Since multiplied volumes have been written in the attempt to define culture, offering a description in a single short essay is certainly presumptuous. This apparent presumption is exacerbated by the fact that social scientists (anthropologists, sociologists) and humanists approach the topic quite differently. For a Christian and theologian, this presumptuousness is further underlined by the fact that the Scriptures themselves offer no deliberate or explicit discussion of the subject.
Nevertheless, some of the most heated conversations in contemporary Christendom concern the relationship between Christianity and culture. Those conversations affect virtually every area of church life. The problem is simply too important to dismiss.
Without at least a preliminary description of “culture,” this entire conversation becomes nonsensical. Without a mechanism to distinguish culture from non-culture, the discussion can broaden to include almost anything. Some attempt at limiting the field of enquiry is obligatory for those who wish to pursue this debate.
From a Christian perspective, certain distinctions seem especially important for a correct description of culture. Without these distinctions, discussions of Christianity and culture quickly become confused. These distinctions are two in number.
First, culture is not equivalent to the created order. When God created things like light, seas, stars, birds, beetles, and aardvarks, He was not creating culture. Granted, such things do provide raw materials upon which cultures operate, but by themselves they do not constitute culture. Gefilte fish and lutefisk are aspects of cultures. Carp and cod are not.
Second, culture is not the same thing as “the world” in any biblical sense of that term. Of course, Scripture uses the expression world in a variety of ways. Among other meanings, the term may denote the created order, the mass of humanity, the present age, and systematic human opposition to God. This is not the place for a discursus on worldliness, but the idea of culture does not correspond neatly to any of the above. Participation in a culture is certainly not by itself “worldly” in the biblical sense of the term.
What is culture, then? First and foremost, cultures are humanly invented systems. That does not mean that all humanly invented systems are cultures (though most are parts of some culture or other). What it does mean is that cultures are created by people and that they display order and pattern.
In Genesis one, the creation narrative shows God taking His world from a condition of lesser order to a condition of greater order. As part of that ordering process, God made human beings in His own image and likeness. He invested them with dominion and gave them His blessing to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. In other words, God committed to humans the task of bringing yet further order to creation.
Humans are unlike God in that they cannot create ex nihilo. Yet they are like God, and one of the points of likeness is that they do create. They display their creative impulse whenever they wrestle their world from a condition of relatively lesser order into a condition of relatively greater order. This includes not only the natural world, but also the world of their relationships. Ultimately, it even includes their own inner worlds.
They do this because they are image and likeness of God. For people to impose higher order upon more primal order is a God-like activity. When they perform this task well, they have the capacity to image God. In other words, when humans instill the right kind of order, they actually reflect the character and glory of God so that other humans (and other moral beings) glimpse something of the Creator. Working together, humans exercising dominion should be like many glass prisms in a chandelier, each reflecting and refracting God’s character so that the multi-faceted nature of His glory is seen in all its beauty.
Some theologians speak of a cultural mandate. The notion of a mandate, however, seems to be superfluous. While the imperatives of Genesis 1:21 are often misread as commands, the text explicitly calls them blessings. God does not have to command humans to create cultures. He has blessed them with this capacity as part of their being. He has hardwired it into them. Wherever they go, this is what people do. They are fruitful and they do multiply. They fill the earth and subdue it. In that respect, they are doing precisely what God meant them to do—and what they cannot avoid doing. Human beings are inveterate exercisers of dominion.
Of course, not all assertions of dominion are now good. Sin has entered the picture, and in marring individuals, sin also mars the cultures that they create. The effect of sin upon culture is a topic that must never be under-rated. Nevertheless, even the capacity of sinful people to create cultures marred by sin is a gift of God. It is a token of the original blessing that was pronounced upon humanity by a benevolent and glorious Creator.
Cultures, then, are humanly invented systems. What gives rise to those systems? Are certain conditions necessary for the emergence of a culture? The answer is likely yes. People respond by creating cultures when at least three elements are brought together.
The first element is an encounter with the created world. Location in time and space has a powerful influence upon the development of cultures. People living by the sea will necessarily develop different habits and customs than people who live in a desert. Those who dwell in the tropics face different circumstances and challenges than those who live above the fold in the map. Cultures emerge from and are changed by the availability of resources, by the occurrence of natural disasters, and by the passage of time.
The second element is the presence of other people. A solitary individual living in total isolation can hardly be spoken of as having a culture. Such a solitary individual may organize patterns or habits, but until these patterns are touched by the presence of other people, they remain merely idiosyncratic. Being made in God’s image requires a third party, someone to whom God is to be imaged. This is perhaps the most important reason that it was not good for the man to be alone.
Juxtaposition with other humans necessarily modifies the way that one touches the natural world. Two people cannot both catch and eat the same small fish. Some adjustment must be made, and out of such adjustments arise concerns for justice, equity, liberty, mercy, sacrifice, and other moral qualities such as those that are summarized in the Second Table of the Law. Consequently, the creation of culture involves more than the ordering of the natural world. It also includes the ordering of social systems.
The encounter with the natural world and the presence of other humans leads to the invention of technologies. These technologies reflect their geographical, temporal, and social locations, but they also alter those locations. Through technologies, humans become capable of manipulating both the natural world and each other. From a cultural point of view, technologies never merely exist. They always change the culture.
The third element in the creation of culture is a shared vision of the nature of reality. This vision must include some understanding of both the immanent and the transcendent orders. It will incorporate unseen actualities and accepted moral verities that are believed to affect the arrangement of both the natural and social world. In short, a culture incarnates and expresses a religion.
Religion affects everything in almost everything about a culture. Art, science, technology, jurisprudence, work, domestic relations: little or nothing is left untouched. Religion becomes the lens through which the whole natural and social worlds are viewed. People groups with different religious perspectives will naturally have different social arrangements, but they will also appropriate the created order differently. The Israelites of the Old Testament, for example, were expected to treat both the land and each other differently than the Canaanites whom they displaced.
In other words, a culture is more than just a system. It is a system of meaning. The various aspects of a culture point beyond themselves to a vision of reality—indeed, a vision of God. A culture is not simply something that is. Rather, a culture signifies. That being so, the significance(s) of any culture is capable of being understood and evaluated.
A culture is a shared phenomenon. A culture will typically contain permutations and variations, but it will also exhibit regularities. The permutations come from differences in interest. The regularities come from shared interests.
In the past, cultures were held together by what is sometimes called the “fabric of society.” This fabric bound the culture together at points of shared interest to prevent it from disintegrating because of diverse interests. For example, the people of a particular region typically shared interests unique to their region, whatever their class might be. The people of the same class typically had interests unique to their class, from whatever region they might hail. One set of interests worked to hold people together even if another set tended to push them apart. The more levels at which individuals shared interests, the stronger a culture was likely to be.
Shared interest, however, is not by itself sufficient to produce a strong culture. Cultures have always required an overarching commitment to a shared metaphysical vision. For the culture to survive and to succeed, participants in the culture had to see reality through this vision. Ultimately, of the three elements that form a culture (the created world, the presence of other people, and a shared understanding of the nature of reality), this was the crucial element. Cultures could and did survive epidemics, famines, invasions, and migrations. They could not survive fundamental shifts in commitment. To change the shared vision is necessarily to change, or even abolish, the culture itself.
If they are to be useful, discussions of Christianity and culture must have some idea of what a culture is. This essay has argued that a culture is a humanly invented system of meaning that responds to at least three elements. The first is an encounter with the natural world. The second is the presence of other people. The third and most important is a religion, for every culture is the incarnation of a religion. Cultures are meaningful, and their meaning can be evaluated. Therefore, any discussion of Christianity and culture must take account of the significance of the cultures that it purports to examine.
Truth and Divine Love Rejected by the World (Translation)
William Cowper (1731-1800)
O Love, of pure and heav’nly birth!
O simple Truth, scarce known on earth!
Whom men resist with stubborn will;
And more perverse and daring still,
Smother and quench, with reas’nings vain,
While error and deception reign.
Whence comes it, that, your pow’r the same
As his on high from whence you came,
Ye rarely find a list’ning ear,
Or heart that makes you welcome here?
—Because ye bring reproach and pain,
Where’er ye visit, in your train.
The world is proud, and cannot bear
The scorn and calumny ye share;
The praise of men the mark they mean,
They fly the place where ye are seen;
Pure Love, with scandal in the rear,
Suits not the vain; it costs too dear.
Then, let the price be what it may,
Though poor, I am prepar’d to pay;
Come shame, come sorrow; spite of tears,
Weakness, and heart-oppressing fears;
One soul, as least, shall not repine,
To give you room; come, reign in mine!