Meeting people from different cultures exposes us to significant blind-spots. Even in a non-Christian context this is easily observable; spend a day in Brazil and you would find that time is seen to be more flexible there – people come and go into each other’s homes as they please, even until well after midnight. There, the Western notion of “privacy” is a bit more alien, and to set the time when people should leave one’s home after an event would be simply rude. Come into an Indonesian home, and one is expected to take off their shoes as a sign not only of sanitation but also of respect. Exposure to such cultural differences make us self-critical with regard to our own cultures – things we think obvious, to be taken for granted, are wholly alien for others.
So, too, in theological matters. Christianity tells us a whole worldview – a narrative which involves eternal truths. Those eternal truths play themselves out differently in different contexts, times, and cultures. In our heads, Christians know that different cultures may express the set of beliefs we believe as Christians in different, valid, ways. The problem, however, is when one unwittingly identifies a cultural presupposition with a Christian rule. A few examples, perhaps.
American Christianity and Republicanism: I’ve never watched Fox News or read anything about American politics until I started studying in America – one thing became obvious: Christian theology becomes tethered to rampant individualistic rights, talk of liberty, and even gun control; immediately I think – what’s going on? I took it to be obvious that the Scripture’s may have implications for political philosophy, but in my view it doesn’t prescribe one – is one less Christian for being a socialist? I think not. This, at least, seemed obvious enough to me, but being exposed to American culture I have met those who think differently, namely, the view that Christian identity entails affirming a republican (or libertarian) political position. I’m unconvinced. But – we see here our assumptions being challenged: perhaps I am meant to ask whether the Bible does have more implications for our political philosophies, just as my interlocutors are meant to ask why it is that Christians around the globe don’t associate Christianity so closely with any political theory. In fact, often the association never happens at all.
Alcohol. I’ve met a few South African and North African Christians who take it for granted that being a Christian means total abstinence from alcohol. This is true, also, for many Asian Christians (Korea, say, or China). This may be for good reason; the culture at large tends to disregard moderation, and thus a way that Christians may find a valid point of distinction is in their constant sobriety. But now this becomes a challenge: Scripture never forbids alcohol consumption. What may be a good (and perhaps necessary) axiom for Christians to hold in one region may be highly dubious in another. I’ve met Christians who think this way, and, upon being challenged where from the Bible they may justify their absolute prohibition, some respond that they’ve never asked this question.
Greed. Yet again, this becomes a problem. Think about the culture, fundamentalist or whatever, that so associates Christianity with abstinence from alcohol, but never talks about the often more subtle (though no less dangerous) problems of greed, gossip, or pride. Sermons about drunkenness may abound in one context, but that context may be blind to its own practices of subtle greed. Again, a good dose of meeting Christians from other contexts would be needed.
Marriage. Growing up in a Chinese context, I was raised to believe that Marriage is as much a business decision as it is a relational one. In and through marriage we are communicating not only our commitment to be married, but also that we are independent in a financial way – it is as much a declaration of our money-making capability as it is a familial decision. I found that this was alien to different contexts. In seminary alone I found married couples who were dependent, perhaps, on their denominations, or churches, or other extended families for their living costs, given that the husband (sometimes along with their wives) are students, still. Marriage and receiving support, for them, were not contradictory. Again, we must go back to the Scriptures: it seems that nothing says that financial autonomy is a pre-requisite for marriage; yet it also states that husbands must take care, and be responsible for, their families. Financial autonomy is definitely one way to show that responsibility. Both ways of thinking can learn from the other – the problem, here, though, like each of the problems I mention here, is the heatedness of it all. Both “camps” may think their positions to be the norming norm when actually both are merely good applications of less restrictive biblical norms, and both may thus be accusing of the other of somehow being less than Christian.
Tradition. But perhaps that’s the problem that travel and community-exposure can ameliorate. We become critical of our own traditions, our upbringings, our contexts, and we are exposed to our mere nodding of the head to cultural norms that really aren’t as absolute as we once thought. To take on the mind of Christ and to reform ourselves again under Scripture. Tradition may be good, but tradition must also be subservient to Scripture. We must be able to distinguish between a merely good consequence from Scripture (say, that I work once a week in an orphanage as a consequence of reading the command to love my neighbor), and a consequence that is both good and necessary (See the Westminster Confession, Chapter 1.6), and therefore to be universally mandated. It becomes a problem when our Christian lives become mere ritualism, indistinguishable from the way we celebrate chinese new year: we never know why we wear red, or give hong pao – we simply do them without questioning why. So, it seems, with many practices – somehow we take for granted that this or that practice (say, not smoking, or being a republican) is what all Christians ought to do, without asking biblically and theologically the rationale.
The problems keep coming. But the solution seems clear: unity in diversity. Travel, meet Christians of different cultures, minds, and contexts. Challenge, be self-critical, and keep thinking theologically. Stand on Scripture, and let us not add upon it.