Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Culture Quote of the Day - "Christianity Isn't Culturally Rigid"

“Christianity is also reputed to be a cultural straitjacket. It allegedly forces people from diverse cultures into a single iron mold. It is seen as an enemy of pluralism and multiculturalism. In reality, Christianity has been more adaptive (and maybe less destructive) of diverse cultures than secularism and many other worldviews.

“The pattern of Christian expansion differs from that of every other world religion. The center and majority of Islam’s population is still in the place of its origin – the Middle East. The original lands that have been the demographic centers of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism have remained so. By contrast, Christianity was first dominated by Jews and centered in Jerusalem. Later it was dominated by Hellenists and centered in the Mediterranean. Later the faith was received by the barbarians of Northern Europe and Christianity came to be dominated by western Europeans and then North Americans. Today most Christians in the world live in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Christianity soon will be centered in the southern and eastern hemispheres.

[The author then gives two “case studies,” the growth of the Christian population of Africa and in China, and quotes Lamin Sanneh as to the appeal of Christian faith in Africa.]

“Why has Christianity, more than any other major religion of the world, been able to infiltrate so many radically different cultures? There is, of course, a core of teachings (the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments) to which all forms of Christianity are committed. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of freedom in how these absolutes are expressed and take form within a particular culture. For example, the Bible directs Christians to unite in acts of musical praise, but it doesn’t prescribe the meter, rhythm, level of emotional expressiveness, or instrumentation – all this is left to be culturally expressed in a variety of ways. Historian Andrew Walls writes:

Cultural diversity was built into the Christian faith…in Acts 15, which declared that the new gentile Christians didn’t have to enter Jewish culture…. The converts had to work out…a Hellenistic way of being a Christian. [So] no one owns the Christian faith. There is no ‘Christian culture’ the way there is an ‘Islamic culture’ which you can recognize from Pakistan to Tunisia to Morocco

“Contrary to popular opinion, then, Christianity is not a Western religion that destroys local cultures. Rather, Christianity has taken more culturally diverse forms than other faiths. It has deep layers of insight from the Hebrew, Greek, and European cultures, and over the next hundred years will be further shaped by Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Christianity may become the most truly ‘catholic vision of the world’ [A.J. Conyers], having opened its leadership over the centuries to people from every tongue, tribe, people and nation.”
Timothy Keller, The Reason for God

Yes, this quote is long, and so will be my response to it.

Areas of Agreement
I agree with Keller on what I see as the heart of his argument – the adaptability (Sanneh uses the phrase “translatability”) of Christian faith, and that Christian faith (and Jesus himself) is not the enemy of pluralism or multiculturalism (that’s a topic for another post).

His representation of Islam is not strictly accurate. Islam, like the Christian faith, spread over the centuries from its heartland to the “ends of the earth.” Islam, like the Christian faith, has had different peoples and cultures who were dominant in the worldwide community over time, from the Arabs to the Persians to the Turks and many others. Only perhaps 15% of the world’s Muslims are Arab. The largest Muslim nation today is Indonesia. The Muslims of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh comprise 30% of the world’s Muslims.  It is not correct to call “the Middle East” the area of Islam’s origin – the area of origin was clearly the Arabian Peninsula, and the expansion to other linguistic and cultural areas changed the Muslim community in significant ways over time.

Islam vs. Christian Faith
Having said that, I see some significant differences between Christian faith and Islam. I think that Muslims would agree that there is something of a “Muslim culture” – or at least there was, or there were significant elements of a culture, in the Shariah, which was understood as prescribing a total way of life, in all the details. I agree with Keller that there is no such thing as a “Christian culture.” This is one of the ways in which Christian faith differs from Islam. (Having said this, it is important to acknowledge that Islam, too, has adapted culturally in different regions of the world – the ethos / “feel” of Muslim life, though marked by similarities from one place to another, is also colored by local cultural flavor.)

As I read the New Testament, following Jesus is about inner transformation which works itself outwardly, but not through prescribed ways of living. The great commandment is to love God and to love one’s neighbor. The heart of Christian faith is thus relational – relationship with God, and relationship with others. What is prescribed is essence, not form – kindness, goodness, patience, honor, purity, etc., which can work themselves out in different ways, in different cultural contexts.

From a Muslim perspective, the Qur’an is defined by content and form – it is only truly the Qur’an in Arabic. A translation is typically referred to as “the meaning” of the Qur’an, but not as the Qur’an itself. Christians believe, in contrast, that the Bible is about content or essence, which can be translated into any language; and that God is able to speak to people through a translation in any language. This belief is partly rooted in the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), in which God did speak to people in their native languages. And it is also rooted, I believe, in the fact that the parts of the Bible were revealed through different languages, i.e., Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. Thus, it was never bound to one particular language.

This is just to say that when it comes to Christian faith, it lends itself to a process of an inner essence being worked out in different contexts (what some refer to as “contextualization”).

Are we talking about “Christianity” or about something else?
Finally, I can’t avoid getting into the issue of whether what we’re really talking about is “Christianity.” I think not. Muslims do believe that God revealed the religion of Islam, that it exists, and that Muslims (and all people) are meant to know and follow the religion (though scholars like Wilfred Cantwell Smith will talk about the origins of Islamic religion the same way they talk about the origins of Christian religion, with a starting point of faith in God and belief in certain precepts and truths, and the gradual growth of the religion over time).

Do Christians believe the same about “Christianity”? I.e., do we believe in the existence (in the mind of God, I would suppose) of a religion, that was revealed to mankind through Jesus (and perhaps clarified by the Apostles and the early church)? I can make the sociological and historical argument for Christianity as a religion, but do we make the faith argument for it – that this was the intention of God? Or to put the question another way, did Jesus intend to start a religion? As a believer in and follower of Jesus, I don’t think so.

So, then, what are we talking about, if not “Christianity”? That, too, will have to wait for another post…

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