God and Culture

Article by Daniel Parirenyatwa

God and Culture Introduction:

“Culture is defined as ideas that form a way of life for a group of people, and it is the human way of adapting to the environment,”(1988;p46). It is indeed true that culture is a set of ideas that form a way of life. As a group of people meet with questions in life it is inevitable that they formulate answers for these questions. The answers they give for the questions of life and the world around us are largely shaped and determined by their worldview. These formulations form a large part of what is called culture. This culture sets out norms, beliefs, values, mores and laws that influence the behavioral pattern of that particular community. Thus the behavior of human beings should be understood in the context of their culture, there is no human being not intricately embedded in his or her culture. All humanity is inextricably immersed in their culture despite the plurality of culture in the world. Humanity is culture bound. We seek therefore to understand this relationship and search for the freedom from culture gained by our relationship to God, who is above culture, and humans who are culture bound. How then does God relate to humans in culture, how does He react to culture? As C Kraft puts it “how God in His interactions with human beings relates to the cultures I which they are immersed,” and how we as humans perceive of God in Culture.

God and the Origins of Culture.

Like many ancient phenomenon culture is particularly difficult to trace its origins. Theology, anthropology and sociology cannot conclusively demarcate the origin of culture and the existence of humanity. It is apparent that culture has been part of human existence as far back as they can trace that particular existence. The relationship between God and the origins of culture is therefore, or can be deduced to be that God doe’s play a significant role in that He created humans with the ability to produce culture. There is also a clear necessity for culture for human beings are not able to function properly without governing laws of behavior. Thus God is involved in the production of culture but as R Niebuhr asserts “culture is human achievement. Culture is the work of man’s minds and hands.” because culture does not commence from above nor is it derived from a theology, it is ultimately an ideology, a human achievement.

God and Culture.

“Both in history and in a Christian’s individual life, there is no single response to culture”(1995;p278). Atkinson and Field, in approaching the subject of the relationship between God and human culture rightly assert that there is a large diversity in the responses to the issue. There is a plurality of answers rendered to formulate the relationship between God and culture, some of which are fallacies, some containing more truth than others. We can never truly come to a point of total agreement on the nature of this relationship (largely because it is also tied to our relationship with God as individuals) but we will look at some of these responses.

God against Culture.

This viewpoint renders culture as totally evil and that God is against culture. It sees God as in opposition of culture and demands of its followers to oppose culture in all its forms. Hostility between culture and Christians is encouraged. In this approach culture is constantly associated with the world. Scriptures such as 1 John 2 vs. 15-16 and 5 vs. 19 are used as proof texts to indicate that Christians are to distance themselves from ‘the world’ (culture) and are to try and escape it for it is under the sway of the evil one. This approach therefore propagates for a withdrawal from culture and discourages engagement, it taunts with ideas of isolationism and escapism seeking to create a culture-free Christianity. But as Atkinson and Field point out ” the is no such thing as culture-less Christianity”(1995; p278). Human beings remain inextricably culture bound. Therefore this approach has shortcomings. Firstly it makes the mistake of equating the concept culture with only the negative use of the Greek word ‘Kosmos’ in the New Testament. It takes no cognizance of the fact that the word has positive connotations as well as seen in John 3 vs. 16 where John uses the same word to indicate an object of Gods love. Secondly the God against culture position makes an invalid presumption that culture is an external concept therefore human beings can in some way escape from it. Culture is a way of life that is inherent to human existence, it is not external, but has its formulation intrinsically in what is humanity. Thirdly they make the mistaken postulate that all culture is evil. Black Theology is quick here to denounce this as a fallacy. J de Gruchy and C Villa Vicencio assert,’ ‘Much of that culture has been suppressed in favor of European culture .’ in the African context.(1994;p179) they attribute this suppression to the view that African culture is evil and should be disposed of and argue rather that culture is not evil but rather the use of cultural forms. They go on to say ‘culture had become an instrument of domination, what Steve Biko called an arrested view of culture’ and believe that the use of culture today by social forces is evil and not the culture itself, the culture has just been arrested. Finally it is important to note that no matter how hard they pursue the fallacy of escapism the proponents of this view, God against culture, remain consciously or unconsciously culture bound.

God in Culture

The second position of a God in culture philosophy advocates that God is contained in or endorses one particular culture. This approach seeks to propagate a supreme culture that God has ordained for humanity, this culture could be the Hebraic culture of the Old Testament, the culture of Islam, western civilization or a Christian culture that God is gradually setting up. This is probably the approach of a multitude of missions, religions and political entities. They set out to convert other societies to Christ or their religion and in turn to the accompanying culture. Christianity came to Africa in western wrappings and attempted to stamp out the African cultures like an illegitimate fire. Indigenous peoples were warned that their culture was evil and that to be Christian one had to be liberated from their culture. This resulted in the crystallization of a particular culture as an absolute for all. Some have tampered this notion down after the upheavals that follow this trend of thinking and have now sauntered in with the notion that ‘certain cultural forms allow for greater Christian use’ this again is just another fallacy that leads us to the same results. Every culture has been formulated under different circumstances answering different questions and each culture has had to deal adequately with these. It follows religion and Christianity has to answer the same questions and these questions differ with context, thus there is no cultural form that can be wholly transposed to each differing context and be better suited for Christian use in differing contexts, it is the challenge of the missions office to relate the gospel in any given culture understanding the questions that brought about the dominant culture and realizing that Christianity needs to use the established cultural forms to re-answer these questions in light of the gospel.

God above Culture

There are particular positions in this theory that are of interest to us. Firstly is the theory of the deists. In this position God is held as sovereign and supreme and stress is on this supremacy of God above and beyond His creation. Consequently this approach asserts that God is totally above culture and that He is uninvolved and unconcerned about human culture. It seeks to extract God from this sinful world because of His holiness and deny humanity interaction with Him through culture.A second possibility is the approach of theologians such as Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria and Thomas Aquinas who held to a view that has come to be known as synthesis. Synthesis hold that God

Daniel Parirenyatwa Senior Pastor RFWCBorrowdale, Zimbabwerfwcentre.org

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