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Culture and faith

The debate about the influence of what is termed culture on faith lies behind most conflict in the contemporary Western Church. Of course it all depends on how one defines “culture” and how one defines “faith.” Too often the debate is termed in simplistic and broad-brushed terms and inevitably in a blog one is inevitably drawn into that simplistic approach. No doubt when it comes to simplistic statements I’m well prepared for such engagement. I will now prove myself guilty.

Progressives, by their very title, readily assume that contemporary culture is moving in the right direction. A belief in the necessary triumph of progress assumes an ascent of humanity from darkness into light and justifies such a belief by developments in knowledge in a wide area of disciplines from science to social interaction. Phrases like social enlightenment trip easily off the tongue. Of course a belief in social progress means societal culture in an exclusive manner. To progressives, culture means the cultural norms which shape their opinions and exclude what conservatives mean by cultural norms. Progressives denounce the cultures which shape the thoughts and norms assumed by the Right and of course the religious Right.

Over against such a basic worldview, religious and social conservatives, particularly in America, the Right asserts its own cultural norms assumed by conservative faith communities as being both religious and national. One sees this clearly in conflicting views about the right to own weapons. It is obviously well nigh impossible to discuss gun control when one side sees the unlimited right to own weapons as a quasi-religious right, enshrined in what is assumed to be a poitical right contained in an article of the Constitution in itself devoutly believed to be to a great extent Christian and enlightened and the other sees such a right to be a manifestation of an outdated and regressive principle out of tune with progressive thought.

In such a debate one witnesses the clash between two cultures, each eager to lay claim to represent enlightenment. Both sides, if they are “religious,” assert that their position represents what God has in mind for a world possessed by truth, even if by “world” is meant North American claims to cultural exceptionalism over against the cultures present elsewhere in the world. The debate between Left and Right is parochial and nationalistic. Both tend to rely on an uncritical assessment of the culture embraced, and attribute to their culture a definitive position on religious faith and practice. Oddly both anchor their national views in Enlightenment thought. In short hand, the principles espoused originate in the social and religious philosophies of the followers of John Locke and the primacy of individual conscience over against the doctrines and morals once believed to be the corporate function of the church’s right to assert a corpus of doctrine and of how those doctrines assert themselves in the manner of life adopted by people of Faith.

Christianity developed initially in the lives of those who renounced their former cultures and national identities. Such a renunciation is discovered formidably in the promises made at Baptism, formulae which included a rigid renunciation of all a convert experienced not only in terms of theology, but in the manner the convert would henceforth live life. To be a Christian involved a drastic abandonment of all the convert held dear. After AD 50, this meant for the Jew expulsion from Judaism, its ceremonial and purification rites and ceremonies. Like it or not, once Christianity obliged the Jew to associate with Gentiles in sacrament and fellowship, the break was final and abrupt and those who continued to attempt to remain Jews and Christians followed a path which led to exclusion, even from the Faith they sought to follow. They lost not only ritual purity but membership in their racial heritage.

Gentile converts faced a similar transformative experience. They became separated from the rituals of hearth and home, of temples, lifestyle and the very manner in which they framed their conduct. One cannot read Acts and the Epistles and the emergence of the Gospels without finding oneself in a world in which Jewish and Gentile converts struggled to belong to something utterly outside their experience. For the Gentile convert this would bring believers into conflict with the Empire. They were persecuted by the Imperial authority not so much because they believed in Jesus the Christ as a personal religion but because their religion was believed to assault the very foundations of Roman/Greek culture. Proclaiming “Jesus is Lord” whether the convert was Jewish or Gentile was believed to be a rival cultural expression at war with what right-thinking people assumed as axiomatic. One could no longer be regarded as Jew or a Gentile with odd religious beliefs but part of culture.

There’s much talk nowadays about the heritage of a post-Constantine church, in which belonging to the prevailing culture and being a Christian merged. Certainly many in the post Constantine Church viewed mass conversions as a betrayal of the uniqueness of Christian Faith. Both the emergence of monasticism, in the Desert Fathers and mothers, and later attempts of the papacy to claim assert authority over Emperors and Kings involved a reaction against the submergence of Christendom to contemporary culture. By 1000AD in most parts of Christendom it was possible to believe that Faith and culture were intimately interlocked. There were, in short, no peoples to be evangelized. Christianity triumphed. The theory of a Christian nation reigned supreme. Baptismal promises, retained from the days of the Church’s emergence, remained embedded in the liturgies, but in practice they came to mean simply a desire to be good and to be good citizens. One sees this clearly in the Catechism devised by the English Church after the Reformation, which spends a great deal of space about honoring and obeying the monarch and a hierarchy of authority figures including not only parents, but teachers, clergy and “masters.”

The collapse of unitary Christendom in the West called for a new assessment of religious duty. Locke, for instance was formed in the confusion of Cromwellian England with its explosion of sects and a governmental attempt to impose a system of morality over and above the conflicting claims of the sects. Republicanism in England involved a turn from obedience to either Monarch or Church and people like Locke proposed a shift of obedience from King, Church and obedience to religious norms to that of the authority of enlightened personal conscience. At first this challenged the right of the church and its ministers to teach with authority and perform transformative sacramental actions. It did propose the idea that enlightened people were capable of constructing a national form of government, hedged about with guarantees of the liberty of the citizen and the freedom of the citizen to formulate personal belief. Thus the State existed to protect such liberties and to oppose the power of elites, whether national or religious to intrude in personal freedom. Christendom collapsed. Becoming a Christian involved no longer a renunciation of “the world, the flesh and the devil” but was rather a personal action of someone to adopt a form of religious life which had no real bearing on society other than a commitment to a voluntary form of living or “morality.”

If there was to be an Established Church, as in England, this “Whig” principle thought of the church as an adjunct of the State, a force for good and moral improvement —18th-century Whigs were much into moral improvement. America is the heir of this enlightened, progressive Whig philosophy, devoid of establishmentarianism, and of a view that enlightened humans, as individuals possess an internal moral compass which needs no assertive or exclusive religious component. The churches had their separate role and were free to frame the “religious” lives and morality of their members as long as they made no claim to possess an authority based on an apostolic authority with exclusive claims on culture and society. Americans still worry that a Roman Catholic, or Muslim or Mormon President might be conflicted in his or her approach to the American Constitution. While this concern is of lesser impact than it was fifty years ago, a demonstration of how deeply the idea that religion is optional and personal and thus of no threat to anyone is now centered, those who voice concerns about the religious views of the Chief Magistrate represent surviving segments of a belief that liberty is described and limited by some form of external religious authority, whether Roman Catholic, Evangelical, Mormon or Muslim.

This development in culture and its norms presents extraordinary dilemmas for Christians. Is “culture” the primary locus of progress? In what manner does being a Christian demand a renunciation of the world views and ways of life practiced in general in contemporary culture? In a post Christian world, at least in the West, where does a Christian locate primary allegiance and at what cost? These questions and many more lie at the root of our internal Christian conflict. It is clear that the religious Right and Left are both in their own way formed and shaped by Locke’s philosophy and a Whig approach to human conscience and behavior. Perhaps Right and Left in the church would benefit from a common study of their roots and a re-evaluation of the otherness of the church placed firmly in the world but not of the world.


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