Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Multiculturalism Cuts Both Ways

“A People of Many Faces” is one of the more intriguing sections of Pope Francis’s The Joy of the Gospel, having to do with cultural incarnations of Christianity. “We would not do justice to the logic of the incarnation if we thought of Christianity as monocultural and monotonous,” he writes.

Earlier he states, “The history of the Church shows that Christianity does not have simply one cultural expression, but rather, ‘remaining completely true to itself, with unswerving fidelity to the proclamation of the Gospel and the tradition of the Church, it will also reflect the different faces of the cultures and peoples in which it is received and takes root.’” Here he is quoting John Paul II.

The direction of his argument appears to be that Western culture should not impose our cultural values on other cultures, affirming “it is not essential to impose a specific cultural form, no matter how beautiful or ancient it may be…we in the Church can sometimes fall into a needless hallowing of our own culture, and thus show more fanaticism than true evangelizing zeal.”

Quoting John Paul II once more, he encourages us “to work in harmony with indigenous Christians,” because no culture or tradition has a monopoly on Christian expression.

Progressive Christians would applaud that and have tried to apply that in attempting the globalization of our respective denominations and traditions. In my view we do so at the risk of compromising our own cultural values. The equality and rights of women as well as of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender women and men immediately come to mind. 

The faltering Anglican Communion over women priests and gay bishops and the recent disappointment of the United Methodist General Conference to change its policies on LGBT Methodists serve as examples of the imposition of the values of other cultures, failing to respect Western and specifically American culture, which have “evolved” on both issues.

A step further: the logic of Pope Francis’s argument would also culturally contextualize conservative Christians’ reliance on church tradition regarding the place of women, the definition of marriage, and the treatment of sexual and gender minorities.

“We cannot demand that peoples of every continent, in expressing their Christian faith, imitate modes of expression which European nations developed at a particular moment of their history, because the faith cannot be constricted to the limits of understanding and expression of any one culture.” And here again the footnote doesn’t cite the progressive Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, but John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Asia.

Countless books, articles, and dissertations have been written that document how church tradition on issues of concern to progressive Christians has been held captive to previous cultural understandings, misunderstandings, and prejudice. The competition between the less egalitarian and more dualistic Christianity of Rome and the more progressive Celtic Christianity is but one example of how Christian cultures collided early on.

The Bible counters culture well: “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” “You have heard it said of old…but I say to you.” “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” “For freedom Christ has set us free.” “Do not call unclean what God has called clean.” “God shows no partiality.” “Why should my liberty be determined by another’s scruples? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I condemned for that for which I give thanks?”  

“New occasions teach new duties,” as the hymn “Once to Every One and Nation” proclaims. We may learn from other cultures, but multiculturalism cuts both ways. Other cultures may learn from us.


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  1. Thanks again, Chris! This is just great!! Well said, well documented, well done!

  2. As I admit to my thinking more and more of what i have experienced, it seems i have to admit that maybe people who do cruel and horrible things, in my opinion, --they truly truly believe they are being loving and kind and following their hearts that i believe are in no less connection to universe and life than mine. My jaw drops. I must get out of judging whether anyone else is being loving or kind or right or wrong. i want to be kind to others and myself. It seems hopeless but that damn hope springing eternal pulls me back from despair again and again.

    1. I know "judging" is hard for people (like me and perhaps you) who have felt misjudged. A better word may be discernment. Discerning the spirits is our challenge, but I believe authentic love requires discernment. Which or what kind of spirit builds up (edifies in NT language) and which or what kind of spirit destroys? "Deliver us from evil" suggests Jesus acknowledged we must be delivered from the spirit that destroys. Love is well described in 1 Cor 13, and includes the sentence, love "does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth." Yes, ultimate judgment/discernment is up to God in our tradition, thus "judge not that you be not judged," but--also in our tradition--discerning the spirits is fundamental to Christian spirituality and to spiritual health, whether of the individual or of the spiritual community. A whole book could be written on this matter, but this brief response will have to do for now!

    2. Thanks, Chris. I will say what specifically i am thinking about. I do not doubt that some people truly want the best for guys who are gay but they express it strongly that like "sin" in their own lives, the gays need to confess it as "sin". This belief by them is sincere and will not be changed no matter what. I know that "god" does not "exist" in the sense we think of as "caring" in the way we think of caring because "he" does not change me in response to their prayers and hearts desires and they do not change in response to mine (when i used to "pray" in that way). So, they are sincere. I am sincere. I wanted to understand how they might relate to me if they truly believed i and many gays are so "deceived by Satan"-----This particular "want" was granted to me. It is not pretty. I know that their kind of kindness and "not rejoicing in wrongdoing" will go very far indeed to motivate me to see the light. They can and would "love me to death" the same as during the time of The Inquisition. I would never go that far in loving them because i am being eaten up with growing apathy which seems better than despair but not? So, they share a beautiful song they sing in worship declaring their very personal love for Jesus and how that love for Jesus enables them to do amazing things beyond what they think they can do. So, i have to tie my tongue and hands to keep from conveying that i cannot join them in liking a song that enables them to "tough love" that would see a person totally destroyed in this life to motivate him to confess his ultimate deception by Satan to the God of Love. etc ad nausea LOL I heard what you said. I recognize that that is the kind of spirit that destroys and i can chalk it up to that. OK. And then we say together: how long oh how long?

    3. I don't believe we are saved by "sincerity," even less so when sincerely wrong! Those who condemn gay people are sincerely wrong, as I discern the spirits. We are saved by grace, because God absolutely cares for all God's creatures, in my view. Thanks for writing!