Monday, August 25, 2008

Christianization and Culture

In a conversation yesterday morning, a gentleman claimed that the Midwest wasn't very Christian, compared as the South. I found speaking of the Midwest as not very Christian a little odd, since in my experience (and I believe my ex-patriot Mid-Western friends in Boston would agree), the Midwest is, in general, more conservatively Christian than the Northeast. No, my interlocutor replied, in his view, the Midwest and the Northeast were on about the same level. To illustrate his contention about the great Christian inclination of the South, he pointed to Southern friendliness and hospitality, citing the particular example of greeting one another---even strangers---when walking down the street. If I found the first claim a little odd, I found this second claim absurd, and for two reasons.

First, a cultural practice such as greeting people when walking down the street is not an indicator of the level of Christian inclination of a region because there are warm, friendly cultures that are not particularly Christian. I would have to do some research to pinpoint an actual, specific example of such a culture, but baised on my impressions, I would imagine one could find such an example among the communal, food-pushing cultures in Africa or perhaps India. To rebut my claim, my interlocutor pointed out that for an act to be a righteous act, it must have Christian motivations, which he defined as motivations based in love of God and love of neighbor. I didn't press the issue, particularly because I didn't see the connection between whether or not acts are righteous and the possibility of inferring a region's level of Christian inclination from particular cultural traits; but after some careful reflection, I realized that his rebuttal only emphasized my own point: Because one cannot tell whether a person's motivations are Christian (out of love of God and love of neighbor, according to his definition) or whether a person's nice action is based on some other, non-Christian motivation, one cannot infer the level of Christian inclination of a region from somewhat arbitrary cultural traits such as greeting people on the street.

Second, and more to the heart of the issue, the kind of inference my interlocutor was suggesting about the level of Christian inclination of the South and the Midwest is inappropriate because extroverted openness, such as the kind exemplified by the cultural practice of greeting people on the street, is not a necessary trait of Christian commitment. To claim that it is, I feel, would be to fall in to pietistic legalism, where one's Christian commitment is measured solely or primarily by an arbitrary set of visible actions. Certainly, Christians are called to love their neighbors, but there is more than one way to express that love, and God has created different kinds of personalities that prefer to express that love in different ways. An introvert, for example, may love people very deeply, but in small group situations, instead of in large groups. (I suppose one could claim that introvertedness is a product of the Fall, but I imagine this would be rather difficult to support.) Some people enjoy expressing their love for neighbor through service, and others through giving; but, it would be inappropriate to say that the giver is less Christian because she doesn't volunteer at the soup kitchen, or the servant is less Christian because he isn't good at giving friendly and wise advice. Moreover, some of these acts are merely cultural conventions for the expression of love of neighbor, and are, therefore, not bound up in its essence. There are some cultures (I believe somewhere in Eastern Europe) where men greet one another with a kiss on the lips (in a non-romantic, non-sexual way). I have to say that the idea weirds me out, given the symbolic norms for kisses imparted to me by my American culture; but, the implications assigned a kiss in America (its reservation for romantic lovers or the parent-child relationship) are not inherent in the act itself. Are we going to say that cultures in which people greet one another with a kiss are more Christian than cultures in which people greet one another with a cold, sterile wave or handshake, since a kiss is more intimate and thereby expresses a greater love of neighbor? Hardly. Christian commitment (and the regional level of Christian inclination, which stems from trends in the degree of Christian commitment among the constituents of the region) is measured not by cultural conventions or an arbitrary set of expressions of piety, but by the disposition of the heart.

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