Friday, April 4, 2008

Coursework Stuff - 2

What role does culture play in doing theology?

In order to discuss the role of culture in the work of theology, I need to define how I understand culture. Based on all the definitions I found, my working definition of culture is: the behavior patterns, symbols, beliefs, and rituals that define, describe, and shape the way of life of a given society. That society can be a community, a church, a state, a country, etc.

Given that definition, I believe that culture is the context in which the work of theology and the proclamation of the Gospel take place in. If we believe, as I do, that the Gospel never comes to us in a “pure”, i.e. a-historical and a-cultural form, then it follows that the expression of that Gospel is embodied within a particular time and place. The Gospel needs to speak, and we need to do theology, at the place where culture and the Kingdom of God as modeled in Scripture, meet. It is important for our Christian witness and ministry in the lives of others to understand the cultural ideas, values, and symbols that shape a given society, and the people within it, so that the Gospel can confront and transform them (the people and the culture) where necessary. In my first class in Seminary, the prof gave us a definition of ministry that should shape the way we think of the task of ministry (and I would say even theology): Being used by God to help people move from where they are to where God wants them to be. We talked about “where people are” as being the cultural situation that we find ourselves in. Building a bridge to where people are involves understanding the values, symbols, practices, etc that shape their lives. We can see this at work in the life of Paul in Acts 17. At the beginning of the chapter, we see Paul at the Jewish synagogue reasoning from the Scriptures. At the end of the chapter, we see Paul at Mar’s Hill, in dialog with those influenced by Greek philosophy, using the cultural symbols of the day (Greek poets, an inscription in the Pagan temple) as a bridge to point people to God. Why the different approach? I believe it was dictated based on the cultural situation that shaped his audience: Jews steeped in the Old Testament in one case, Greeks steeped in Greek philosophy in the other.

There are two extremes that can happen in reference to culture and the Gospel. On the one side is the extreme of separation from culture. During my formative years as a Christian (from 18 years old until about 3 years ago), I viewed culture as evil, and something that needed to be fought against, resisted, and separated from. I lived in what is now the often overused, but still somewhat valid, term called a Christian “subculture”. I listened only to Christian music, only hung around with people who were Christians, watched Christian TV, etc. Looking back, I realize that while I was “separating” myself from culture, I also had no real context for the proclamation of the Gospel. I also was influenced by my culture more than I realized (a point I will get to later). The other extreme is accommodation to culture, or allowing culture to shape the Gospel. Our role as God’s representatives on earth is to transform culture by living within the culture in a counter-cultural (i.e. Kingdom of God) way (lotsa “cultures” in that sentence!). In other words, we are to live as a people of God shaped by the Gospel of Christ within the culture that we are situated.

I believe culture does shape our understanding of the Gospel. We saw this in Gonzalez’s book (
Christian Thought Revisited). As I said above, my view of the Gospel was shaped by modernity, even though I thought I was “separate” from cultural influence. Modernity influenced me in that I had a very self-centered, individualistic, and consumer driven faith. So, the big question that I struggle with is: If God speaks through culture to some extent (as I believe He does), how do we discern whether our theological formulations (which in themselves are human constructions based on cultural influence and other factors) are bad or good? For example, Gonzalez talks about Anselm’s Germanic law influence in his formulation of the “satisfaction” theory of atonement. Is it not possible that God used a cultural influence (law understanding) to provide one picture of the work of Christ in the atonement? I think walking the tension between living counter-culturally within culture and being shaped by culture (I don't see separation from culture as a valid option anymore) is the challenge that we as missional Christians must walk in.

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