The 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.

            A 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.

            So 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.

            Let us take the example of Peter, chief among our Lord's disciples. Read Acts 10: 1-48.

            In 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.

            The 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.

            In 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.


Questions for further reflection

            1. Try to list other culturally conditioned sentiments and prejudices. For example, spend some time reflecting on prejudices associated with habits of dress.

            2. 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- culture?

            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?



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