Saturday, February 03, 2007

Is It Cultural?

A good part of the answer to the question about why I believe what I do has to do has to do with the simple, or maybe not-so-simple, reality of culture.

I live in the United States of America, I was born to a family whose members were Methodist in a vague sort of way, and I have lived most of my life in the Midwest, with a few years early on devoted to schooling in New England. Ergo, I am a product of Christian culture, middle-American style.

When I was a little girl, we sang Christmas songs and had Christmas pageants in my public school. Not a 1950s debate. I went to Sunday School sometimes, but not often. My stepmother made me go to the church youth group on occasion ~ truly a sanctimoniously oppressive experience in every way, shape, and form. When I was in junior high, I spent three years in a Catholic boarding school. A different flavor of religion than that to which I was accustomed, but still a Christian one. When I was in high school, I spent three years in a Protestant boarding school where excellence of academics, including the religious dimension, was a key componet of our lives. (First year Old Testament class: "Here you go, ladies; your homework tonight is the first chapter on the source material for Genesis. The term you want is 'documentary hypothesis.' ")

My high school experiences had to do with my father's academic objectives, not with religious goals on the part of anyone. I had nothing to do with church or religion for about twelve years post high school. As far as I was concerned, all ideas connected thereto were nothing short of fundamentally and thoroughly ridiculous. But I lived, as most of us hereabouts do, in a Christian culture. To the folks who have some kind of idea that Christians are persecuted in this country, that the debate over a cashier's "Happy Holidays" greeting is a sign of the imminent demise of all things sacred, all I have to say is: You are so a fish in water that you don't recognize the ocean.

So did the culture make me a Christian? No, but sort of. When I reached a point in my life where the religious journey began to take precedence, I was in this culture, and this was where I started. I investigated other religions as opportunities presented themselves, but I didn't feel any compulsion to abandon my own heritage.

A few years ago, another of my world history students asked me whether I think that Jews are "wrong." "No," I said, somewhat puzzled. "I think that God calls out to each of us," I told him, "but where God calls has to do with where we are. And where we are is in the midst of our families, our friends, our schools and jobs, our communities. There are, in the vastness of all human history, a very, very few people who convert out of their culture; most of us stay where we are and God reaches us there. You are unlikely to find a Christian way to God and I am unlikely to find a Jewish way. And the Psalms we share argue pretty clearly that God made us this way."

I have moved to a slightly different position on the spectrum since making that statement, in large part because I do teach in a Jewish school and am constantly experiencing faith in the context of that of my colleagues, and in part because I made the year-long Ignatian Spiritual Exercises last year and have had what I can only describe as a profound experience of the presence of God. In church right now we are doing an adult education series on different faith traditions, and have welcomed a series of articulate and charming scholars to present Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and (this week) Islam. One of my good friends has acknowledged to me that she realizes that much of her faith is culture-based, and really isn't sure whether, given a clean slate, she might make another choice. I'm not in that place. I have had so many opportunites to re-think where I am and to assess the ways in which God has reached out to me and to others that I know I am making a conscious choice for Christian faith.

I can't deny the cultural dimension of that choice, however. I find the Bible a lot easier to read than the Qu'ran; I find the Christian traditions of contemplative prayer and lectio divina much more accessible than Zen meditation. This past week, I had an interesting discussion with a colleague, a young rabbi, about the role of Jewish law and its demands in his daily life ~ they look oppressive to me, but they are an undeniable source of joy to him. (The conversation had, by the way, begin with this issue of culture. Apparently a Jewish scholar has argued that today, for the first time in America, a person can make a conscious choice to be Jewish or not. My rabbi friend disagrees, saying that culture is at the root of so much of who the Jewish people are. "Same for all religions," I piped up.)

It would be just silly to argue that my "faith comfort zone" doesn't have a lot to do with who and where I live and am in the nonreligious aspects of my life. If there are any.


Paul said...

Wallace Stevens has an answer for you:

Therefore, that in the planetary scene
Your disaffected flagellants, well-stuffed,
Smacking their muzzy bellies in parade,
Proud of such novelties of the sublime,
Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk,
May, merely may, madame, whip from themselves
A jovial hullabaloo among the spheres.
This will make widows wince. But fictive things
Wink as they will. Wink most when widows wince.

However, I admit that you are not in the least high-toned. Nor old. ;)

Jodie said...

I love your honest self-awareness and your cultural self-awareness.

Your comments about God calling us in the midst of our surroundings made me think. I think the mystery of the incarnation of God and of the Word made flesh is that God, who or what ever God is, chooses to reach out to us in our own language, in our own place and time, said reaching out continuing to this day, in whatever “language” we “speak”.

The Judeo Christian Bible and tradition gives us a powerful vocabulary.

But just as we often cannot hear the music and poetry in a foreign language, we cannot hear God in other languages either. We sometimes think therefore God is not there. So we try to teach others our own "language" so that they can better hear God, only to realize they have been listening to Him/Her all along.

It’s a weird realization.

As a missionary kid you notice these things. “Successful” missionaries and evangelists do not do much more than help expand people’s vocabularies. Sometimes that guides them to Christianity, especially if their vocabulary was somehow lacking, but God was in their lives long before the Christian evangelist showed up.

We choose the language.

God chooses the message.

Isn’t this what Pentecost is really all about?


Gannet Girl said...

Well, Paul, the argument is that poetry is the supreme fiction. And I have certainly heard the argument that the Bible is, all of it, poetry. I would be inclined, in fact, to make such an argument. The poetry of relationship.

My guess is that you, too, would argue that fiction does not mean false ~ although perhaps not in this context.

We will, be, always, where we began.

As long as I can remain bawdy and youthful instead of high-toned and old. . . .

Gannet Girl said...

Jodie, what a great response.

The Jesuits who set off for missionary fields in Asia and the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries realized when they got there that "God has already been here."

Quotidian Grace said...

I agree that much of our expression of religion and understanding of God is culturally driven, and therefore limited.

But I also think, as a friend of mine says, that every human being has a "God-shaped hole in the heart" that only God will fill.

In this world we fill it as best we can, often imperfectly as we see in a mirror darkly. The hole will be filled perfectly when we see God face to face, as St. Paul said.

Magdalene6127 said...

"They are so much a fish in water that they don't recognize the ocean." Love it love it LOVE it!

This is a wonderful piece, GG. I do think your students are so fortunate to have you. As are we.

Lisa :-] said...

Robin, you have done a fabulous job of expressing why adherents to various faiths should just leave each other the hell alone. "To each his own... and all that. If only we could get the rest of the fractious human religious community to hear and understand your words. Although I suspect that people who use their religions as weapons really have little connection to "God" or even to faith. Vioent people will make use of any weapon they can get their hands on...

Gannet Girl said...

That wasn't what I intended to argue at all. Get in each other's face? No. But we do share a planet, and there's no reason we can't share our concerns and interests and faiths as well without killing each other in the process.

Kathryn said...

"I didn't feel any compulsion to abandon my own heritage."

This was the net result of the exploration I did approximately 10 years ago. I love the explanation that God finds us where we are and we find God from where we are. It's the reaching, not the form, that matters.

Love Jodie's tie in to Pentecost. I never thought of that way.

Cynthia said...

I'm not articulate enough now to express the thoughts you've prompted in me, but I love these entries, and I'm grateful for them.