Discussion about the relationship between religion and culture invariably leads to the use of the image of an intersection, as in, “this book places itself at the vital intersection of religion and culture.” But, contrary to this common turn of phrase, religion and culture don’t intersect; they are fated to a far more enduring and complicated relationship.
The word intersection suggests that religion and culture are two independent entities that meet and interact at various crossroads. But the word distorts the actual relationship between the two. Religion and culture exist in and with one another in a relationship better seen as one of mutual influence than intersection. All religions are cultural products— complex networks of stories, sacred texts, liturgies, institutions and their officials, beliefs and moral values. These complex networks make use of cultural materials such as languages and the arts and sciences. There is literally nothing else with which to work. And, as we all know too well, cultural materials are constantly changing and evolving in ways that directly impact religion.
Some, probably most, religious traditions believe that their divine beings are outside culture, immune to its changes. Fair enough. But even an effort to state or explain that belief immediately requires cultural materials—languages, worship practices, and the all the rest. Utter silence may appear to be a means of escaping complicity between religion and culture, but silence is also thoroughly ambiguous. It can mean anything, including nothing. And, in the end, silence doesn’t escape culture. Silence is exercised by a given person or community in the context of time, so even silence is inescapably cultural. There’s no getting away from the interdependent relationship between religion and culture.
Consider biblical literalism, where the texts are believed to have been dictated by God, word for word, and must therefore be believed and their injunctions practiced, no interpretation needed. They are thought to arrive among us from a place beyond culture. But which words are we talking about? When I was coaching small-college tennis many years ago, I remember a discussion with the opposing coach at one match. He was a biblical literalist, as was his church. He used the phrase original autographs to speak of divinely dictated texts. “Where are they now?” I asked him. “They have all been lost,” he sadly sighed. “But some versions are closer than others,” he quickly replied. No amount of my gentle persuasion could induce him to admit that all texts are already cultural artifacts requiring interpretation.
Since religion is enmeshed with culture, those of us who are religious believers and practitioners need to be as clear as we can about the evolving dynamics of that relationship. Paul Tillich, noted mid-twentieth century theologian helpfully distinguished the “Protestant principle” from the “Catholic substance” of Christianity. In other words, he drew a distinction between the substantive cultural forms of a religion, and a critical judgment of those forms. Protestantism, he argued, brings a prophetic critique to bear against every established cultural and religious tradition; the Catholic streams of Christianity uphold sacred texts, beliefs and institutions. Tillich believed both dynamics were at work in every living religious tradition, and that the health of both religion and culture depended on the productive tension between the two.
I would generalize Tillich’s dynamics to speak of the mutual influence that always exists between religion and culture. Religion is inherently conservative when it upholds sacred dimensions of any cultural heritage. And religion is inherently radical when it calls its culture back to founding principles or forward to its promised destiny. In every culture religion plays this two-fold role, though with differing emphases depending on historical circumstances. That is why the mutual influences of culture and religion in any given culture at any given time cannot be abstractly stated, but must be described with the complex details of the specific historical moment. Such a description can then guide strategic decisions.
In our particular historical moment the status of mainline churches in the U.S., and the meaning of the word Christian provide two examples of religion and culture’s mutual influence.
The decline of mainline Protestant denominations continues apace, with fewer members and shrinking budgets. Partly it’s the aging of church and denominational memberships, coupled with fewer baptisms and confirmations. Denominational traditions no longer seem compelling, as more people try to be spiritual or religious without the baggage of organized religion. Strategies for increasing racial and ethnic diversity, or embracing change, or using proven marketing methods seem to be treating symptoms rather than fundamental causes. The struggling mainlines could gain greater clarity by examining mutual influences between religion and culture. The heritage of dominant European churches transplanted to North America reveals a cluster of assumptions: an establishmentarian heritage from Europe, guardians of right belief and action in society, strong influence over governmental bodies, led by members of social and intellectual elites, and trusted as institutions serving the public good. These assumptions no longer hold. Mainline churches, their leaders and members, can take none of this for granted, but they often act as though that earlier situation could and should be reclaimed without some critical judgment. It is an entirely new and untested cultural setting for mainline churches. They will either adapt by crafting compelling identities that honor tradition but do not replicate the heritage of establishment, or they will continue their decline. Understanding the mutual influences of religion and culture will be crucial for learning how to adapt. The decline of mainline denominations is not a consequence of an intersection of religion and culture. It follows from a long history of interaction between the two.
My second example of the mutual influence between religion and culture is the corruption of the word Christian in contemporary usage. All who follow Christ would claim that word for themselves. But in current usage Christian has come to represent politically and theologically conservative viewpoints comprising anti-abortion, anti-feminist, anti-homosexual, anti-stem cell research, anti-environmentalist, pro-gun, pro-military stances on social issues, as well as biblical literalism and other dimensions of fundamentalist Christianity. Nowadays when the word Christian appears in any of the mass media, it is this conservative meaning that is assumed. Efforts by liberal or progressive churches and other organizations to claim their own authentically Christian identity seem not to gain any traction, are not believed, or even noticed. This cultural captivity of the word Christian means, I think, that some other language will need to be found.
I would prefer to speak of myself and my church as followers of Jesus Christ, but not Christians, since that word has been stolen and corrupted. But whatever words are chosen, they will need to be clearly and critically distinguished from current cultural definitions of Christian. Tillich argued that certain historically meaningful words needed to be retired for a season. His chief example was sin, defined by Tillich as separation—from God, neighbor, and one’s true self. But, he reasoned, since sins (plural) had become defined principally as transgressions of a moral and religious code, it was useless to continue with that word against the cultural stream.
Religion and culture always exist in a dynamic relationship of mutual influence, and these dynamics need to be understood in all their complex richness around specific cultural and religious issues. Religion cannot control or direct culture. Neither should culture be allowed to define religion in ways that serve the dominant claims of the culture. Constant attention needs to be paid to these dynamics.
Images: Parker, Lisa. Ever Feel like this? Available from: Flickr Commons. Edited by Betsy King with permissions.
Clyde Steckel. Available from: http://archive.constantcontact.com/fs074/1106889080236/archive/1111173533731.html#aboutus