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?