Something I’ve been grappling with lately is what allowances we should make for cultural relativism in a global faith. Seeing as how this section of Acts establishes the full inclusion of Gentiles into the church, it seemed as good a place as any to explore the relationship between doctrine and culture.*
I have read with great interest a couple of blog posts lately that talk about the inadequacy of using Western systematic theology as a means of educating leaders and building the church outside of the Western context. Specifically, William Black, who teaches theology and history at Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School, wondered whether teaching the lessons that have come out of very context-dependent theological struggles in Europe and America is an appropriate way to build up the church in Africa or Asia or Oceania, etc.**
Daniel Kirk takes this idea and blows it out to arrive at questions central to the story of Acts 8-12:
In part, this is the missionary problem, now confronting us all: will we allow the new additions to be Christians without becoming like us? Will we allow the Gentiles in without requiring them to be circumcised? Will we allow the nations in without requiring them to become Greeks?
On one level, I see a lot of wisdom in this line of questioning. Not just the post-Enlightenment theological battles, but the influential texts of the Reformation (Calvin), the Middle Ages (Aquinas), and the early church (Augustine) are all bound, to some degree, in the cultural context in which they were written. Expecting a new believer from the remotest island of Kiribati to become invested in and draw spiritual growth from the lessons of the battles between, say, Athanasius and Arius, seems at least a little ethnocentric.
But that same logic can be extended back even further. The letters of Paul to the churches in Galatia (which we will jump into next week), come also from a specific context. The very questions that Kirk asks above are rooted in and have significance because of the conflict in first century Galatia between Paulines and judaizers.
The fact is that ours is a historical faith in that it makes truth claims about actual history. The relationships and lives that serve as the illustrations and founding facts of the faith involve historical people. We believe Abraham to have been a real person from Bronze Age Mesopotamia. We believe Jesus to have been a real person in Roman Palestine. As such, the actions of Abraham and Jesus and every other biblical figure must therefore be context-dependent.
I don’t make this last point as a challenge to Black or Kirk but as an honest question to no one in particular. Yes, Western theology is rooted in the traditions and philosophies of Greece and Rome and Israel. This means that our understanding of the faith, everything from the battle between homoousious and homoiousious to our rationalistic approach to categorizing the things we believe about God, will have a different degree of relevance to believers in other cultural contexts.
To the limited extent that anyone can shed their own cultural lenses, I’m interested in knowing what the context-independent elements of our faith are. What is core to Christianity, regardless of cultural setting? There has to be something between turning all believers worldwide into Oxford dons, on the one hand, and throwing the four spiritual laws at them and leaving them alone to develop a tradition of faith organically, on the other.***
How can a scripture- and revelation-based faith shed the need for context? I understand that God is not an ancient Greek, but the divinely inspired texts that He has chosen to reveal Himself to the subsequent generations are. Such a focus on cultural context, to me, risks suggesting that the Bible is only God’s revelation to Western civilization and that other, non-rationalistic, non-textual, non-Greco-Judeo-Roman (let’s pretend that’s a thing) cultures have a different and equally valid means of knowing God. Where is the sustainable middle ground, one not arbitrarily chosen for convenience, but that represents both the universality and the absoluteness of God?
* So humor me if this post doesn’t zero in on specific stories, verses, or lessons.
** Incidentally, I forwarded that post to my buddy Dustin, over at PfC, who has served as a missionary three (?) times in Kenya and who has some friends still there. He forwarded the article to them, who then sought out and met with Black, which led directly to this post. Heady days here at NatNav (a nickname I just coined for this site), as we wade full on into the ongoing conversation of the Christian blogosphere.
*** I know there were other elements at play here, but the cardinal cautionary tale I think of here is that of Hong Xiuquan, who, in the 1850s, interpreted/twisted the Gospel in a Chinese context and ended up declaring himself the brother of Jesus and starting a decade-long civil war that killed tens of millions of people.