The economist Peter Drucker nailed an important truth in this pithy saying. It is a truth that remains largely unrecognized in contemporary American Christianity.
Perhaps the best way to visual the American Christian illusion is a Venn diagram. We know that there are many different cultures. But we assume that they all overlap with regard to their most important “core” values. And we assume that these core values are the same as our core values: personal freedom, economic advancement, security, the traditional family, the pursuit of happiness, etc.
Of course it is the case that all humans and human societies have certain imperatives for survival, and the value placed on these is found in all cultures and links all cultures together. They provide the basis for constant inter-cultural exchange.
But these are not the core values in these cultures. They are not what animate, drive, and organize personal behavior and relationships. As Hofstede, Minke, and others have both demonstrated and measured, cultures differ dramatically across a number of different value scales. And this in turn creates the potential for both cultural conflict and complementarity.
Without taking cultural differences into account people simply cannot work together effectively.
Now all this is quite well known in business circles and among anthropologists and sociologists. The former sponsored the major research in the area, and the latter carried it out. Where this understanding hasn’t gained purchase is among theologians and church leaders. Whether conservative, evangelical, liberal, or progressive church leaders inhabit a world in which ideological rather than cultural difference takes center stage. And that is also a world of delusion.
A good current example of this is found in the conflicts over same-sex marriage and ordination. In the United Methodist Church of which I am a part the shared assumption of those engaged in the debate is that it is an ideological struggle between progressive and evangelical/orthodox theology. And it takes place within the larger struggle that evangelicals regard as the defense of scriptural authority and “supernatural theology.” Or which progressives regard as the defense of hermeneutical realism, “inclusion” and human rights.
Both sides assume that they are united in their efforts with people of many different cultures that share their particular ideological framework.
I want to suggest that ideological unity is no match for cultural diversity in shaping human relationships. And the UMC is failing to take cultural difference seriously. We’ve taken the debate over normalization of same-sex marriage and ordination and made it the centerpiece of our relationship with African and Asian churches for whom there are both more pressing issues and very different ways of culturally managing gender and sexuality.
And we live in the delusion that because the US voices in the debate currently drown out all others that we don’t need to listen to them anyway.
Just because there is apparent ideological unity in some sectors of the church doesn’t mean that cultural differences won’t emerge to create conflict and division.
I’ll offer just one example. In US culture divorce and remarriage is accepted in virtually all Christian groups, even when it is regarded as unfortunate. Similarly the fact that couples live together before marriage is accepted in US culture – and is virtually a part of daily life in the United Methodist Church regardless of ideological commitments. But in Malaysia and Singapore, from which I’m writing this column, divorce and remarriage regardless of circumstances remove a person from consideration for ordination or force withdrawal from the ministry. And pastors are forbidden to perform marriages of couples who lived together out of wedlock.
The reason for this difference is largely cultural. The dominant cultures have a distinctly different understanding of both marriage and the values that surround it from those found among US Methodists.
So one wonders how, unless these cultural differences are recognized and discussed how any real structural unity will be possible. Will Malaysian churches recognize the ordination of US pastors who are divorced and remarried? What about a couple that lived together before being married in a UM church? Will Malaysians recognize them as participants in a Christian marriage? Will US pastors conform to Malaysian standards of discipline and cultural valuing of marriage?
And I’ve only touched on one of a dozen or more issues where cultural difference creates direct conflicts in the order of the church if we compare Asia and the US. Yet Malaysian Methodists are almost certainly in complete harmony with the theological and ideological commitments of an organization like the WCA.
Is “local option” a cure? Its pretty easy to see that local option is a slippery slope here, because it depends on identifying what is “local.” Does it mean a nation – despite the fact that nations like Malaysia and the US are multi-cultural? Does it mean a particular polity within the UMC?
Recognizing cultural differences, particularly with regard to values, doesn’t mean that unity is impossible. What it means is that unity will be negotiated. It will arise through an intercultural dialogue that eventually brings about agreement on a shared understanding of at least those aspects of the world in which the different cultures engage.
And that takes time. But alas, the clock isn’t even ticking as we try instead to function on the basis of an ideological unity that culture will sooner or later eat for lunch.