Is a person experiencing a crisis of faith actually only experiencing a crisis of culture?

 

As a child, I loved Discover Magazine.

Before I discuss what made Discover so enticing to me, I must first acknowledge that many people under the age of 25 may have no idea that magazines were colorful, printed booklets that arrived in your mailbox monthly. Not only were these magazines a window into the outside world that usually could only be learned of through shows on TV like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and Ripley’s Believe It or Not, but they often brought cutting edge thinking and trends into reach. People like Stephen Hawking weren’t on the local news, but they were in magazine articles that I could read every time a new issue reached my doorstep. Thus, a middle school student with a passing interest in particle physics could immerse himself into discussions over whether string theory was a good way to see the universe’s composition.

Alas, I’m pretty sure Discover no longer exists. But the bright illustrations of scientific theories and full-color photos of stars, planets and nebulae were a gold mine for my imagination. While I had no desire to become a scientist, I loved to think like one.

There was a problem, however, that I began to sense during this time of mental exploration as an early adolescent.

I was also an 11 year old who was brought up in church, and I was being taught all of the basics of reformed Christian theology as explained in my Sunday School classes and Lutheran confirmation studies. Yes, it was a lot of memorizing Scripture, but there were also the discussions of the beginning of the world, Adam and Eve, six-day creation, and the like.

I realize that by even mentioning these issues, you, the reader are likely already drawing conclusions. You probably are steeling yourself in preparation to disagree with the conclusions I will draw by the end of this post, or you will hope and pray that I fall on one end or the other of the creation debate among Christians  – the question of literal Genesis interpretation or an evolutionary, allegorical interpretation -so that you will not have to cast me out of whatever camp you currently fall in.

You don’t have to worry. I don’t belong in your camp, either way. But back to my story.

In the late 80s, there may have been some theological guidance from the Lutheran Church on how to reconcile the scientific community’s views on creation with the Biblical account, but I was not aware of it. Nor did I know who to ask. So a young teen who loves God and loves his Discover magazines is now wrestling with what he sees as competing viewpoints – one of science, and one of faith. On one hand, the beauty and wonder of a big-bang that explodes into billions of galaxies over millennia, and on other other, an amazing God who speaks words and does the same in one day.

I’m not here to argue the merits of either view.  Through my own studies, and as I have taught my children about these issues through classical homeschooling, I have come to my own conclusions, but I’m not writing to convince you of anything.  Sharing my story is a starting point for this look into what I see as an unnecessary conflict in the faith-life of many believers. It is a conflict that has claimed the faith of some, has ruined relationships, and has generally been a thorn in the side of the church for centuries. I will pose the question in this manner to cut to the chase.

Is a person experiencing a crisis of faith actually only experiencing a crisis of culture?

Here’s what I mean.

Often when a person of faith encounters new information that rocks his cultural understanding of the world, there’s an effort to reconcile the two (as  I did when trying to reconcile my love of science with my Biblical understanding). When this becomes difficult, we then either eschew the cultural understanding that created the conflict, or we dismiss the principles of the faith that we held dear. In either case, the problem is that we’ve missed the point of faith in the first place, and elevated culture to a lofty status that it never should have had.

A faith in God surrounds, cuts through and stands above culture. The principles of Christianity are adopted in cultures all over the world because their emotional, psychological, historical and rational attributes are universal. However, it’s natural that these cultures have all expressed these principles in different ways. This doesn’t bother God at all, I believe. A God who told the early church to take the gospels to the ends of the earth certainly was aware that those outside the borders of Israel and Palestine would have very different understandings of the core tenets of Jesus’ teaching.

Unfortunately, we’re often divided in our faith by our application of these principles. In American culture, left vs. right, progressive vs. conservative, pro-life vs. pro-choice, affirming vs. traditional marriage have all become nets of controversy that ensnare our common beliefs and hamstring them into convoluted knots of dissension. In the meantime, people who genuinely believe in the lordship of Christ and in the reality of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit find themselves debating whether any of this can be true, when the people they trust and the cultural construct that led them into faith is rocked by controversy.

God does not change when the culture changes.

That may seem a very literalist and conservative view. But it’s simply a fact. Who God is is who God is, no matter what the culture or the current spate of Christian thinkers has tried to make of him. That fact that should anchor and assure the believer. There is no need to equate a crisis in Christian culture with a crisis in the faith that he or she holds. If Jesus said he is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no man can come to God except through him, there is clearly no place where cultural or social norms then can block that way.

Does that leave a very messy and muddled middle ground where other controversies might arise?

Yes. But God knew that. Paul told his protege Timothy to avoid foolish controversies. Not all controversies are foolish, but in general they have the chilling effect of making us throw away what is the best in an attempt to grasp the almost right.

All of our theological understanding can only hope to be almost right. There’s no award coming to the cultural critic in heaven for being the closest to theological accuracy.

Back to the glossy Discover magazines. By the way, they still exist online.  I still love reading about the science, while I understand very little of it.

Similarly, I continue to study and look into the issues of today, and while I know I’ll never fully understand it all, I will continue to do so from the perspective of one firmly grounded in the reality of Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection.

Well-meaning people on both sides of every modern religious controversy will continue to say that their understanding is the correct one. Cultural viewpoints will continue to clash. This, I know.

Me? I will enjoy the pretty pictures. Read more. Learn more.

And, I will dig deeper into who this loving God really is, and why he placed me on this earth. I will continue to discover  how I can make this life the best I can as he has blessed me with it. I will continue to unpack how the salvation I have experienced in Christ works for a middle-aged African-American man in 2017. And, yes, I will remain friends with and be open to other believers who follow Jesus within a different cultural construct. While I will maintain my convictions and preserve my intellectual freedom, I’m not worried about God’s ability to handle the messy discussions in the middle.

I have faith that things will turn out alright.

 

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Almost Right: Why faith and culture are not the same thing
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