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.

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