Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Theology and culture: Dimensions of Culture

We tend to judge the goodness of a culture based on the standard of our own culture. According to H. Richard Neihbur cultural is a social heritage, a human achievement, a world of values. It is concern with temporal and material realization of values and its conservation. Culture by its very nature is pluralistic.

Narlin and I sometimes get upset with the local people we are working with because we thought that they have doing their work haphazardly. It was frustrating to ask them to do something, hoping that they understood and would do it according to our expectations. But there are just no way could they do things as we wanted them to do. And we blame this on culture. We realized by now that even though we are so like them in many ways, our similarity is only skin deep. Evidently, deep inside we are very much different from them.

Culture is defined by Hiebert as more or less integrated system of ideas, feelings and values and their associated patterns of behavior and products shared by a group of people who organize and regulate what they think, feel and do.

Culture has cognitive, affective and evaluative dimension. Cognitive dimension is the aspect of culture that has to do with the knowledge shared by members of a group or society. It makes community life possible. It provides the conceptual contend of a culture arranging people’s experiences into categories to larger systems of knowledge. It tells people what exists and does not. It includes the assumptions and beliefs we make about reality. It provides the basic ingredients of thought that it is almost impossible to break away from it. Language is a reflection of one’s culture reinforcing the way one thinks. Cultural knowledge is stored in many different ways—books, written materials, billboards, etc. It can also be preserved in oral-tradition like stories, poems, songs, proverbs, riddles, dramas, etc.

Affective dimension, on the other hand, has to do with feelings-appreciation of beauty, tastes in food and dress, likes and dislikes, and even in the expression of sorrow and other emotions. It plays an important part in relationships, in manners of etiquette, and fellowship. It also includes communication of love, hate and other emotions through facial expressions and body language.

Evaluative dimension is from which a culture put values and judges human relationships as to moral and immoral. It involves ranking what is high and low in occupations, habits and attitudes as to what is acceptable and what is not. Value judgments have three types. First is that culture evaluates cognitive beliefs to determine whether they are true or false, whether to submit to scientific findings or remain in their primitive beliefs and conception of things. Second, culture judges the emotional expression of human life—whether to sing in sharp piercing voice or to sing in deep mellow tones. Third, culture judges values and determine what is right and wrong, for example, which to give higher values to concept of moral rightness and justice, or relationships.

Each culture is made of many sets of symbol. A symbol is associated with specific meaning, emotion, or value with a certain behavior or cultural product Symbols must be understood according to their historical and cultural contexts. We can not make judgment to the symbols whether it is good or evil from our own set of criteria. No symbol stands alone; it should be interpreted according to its relationship with other sets of symbol. We do not define the symbol rather the meaning of a symbol is acquired through the definition given to it from the community who create it. It is a part of culture that is shared by the entire community and given the same meaning by that community.

The West has the tendency to separate the symbol from their form and meaning while the Eastern culture could not, they see a complete fusion of symbol and what it symbolizes. Rituals have little meaning in the West, for it is just a symbol of what is going on inside their heart. For non-western people, worship and its symbolisms is not separate from what is happening in the heart and what is going on in the act of worship.

Every individual is shaped and conditioned by the culture from which they were born. Their cultural heritage shapes their view of life and world. Thus rejection of something foreign is inherent in culture. It is not surprising that the gospel is rejected not because they refused to believe in Jesus Christ but because it is being presented foreign to one’s own culture. It is the task of the missionaries to make the presentation of the gospel acceptable to the target culture. What preventing us to do this is the idea that we are compromising the message of the gospel but missionaries from the past were able to do this accompanied by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. This is why the gospel had been welcomed by a whole tribe at one time.

Another good example about the significance of symbols in Asian worship is the celebration of the Lord Supper. I was converted as a Baptist and we are taught by missionaries that the bread and the wine are merely symbols of body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. But for most Asian, it is difficult not to give reverence to these so called “symbols.” We can not help but give these elements special treatment. However because of the repeated emphasis on merely symbolism, most churches have taken the elements for granted. They have lost their “specialness” in our mind that it makes us uncomfortable to see that churches are not taking the elements and the ordinance itself seriously.

This is also true with our concept of a church building. We have been taught (rightly from the Scripture) that the church is the people and that the building means nothing. So Christians can meet anywhere whether in a house or garage. But growing in Asian culture gives us the mindset that there should be a holy place. And as a Christian the church building is considered to be a holy place accompanied by symbols declaring its sacredness. Thus, sometimes worshiping in a house or a garage or under a tree somehow deprives us of feeling that we have really worship. That is even though we know that God’s presence is in our midst and he is not confined in any particular place. Asian culture dictates that there should be a sacred place where the divine is encountered.

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