I had the great pleasure this evening of taking things very slow. Having spent the entire afternoon by myself, re-fueling in a way I haven’t gotten to in weeks, I went through two cups of maté (at my usual pace of around one an hour) and sat down to finalize a rather complicated draft of a presentation I was to be giving with some friends the next Friday.
The presentation? How God makes himself known to every culture.
I remember having taken up the project with a gung-ho attitude not out of character in the slightest. Of course I’d be willing to do that—and to plan a large-group event at the same time? Sure! That’s one of my greatest strengths, not to mention something I enjoy tremendously. When I set to it with a friend of mine, it hardly felt like work. She and I exhausted five hours of planning like it had been thirty minutes, devising ways to demonstrate examples of exactly this: how some understanding of our God is present in every culture on Earth.
Wait a minute, you say. That’s not true outside of the monotheistic religions—all of these other cultures worship different gods.
I’m not going to get into my response to that now, because that’s not why I’m writing. If you want to know my answer, come to the North Village Community Center at 7:00 on the evening of Friday the 26th. What I’m going to talk about is what happened while I was finalizing the schedule for that event.
It took a solid six days for me to develop any doubts about what we were doing. When I finally did, they all came at once, very much taking the form of an assault. This looks exactly like Ugly American Syndrome transposed into the Christian walk, I thought to myself. How easy would it be to construe this such that it looks like we’re picking and choosing from the myths, legends, and faiths of other cultures to make it fit the “Christian mold?” As I took my mug out to the kitchen to re-fill it, I felt very disheartened. There was something so disingenuous, so irreverent-seeming, about this great, crazy plan of ours that I wondered if there was a way to put a stop to it.
Then, I heard a little voice: “These doubts are from the Enemy.”
I wanted to pay attention to the little voice, I really did. I walked out into the living room and through to my room, grabbing my yoga mat and laying it out. I flipped on the soundtrack I always play when I do yoga and got ready to do my breathing exercises; about halfway through my first vinyasa, it hit me.
Yesterday, during a long conversation with a friend, we drifted toward talking about culture; “I don’t think culture is as important as most people think it is,” I said.
This had been a thought I’ve been entertaining for a while. Irony of ironies: the event I’d spent the entire afternoon planning was for an organization that is intentionally multicultural, the theme of the evening being the very loose guiding framework of multiculturalism. In the course of defining what exactly that was, my partner and I had made the conscious decision to go about structuring the evening under the principle of demonstrating the way God makes himself known in every culture. Culture, culture, culture. Everywhere. What is culture? Mental software, thank you Sam Huntington.
I face the door when I do yoga. On my door is a map of Argentina; scattered about my room are various short stories and books by Russian writers. What do these places have in common? They’re all post-cultural. So is my upbringing.
Midway through my first vinyasa, it hit me that I, a Judeo-Slavic-Germano-Filipina American, was doing yoga in Waco, Texas, clear across the world from the place it originated. I’d warmed myself up that afternoon with two cups of maté, which is native to the Southern Cone. What does it mean that I have all of these things so accessible to me? My lifestyle goes far beyond these superficial elements but I can say with confidence it does not fit any pre-existing cultural mold. Because of this, can I really claim that I have a culture of my own?
I don’t think I can. I’ll explain.
As I was growing up, I remember feeling so awkward and left out when we had to write essays in English class about our family traditions. The reason being is I don’t have any; because my family is so mixed, I can’t claim I have a dominant cultural heritage, either. But wait, you say, you’re American! Yes, that’s true, I am. If I’m being really PC, so are people from Brazil, Honduras, and Ecuador. But even when “American” just means the United States, remember that every region of the U.S. has its own distinct flavour—because of this, I experienced a hefty dose of what most people call culture shock when I moved from Bend, Oregon to Waco, Texas. Saying America has one culture is like saying Africa is a country. So what is mine? If you were to go yourself to Bend, Oregon, you would find a lot of people with similar sorts of interests and similar sets of values to mine. Most people do things like practice yoga, frequent tea shops, and spend a lot of time outside.
Do you see what I’m getting at? Yes, I am a product of my environment. The thing is, my environment has only existed for around 100 years, not nearly enough time to develop longstanding traditions of its own. Historically speaking, my “culture” is barely a blip on the radar, and calling it a culture is a bit of a stretch. What we have is something places like Russia and parts of South America have: a proto-culture I would not hesitate to call post-cultural, if only because it is drawing from other cultures that already exist in a recombinant manner so as to create something entirely unique.
I’ve already asked the rhetorical question of “what is culture” a number of times in this post. The thing is, it’s a rhetorical question—I’m much less inclined to pose the meta-question with the same words because it’s so hard to define what culture is. What I do know is this: we, especially in a place like the United States, place a lot more significance on culture when we have to. One of the most striking things I’ve realized in my travels is that people in other parts of the world don’t care nearly as much about culture as we do—they usually just live their lives.
Part of why the concept of God meeting us human beings where we are is so shocking is because it is fundamentally a post-cultural truth. Why? There is no one correct culture. I would even go as far as to say there is no one correct religion, because religion itself is a human construct.
Please don’t get caught up in the relativistic implications of that claim. I’m in no way saying there is more than one God or more than one way to God, because both of those things are false; for the sake of clarity, there is one God, he sent his son to die for our sins, he died and rose again, and it’s through him and him alone that the rest of the world finds its way to Heaven. But in order for that to be true, do you need a religion in order to be saved, or is it enough to accept the gift of salvation through the Son?
I hope that when people come to UNITE large group on Friday, they can hear the stories being presented and take to heart that God exists in every culture. How do I know that? Well, the idea of the supernatural comes about when people have to explain phenomena they don’t understand, and the existence of a supernatural realm is a convenient and logical way in which to explain those. No, it’s not rational, because it doesn’t pertain to the real—but that’s the point. Is reality the tangible, or is there something more?
The reason I experienced doubt as I was finalizing my draft for the evening’s events and stories is that it can very easily be construed as an insensitive rendering of very distinct and unique cultures to which none of the presenters belong. I hope with all my heart that people who would criticise what we are doing look at our intentions in the process. We’re not aiming to undermine the value of other cultures—I in no way believe cultural differences are invalid simply because I believe we place too much emphasis on highlighting cultural differences. In reality, we’re all people. We were all created by the same God, a God who Romans 1 says has made himself known to all peoples of the Earth. So what if their understandings of this God don’t match our own? How could we expect them to, when many supposedly “unreached” people groups don’t have access to Bibles and have never heard the name of Jesus?
What do people in Indonesia, Croatia, or Swaziland call Jesus, anyway? I bet it’s not Jesus.
I’m not exactly sure where the American pre-occupation with culture came from. I suspect it had something to do with a burning desire to categorize and classify from which most of us seem to suffer. Upon seeing someone from another part of the world who goes about her day in a different way then we do, our inclination is to say, “oh, hey, look how different her culture is.” I wonder why that is—to her, she’s just going about her day, and more than likely she’d say we were doing the same thing. This brings me back to the matter of the little voice in my head that told me these doubts were from the enemy. By now, I hope you know my heart well enough to know I’m not setting out to undermine any one culture or the other. For one thing, I don’t value culture enough to care to do that—what matters to me are people, not culture. So, someone goes about his day differently than I do—great! Maybe I can learn something from him.
The most profound intellectual realization I’ve ever had was when I reconciled God and science. I’m comfortable saying the most profound social realization I’ve ever had was when I reconciled God and culture and realized we’re all the same, made of marrow, bones and water and blood cells. Of course the Enemy wants to undermine that: there would be no better way than to drive the appearance of a wedge between me and the rest of God’s people.
This post is riddled with a degree of vagueness I’m having trouble circumventing, mostly due to limitations built into the English language. If you’re concerned I’m off-track, let’s talk about it—perhaps I am. I know what I’m told, but whenever I’m told something, I have to understand it first, and things can get lost in that transition. But I do know this. My God, our God, is greater. He’s greater than culture, greater than any neat little packages we might try and put him in. When that becomes heart knowledge, it’s impossible not to be completely blown away.