Today’s post is a diversion from our usual theme, though it is tangentially related. At the ground of any integration of an Extraordinary Spiritual Experience (ESE) is an interpretation and integration governed by personal experience, upbringing, spiritual background, environment, new information, and the culture. I wanted to take a moment to talk about culture and faith since it brings up fundamental questions about personal and communal understandings of ourselves and how we come to know what is happening around us.
This topic was inspired by a conversation I had with a woman at my physical therapy clinic. I have had several excellent conversations with her as she gives me intensive exercises to do. We will call her Carmen. Carmen comes from a Jamaican family, who is quite religious. Carmen identifies as queer and also says she is ‘spiritual but not religious’ (SBNR, in religious and social science circles).
When I lived up in Maine, conversation usually ended almost immediately upon the discovery that I was an ordained Christian minister. In NYC, however, it is often the platform for fascinating, intriguing, and relationship-building conversations. I chalk this up to the fact that every interaction in NYC could potentially lead to a whole new possibility in a person’s life – new job opportunities, new creative relationships, new friendships. Or I am a different person here than I was in Maine. Or both.
Anyway, Carmen told me that, for all that she respects and understands the value of religion, she could not separate the faith from the culture. As a queer, black woman, the exclusionary behavior was too steep and once the questions started, Carmen could not differentiate the spirituality and faith from the culture and the impositions upon that culture. Namely, Christianity in Jamaica was a forced religion upon the population by white conquistadors who sought to pillage the landscape and enslave the people. Why, indeed, would one accept such a thing if one didn’t have to accept it? As a currently former church pastor, I can’t fault the reasoning here.
It also brings up some interesting and troubling questions. For instance, many social scientists and philosophers will say that our perceived choice of belief is really not a choice at all. Instead, the likelihood that you will be Muslim if born in a Muslim country, or Hindu if born in a primarily Hindu state, or Christian if born into a Christian culture is extremely high. While true in more theocratic countries, this idea becomes much more varied and complex in countries that support religious freedom. Many people will switch up religions throughout their lifetime, with the caveat that if one believes in a god or gods, they will switch to another theistic way of belief. Mind you, this is not a discussion about which belief is more right than another, and nor is that a particularly interesting discussion to me. What is interesting to me is when we do switch, or leave, or quit the beliefs and faith we marinated in from childhood.
Self-definition is a sign of individuation and self-actualization. The ability to engage in such a thing is an indicator that, regardless of the oppressive nature of one’s original religion and culture, certain fundamental aspects of one’s life – the ability to survive, supportive relationships, a sense of a possible future – are coming into focus and are becoming available to the individual. I am speaking of individuals here, not revolutionary and social movements designed to grant freedoms and access to oppressed groups. That is a different topic for discussion.
I don’t want to speak for Carmen’s experience. She is a conscientious searcher who cares deeply about spiritual things, as well as political and personal ideas. What impressed me was the deep work she is doing to disentangle what was meaningful about the culture she grew up within, and the faith she grew up with. Christianity, as it exhibited itself in her childhood and as it expresses itself in American culture, is no longer an option for her. In the culture, and in the religion, the homophobia and the misogyny and the implicit and explicit white supremacy are too great a hurdle to jump over in order for her to participate.
When I was pastoring a church, I felt like I needed to argue on behalf of the faith, to defend the crown of Christ, as it were, in conversations like this. Now, I just have questions and am deeply interested in what a person, Carmen in particular, is thinking about spiritually. I am more interested in the conversation and listening than convincing anyone of anything.
Back in 1951, H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a classic text exploring culture and faith entitled “Christ and Culture”. There, he identified three ways Christian faith influenced and related to culture. Niebuhr had a pretty straightforward definition of what he meant by culture. For all practical purposes, culture simply means ‘the social life of humanity…in the areas of language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organization, inherited artifacts, technical processes, and values’ (pg 32, Christ and Culture). For Niebuhr, Jesus Christ was an active person by way of the Holy Spirit and defined by the “church triumphant” in this world. “Church triumphant” is a Puritan phrase meaning simply the active, worldly church, as opposed to the “church universal”, which means the church in its eternal, heavenly sense.
For the purposes of this essay, we will substitute “Christ” with “faith”, since we are speaking a little more broadly and including the SBNR perspective, as I understand it by way of Carmen. I realize I am taking a liberty here, but I think Niebuhr’s idea is good enough to be more broadly considered in this way. (Also, here is a very good summary of Niebuhr’s book from Trevin Wax at The Gospel Coalition.)
Niebuhr said that faith can act in three different ways in a culture. It can, first, stand in opposition to the culture. By rhetoric, faith in this way places itself continually in opposition to the direction of the culture. In the language of the evangelical church in America, this is often heard in the phrase “we do not follow the things of man, but follow the things of God”. More often, it is a criticism of other churches and theologies – “They follow the things of man; we follow the things of God”. To be perfectly straight with you, I have never understood how one would differentiate such a thing, especially since, in the Christian way, we speak of Jesus as wholly human and wholly divine. If this is true in any spiritual sense, there is no such thing as the ways of humanity and the way of God. In Jesus, they are one and the same. The difference between humankind and God is therefore a difference of nothing. Be that as it may, more extreme versions of this first way can be found in monastic movements, communal religious communities, and ascetic practices. Niebuhr uses the example of the Anabaptists (Amish, Mennonites, Brethren), Catholic monasteries, and more extreme groups.
The second way Niebuhr identifies is faith in agreement with the culture, or rather, through the culture, faith enlightens and teaches and guides the world to the ways of the Kingdom of God. The problem here is one that we seem to be living through right now. Namely, culture, faith, and religion are so wedded to policies, reactionary movements, and government that one can no longer differentiate between them. When there is no separation between culture and faith, it is virtually impossible to tell what is culture and what is faith and religion. This collapse of one into the other is intentional in how the evangelical movement has impacted politics in the United States. For many of them, if the culture is not the faith, the faith has failed in its goals. This is the issue my friend Carmen has with being a Christian, based on her childhood and what she sees now in the culture. The value of difference, discernment, and differentiating dissolves with this second way. The culture mirrors the faith, and vice-versa. The consequence, at least for many on the outside, and those leaving churches in droves (see the linked studies above), is that neither the culture nor the faith reflect the best possible ways of each, and instead sink to the lowest common denominator and reflect the worst of both.
The third way Niebuhr spoke about is faith above culture, meaning that the culture provides the people what they cannot achieve on their own and the culture itself becomes a guide to faith and religion. This way presumes, for instance, that God works through the culture and brings It is similar to the second way, but is a more extreme version of it. Culture becomes a tool of religion to impose faith upon others. Social controls are justified by way of the power structure that has been set up for the right and holy behavior of those who cannot know better, which is most of us. For those who believe that faith inspires reason and clear thinking, and therefore the enacting of the freedom of the will to choose, this is really no religion at all and represents a culture of control and power. Imposed religion is not faith. Theocracies arise from this third way.
Niebuhr’s three ways are helpful as containers for identifying what is active in a culture and society with regard to faith and religion. It is also a helpful model for hearing how individuals orient themselves with regard to the world and what they believe. The containers are especially helpful when we want to understand where those who are seeking power in politics and religion are coming from. Niebuhr, rightfully, says none of these ways is better than the other way, and each has certain benefits for how we engage our faith and the world. The problems arise when we commit to a single way and lose sight of the primary commitment at the core of whatever our faith expression may be.
The other element that lurks beneath these three ways of faith and culture is something that Niebuhr would likely be writing about were he alive today – the swirling issues of identity our society in America is dealing with these days. Issues of faith and spirituality, assuming one cares deeply about such things, are issues of identity. Identity issues define how we want the external world to perceive our internal sense of who we are, and how our interior sense of being engages with the world ‘out there’. In a way, identity is a kind of skin on the body of our mental, spiritual, and expressive being. Our identities, in the best of all possible worlds, should be like skin – protective, defining, porous, and a little malleable. This is made much more difficult when the identity(ies) we understand ourselves to be are oppressed, rejected, persecuted, privileged, or ignored.
Our active cultural engagements, whether it be religion, politics, social gatherings, bodily expressions, and perhaps even locale, all demand clarified identities now. Many social institutions demand one conform to a sanctioned identity, while at the same time rejecting that this demand is not itself an expression of identity. This is the privilege and condition of power, one which justifies and allows the erasure of alternative identities by pretending there is nothing to the discussion of identity at all. According to the critics of identity (who care more about identity than those seeking to define their identity), it is false, postmodern Marxist ideology, or something like that.
Understanding our personal identities, our labels if you will, becomes essential to understanding how culture and faith work against, with, and around the issues we are concerned about in the world. I, for one, buck like a horse broken too early, when dealing with identities and labels. I do not like being identified by others and I get very uncomfortable when I feel I am being locked into an identity. Only recently, however, am I beginning to understand that I am able to react against labels and identity, and others are not. As a man and one who passes as white, I am in the position of being able to label and identify. I know enough to work hard at not doing so. Conversely, I am only now beginning to learn the value and power of being able to claim one’s identity, my own in particular. There are obviously good and bad ways of claiming one’s identity. Does the reclamation and recognition of personal identities reinforce power structures, hierarchies, inequalities, and supremacy, or does the reclamation of identity seek unity, equal access and regard, dignity, relationship, and possibility?
The social and political concern with a fundamental focus on identity is that it relativizes everyone’s experience according to a few singular aspects of who they are, and then seeks to apply policy and behavior in accordance with that relativized identity. But we are complex, multifaceted, subjective creatures that cannot be so easily defined. Politicizing identity can profoundly narrow our understanding of self and others. But to ignore the fundamental aspect of identity in our engagement with the world means we act without regard or conscious awareness of who we are with other people and the activities we are participating in that diminish the identity of others. To not respect and recognize the identity of others is a recipe for chaos and rampant unkindness. As one who identifies with a particularly powerful cultural identity, a Christian, to act against my identity is to reject the commitment to love required of the faith I claim to accept. My doctorate teacher, Dr. Leonard Sweet, used to tell us we are always called first to celebrate before we cerebrate. In other words, let us celebrate the expressions of identity and diversity we are invited to participate within, before we begin to have deep conversations about what is meant by those identities. Celebration and invitation always lead to compassion and empathetic understanding. This, of course, is best done around a table with good food and drink.
We live out of our identities and it is the interaction of our identities with one another that generates the cultures we live within. The benefit of big city life, at least in my experience so far in New York City, is constant engagement with multiple identities every day. Those identities slide, slip, and slam into each other in many ways. The diversity and mystery of those interactions are and should be inspiring, creative, and energizing. Often, they are. For me, at least, as someone who spoke at length (as a minister of a church) about how one particular identity (Christian) should be engaging with the world, I have found the spiritual practice of Shutting the Hell Up™ and just listening to the beautiful cacophony of many ways of being to be a wonder-filled humility bordering on awe. That, at least, is my experience with Carmen in our discussion of culture and faith and the difference between them.
May the rigorous work of identifying cultures, faiths, and identities inspire you in your spiritual walk!