Culture and Faith.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the affect that culture has on faith.  It seems impossible to divide the two with any cleanness.  Why?  We are human.  While we may conceptually believe that there is one fundamental, immutable, unchangeable truth and that God is the embodiment of that absolute, how can we ever fully understand it?  We do not have divine minds.  We have human minds, and inevitably any taste of the absoluteness of God’s nature we have, we interpret through fallible brains.  We judge and mold our faith based off of what we feel is right, a feeling that is the culmination of what we’ve experienced.  Our experiences, those things that mold our understanding, are basely human and only remotely touched by holiness.

If you doubt for a moment that is true, just consider the Bible.  In Biblical times if a woman was raped but didn’t scream, she should be stoned.  It’s what the Bible demands.  Do you feel like that is right?  If a man punched a pregnant woman in the stomach and she miscarried as a result, she should be paid a pittance.  Yet today people will cry out that fetuses are human life as valuable as the born- if God feels that abortion is murder, should abortion by violence really be something that one can pay off with shekels?  Why would God say that it is?

It goes beyond that.  There’s also the fact that so many of the fathers of the faith, so to speak, had multiple wives and concubines.  Jacob’s marriage to both Leah and Rachel is often preached as a sermon on the value of faith and persistence, with the fact that he favored Rachel’s bed to the detriment of Leah and her just inheritance is glossed over.  There’s David, the man after God’s heart, who had how many wives and concubines?  Of course he took Bathsheba wrongly but the Bible is clear that his sin wasn’t marrying one woman too many- it was coveting what rightly belongs to someone else and murdering to get it.  Solomon, the wisest of all kings, had so many wives and concubines he couldn’t have slept with each more than two times in a year.  Yet how do we interpret all of that in light of this current day’s conviction that God intended for marriage to be between one man and one woman?

The truth is, we simply ignore the history that is there and rewrite it.  The idea that marriage should only be between one man and one woman is one that evolved as a response to cultural pressures.  If you married your daughter off to a wealthy man to ensure your family’s inheritance, you wouldn’t want that being fudged up by his later picking a superior mate and bequeathing that inheritance to her spawn instead of yours.  Polygamy died out not because God gave a new word, but because people rationally decided it isn’t a sustainable social system.  Nowhere in the Bible does God say, “one man, one woman.”    He says for this reason a man leaves the home of his parents and becomes one flesh with his wife, but that isn’t a statement of doctrine, it’s a euphemism for sex.  Clearly the people that wrote that part of the Bible didn’t interpret it as “one man, one woman” or they wouldn’t have praised Solomon for marrying more women than he could bed.  Besides the fact that if bucking that law leads to the deterioration of society and God revoking his blessing, why would God have so blessed Jacob?  Solomon?  The myriad of men who kept harems of wives and lovers?  It simply does not stand up under sustained thought, and that isn’t the only place where people start to mold faith to culture.  It’s just one that really stands out in my mind.

I think about these things a lot, because when I start to question why God gave the directives he did I start to question how I dress, feed, and raise my family.  I start to feel like prepackaged foods aren’t “clean” or worthy of my consumption, I start to feel like if God laid out the Levitical code today he’d condemn clothes made out of cheap materials in sweat shops.  I start to wonder about a lot of other things, too.

My point is that we can’t just blurt out what we “sense” is true about our faith without applying history, knowledge of culture, and the caveats of our own fallibility.  After all, we don’t know what God said, we know what people interpreted Him as having said.  Yes, we have the Bible.  That doesn’t mean that we understand it.

We interpret it.

And we, as humans, often only interpret what we want to hear.

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6 thoughts on “Culture and Faith.

    • I think the important thing is to decide what is or isn’t absolutely fundamental and undeniable- for me it hinges on understanding that God is love, and expressing that love in honor of Christ’s sacrifice. I figure I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to understand how to do that well, and if that’s all I ever work on I’m okay with that.

      Thanks for commenting!

      • Absolutely, I don’t understand this fear of commenting so many people have. Ya read it, ya think something. Lol. Anyway, That’s beautiful. I was just thinking about that the other day myself. How can I do more – now? It’s a wonderful idea I think, because God has already done so much for us.

  1. I love that guy’s ‘year of living biblically’. Good GOD, i had no idea how many directives there are the Bible!

    Someone once said (was it you?) that the Bible was the personal development/health/lifestyle hacking book of its time.

    • That sounds like something I would say. The Old Testament is kind of split between telling a story and kind of giving step by step instructions on how to make friends and get ahead in a nomadic culture. I mean, clearly, those step by step instructions only work in today’s society if we want to be nomadic, or living under the Roman heel, or… you get the point. Critical thinking is kind of necessary, or at the very least admitting that if we accept the Bible in an “as is” condition to be digested directly we’re all flipping hypocrites.

  2. The religion/culture question is a vexing one. We confront it in Mormonism all the time. There are a lot of members in Utah, so religion and culture are heavily tangled, and very problematic, but here in California, where we are a minority, there is a stronger divide between religion, because it is our faith that makes us weird, and sets us apart from the culture around us.

    This does not free us from the problem however, it just changes the nature of the problem. Instead of having to untangle our beliefs from the outside culture, we are forced to differentiate within the faith between that which has a doctrinal basis, and that which has been done for the sake of tradition.

    And of course, we are all affected by how “outside culture” affects our interpretation of doctrine. I served a two-year mission in central Brazil, where extreme Protestants forbid the women in their congregations from wearing pants. One of the attractions of our faith down there is that we hold no particular restrictions, asking instead that one come in the best clothes they can, out of respect for God. Hence it is not at all uncommon to see Brazilian sisters come to church in their best Jeans and flip-flops. People in Utah (and California) would likely catch a case of the vapors from such a dress code. In the end though, their reverence and desire for worship is no less (and sometimes far more fervent).

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