Culture: Blessing or Bane?

This is a tough one. One one hand we see a newness in celebrating diversity and on the other it appears that the emergence of culture was a form of punishment by God when he confused people’s languages at the Tower of Babel. 

Erin Meyer’s Culture Map

In the United States celebrating significant cultural events (Cinco de Mayo, St. Patrick’s Day, etc.) is part of who we are as a nation. And yet at the same time we bemoan and protest the fact that minority groups are still victims of discrimination. So which is it? More culture, less culture or what? 

I believe some clarity on the issue will salve the confused. The book of Genesis gives us a full account of what happened. God created everything and assigned humankind to have responsible dominion over his creation. Adam and Eve had complete freedom to do anything they pleased except eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They succumbed to the serpent’s temptation, ate of the forbidden fruit and God punished them. 

Man continued in rebellion which ultimately resulted in God destroying his creation save Noah, his family and anything on the ark. It did not take long before the lessons of the flood were forgotten. Instead of obeying God by “filling and subduing the earth” man decided to come together and make a name for themselves.1 God could have punished them with equal flood-like results but in an act of mercy God decides instead to thwart their plans by confusing their one language and disperse them over the face of the earth. And we have needed translation services ever since. 

Understanding each other across cultural difference is a challenge.2 But it’s a welcomed challenge. And here lies the beauty of the Gospel. If all we have in this life, devoid of hope and restoration, we will be doomed, hopeless in our human interactions. Frustrations, civil unrest, chaos, all the accompanying social ills would be the norm in a post-truth society. 

However, the good news, the thing we hope for, the answer to our prayer “thy kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” will be fulfilled in a curse that has been redeemed. William Edgar wisely points out that access to the tree of life that was taken away from us due to sin is now present in the new earth for the healing of the nations (Rev 22:2, 7; 22:14, 19).3 Further it appears there will be a great celebration praising and worshipping God in the eschaton, “After this I looked, and behold, 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!’”4 It is clear by John’s choice of words, “nation”, “tribe” and “languages”, that what began as instruments of the curse in the book of Genesis is now redeemed in Revelations. We start in the garden and we find ourselves back in. Only this time enriched by each others strengths and nothing of our weaknesses.5 That is the gospel message. Is culture a bane or a blessing? It’s both.

Is An Economy Devoid of Morality?

Karl Polanyi’s seminal work, The Great Transformation: Political and Economic Origins of Our Time is to be commended for pointing out the dire consequences of leaving market economies unchecked. During his time the role economy played in people’s everyday lives was taken for granted. The idea was simple then. How does one make a lot of money? Making lots of money equated with progress, so the thinking went. Progress meant opportunities, stronger local and national economies, innovation, low employment, etc., but most of all it attained peace.1 Peace was attained at the expense of liberty. When a people lose their sense of priorities, first things become second things, then second things become first things – a sort of Faustian bargain.

The 100-year peace preceding the Great War proved to many that whatever economic mechanisms were in place worked, and the bargain appeared to work. However, that did not last. The forces sustaining peace broke down. What caused its demise? A cursory reading of Polanyi, even by experts, might suggest that it was the result of a cultural milieu bent on prosperity in Western Europe in which markets were left completely autonomous. That human society accumulated wealth at the expense of other human needs is important to consider in this discussion. Polanyi blamed and bemoaned the fact that human society was subordinated2 by economics and not the other way around as it ought to be. However the charge that self-regulating markets caused societal decline leading to wars is too hasty. I realize this is a minority position and needs defending. My three main arguments are:

  • Polanyi himself did not make that claim. He said it himself in the beginning of his book:

“But if the breakdown of our civilization was timed by the failure of world economy, it was certainly not caused by it. Its origins lay more than a hundred years back in that social and technological upheaval from which the idea of a self-regulating market system sprang in Western Europe.”3

This is honest. To say that two things have a correlation but not causation is an important and honorable distinction. For example, we all know the rooster does not cause the sun to rise even though we observe the two occurring tother. The cause was something else which segues to the second observation.

  • Greed and jealousy caused economic collapse which led to wars, not the proliferation of self-regulating markets.

Polanyi writes:

“British and French interests differed in Africa; the British and the Russians were competing with one another in Asia; the Concert, though lamely, continued to function; in spite of the Triple Alliance, there were still more than two independent Powers to watch one another jealously.”4

He adds that this started the formation of alliances among the super powers, thereby threatening world peace. 

The 19th century experienced a boom in new infrastructure. Railroads were crisscrossing plains once desolate, the telegraph was invented and the industrial age was in full swing expanding the middle class. The upsurge in new technologies and innovation caused nations to compete against each other. World leaders began manipulating their currencies (now detached from the gold standard) resulting in imbalances of exports/imports. To the degree nations deal with these challenges is the same degree to which peace and prosperity either is maintained or sacrificed.

  • Polanyi’s discussion of the “balance of power” neglected to mention the genius of the United States constitution. His working definition appears to have only included a potential of two powers, that of the government and that of the governed. This was a popular view in British history5 until it was not in 1776. Polanyi argued that because the balance of power was shifted from the government to the people, sound economic policies were ignored thus contributing to his thesis that self-regulating markets do not work. However, this thinking becomes moot in light of the American Revolution. The balance of power principle as it was conceived in the British empire did not go far enough. It was not enough to consider two opposing forces jockeying for their own interests. This set up only served to pit people against their rulers. The American experiment took those powers and subdivided them even more. The revolutionaries wanted to ensure that no one person could dictate the affairs of the governed, thus establishing three branches of government. Each looked upon the affairs of the other, which the Weimar Republic failed to see.

Finally, there is the myth of self-regulation that needs to be addressed. Polanyi was convinced that a self-regulating economy was not good for the public good. However, the more insightful question to be asked is since when have we not had a self-regulating economy? And even if we had one, which I think we do, who would be responsible for regulating it? Is it the government or the governed who controls the economy? Ultimately it is the people who regulate it because fascist regimes eventually get replace by benevolent ones. Moreover, it is hopelessly difficult to differentiate the ideals of the government and the governed. This was made clear even from the opening lines of the U.S. Constitution (Preamble), “We the people of the United States…” in that the people themselves are the government. 

Self-regulation does happen. It happened in the 1930s to correct the market after the Great Depression under Herbert Hoover and as recently as 2008, after the Great Recession by Barack Obama in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.6

The economy serves the people and not the other way around as Polanyi would assert. This is good. And by keeping first things first we will have learned that there is no place for greed and jealousy, for all they do is “stir up conflict.”7

Who Needs Theology?

The late great R.C. Sproul published a book in 2000 titled The Consequences of Ideas in which he traces, in survey fashion, the contours of Western thought through the ages and its resulting effects on culture. It is one of the best of its kind since it is accessibly written and yet comprehensive in its scope. He starts with the pre-Socratics and takes the reader through the big ideas of Realism, Idealism, Rationalism, Empiricism, Skepticism and Existentialism (the order is intentional); and yes, all these “-isms” have had their consequences.

There is no time and space for elaborating on the evolution of these ideas. However, suffice it to say, the need for theology is dire. For in the study of theology we find the answers to all of humanity’s deep questions, i.e., meaning of life, existence, God, etc. Going back to our progression of ideas above, somewhere between Skepticism and Existentialism, something terribly happened in the world of ideas for which Christianity is still suffering the consequences. 

Consider the following historical segment in the development of ideas. In the 18th century Immanuel Kant, who many consider is the father of modern philosophy, struggled with whether we can know God. Rationalism and empiricism failed to provide satisfying answers. As his ideas developed he argued that our minds distinguish between the phenomenal and the noumenal1; the former being the things perceived by the five senses, the latter being things beyond the realm of knowledge, which included the knowledge of God. He did not set out to argue that objective reality did not exist. However, the wall dividing the phenomenal and noumenal is so wide that one cannot go around it, too deep to get under it and so high that no one can climb over it. But since ethics, the second of Kant’s concerns, is necessary for human flourishing, we must, as Kant argues, live “as if” God exists.

A generation later, Soren Kierkegaard, living under the Kantian revolution, develops his ideas which ultimately leads to the foundation for existentialism. Wracked with guilt about the decadence around him plus his own father’s adultery, Kierkegaard concludes that life only makes sense through pain and suffering. In one of his works he advances his notion of the three stages of life2, each with increasing moral standing. The first two debased stages can be achieved through deliberation. The Religious Stage, the highest of the three, cannot be reached by thought according to Kierkegaard. However, since this is desirable, one must act with pure subjective passion and take a “leap of faith” to the top. This is fodder for what Francis Schaeffer, writing in the 20th century, called the leap to the “second story.” Facts, science, (phenomenal) etc., being bolted to the first story and anything religious (noumenal) is sent to the second story where one has to leap to get there. It’s in the second story where subjective feelings reside, a place where knowledge is impossible.

Ironically, Kant and Kierkegaard were theologians. But their works have derailed Christianity in disastrous ways. The church since the Enlightenment has struggled to regain her prominence and relevance in society. It’s also in this cultural milieu that many Ivy League universities had its beginnings with the mission to educate students in theology in order to evangelize the world. Unfortunately, many of these institutions capitulated to culture and lost their Christian moorings. Anyone today would be hard-pressed to see any vestiges of faith except in the dark corners of these places, relegated to speculations and mere opinions. The distinction and separation between the sacred and secular was secured. 

Some of these institutions remained strong in the faith, but accepted the sacred/secular divide, decided to separate themselves from culture. This is how fundamentalism began. It had great intentions, unyielding to the ebb and flow of culture and go back to basics, the fundamentals of the faith. Despite the noble and courageous efforts of the founders of these places of higher learning were, they missed an important thing: culture. 

Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson in Who Needs Theology?: An Invitation to the Study of God reminds us:

“Christians have always sought to articulate their faith within the context in which God calls them to live and minister. We share the same task. Like our forebears, we desire to set forth our beliefs in a manner that will assist us in being the people of God in our world. That is, we desire a theology that is not only biblical and Christian but also relevant.”3

Of all the theological tools available to us, culture, I believe, is where most of the work needs to happen. The challenges of culture today, i.e., LGBT+, political divisions, tolerance, racial tensions, etc. are not incidental to our theology. They ought to be front and center. That’s not to say that we allow culture to dictate our theology. But more often than not, the church turns a deaf ear to issues that matter most to the folks in our community. The transformative power of the Gospel is more than this, but definitely not less. 

So, who needs theology? To echo Grenz and Olson, we all do4. But let’s add one more thing.  As believers let us also make it our goal to make theology attractive enough that all will want to study it.