influence of culture on faith
What kind of
role does culture play in the way we practice our faith or respond
to Godís love? Culture is a powerful influence on all of us. Quite
often culture conditions and shapes our responses to God in such a
way that without really meaning to, we fall far short of what God
expects from us.
sense of belonging to some community or culture is vital for our
existence. And of course as part of this belonging we imbibe the
customs and habits peculiar to that culture. For example, in India
we are taught from childhood to give or to receive anything only
with our right hand. We are trained by parents and elders to do so
until this becomes involuntary. Similarly, we are taught to remove
our footwear when we enter holy places. So we have no problem in
understanding God's call to Moses to remove his shoes as he was
standing on holy ground. But these customs seem quite bizarre and
unnecessary to people of other cultures. To a Westerner it is
perfectly acceptable to go to the Lordís Table without removing
oneís shoes. And this is not done out of arrogance, it is merely
to do with cultural conditioning.
we see that culture functions as a trainer. Our tastes in food for
instance are largely due to conditioning. What we in India like is
often not what people from other cultures may like. Many times
food habits are closely associated with religion. Food habits are
also obviously influenced by economic circumstances. Religious
conditioning gives rise to prejudices against food habits of
people of other faiths. Economic circumstances contribute to
snobbery about certain foods and habits associated with them. In
these ways our faith response begins to be affected.
us take the example of Peter, chief among our Lord's disciples.
Read Acts 10: 1-48.
verses 9-16 we have an account of the vision Peter saw. ďAbout
noon the following day as they were on their journey and
approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became
hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being
prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and
something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four
corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as
reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him,
"Get up, Peter. Kill and eat." "Surely not, Lord!" Peter replied.
"I have never eaten anything impure or unclean." The voice spoke
to him a second time, "Do not call anything impure that God has
made clean." This happened three times, and immediately the sheet
was taken back to heaven.Ē
It is important
to note Peter's response to God's call "Rise, Peter, kill and eat"
(vs. 13). He responds with a blunt "No". For what was demanded of
him was contrary to all that he had been taught in the name of the
very same God! God had to speak sternly three times to Peter.
Reading the rest of the chapter, we see that Peter understood from
this vision that contrary to the customs of the day, God wished
him to associate on an equal basis with Gentiles and not reject
any of Godís creations as impure or unclean.
However, even then all is not plain sailing. Peter begins with an
admission (vs. 34) that he has begun to perceive that God does not
differentiate between a Jew and a non-Jew. But when it comes to
the question of whether or not Cornelius and his family should be
baptized and accepted as members of the Body of Christ once again
Peter hesitates. God challenges him again by giving the Holy
Spirit to Cornelius even before he and his family are baptized.
This is why Peter says "Can anyone forbid water for baptizing
these people ...?" (vs.4-7). Although Peter is eventually
persuaded into treating Gentile believers on the same footing as
Jewish Christians, this episode clearly shows the hold that our
religious culture exercises on our response to faith.
sad truth, however, is that God does not always win. We see that
quite obviously in the way patriarchy exists in the Bible. Jesus
attributes such beliefs as due not to the way God ordered creation
but rather to the hardness of heart on the part of men
(Mk.10:5-8). When the Pharisees question Jesus about Mosesí law
permitting men to write out a certificate divorcing their wives,
Jesus responds saying ďIt was because your hearts were hard that
Moses wrote you this law," Jesus replied. "But at the beginning of
creation God 'made them male and female.' 'For this
reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his
wife, and the two will become one flesh.' So they are no longer
two, but one.
spite of this indictment by Jesus, the apostle Paul chose to
maintain that only men were created in God's image and that women
were created to reflect men's glory. However, Paul had no
scriptural warrant to say this. For the Bible affirms that both
men and women were created in God's image and that they together
were to share in God's dominion (Gen. 1:26-27).
Then God said, "Let us make man in
our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the
sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the
earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." So
God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created
him; male and female he created them. This shows that even someone
like Paul, gifted with powers of theological reflection and
committed to the Gospel, was constrained by the cultural milieu in
which he lived. (See I Cor. 11:1-16).
This is also true of social prejudices that are culturally
promoted and sanctioned by religion. In India the caste system
controls our attitudes and responses towards each other.
Although Paul seems to compromise in his instructions to
Corin≠thian Christians regarding women, he is at definitely aware
of the power of culture. He calls this power an elemental spirit
(Gal. 4: 8-9) which seeks to enslave us. He is free from the
prejudices expressed by Peter towards non-Jewish people but with
regard to men's authority over women however, Paul remains
constrained. This is a warning to all of us.
for further reflection
Try to list other culturally conditioned sentiments and
prejudices. For example, spend some time reflecting on prejudices
associated with habits of dress.
Suggest ways and means of evolving a counter-culture which
reflects values of justice and equality. In what ways do you think
our Lord's life provides a useful model for such a counter-
3. Can you think of cultural
differences leading to ethical prejudices? For example, in
Palestine drinking wine during feasts was a well-accepted
practice. However, in India al≠coholic drinks are associated with
loose morals. Should we, therefore, fight against such prejudices?
What is likely to happen if the social restraint present through
these culturally conditioned sentiments were to vanish altogether?