Friday, 28 April 2017

‘Blinded by Culture’: Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ (part eight)

It is often difficult for us to know when points of disagreement and conflict are actually no more than escalated cultural threats. Christena Cleveland has already noted how groups, including groups within churches, compete for scarce resources, feel endangered and confused by ambiguity, and fear negative consequences. In this eighth chapter of Disunity in Christ, Cleveland looks at how our cultural perspectives tend to reinforce the so-called gold standard effect, where we believe that our group is superior to their group.

Cleveland notes that ‘it is easy for us to . . . confuse culturally based faith perspectives and traditions with universal Christian truth.’ (p. 139). So, to continue using models of atonement as a working example, we need to ask how far our championing of any particular model of atonement is prompted by the theological culture to which we belong. We might hold to penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) as the only or the main way to understand Christ’s death, for example, because we are firmly embedded in a Reformed theological culture. Or we might promote Christus Victor because it resonates with our theological culture’s emphasis on spiritual warfare as an undeniable reality. The issue here is not so much that either of these models is wrong in and of itself, but that our defence or advocacy of any one model of atonement is likely based not so much on its adequacy as a faithful interpretation of particular biblical texts, but on our theological–cultural appropriation of its adequacy. Put more simply, if you sing and hear about PSA every week in a church service, I think it’s quite likely that your understanding of atonement with be or resemble PSA—and this suggests that your theology and your culture are more entangled than you suppose.

Cleveland suggests two reasons for why this happens. First, religion and culture are similar; they both contain the same sorts of dynamics and are therefore difficult to separate. And secondly, our cultural tools (things such as language and our social roles) are transferrable from context to context and so will inevitably shape our religious beliefs and practices:

For example, a person who is raised in a reserved and unemotional culture will automatically prefer worship practices that are reserved and unemotional, and avoid more exuberant or demonstrative practices. And due to the invisible nature of culture, this person can easily be influenced by culture without even knowing it. It’s so easy to see how their culture is influencing them, but it’s pretty difficult to see how our culture is influencing us. Culture is our modus operandi—anyone tracking us can see the cultural fingerprints that mark our religious beliefs and practices, but we lack the awareness to see it ourselves. All the more reason to develop crosscultural relationships with people who don’t share our blind spots and can offer much-needed perspective on our culture. (p. 143, italics original).

Yummy . . . a fine English tradition!
I’m not entirely persuaded of the minutiae of what Cleveland says here—the English are traditionally and stereotypically ‘reserved and unemotional’, but many culturally English Christians are nonetheless ‘exuberant [and] demonstrative’ charismatics. Much depends on precisely what she has in mind when she refers to ‘a reserved and unemotional culture’. But her overall point, I think, is sound. Our cultures shape our worship practices and theological stances. To change the example from atonement to worship songs, we might presume that most hymns are theologically robust and that many modern choruses are vapid, at least by comparison. But how far is this presumption already shaped by a particular ecclesial culture? How far does extensive exposure to traditional hymns alone form our future practices? Will I embrace newer songs and choruses? Or will I simply dismiss them out of hand? Similarly, how should hymns be introduced to a congregation more used to singing the latest worship choruses? Does the existing ecclesial culture predispose the congregation towards updating the hymns, either lyrically or musically, for relevance? Or can traditional organ-led hymnody find a home among the modern worship band? I know that traditional and modern can and do kiss: I recall an instance not so many years ago of receiving bread and wine in a Church of England service where the selected Eucharistic Prayer’s Sanctus (‘Holy, holy, holy . . .’) was actually a modern chorus being used to excellent effect. Here, arguably two ecclesial cultures—traditional liturgy and modern worship sensibilities—met in unity.

But the question about how our ecclesial cultures incline us towards certain approaches and stances remains. The danger here for Christians comes when (a) we confuse Christian faith with our culture and (b) when we believe our particular culture is superior to all others. This happens, for example, when charismatics believe they are more open to the Spirit or ‘freer’ than traditionalists, or when conservatives claim to be more ‘biblical’ than liberals—or, more sinisterly, when one nation seeks to impose its cultural values on another nation, or on groups within the nation itself, as Christian truth. All these are instances of cultural idolatry.

One of the more important cultural shapings the global Church has to contend with comes from the (generalised) differences between the individualistic West and the collectivistic East. Individualism has arisen in the West during the last few hundred years due to the increasing prioritisation of personal religious experience; Eastern cultures continue to prize and seek the social good. These cultural stances lead to different liturgical and devotional practices: Christians in the West, for example, are more likely to miss the value that comes through, say, confessing sins and receiving absolution from a minister each week in a church service than Christians in the East, or Christians whose faith is consciously shaped by episcopal traditions stretching back through time and space. But the difference between individualism and collectivism also shows deeper and wider dynamics at work:

Differences in individualism and collectivism easily come up when different cultural groups discuss the past injustices that one group’s ancestors heaped on the other group’s ancestors. The Christian from the collectivist culture often says, “Your people did this to my people,” whereas the Christian from the individualist culture often responds with, “I’m not responsible for what my grandparents did.” The collectivist’s socially oriented faith includes the possibility of social guilt and requires that individuals who are connected to oppressors be responsible for sins of oppression. However, the individualist’s individual faith only knows individual guilt and is offended by the idea that one person can be held responsible for another person’s actions. (p. 146).

Both stances are correct according to a particular cultural formation. But Cleveland argues that each needs the other to come to a fuller appreciation of reality in which genuine reconciliation can take place. ‘Without this mutual openness and understanding, the cultural disagreement will be perceived as a realistic conflict that further divides different cultural groups in the church.’ (p. 147). Once more, Cleveland suggests that recognition of a wider group identity—in the Church’s case, its identity in Christ—is the first step towards real reconciliation.

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