When encountering people from other ethnic, national, or religious cultures it is easy to see how their culture influences their values and ways of thinking about the world. Yet, in Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, the fictional narrator Reverend John Ames reminds me that I am no different. As Ames tries to make sense of an illustration from French reformer John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, he says, “I suppose Calvin’s God was a Frenchman, just as mine is a Middle Westerner of New England extraction.” (p. 142) The beauty of this reflection is that Ames is not dismissive of the importance or trueness of beliefs and doctrine and at the same time does not reduce important theological differences to simple cultural relativism. Instead, he merely recognizes how much his own culture inexorably shapes his perceptions of reality, including his idea of God.
This can be a scary thought. Don’t we often believe that our impressions of reality are completely trustworthy and that our theology and doctrinal beliefs about God are entirely based on absolutely true and unchanging Biblical propositions? However, these kinds of certainties are not only deeply unhelpful when engaging with other cultures, but they also muddle our sanctifying ongoing life in Christ. In his letter to Roman Christians, the apostle Paul says to his readers, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). On the surface, this may seem like a command that can either be obeyed or disobeyed. However, in the context of the rest of this chapter Paul’s injunction is not a simple binary command, it is a complex one. Rather, it is a description of the life-long process and struggle of following Christ while living in a culture separated from and sometimes opposed to God’s purpose and ideals.
Philosophers, especially European philosophers, have struggled with the problem of cultural influence for quite some time. Thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault recognized that our given cultures deeply inform all aspects of our lives. Some of these cultures are based on nationality or ethnicity. Some are based on finances or education. Some are based on family or friends, and some are based on religion. All of these different cultures influence both our identities and our perceptions of reality. People within our own cultures, like our relatives, friends, neighbors, teachers, and coworkers, all contribute to the values and assumptions we use to think about what is good, acceptable, and perfect. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger called this problem throwness, because it is as if we are thrown into the world at birth onto a potter’s wheel and into a complicated and constantly shifting milieu of principles, values, and assumptions about the world and our proper place in it. In other words, whenever we try to be reasonable and objective about anything we unconsciously input culture assumptions from a variety of sources into our thought process. This can become especially clear when Christians argue over topics such as immodest dress or coarse language. We often agree that modesty and edifying language are important values, but when it comes to culturally framed boundaries of what counts as immodesty or foul language the debates are never-ending.
Yet, our relationship to Christ can help us find solid ground in this tempestuous philosophical conundrum. After all, the Bible tells us that Jesus is not only the “way, the truth and the light” (John 14:6) but that he is also “the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8) To follow Christ is to follow that which is absolute and unchangingly good, right, and true. Against the backdrop of constantly shifting and competing cultures, following Christ often conflicts with any and all cultures. This is a perennial difficulty for Christians living in a broken world. A major theme throughout the New Testament is the long enduring struggle of being a Christian in this world. For instance, the apostle Peter tells us that we are only temporary parepidēmos, or sojourners, in this world, (1 Peter 1:1) while the apostle John warns us not to “love the world or anything in the world.” (1 John 2:15) Yet, we also know that God loves this world too, (John 3:16) and the Bible tells us that a culturally diverse church will glorify God in the new heavens and new earth. (Revelation 7-9-10) Therefore, tension exists between rejecting the cultures of the world and accepting the parts of culture that are in some ways pleasing to God.
This is precisely the tension Augustine confronted when he wrote his book City of God nearly 1,600 years ago. He wrote his book because people in the predominantly pagan culture of the Roman Empire were blaming Christians and Christianity in general for the sacking of Rome. Augustine does not tell Roman Christians to hide from the world. Instead, he explains that the Christian life, sojourning in this world, is both reflexive (culture shapes our beliefs) and Christocentric (Christ is at the core of our beliefs). He explains that as Christians, regardless of the cultural backgrounds in which we find ourselves, Christ is always at the center. This point may seem obvious. After all, the moniker “Christian” implies that we are followers of Christ. Yet, Augustine points out that Jesus is not only the goal of the Christian life, in that we are called to imitate him, but he is also the way to that goal. Christ will always be at work in sanctifying every dimension of our lives to look more like his. That means that this work is not only done at church or in our personal devotional time. God uses our interactions with the world to shape us according to God’s will, which dovetails with the importance of reflexivity (how our personal experiences become our culture).
Because our lives as Christians are characterized by a transformation in Christ, according to his perfect will and character, in our lifetimes we are never done transforming. In other words, we will never arrive at a state of perfected goodness, righteousness, and truth this side of heaven. In terms of culture, if we ever think that we know exactly how we are supposed to be or how a culture ought to be, this should give us pause. We can’t rely on our culture. Just checkout those history books to see some of the attitudes and beliefs that were culturally accepted norms from the past that would be culturally appalling to us today. Instead, we should be relying on Christ. We can embrace the good things inside and outside of our own cultures that challenge us to imitate the character of Christ, while critically considering the negative aspects of culture that will deter us from following Christ. Of course, it is often far easier to see the good in our own culture while ignoring the bad, which makes it all the more important to practice looking for the good first in other cultures, while remembering to “reject every kind of evil” in our own (1 Thessalonians 5:22). Throughout City of God, Augustine provides a number of examples of how Roman culture wrongly valued things that ran contrary to what God considers good, acceptable, and perfect. But, he also presents a number of examples of how some parts of Roman culture are really virtuous and honorable, so much so that he implores Christians to recognize the virtuousness of some non-Christian, Roman cultural heroes.
In most ways, our lives as Christians in the 21st century are very different than the lives of Christians during Augustine’s lifetime. Yet, as Christians trying to live out a life of faith in a broken world, his vision of Christocentric cultural reflexivity is just as important today. As citizens of the kingdom of God sojourning in this world, we are always at odds with our own culture and yet inescapability apart of it. This is why before Paul urges his readers not to conform to this world, he first tell them, “I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” (Romans 12:1) When we encounter other cultures that are clearly different or at odds with what we know and value, it is easy to resist learning from such cultures that are unfamiliar or seemingly at odds with our own. Yet, it is what we are called to, making our continued reliance on the sanctifying power of Christ as urgent as ever. When we present our whole selves as sacrifices to God, via prayer, fellowship in a Christian community, acts of worship, deeds of service, and personal scriptural devotion, we will continue to better understand that which is good and acceptable and perfect in our cultures and in the cultures of others.