Cultural Relativism in Religion

          In an attempt to be culturally relevant and socially accepted, people go to great lengths to change behaviors, clothing, habits, and food. Cultural relativism can be seen in the teenager’s desire to imitate elements in pop culture. It can also be seen in the government’s attempt to accommodate and respect people of different nationalities and religions. It can also be seen in Christianity. For example, in Asia, the church buildings are built to resemble Buddhist temples. In America, some churches say Jewish prayers. In one case, a friend of mine told me that a church he visited had Chinese decorations in order to remember one of their missionaries in China; one of the decorations was more religious than merely cultural. Obviously, there is a limit to how much one person can be culturally relevant without compromising his/her faith or own religion. I have discovered that I had allowed culture to dictate what I believe rather than what my Religious Text actually recorded.

catholic-church-dalat

          Like many who reach adulthood, I questioned the logical validity and historical reliability of my faith. I was baptized at 5, and throughout my childhood and teenage years, I was at church 5 days per week for various activities: Sunday morning meeting, Sunday evening meeting, Wednesday night meeting, Thursday night prayer, Tuesday night Bible study, and Saturday morning visits for evangelism. I attended a Christian school from K5 to 12th grade, and I graduated from a Bible college with a bachelor degree in Bible. After leaving the American Baptist subculture to live in Vietnam, my mind began to forget the subculture and learn a new Vietnamese culture, having its own religions, ethical standards, food, and social policies. A few years of home Bible reading and self-study led me to question the logical validity and historical reliability of my Baptist faith until I came to the conclusion that the American Baptist subculture does not accurately reflect the faith and practice from God’s people in Scripture. In order to be God’s people, we have to disassociate ourselves from our own national cultures and subcultures, and take on His own culture.

          In Vietnam, the Chinese Zodiac and lunar calendar play an integral role in society. It affects public holidays, dates set for weddings, dates set for induced births, and professions that parents choose for their children’s future. Fortune tellers utilize the calendar to give supernatural insight into the fortune or misfortune of when to do something and who to associate with. The affects of the calendar transverse all Asian religions and are accepted as general social norms. Yet, it is clear to see the religious implications of living according to the Chinese Zodiac, the Chinese lunar calendar, and the fortune tellers. Certainly, God makes it clear that it is an abomination and idolatry to live a life in practice of these things according to the calendar.

chinese-zodiac-chart

          In the US, the public do not think that the Gregorian Calendar affects their own life or has any implications on their religion. They consider the calendrical events like New Year, Christmas, Easter, and the beginning of each season, to be social norms that transverse all Western religions. Yet, the origins of these set dates are rooted in specific practices from Roman, Greek, and Norse mythology. These dates are so emphasized in Western culture than not participating in them will deem someone a Scrooge or someone who refuse to be happy and festive. In Western religions, not participating in them may call into question the person’s character, faith, or salvation. At the very least, the social identity of the person will no longer be Catholic or Protestant, making him/her a minority. The public are expected to participate in Christmas and Easter events in some way as they transverse Western religions.

easter-etymology

          In the previous example concerning Vietnam’s culture, I am sure that most people from my previous American Baptist subculture would agree that Christians should not be involved in activities related to the Chinese Zodiac and lunar calendar. Yet, many Vietnamese Christians will consider their calendar as cultural and not religious. In the previous example concerning America’s culture, Vietnamese Christians typically participate in events like Christmas and Easter, not because the dates are found in Scripture, but because they have been borrowed from Western Christians just as Western Christians have borrowed them from Rome and Greece.

     God’s instructions and expectations transcend all national identities, cultures, religions, and social norms. Yet, readers of His Scripture often understand His words from their own presuppositions. For example, they may assume that their own practices according to their national calendar to be unaffected by Scripture since the calendrical events are social norms rather than religious. However, all presuppositions and preconceived ideas about the way things should be must be left on the table. God’s culture is that which has been clearly defined in Scripture in its historical, social, and cultural contexts.

          As an example of what I mean, let us consider the following statement: “You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of Yehovah your God which I command you” (Deuteronomy 4:2 NASB). Does this statement mean the Law of God (i.e. Law of Moses) applies to everyone today since it cannot be changed? We must understand the historical, social, and cultural contexts. In this context, God spoke to the people of Israel who had just left slavery in Egypt. During the 400 years or more between Abraham and Moses, society had drastically changed for Israel. They were first nomadic shepherds, then they were honored guests in Egypt, then they were slaves in Egypt. In the process of time and change, ending up as slaves in Egypt, the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob seemed long ago and far away to the sons of Israel. But God again confirmed His covenant of promise with the children of Israel regarding the Promised Land. As He stated just one verse before, “Now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I am teaching you to perform, so that you may live and go in and take possession of the land which Yehovah, the God of your fathers, is giving you” (Deuteronomy 4:1 NASB). Therefore, this verse does not conclusively apply to all people everywhere for all time. At this point, I am sure that those in my former American Baptist subculture are pleased to read this.

          Let us take one more example. The next example may not be comfortable for many people, but comfort is not the issue. The unconformity of truth is the issue. God’s Scripture does not conform to the comfort of any culture or norm.

So keep the words of this covenant to do them that you may prosper in all that you do. You stand today, all of you, before Yehovah your God: your chiefs, your tribes, your elders and your officers, even all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and the alien who is within your camps, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water, that you may enter into the covenant with Yehovah your God, and into His oath which Yehovah your God is making with you today, in order that He may establish you today as His people and that He may be your God, just as He spoke to you and as He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Now not with you alone am I making this covenant and this oath, but both with those who stand here with us today in the presence of Yehovah our God and with those who are not with us here today. (Deuteronomy 29:9-15 NASB)

In the previous passage, key phrases communicate to us that the covenant we call the Law of Moses is not just from Moses to Israel, but from Yehovah to “the alien who is within your camps” and to “those who are not with us here today.” Throughout the Bible, non-Israelites are invited to share this covenant. A mixed-multitude left Egypt with Israel and were present at the giving of the Law. David’s army had military leaders from other nations, such as Uriah the Hittite. Yehovah used a Gibeonite to be His prophet. The Israelite prophets preached to the other nations. The lineage of Yeshua included non-Israelites by birth. The Covenant is God’s culture and social norm.

          So what does it take to become God’s people and live in His culture? Isaiah answered this.

“Also the foreigners who join themselves to Yehovah, to minister to Him, and to love the name of Yehovah, to be His servants, everyone who keeps from profaning the Sabbath and holds fast My covenant; even those I will bring to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; for My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.” The Lord Yehovah, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares, “Yet others I will gather to them, to those already gathered.” (Isaiah 56:6-8 NASB)

The three basic requirements set by Isaiah are: (1) love the name Yehovah (2) keep His Sabbath (3) hold on to His covenant. These requirements transcend culture and social norms and must take precedence over culture. Loving the name Yehovah defines which god to worship. Keeping the Sabbath defines which calendar to use. Holding to the covenant defines which set of laws to obey. Ruth was an excellent example of someone who considered Yehovah’s words more important than her own culture. She left her country and followed her mother in-law to Israel. “Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may Yehovah do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me” (Ruth 1:16-17 NASB). And Ruth became part of the lineage of David and Yeshua.

          Moving into last 20% of the Bible, let us take one more example where context is key to understanding. The Hebrew lawyer apostle Paul wrote to the non-Israelite assembly of God at the Greek city of Ephesus. He told them to remember that at one time they were foreigners and excluded from the Covenant, but now have been brought into the nation of Israel and included in the Covenant.

Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands – remember that you were at that time separate from Messiah, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Messiah Yeshua you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Messiah. For he himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. (Ephesians 2:11-16 NASB)

By the very idea of being included in the Covenant, this requires understanding and life application of the Covenant. As an aside, the barrier preventing entrance into the Covenant is never stated in Scripture as there is no law in Scripture that prevents non-Israelites from entering into the Covenant. Further contextual study reveals that the barrier was imposed by the Jewish religious system at the time Paul wrote the letter. The Greek language supports this conclusion by dogma which is translated as ordinance and means public decree or public order – not Law. (For a complete contextual and linguistic study, please contact me directly.)

Torah scroll

          Returning to the main point of the article, it is abundantly clear that all people in all time periods are expected to apply the Covenant of Yehovah to their own lives in practical faith. Even before Moses, Noah and Abraham obeyed to the extent of the instructions received from God. Moses applied the Covenant, David did, Yeshua did, and Paul did. (For historical records of Paul’s teachings to the churches, contact me directly.) In the future, Yehovah will again confirm His Covenant:

Now it will come about that in the last days the mountain of the house of Yehovah will be established as the chief of the mountains, and will be raised above the hills; and all the nations will stream to it. And many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of Yehovah, to the house of the God of Jacob; that He may teach us concerning His ways and that we may walk in His paths.” For the Law will go forth from Zion and the word of Yehovah from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:2-3 NASB)

As a result of this understanding that I have received from a simple reading of Scripture without the clouding of my judgement by systematic theology, dispensationalism, and cultural relativism, I have written the following basic statement of faith:

  1. Yehovah is the only true and living God.
  2. Yeshua, supposed son of Joseph, is the Prophet about whom Moses spoke; he is the only birthed son of God; he has become the sin offering for all people; he will become the Messiah (King/Savior) about whom the prophets spoke.
  3. Yehovah created all things through Yeshua in six days. The Creation lasted 6 days, and then there was a Sabbath; the Sabbath today remembers the Creation event and is dedicated to Yehovah.
  4. Yehovah’s words and instructions never change; they are the standard by which all people will be judged on the last day.
  5. Yeshua has renewed the Covenant and invited all people, Israelite and non-Israelite alike, to enter into a relationship with Yehovah.
  6. Salvation is the result of enduring faith in Yehovah and repentance to His words through the sacrificial sin offering of Yeshua himself. Salvation becomes reality at the resurrection of the dead and the judgment on the last day.
  7. Yehovah’s people are typically baptized, take bread and wine (or grape juice), do footwashing, and other holy acts to worship Yehovah and to identify with the ministry of Yeshua.
  8. The Holy Spirit is the power of Yehovah and Yeshua in the lives of those who daily believe and repent.
  9. The Gospel of the Kingdom is (1) the good news of the future righteous rule of Yehovah through His Messiah (2) and the restored relationship to Yehovah through the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Yeshua, supposed son of Joseph.
  10. Particulars not clearly stated in Scripture are not sufficient cause to break fellowship with other believers in God’s Word. Without Yehovah’s mercy, we would all have no hope and be guilty of transgression; therefore, to Him alone is reserved all rights to judge with equity each person’s intent and actions.

About Jonathan Lankford

Jonathan has a Bachelor of Arts degree (BA) in Bible with a concentration in missions and intercultural communication. He also earned his Master's in Business Quality Management (MBQPM) and graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Master's in Education (MEd) focusing on Administration. He has been an educator since 2007, teaching English and humanities in Vietnamese universities. He currently holds the position of Associate Registrar at Tan Tao University, Vietnam.
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