldview."
Milton Bennett, "Becoming Interculturally Competent"

Beyond Ethnocentrism (3) – Integrating Cultural Difference

“A new type of person whose orientation and view of the world profoundly transcends his indigenous culture is developing from the complex of social, political, economic, and educational interactions of our time.”
Peter Adler, quoted in Bennett, “Towards Ethnorelativism”

(I wonder why he didn’t also say “religious” interactions? But that’s another subject…)

According to Adler, the “multicultural person” is one whose “essential identity is inclusive of life patterns different from his own and who has psychologically and socially come to grips with a multiplicity of realities” (quoted in Bennett).

Bennett refers to such as person as having developed to the ethnorelative stage of Integration.

At the stage of Integration, a man or woman has come to be culturally marginal, existing on the periphery of two or more cultures. One is no longer straightforwardly at home in his or her original culture, neither has s/he assimilated to a different culture. The “integrated person” is not particularly affiliated with any one culture, but “can function in relationship to cultures while staying outside the constraints of any particular one” (all subsequent quotes, unless noted, are from Bennett).

People at the stage of Integration are living in the realm of what Bennett calls “contextual evaluation” – i.e., behavior is determined to be appropriate or not depending on the context (he asks the questions, “Is it good to take off my clothes?” and “is it good to refer directly to a mistake made by yourself or someone else?” and answers both by, “It depends on the circumstances” or context), and have the ability to choose from a range of different cultural responses, to given situations.

“These people see their identities as including many cultural options, any of which can be exercised in any context, by choice. They are not so much bound by what is right for a given culture (although they are aware of that) as they are committed to using good judgment in choosing the best treatment of a particular situation. … They are conscious of themselves as choosers of alternatives…”

Bennett points out that marginality “describes exactly the subjective experience of people who are struggling with the total integration of ethnorelativism.”

“They are outside all cultural frames of reference by virtue of their ability to consciously raise any assumptions to a metalevel (level of self-reference). In other words, there is no natural cultural identity for a marginal person. There are no unquestioned assumptions, no intrinsically absolute right behaviors, nor any necessary reference group.”

For a personal example of what Bennett means, I enjoyed listening to the interactions of my daughter (a TCK who grew up in Tunisia, Egypt and Lebanon, and has also spent significant time in Jordan, besides attending University in the U.S.) with my brothers, all of them pastors or theologians. I would hear one of them make a statement about something (anything), including a phrase like, “the Bible says…” I would listen for my daughter’s response, and inevitably I would hear something like, “that’s one way of reading the Bible; but there are Christians who interpret that statement differently…” That, in a nutshell, is the perspective of a person who is living in the ethnorelative, marginal realm of Integration – they are always able to see things from different perspectives, and from outside of any one framework or cultural setting.

There are two possible phases of marginality, within Integration. At first, one might experience what he calls “encapsulated marginality,” “where the separation from culture is experienced as alienation,” and “constructive marginality,” “in which movements in and out of cultures are a necessary and positive part of one’s identity.” I have seen these two kinds of marginality with TCKs (third culture kids, i.e., people who grow up in a cultural setting that is different than their passport culture). For TCKs at the point of encapsulated marginality, the question, “where are you from?” may trigger an identity crisis – “I don’t know where I’m from; I don’t know who I am; I don’t know where I belong…” But for those who have developed to the point of constructive marginality, they may have come to have a positive sense of identity as a TCK – “I can go anywhere; I can adapt; I can fit in – I’m a TCK!”

Can we integrate difference?
Bennett concludes that “constructive marginality can be the most powerful position from which to exercise intercultural sensitivity,” and points out that “Cultural mediation could be accomplished best by someone who was not enmeshed in any reference group, yet who could construct each appropriate worldview as needed.”

Given the ever-“shrinking” world, with peoples traveling and migrating from and to just about everywhere, there is a desperate need for people who have learned not only to adapt to cultural difference, but to internalize different cultural frames of reference and to live on the cultural margins. Such people can function as “bridge” people between different groups who are different, not just for mediating conflict (for which there is ample need), but also for mediating understanding and interaction.

For more detail, see
Bennett, Milton J., “Towards Ethnorelativism: A Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity.” In Paige, R.M. (Ed). (1993) Education for the Intercultural Experience (2nd ed., p. 21-71). YarmouthME: Intercultural Press.

Bennett, Milton J., “Becoming Interculturally Competent.”  In Wurzel, Jaime S., ed., Toward multiculturalism: A reader in multicultural education (2nd ed., pp. 62-77). NewtonMA: Intercultural Resource Corporation, 2004.

Culture Quote of the Day - "God does not give a fig for Christianity"

These words are worth coming back to, letting them stand alone for our consideration:

“It is as Christians’ faith in God has weakened that they have busied themselves with Christianity; and as their personal relation to Christ has virtually lapsed that they have turned to religion for solace.”

“One has even reached a point today where some Christians can speak of believing in Christianity (instead of believing in God and in Christ); of preaching Christianity (instead of preaching good news, salvation, redemption); of practicing Christianity (instead of practicing love). Some even talk of being saved by Christianity, instead of by the only thing that could possibly save us, the anguish and the love of God.”

“A Christian who takes God seriously must surely recognize that God does not give a fig for Christianity. God is concerned with people, not with things. We read that God so loved the world that He gave His Son. We do not read anywhere that God loved Christianity.”
W.C. Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion

I would also add that the Bible does not say that "God so love the world that He gave us Christianity." God gave us Jesus, and life through Him.

Smith is a great scholar in the field of comparative religion, the one whose ideas I have found most helpful; and he is a “believer.” His book traces the development of the idea of religion, and of what have come to be known as specific religions – Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (More details another time.)

Notice that Smith, in response to a process of reification and distancing of people from immediate experience to reflection on it (from a distance), is calling those who consider themselves “Christian” back to the immediate, experiential, essence of faith – believing in God and in Jesus Christ, preaching good news, salvation, redemption, practicing love, realizing that the anguish and love of God is what saves us. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Is Christianity "Transcultural"?

“For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that Christianity is not the product of any one culture but is actually the transcultural truth of God. If that were the case we would expect that it would contradict and offend every human culture at some point, because human cultures are ever-changing and imperfect. If Christianity were the truth it would have to be offending and correcting your thinking at some place…”
Timothy Keller, The Reason for God

Two questions arise in my mind, as I think about this quote.
1)      Should he (we) be talking about “Christianity,” or something else?
2)      What might be the nature of “transcultural truth” and how would it relate to culture (the human sociocultural context)?

Are we really talking about “Christianity”?
Here are some definitions which I found online at various sites, of “Christianity” (feel free to substitute your definition):

Christianity (from the Ancient Greek word Χριστός, Khristos, "Christ", literally "anointed one") is a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in canonical gospels and other New Testament writings. Adherents of the Christian faith are known as Christians.

The religion derived from Jesus Christ, based on the Bible as sacred scripture, and professed by Eastern, Roman Catholic, and Protestant bodies.

The Christian religion, founded on the life and teachings of Jesus.

These definitions call “Christianity” a religion based or founded on the life and teachings of Jesus or derived from Jesus based on the Bible.

My question is, where did it come from (either the concept of “Christianity” or the content of what we see as “Christianity,” or both)?

If people of faith are concerned with God – knowing Him, worshiping Him – then I presume we want to know what He has in mind for us, for humanity. Thus, I ask, did “Christianity” come from God? Is this what the New Testament is about, revealing a religion?

It seems to me that the essential message of the New Testament is that people can have life through Jesus (or, you might say, reconciliation to God through the forgiveness of our sins, based on faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus – but that is simply the detail of what it means to have life through Jesus). As I read it, the New Testament is not calling anyone to a religion, but to receiving life through Jesus, and learning to love God and love our neighbor, as we live in and through Him. (You can say more, but this is the heart of it.)

The Meaning and End of Religion
If you want a detailed discussion of the history of the ideas of “religion,” “Christian religion,” and “Christianity,” I recommend Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s excellent book, The Meaning and End of Religion. Here are just a couple of statements Smith makes, relevant to whether we should be talking about “Christianity”:

“It is as Christians’ faith in God has weakened that they have busied themselves with Christianity…”

“One has even reached a point today where some Christians can speak of believing in Christianity (instead of believing in God and in Christ); of preaching Christianity (instead of preaching good news, salvation, redemption); of practicing Christianity (instead of practicing love). Some even talk of being saved by Christianity, instead of by the only thing that could possibly save us, the anguish and the love of God.”

“A Christian who takes God seriously must surely recognize that God does not give a fig for Christianity. God is concerned with people, not with things. We read that God so loved the world that He gave His Son. We do not read anywhere that God loved [or gave] Christianity.”

“God, we have said, does not reveal a religion, He reveals Himself; what the observer calls a religion is man’s continuing response.”
W.C. Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion

(Can you understand, and if you consider yourself a “Christian” can you accept, what Smith is saying?)

So what should we (or Keller) be talking about, if not “Christianity”?
To address that question, let me ask, from the perspective of the New Testament, what might we say is “transcultural,” i.e., existing outside of and unbound by human culture? It seems to me that the answer must be God Himself; and given the New Testament teaching that Jesus is the incarnate Word of God, one with God (and the Spirit), I would add, Jesus. (The New Testament teaches that Jesus is alive today, that He lives in us and gives life to us; that He transforms our life as we follow Him. An implication of New Testament teaching is that He enters into different human (sociocultural) contexts, and impacts them from within.) We might also consider the Bible (or its message), as the inspired word of God, “transcultural,” with an origin and substance outside of or in some way apart from human agency.

This would be the essence, the content, the transcultural – God Himself, Jesus as one with the Father (the incarnate Word), and the message of God as revealed in the Bible.

In my opinion, the working out of the life of faith, e.g., the particulars of how we worship God, meet with other believers, even how we celebrate “Communion” or practice Baptism, how we organize community life (the church), etc., are cultural rather than transcultural – they are our working out of our life of following Jesus, in our sociocultural context (i.e., they are what we might call our “contextualization” of the life of God, as we follow Jesus).

Let me try rephrasing Keller’s quote,

“For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that [Jesus Christ and His teaching, or you could say the message of the Bible] is not the product of any one culture but is actually the transcultural truth of God. If that were the case we would expect that [Jesus or Jesus’s teaching or the message of the Bible] would contradict and offend every human culture at some point, because human cultures are ever-changing and imperfect. If [Jesus or Jesus’s teaching or the Bible] were the truth it would have to be offending and correcting your thinking at some place…”

The danger of the term “transcultural”
Finally, let me return to the idea of the transcultural. From an anthropological perspective, I am somewhat hesitant to use the phrase “transcultural,” because as I’ve heard people use the phrase, I have often heard it used to describe phenomena which are essentially cultural, but which are being promoted as being somehow outside of culture.

To be human is to be culture-bound, and one of the issues we face, I believe, as people of faith, is that we experience that which is of God with our human selves and context, and tend to deify what is of us (our understanding of God, of life, of the church, of how to live out aspects of faith like baptism or communion, etc.), proclaiming that what is our way of seeing and doing things, is “from God.” This is a constant danger, I think (look at what is done to others in the name of God), which we must guard against.

Nevertheless, if we believe in God, God Himself is obviously outside of human culture (though our understanding of Him is within our minds and language and thought forms and context).

People who do not believe in God might take issue with this idea of what they might see as “religious faith” (which they might see as a human construction) being “transcultural”; and they might deny the idea of the transcultural. In that, they are promoting a different view of reality, than that which people of faith experience. But to try to bridge the gap of worldview, I think a parallel could be other “reality” that we might think of existing outside of human culture, e.g., nature, and natural law. The “law of gravity,” for example, might be considered transcultural. Whatever people called it, or even if they didn’t acknowledge or talk about it, it would exist “out there” in reality. Peoples’ ways of talking about science and scientific principles and natural laws might vary (and thus, be connected to a cultural context), but the essence being understood and talked about could be seen as being transcultural.

To come back to Keller’s quote, then, I agree with the heart of what he is saying and aiming at (as I understand him), but think we need to be careful in our use of terms, and that talking about “Christianity” is misleading and does not help people to connect with what they really need to connect with, the reality of life in God through Jesus.