By Corbin Croy
Christianity is a religion that has always shaped the culture in which it exists, and in an interesting turn this culture-based religion has done this by condemning the “worldly” practices that exist outside the community of believers of that time and place. If one takes this to simply be a power play, Christianity has for all intents and purposes become the greatest force on planet earth. It has endured for thousands of years and permeated Western culture. It stands next to such ideals as democracy, free trade, and individual rights that were born in the West, but Christianity still remains distinct, because it came before Western philosophy solidified its foothold in European culture.
This historical reality should cause any conscientious Christian to consider what the right relationship between culture and religion is. In today’s world Christians are regrettably interlocked in a political arena that hails a man like Donald Trump as a form of political savior (regrettable, only because religion has become too tangled with political agendas). Key leaders in the Christian community have risen to stand next to this man, pray for him on stage, and join his cause. Good or bad, these actions speak very loudly about how some Christians see their religion as being a cultural influencer.
This causes a crisis in my own personal faith. I am not one to think that activism and faith are good companions. I celebrate a personal relationship with Jesus as the Son of God who died and was raised to New Life, and this relationship has certainly changed my thinking and activity in the world around me, but my basis for social and political activity has always been the principles upon which those institutions operated under. I am moved to help others because of injustice and I fulfill my obligation to vote based on ethical and practical criteria, hence I do not bring my Bible to the voting booth.
I have come to feel that the appropriate expression of my faith is to speak out against the current relationship between religion and culture. Before I can declare what I think the best relationship between religion and culture actually is, I must make a few observations of what I think are some signs that a bad relationship exists.
There is an unhealthy relationship between religion and culture if…
1. Your only argument for why culture should be a certain way is because of the Bible, or what your preacher says on Sunday.
There was a reason Jesus told his followers to go into a room and pray privately. There was a reason Jesus praised the widow’s mite, and there was a reason Jesus honored the sinner in the temple against the pious Pharisee. Jesus knew that his message would have cultural impact, but it did not change the fact that his message was about personal transformation. Lavish outward displays of religion are often signs of insecurity rather than conviction or confidence. A person who stands as a New Man (or Person) before God does not require the external validation of other people’s opinion about their faith.
Plus, there is one very good reason why Jesus would not want us to use our religious beliefs as a mandate for how culture needs to look, and that is because as those who have been given New Life our primary motivation needs to be to include as many people as possible into our story. The simple truth is that other people do not understand our religion, and in order to reach these people we need to reach them at their level and not shackle them to our religious thinking. Doing so only makes them want nothing to do with religion.
2. It makes you happy that your religious beliefs represent a majority of people.
Try, if you can, to realize that most of the time biblical examples of the Christian life relate to small things. We are called to walk a narrow road. Our faith is to be as small as a mustard seed. Jesus told the rich young ruler to give up everything. And it was reported in the Bible how many people actually turned away from Jesus’ teachings. Christianity was born in a world that already had religious super powers. It’s strength comes from the fact that it focused the devotion of its followers on the simple and small things in life that connect us to God. Jesus’ confidence that God could change the world had nothing to do with the size of Christianity, it had to do with the size of God. Relying on the strength of numbers to think that your own religious beliefs are good or accurate, and that this gives license to shape your culture is vastly different from the form of devotion that existed in Jesus’ mind when he called his religious leaders whitewashed tombs.
3. You think that your own religious obligations are ethical and moral statements for all people.
My wife doesn’t like it when my beard gets “too big.” Because I have a relationship with my wife I impose upon myself an obligation to keep my beard in check. This is how religious obligations work. We have a personal relationship with God, God wants certain things from us, and so we do those things out of our obligation to that relationship. It is a category mistake to think that because of this our religious duties represent moral truths for all humanity. Some Christians think that they should not drink alcohol. It would be unhealthy for them to think that Prohibition needs to be put back in place for everyone, just as it would be wrong to try to get all men to not have crazy beards because my wife doesn’t like it when mine gets too long. Ethics has to be available to all men. We cannot take our own private interpretations of religious truths and think that they apply to all men. We have to use methods and modes of communication that can reach all people in order to persuade them to our line of reasoning rather than try to condemn them or force them to act according to our own religious beliefs.
My hope is that I can live my life to be an influence on others to lead them to God and inspire them to see Jesus as their personal savior. My prayer is to see the world shaped by the love and grace that I have found as the defining characteristics of my relationship with God, and I would want nothing more than to see everyone else acting and behaving according to my own religious understanding of the value of human life, our eternal nature and the flaw in all humanity. But these hopes, dreams, prayers and wishes have to be put in check by the fact that other people are not me, and I am not other people. This distinction actually creates the best possible scenario, because it gives me the freedom that I want for myself, and so others must be granted this freedom just the same. So instead, I put my faith in truth. I pray for justice. I dream for honest conversations and I wish that we can all, at the very least, be rational people. If my religious beliefs are accurate then these should be the only tools I need to change the world, if not then maybe it is my religious beliefs that need to change rather than the world.
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