Christianity and Culture
As a Chinese-Korean-American Christian, I often find myself straddling an interesting and sometimes challenging combination of identities. As a Christian, I believe that my ultimate identity is as a child of God, but I also cannot deny my cultural identities that stretch back to folk religions in Asia. How can I preserve my cultural heritage – steeped in ancestral worship, astrology, and polytheism – when it sometimes conflicts with my spiritual beliefs? Must I shed the traditions of my ancestors to embrace Christianity completely? And although Western culture has embraced Christianity longer, is it necessarily free of pagan influences and of its own pagan origins?
To tackle these questions, I first look back to Christianity’s spread across the globe. The history of its encounters with traditional or indigenous cultures is fraught with violence and injustice. Many people today associate Christianity with colonialism and interpret the Great Commission 1 as an excuse for Western imperialism. The Crusades propagated Christianity through military force and coercion during the Middle Ages. Missionaries, such as Diego de Landa who is responsible for burning most of Mayan literature, 2 have often destroyed our records of unique cultures in the name of religion. Unfortunately, the account of these forceful and imperialistic missionaries often overshadow the positive social work of missionaries, such as Mother Theresa, who are testimonies to love and sacrifice.
Yet as much as one might want to defend all cultural traditions, some customs run counter to modern-day Western society’s code of ethics. Customs such as suttee – a form of widow suicide practiced in the Indian subcontinent – 3 child sacrifice, female “circumcision,” and cannibalism, are just some of the polemical practices that repeatedly find their way into discussions about cultural relativism. Oftentimes, one is hesitant to go against any native custom for fear of appearing culturally ignorant, intolerant, or insensitive. Even if a particular practice goes against one’s moral sensibilities, the risk of seeming politically incorrect may silence the opposition. To what extent then, can cultural relativism justify actions? Can it wholly eliminate the boundaries between right and wrong?
Now I enter into the quagmire wherein lies the debate between moral relativism versus moral universalism. Roughly, moral relativism maintains that every individual lives by a different moral code depending on his or her culture and background, while moral universalism posits that there is a notion of right and wrong that applies to everyone. 4 The danger in the case of extreme moral relativism is the ability to justify almost anything. On the other hand, the danger in the case of extreme moral universalism is believing that one’s rigid standard of morals is the universal standard. The crux of the matter is that moral understanding and systems of beliefs oftentimes seem inextricably tied to one’s culture and upbringing. Therefore, to impose one’s moral standards is to impose one’s culture. Is it then possible to tease apart culture and religion, or rather, faith?
Some Christians have seemingly found ways to separate their more innocuous cultural customs from their original spiritual context. They repurpose traditional practices by imbuing them with new meaning that aligns with Christianity. Dr. Cheryl Bear Barnetson, part of the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation community in British Columbia and faculty at Regent College, 5 speaks out on how aboriginal peoples can continue practicing some of their native customs in the new context of Christianity. 6 For instance, she incorporates the use of traditional hand-drums and derives new chants that sonically resemble those of her ancestors but with Christian sentiments for her church services. 7 Yet a First Nations advocate and leader, Daniel Justice, criticizes this type of appropriation because he claims it reduces their customs to a superficial level. 8 He argues, “Sitting in a circle, passing around a talking stick or using an eagle feather – none of these are superficial in and of themselves, but when they’re completely dislocated from cultural and religious contexts that they are meaningful to, they just become props.” 9 Barnetson and Justice’s disagreement exemplifies the debate over whether cultural customs retain significance apart from their original spiritual context. If Barnetson views culture as a vessel that stores spiritual meaning, Justice would argue that the value of the vessel resides in its original contents. Draining the contents would mean reducing the vessel to a worthless hollow shell. Considering the grievous history between the indigenous peoples of North America and Western settlers from Europe who destroyed much of their native cultures (although many Christian missionaries did defend the rights of the Natives peoples), 10 it would seem criminal today to overwrite their beliefs with Western culture that includes Christian beliefs.
Yet before I enter into the debate between Barnetson and Justice, I must first make a brief detour to address a great deception that lurks in the background when discussing Western culture and Christianity: that Western beliefs are synonymous with Christian beliefs. The spirit that pervades the U.S., a leader of modern Western culture today, is not necessarily one of Christianity, but rather often one of consumerism, narcissism, and materialism that flies directly in the face of Jesus’ teaching on humility. The religion of Christianity inevitably has earthy roots that relate back to a historic culture, but the values of the faith do not come from humans; they come from God. The Bible weighs in on the debate between moral relativism and moral universalism in Romans when Paul writes:
For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. 11
Jesus commands missionary work to spread the news of gospel, but God also implants a discerning “conscience” into every person, whether or not he or she ever hears of Christianity. Since the “law is written on [our] hearts,” everyone is responsible for knowing and doing what is right. The Bible takes the side of moral universalism.
Now I return to the prior debate between Barnetson and Justice. Justice makes a valid point that customs and traditions become superficial when stripped of their original meaning and purpose. But as a Christian, I believe that humans were originally made in the image of God to serve and worship him. Thus, through the deviation of our worship, we have taken ourselves out from our original context. We must then let go of those traditions that contradict Biblical principles and repurpose our worship back to God as Barneston suggests. Yet even though God asserts that there is one moral code that applies to all humans, he is also the creator of the world’s diverse people groups. In Acts, Luke writes:
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. 12
God does not force people to change, but creates them with the ability to discern right from wrong and with the desire to “seek him” on their own and in “their way.” Our fallen state has corrupted our cultures and continues to affect our ability to create culture today. There is no one culture that is devoid of sin and there is no one culture that is superior to another. But God has provided us with beautiful differences in appearance, language, and traditions that we can use to worship him. God’s love is not bound by geography, language, or ethnicity, and therefore neither is his salvation. Jesus’s death and resurrection offers us salvation, and we can therefore approach culture with a new, Christ-centered perspective. Together, our diverse backgrounds and origins can better reflect the image of God, and we can express our faith through a variety of ways that our differences afford us.
Taking the discussion back to a personal and practical level, I can honor my elders, but not worship them. I can celebrate the Lunar New Year as another time to reflect on what God has done in my life and rededicate myself to him. I believe that it is important to understand our cultures and remember from where we came. As Christians, we are all striving for likeness in Christ, but we should understand that the desired homogeneity is of a spiritual kind and not necessarily a cultural one. With this understanding, I can appreciate my heritage as a part of myself that God created and celebrates.
1 Matthew 28:18-20 (ESV).
2 “Diego de Landa,” Encyclopædia Britannica, 21 Feb. 2016, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Diego-de-Landa.
3 “Suttee,” Encyclopædia Britannica, 21 Feb. 2016, http://www.britannica.com/topic/suttee.
4 Gowans, Chris, “Moral Relativism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2012/entries/moral-relativism/.
5 “Faculty: Cheryl Bear Barnetson,” Regent College, 21 Feb. 2016, http://www.regent-college.edu/faculty/faculty-associates/cheryl-bear.
6 Mendoza, Gian-Paolo, “In Canada, Aboriginal Pastors Mix Christianity with Native Spirituality,” Al Jazeera America, 21 Feb. 2016, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/5/14/in-canada-aboriginal-pastors-turn-to-christianity.html.
10 “First Encounters: Native Americans and Christians,” The Pluralism Project, Harvard University, 21 Feb. 2016, http://www.pluralism.org/encounter/history.
11 Romans 2:13-16.
12 Acts 17: 24-27.