Owls. That's right. Owls. In particular, the so-called "Lesson of the Owl." My first semester of study at Concordia University Irvine featured a class with Dr. Jack Schultz, Professor of Anthropology.
In that first class, Dr. Schultz introduced me to the field of anthropology via "The Lesson of the Owl." In a word, just as every trait of an owl is part of an integrated whole, so too various cultural aspects are all interrelated. Individual aspects must be studied as part of a system, an integrated whole. That insight, and that class, prompted me toward the career path I am currently on, seeking to become an ethnographer of religion studying global Islam and religion in the Americas (I am happy to note that I won the prestigious "New Anthropologist Award" in that class...I'm tempted to put it on my CV).
Dr. Schultz continues to inform my approach to theology, religion, and culture and a recent work of his published in the journal Missio Apostolica addresses how we can properly distinguish between cultural variables and the constants of theology. Rather than trying to explain and dissect the article I invited Dr. Schultz to talk to us about his work and provide further insight. Here is our conversation, in full:
Tell us a bit about who you are Dr. Schultz:
I grew up in the LCMS and I have been Christian as long as I’ve known I’ve been anything. I am contemplative, reflective, and a believer in our Risen Lord. I know him as living, and interested in our lives. He is not some relic fixed in the pages of Scripture, but “all things were created through him and for him…and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17). He desires to be known, and not just by me and “us.”
I’ve met Christian people from many different cultures attempting to live faithfully as I am. I can’t help but take their approach seriously and to recognize that they understand and act much differently than I do. When in dialogue with “others” (those who are from different cultures than oneself; those who may be identified as “them”) it becomes apparent how “cultured” we all are—particularly in matters of our faith. If one dialogues only with those who share one’s assumptions (those who may be identified as “us”) it is easily concluded that “it’s just common sense,” “we’re just regular, they have culture.” I seek the truth about life and meaning. I know that Truth is primarily a person, our Lord. I am regularly in conversation with others who are also interested in Truth, and I want to know how they understand.
Give us a short synopsis of your paper, specifically this element of approaching the “proper division” of theology and culture:
“Proper divisions” (a solidly Lutheran directive!) refers in this context to the recognition of the impact of culture on one’s understanding of theological matters. The social sciences are interested in the usually hidden forces that impact our personal and shared experiences. Much of what I do in my investigations of religion is to reveal these hidden social and cultural forces that we are all subject to, even when, and perhaps especially when, they are unacknowledged.
I have learned that many Christians believe that they are “simply doing what the Bible says” and are not aware of how their time and place (read: culture) affects (and effects) their understanding and practice. It seems that only when one becomes aware of how differently others (in their time and place) understand and practice their faith that one begins to appreciate how much influence culture has in the experience of an individual. An honest investigation of the proper division requires that both theology and culture be taken seriously. LCMS Christians have historically taken the theology seriously, but often at the expense of appreciating the impact of culture. And if one takes only culture seriously one will likely so relativize the content to make it meaningless. It is required that both theology and culture be taken seriously and that the tensions between the two are addressed rather than ignored or denied. And recognizing and addressing the power of culture to shape assumptions is an ongoing task, not done once and settled. As culture continues to shift its assumptions (whether that be the acceptance of life insurance, women voting, divorce and remarriage, or gay identity), theology must respond with a careful reexamination of the unchanging Scriptures to correct or concede the assumptions.
I’ve been in conversation with some of our theologians regarding the “translation” of cultural practices. I think, that in general, we’re very comfortable translating the gospel and Scriptures into vernacular. And I think that most theologians are comfortable admitting that translation is always interpretation. When translating biblical texts it must be asked, What is the essential meaning of a statement? How can that meaning be conveyed in this other language? What of that statement is secondary, or irrelevant? How do I decide? We have, however, much disagreement and difficulty translating practices. Are Paul’s directives about women covering their heads (1 Cor. 11:13), greeting each other with a holy kiss (2 Cor. 13:12), and lifting holy hands in prayer (1 Tim. 2:8) only cultural, and therefore not normative for the Church today? We appear to have concluded that these are cultural and not normative for us. Was Paul addressing contextual issues that are irrelevant outside that situation? But how do we know? How do we know which are “only cultural” and may be dismissed, and which ones are binding for all and always? What gives us the confidence to say that? And how are we so confident to reject those practices but not to extend it to other practices? I am less interested in determining which are cultural than I am in understanding how those determinations are made.
Let me provide an example, to be understood heuristically, with no implication that I am suggesting we alter a practice but to see this as indicative of what I am positing: What is the “bread and wine” of the Eucharist? Must it be wheat and grapes, or, could it be translated into the cultural vernacular of the indigenous community? Might we use rice and sake, or tortillas and pulque, or flatbread and fig juice? Would the sacrament become a more, or less, meaningful communion if local bread and beverage were served? Might other local symbolisms be drawn on to effectively mediate the Real Presence of our Lord at the meal? What is the essential “this” in the “do this in remembrance of me?” Some theologians I’ve spoken with insist that we use only unleavened wheat bread and grape wine, because, “that’s what Jesus used” when he instituted the holy meal. And certainly that is a significant distinction to make. However, what some theologians have difficulty seeing is that the flattened, pressed, coin-shaped wafer common at our altars today is not what Jesus used. It may be reasoned that the “what Jesus used” that we must is wheat (although I’ve heard it observed that the unleavened bread of Passover was barley and not wheat at all). Or are other grains equally useful for bread? Will our Lord not be present if the grain is “not authentic?” What is accepted as “authentic?” Must the grain be an heirloom variety? Can it be a GMO? What are we willing to insist or accept as “the same thing?” What is not? And how do we know where to draw the line, and who gets to draw it? Should we use only Aramaic and Hebrew in our divine services because “that’s what Jesus used?” Should we wear the clothing, live in the dwellings, fulfill the expected gender roles, and make our livelihood only in the occupations of first century Palestine? While I am using a rather extreme example here, the issues and questions are being experienced in our congregations in decisions made regarding worship style, the role of women, and how to minister to gay and lesbian people. And I reiterate, I am less interested in where the line is drawn than I am in understanding how it is drawn and by which processes? Such determinations are being made but in a way that is invisible to most of us.
It is a very difficult thing to “properly divide.” If it seems easy to you, I would argue it’s because you don’t realize how many cultural assumptions you’ve accepted as “simply doing what the Bible says.” I have come to see that people will readily acknowledge that culture profoundly influences a person, but they are unwilling, or more usually unable, to see how it profoundly influences oneself. It is easy to see how culture affects the other—with all their ways of dressing, and eating, and praying. It seems that we are “just regular, they’re the ones with culture.”
You discuss the process of walking together and negotiating the process of cultural and religious reinterpretation as a congregation, or wider church body. Tell us more about this. Could you give an example?
As a synod, we choose to “walk together.” We are like-minded and like-behaving. There are other “walkers” who we could choose to walk with, but do we want to include them in our circle? Should we emphasize the similarities or the differences in our beliefs and behaviors? How much variation can we tolerate? When one concludes that we are “simply doing what the Bible says,” it is much more difficult to tolerate diversity. What is essential? What is adiaphora? What is negotiable? These are all easy to answer when you talk only to like-minded people. It gets to be much more difficult when talking to people who do not begin with your assumptions. And keep in mind I am speaking about other Christians only: those who accept fully the authority of Scriptures, who are fully committed to the divinity and Lordship of Christ, those who are trying to be faithful, honest, and striving to follow where the Spirit leads. Unfortunately, some of us would rather be confident than faithful.
Just how big is the body of Christ? Who can we recognize as “one of us?” “The eye cannot say to hand, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Cor. 12:21). Our Lord loves others as much as he does us. His Spirit seeks them as it does us. Faithful people respond to the Spirit’s calling in many remarkable ways. I am uncomfortable in immediately dismissing these responses as inauthentic or heretical. I know that I have cultural accretions that adhere to my faith expression: Christmas trees, Easter eggs, vestments, pipe organs, voter’s assemblies, leadership elections, and hymnals to name a few. I know they are not essential, but they are part of my expression. Can’t we allow others to bring with them their foods, clothes, and language? Which other non-biblical (although not anti-biblical) ideas or practices might be allowed? And who gets to decide?
When did you come to start thinking about this topic? Was it a particular moment or experience?
I have been exposed to “others” for most of my life. I am enough of an outsider that I can see alternatives. That, with my natural “religious orientation” places me in the theology and culture confluence. I began writing and speaking about the topic in 1995.
Why is this issue relevant for the church in the U.S. today? Global Christianity?
A major problem for many Christians is their assumption that they are “simply doing what the Bible says.” Consider that virtually any Christian denomination which accepts the authority of Scripture includes in their official self-description some statement to the effect that “we’re doing and believing only what the Bible says,” and even a cursory investigation shows how varied and contradictory these statements are when compared with each other. We are often blind to the social-cultural and therefore unaware of how cultural assumptions are brought in to our read of the unchanging texts of Scripture. Choices are being made. Interpretations are understood as simple translation.
Consider also that American churches, as human institutions, have agendas (or at least franchises) to maintain. These very human elements can prevent us from seeing the bigger, more important issues of what the Church should be about. A bit of humility is required. Certainty can easily be mistaken for faith. It is not certainty of doctrine that make a Christian; it is rather a faith relationship with the living Lord. It is the person Christ who knows us that make us Christian, not a list of doctrinal positions. The form our faith takes as it is expressed is contextual and subject to variation; the One we have faith in, however, is not.
How do you balance being an insider as you consider the Christian church (and specifically the LCMS) from the perspective of anthropology?
Achieving balance is an ongoing process. I do it better at times. I think it is because I recognize the limits of both approaches that I can remain in flux (the movement that is required to maintain balance). One never fully realizes the full impact of culture. I am continually surprised by the influence of culture, even in a life of investigating culture professionally for over 25 years. My non-Christian anthropology colleagues suspect me as a Christian apologist; some of my theology colleagues fear I’m leading to the abyss of relativism. I’m doing neither. I’m attempting to understand the influence of culture on an expression of faith.
What is your fundamental understanding of religion and culture, the roles they play? Are they one-in-the-same? Are they in conflict? What’s the relationship between the two?
Religion and culture are not one-in-the-same; however, they are always coincident. It’s like thought and language—they are always found together and one always shapes the other. A useful way to understand the concept of culture is to think of it as a context. Is it possible to have an experience without a context? And certainly, the context will shape the experience. How does the context (which is ever changing) shape the experience of religion (or faith, for that matter)? I don’t think it’s helpful to position the two as in conflict. The context limits and allows, but it doesn’t determine.
How could an individual reader, who we assume is not reading this blog in a small or large group setting, start the process or learn more along these lines?
There is a kind of consciousness (or, C. Wright Mills’ “sociological imagination”) that is required to see the social/cultural. I’m coming to the regrettable conclusion that there are some people who will go through their life not being able to see it. Remember from your intro to psychology days where you learned about the concrete and abstract stages of development. Here you learned that it is impossible to think abstractly when in the concrete stage (e.g., How can a dime be the same as 10 pennies; or one quarter be more than 20 pennies?). Trying to explain to a person the influence that culture holds over the person is equally difficult to communicate to the one without the consciousness.
Americans, in general, have an, even if underdeveloped, psychological consciousness of some of the psychological forces that affect individuals (such as the hidden force of the “unconscious”), but we fail to grasp how being “white, twenty-first-century-American, middle-class, conservative, and male” shape and limit our assumptions, values, and choices. We just don’t have a very good appreciation for the social-cultural. This generalization also applies to the Christian church in America. The church would do well to investigate the social-cultural. There are methods and theories that might be applied to assist the church in its various ministries. But there is a distrust of the social sciences (and there are plenty of misuses of these disciplines to justify the mistrust) that prevent its beneficial application by believers in service of our Lord.
*Thank you to Dr. Schultz for this robust interview. If you'd like to learn more about religion, theology, & culture, follow @kchitwood on Twitter for more interviews, articles, and blogs on the topic.