The God of Culture

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Our Advent Series on the Incarnation wraps up with anthropologist and archaeologist Paul Wason, who believes we need a conversation about culture and the God who became a human. – Drew

You don’t often see it put this way on Christmas cards, but here’s what happened. Through the Incarnation, God became a real, live member of a species of mammal, a kind of primate known as Homo sapiens. He used tools to shape wood, Aramaic to commune with his neighbors, and had fish for dinner.

Jesus is a cultural being. With the incarnation, to quote Karl Barth, “theology has become anthropology because God has become man.”

Cultural Beings

All humans are cultural, but culture—traditions of ideas and behaviors transmitted socially—is not unique to humans. The chimpanzees studied by Jane Goodall prepare twigs as tools for gathering termites. Whales also exhibit learned traditions, both in songs and feeding behaviors. Even New Caledonian crows make tools. Not bad for bird brains.

Nonetheless human cultures differ dramatically, in part due to our fondness for innovation. Invented some 1.5 million years ago, even hand axes were refined over time, albeit with new models only appearing every 200,000 years or so, a pace unlikely to satisfy my fellow mobile phone users.

We are also second-generation culture bearers. Because our hand-axe wielding hominin ancestors possessed cultures, we evolved by adapting to a cultural world instead of directly to the natural world. Culture shapes not just tools, but every aspect of our lives, through our capacity for conceptual thought, sophisticated languages, cooperativity beyond genetic relatedness, and our imagination, creativity, and pervasive sense of transcendence.

Cultural transmission also differs substantially from gene-based transmission. It makes us capable of rapid behavioral change. And great ideas can be transmitted from anyone to anyone—even from children to parents (if the parents aren’t careful) or from Aristotle to me (OK, bad example).

Culture change is immensely important, and in theory the possibilities are endless. But in practice, some ideas are easier to think than others. That is, cultures constrain as well as enable, for each provides but a limited window on reality. Hence Charles Taylor’s question in The Secular Age, “Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy but even inescapable?”

Through the Incarnation, Jesus, too, was immersed in one place, time, and culture. A place where some thoughts—say, about how to recognize the Messiah—were easier to think than others. And yet, his coming was a gift for every time and culture. Christena Cleveland put this nicely:

“If Jesus had wanted to stick to his cultural comfort zone, to be perfectly understood by those around him, to only spend time with those who spoke his language and shared his worldview, he never would have come to Earth. By temporarily leaving the celestial community of the Trinity (the purest, most cohesive, most supreme cultural group ever) to embody humanity and commune with us, he inaugurated a world of cross-cultural relationships, proving that he can empathize well across cultures. … He is perfectly cross-cultural. He is perfectly incarnational.”

Perfectly Cross-Cultural

Every human who encounters the gospel receives it through his or her culture with its unique combination of insight and limitation. But the Church has resources for expanding our horizons. The most important is revelation itself. If we can avoid too thoroughly domesticating it to our own cultural view of reality (a big “if”), a much wider window on reality opens to us. This can alert us to where the fundamental ideas and values of our specific time, place, culture enrich us—and where they instead lead us astray. Jesus, like each of us, was born into a specific culture. But he spoke often with the Father. He was not fully domesticated by his culture. And so, for us, listening to Jesus as a form of revelation that makes sense to primates can illumine all other knowledge.

But how do we avoid domesticating the gospel? Another resource is the world-wide Church. While peering out our different windows has led to much confusion and conflict among peoples of the world, perhaps instead we can benefit from these differing cultural perspectives. Most helpful is serious engagement with people of faith from different cultures—not just “tolerating” people who view the world through different windows, but taking advantage of each other’s unexpected, possibly even disturbing, insights as we study the Bible and discuss life’s biggest questions. Second best is studying writings from these varied cultures.

And since people in the past also viewed the world through different windows, we might follow C. S. Lewis’ recommendation to read old books, all the while remembering that “two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.”



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