Friday, April 27, 2001

Culture and Religion

I originally posted this essay to the old UCMPage message board. Most of the participants were United Methodist clergy of a high-church (i.e., sacramental and apostolic) orientation. Popular topics on the board included incarnational theology, eschatology, ecumenism, Calvinist-bashing, and baseball. My two favorite UCMPage participants have moved on, respectively, to the Byzantine Catholic Church and the Anglican Mission in America.

We have the misfortune, unique in human history, to live in a society totally devoid of culture – a post-cultural society. We throw around the term culture a lot, but we are always using it in a metaphoric sense (e.g., "corporate culture"), not in a literal sense (unless we are talking about times and places other than our own).

It is our nature as human beings to live in a culture. A culture ties together a people or nation in much the same way as a language. It provides norms that govern individual behavior, interpersonal relations, and collective action. It serves as a reservoir of common stories, images, and metaphors that make communication and community possible. We inherit a culture that embodies the wisdom of our ancestors, and we pass it on to our descendants. In a lot of ways, it similar to the concept of Tradition in Orthodox Christianity.

But our society has jettisoned culture. In the U.S., the ACLU seems to believe that every remnant of culture is an offense against the Constitution, to be stamped out. Each generation assumes as its birthright the privilege of rejecting everything bequeathed by the previous generation and reinventing everything from scratch. Madison Avenue does its best to squash any carry-over from the past in order to preclude competition for whatever it is selling this week. The establishment seeks to "free" us from culture in order to enslave us to its petty thrills and keep us on the treadmill. All of this is especially true of the Baby Boom generation.

A proper religion must be part of a functional culture. That's what real religion is – the part of culture that addresses the eternal part of our human nature. Some (not all) Protestant churches – and these days even some American Catholic churches – however, have yielded to the surrounding anti-culture. They offer a "religion" that is little more than a hobby or personal idiosyncracy, which does nothing to reconcile us to our ancestors and descendants, our neighbors and enemies, and our own human nature.

But many churches – especially the Orthodox, but also many ethnic Catholics, Lutherans, and Anglicans (not to mention the Amish and the Old Believers) – respond in a different way to the disappearance of their culture. Since they are no longer surrounded by a functional culture, to which their religion can become enculturated, they simply preserve the culture they inherited. This culture is, unfortunately, not consistent with the anti-culture that dominates the rest of their lives, so it requires a bit of double-think. But real religion must be embodied in a real culture, and a slightly old-fashioned or old-country culture is better than none.

This is not to say that there is one true (or best) Christian culture, and that Christianity must always take a given form. But Christianity must always take some particular cultural form – it must be incarnated in a particular way among each particular people. It should not be surprising if different peoples, with their different languages, histories, and economic/geographic milieus, would diverge in religious expression and practice as they do in other aspects of culture.

I think the Eastern Churches have, for the most part, done a good job of preserving the proper understanding of the relationship between religion and culture. When we of the West visit an Eastern church, therefore, we must overcome two hurdles: 1) We must suppress our perverse modern Western tendency towards anti-culturalism and accept the culture-laden religious expressions of Eastern liturgy and theology; and 2) we must learn to operate in the particular culture of the people whose church we are visiting.

I think the latter problem is perfectly understandable. It is only natural to feel more at home in one's own native culture, just as one prefers to speak one's own language. Until you learn through long practice to operate in another culture (or language), you must spend a lot of energy in translation, and then you still wonder if you aren't missing something important. But eventually, you do learn to function in the new culture, and the added perspective you bring from your native culture can even enrich the experience by suggesting parallels or contrasts to meditate on.

I suspect the former hurdle, however, is more problematic for most Americans – not the particular cultures of the Eastern churches (Greek, Arabic, Slavic, etc.), but the very fact of the importance of culture, which entails an implicit rejection of modern American anti-culture.

I am privileged to be part of an Anglo-Catholic parish that rivals the most ethnic of Orthodox parishes in its preservation of culture and customs from the Old Country. In our case, however, the Old Country is England, so we can have a full cultural embodiment of our religion without having to learn a totally foreign culture.

At the same time, as Orthodox Churches in the U.S. draw American converts and come to be dominated by American-born members rather than immigrants, they face both an opportunity and a danger. The opportunity is to preserve their traditional connection between culture and religion, while adapting to their new cultural environment. The danger is that, as they become Americanized, they will adapt to the anti-culture and forfeit the treasure they have preserved. I have seen examples of both tendencies among the Orthodox in this country.