Balancing Culture and Christianity

CS crucifix2

Culture is a word with a depth of meaning – a mixture of pain, joy, pride, love, restriction, and tradition. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definitions include “the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time” and “a particular society that has its own beliefs, ways of life, art, etc.”

One person can have aspects of several cultures. For example, I am American, Midwestern, Catholic, and Caucasian as well as a college student, avid reader, and actress. All of these labels can put me into different groups of people and influence my personality and choices. That is not to say that we are our cultures; they impact and help to form us but do not solely define us.

Although culture has multiple meanings, it is most commonly referred to when speaking of ethnicity and traditions. Hmong, African-American, Korean, Swedish, Latino, Aboriginal Australian – these are a few of the groups of people that one might envision.

Each culture has seven basic elements, as taught in many schools such as Onondaga Central Schools. One teacher outlines these seven aspects: social organization, customs and traditions, religion, language, arts and literature, forms of government, and economic systems. Combined, these elements differentiate cultures from each other.

As a Catholic, we are called to be bringers of the Gospel and thus missionaries. Not all of us will go to foreign lands to spread the words of God. However, our daily interactions with family, coworkers, clients, and friends should point toward His glory and love.

This means both accepting people and encouraging them to grow into the person God intends them to be. Thus, we must learn to appreciate the cultures of other people. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states in 814 the importance of valuing diversity in the Church:

From the beginning, this one Church has been marked by a great diversity which comes from both the variety of God’s gifts and the diversity of those who receive them. Within the unity of the People of God, a multiplicity of peoples and cultures is gathered together. Among the Church’s members, there are different gifts, offices, conditions, and ways of life. “Holding a rightful place in the communion of the Church there are also particular Churches that retain their own traditions.”263 The great richness of such diversity is not opposed to the Church’s unity.

In theory, this willingness to bring all cultures and peoples into the Body of Christ seems simple. After all, we are given numerous scripture passages that indicate that all the earth will magnify the Lord. Galatians 3:28 states, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” while Revelations 7:9-10 envisions, “A great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Obviously, God sees value in bringing all of His creation together to worship Him. Even in that unity, however, diversity is valued. Paul proclaimed in 1 Corinthians 12:12, “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1204 expands on this unique communion of people praising together:

The celebration of the liturgy, therefore, should correspond to the genius and culture of the different peoples.70 In order that the mystery of Christ be “made known to all the nations . . . to bring about the obedience of faith,”71 it must be proclaimed, celebrated, and lived in all cultures in such a way that they themselves are not abolished by it, but redeemed and fulfilled:72 It is with and through their own human culture, assumed and transfigured by Christ, that the multitude of God’s children has access to the Father, in order to glorify him in the one Spirit.

Thus, “it is fitting that liturgical celebration tends to express itself in the culture of the people where the Church finds herself, though without being submissive to it. Moreover, the liturgy itself generates cultures and shapes them” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1207). Going back to the seven elements of culture, one can envision how worship and daily life might appear different.

  • Social organization – In India, men and women are often seated apart at religious and social events.
  • Customs and traditions – Jewish converts might continue to celebrate Hanukkah and other holidays.
  • Language – Mass is celebrated in any Russian, Spanish, or any other language.
  • Arts and literature – The church might be decorated with shells in Hawaii or masks in parts of Africa.
  • Forms of government – Americans pray for their president while the British pray for their queen.
  • Economic systems – The French collection basket will be filled with Euros.

The seventh element, religion, is more difficult to figure out how to address. Despite the importance of diversity, Christians are unified because of their faith in one Father who is the only true God. Thus, one cannot simply accept that another believer prays to the earth or performs rituals to scare away spirits. These might stem from culture, but that does not make them acceptable under the freedom of Christ.

Culture is something that should be valued not feared, but it cannot be upheld as sovereign truth or an entity level with God. Thus, The Catechism of the Catholic Church  in 854 instructs missionaries to use “a process of inculturation if the Gospel is to take flesh in each people’s culture.” This means that Catholic practice should incorporate as well as mold the society around it. The faith must not be altered because of culture but neither should culture be disregarded completely.

Sadly, the past is full of accounts where cultures forced their faith and customs onto others. This has often been done by Western peoples to others but has also played a role in Eastern peoples harming each other or Westerners. Humans are driven by pride, fear, and/or ignorance to set their own culture on a pedestal while oppressing others.

For example, African tribes were forced to speak a certain language and wear certain clothing to be “true” Christians. Was this truly part of the faith or simply one people declaring its culture to be one with the Christian religion?

We might not realize the frequency cultural oppression in the name of religion or people having a faith that is contradicted by their cultural beliefs. These are not topics that we address openly in daily life. However, the deep hurt behind these issues, as well as the misleading paths they might lead to, make these important discussions for us to have within and without our cultures.

How can culture play a role in one’s Catholic faith? What are ways that cultural diversity can provide unity instead of division? When are times that we replace Christianity with cultural beliefs or norms? These are questions that we should try to answer on earth before we are surrounded by the diversity of heaven.

Photography: Kelli Ann Cresswell