Friday, October 17, 2008

Christians, Anthropology, and Cultural Difference

The following was originally written in February 2007. It is posted here for the first time:

One of the primary things that anthropology offers to the Christian liberal arts student is ways of learning to listen to socially and culturally different others, even when disagreeing with some or all of what the others are saying. Not only are such skills useful in conventionally “cross-cultural” settings, but in our increasingly multicultural and globalized world they are foundational (even prior) to being able to formulate and voice a Christian perspective likely to influence cultural discourse and public policy over the long term.

I would argue that such perspectives (the practical outcomes of the anthropological perspective of “cultural relativism”) are fundamentally biblical. Consider the Lord’s widely quoted statement in Isaiah 1:18: “Come, let us reason together” (not “Come and let me preach at you,” although he does plenty of that in adjoining verses). Read out of context, which is how most evangelicals appropriate this passage, the appeal suggests a privileging of inter-cultural dialogue, as the “reasoning together” dialogue between God and man is the most profoundly “cross-cultural” one that can be imagined.

Consider as well the Apostle Paul’s efforts—in the face of often strident opposition from Jewish cultural homogenizers—in formulating the approach to law, culture, and grace (e.g., Galatians 2-5) that informs our understanding and practice of Christianity today (it probably helped that he was raised in a multicultural city and was commissioned for his missions by a multicultural church – see Acts 11:19-26, 13:1-3). Consider also the Old Testament admonition (Leviticus 19:33-34; Ezekiel 47:22-23) to treat foreigners with the same love, respect, and rights as if they were native-born members of one’s own people (which, of course, did not mean taking on their religion – one can certainly be cultural relativist without being panreligious!).

[I realize my citation of such Old Testament passages is undermined by their insistence that sojourning foreigners follow Jewish law with the same rigor as the Jews do. In response, staying true to the hermeneutics of my evangelical upbringing, I would argue that the multiculturally-oriented grace preached in Paul’s epistles supersedes the letter of this particular aspect of the Old Testament law (see Galatians 3:23-28, 4:21-31, 5:1-6). ]

Buttressed by even stronger material in the New Testament, such passages parallel Jenell Paris’s recent argument that cultural anthropology can and should be an expression of Christian love for others, particularly (as I understand it) facilitating empathetic cross-cultural exchanges grounded not in pity or paternalism but rather in respect and empathetic curiosity about the others’ perspectives, felt needs, and experiences (see Jenell Paris, 2006, “A Pietist Perspective on Love and Learning in Cultural Anthropology, Christian Scholar’s Review, 35 (3): 371-385).

Overall, as a Christian trained in anthropology who studies other Christians (among other things), I find myself increasingly drawn to Paul’s metaphor of the “body of Christ” (I Cor. 12), with Christ (and nobody else) portrayed as the head of a trans-cultural, multidimensional Christian community in which all the parts are to interact supportively (Col. 1:18, 2:10; Eph. 1-22-23; 4:15-16; 5:23). Paul uses this metaphor not only to urge peace and humility within particular congregations but also to suggest how we should treat one another across cultural and national boundaries. The metaphor is cited in enough disparate contexts as to suggest that Paul intended it to apply not only within particular congregations, denominations, or cultural communities, but also to the trans-cultural church as a whole, making his metaphor the ultimate charter for cross-cultural respect among Christians.

I am also attracted to Paul’s widely quoted Galatians 5:13-26 passage on the works of the flesh and the fruit of the spirit, which even more directly argues for cross-cultural respect. This passage comes at the close of an extended argument addressing a fundamentally cultural conflict between Judaizing Christians and Christians who were not conforming to Jewish law. Paul’s response, here as elsewhere in his letters, was to preach cross-cultural tolerance within the framework of faith in and obedience to Christ. Read in this context, the passage even goes so far to suggest that the Judaizers’s cultural intolerance was directly opposed to the Spirit of God, a suggestion that has important implications for our understanding of similar intolerance today. There could hardly be a stronger argument for the importance of judiciously applied cultural relativism—and for the cognitive-relational tools taught in cultural anthropology courses.

If I may be allowed to preach a bit, for many years North American Christians have tended to act as if they were the hands, feet, heart, head, and brains of the international body of Christ. Today many North American evangelicals realize that such attitudes are not appropriate, but they may not be clear on how to avoid expressing them in practice. Anthropology, particularly in its contemporary critiques of power, discursive structures, and ethnocentrism, has a role to play in equipping evangelical Christians for more faithful adherence to Paul’s model, while also giving them skills and perspectives sure to be practically useful in fields as diverse as missions, community development, peacemaking, social services, and, yes, even politics, literature, and cultural criticism.

No comments: