My Conundrum with Culture and Immersion

I mentioned in a past post that I think in systems.  Our universe is filled with systems.  Everything seems to be connected.  Influence is happening all around us.  One  thing affects the next. Almost nothing is a truly isolated action. Connectedness just seems to be the thing here where we live.

One of the systems I notice is a human one surrounding the concept of culture and immersion.  I’ve noticed that if you surround yourself with people who have a particular way of thinking or acting, your humanness tends to make you adopt that way of thinking.  It seems really logical when I just say it, but I think we often underestimate just how unintentional this mechanism is.  People conform in this way to different degrees of course.  The least conformist person still conforms in this way, only they do it maybe less and maybe it takes longer.  I think it’s safe to say that this conforming trait is part of what we are as a species.  It’s not really an observation of the age we live in or the society we are in.  I think its a matter of human nature.  Its related to our survival instinct.  Conformity will drive you into communities and communities are safer.

Culture’s affect on us is this very system at play.  Why else would it be that a species have such different behaviours and values depending on where on the planet you live?  It’s not the where that matters, its the who.  More than the who it’s the cultural history that shapes our cultures and in turn our cultural values.  A people’s cultural mind learns through it’s past much like an individual does.  Out of our cuture’s history come ideas that attempt to explain what has happened to us.  We form structures, rules, and values, based on our past.  Some rules that limit and others that protect.  We develop taboos and norms.  We create outcasts.  We create heroes.

When an individual is associated with a people group, the process of conformation begins.  Maybe only slowly and subtly, but it happens.

Lets look at the big picture.  In reality we are all apart of many cultures.  Each is like a blanket we layer onto ourselves.  First we are apart of our ethnicity and our country.  Culture that comes with that.  I am Canadian.  My parents ethnicity affects me as well.  They are Kiwis (not the bird, but the people from New Zealand 🙂 )  My parent’s culture is another layer for me.  Then there is also local culture.  Every city and place has a certain culture, so layer that on there.  Next you probably go to school or work somewhere.  More and different cultures there.  Layer them on!  It’s like a cultural lasagna!  What else?  Do you go to church?  Church culture is a powerful one.  Layer it on.  You are in a relationship here and there, right?  Your major relationships each have a sort of culture to them and they affect us.  Even non-major relationships have a sort of micro-culture.  This is the kind of cultural layer that you can put on and take off depending on who you are with.

Now finally, out of all those layers, you get all the cultural rules, values, and norms that mix and mingle.  You may hold some of them closure than others and allow them to shape you more directly.  And here you are in the midst of it all trying to make the right choices… about life…  Not… easy…  You might even consider yourself to be lost in it all.  You are under all those layers somewhere just trying to be yourself.

How does this relate to my other faith posts, you say?  Well here’s the conundrum.  How do you make room to contemplate the validity of a belief structure that has a strong community focus (like Christianity), while not accidentally engaging that part of our human nature that suggests we be like those around us?  Isn’t there a risk of drawing false conclusions under cultural influence?  Would that matter?

Feeling like your coming in part way through the conversation?  There are earlier posts that share the “faith” tag with this post. Read them if you want to catch up.

Click here to read the other posts with the “faith” tag.

Here’s the thing.  I know this cultural immersion system exists and I know it has a power over me that is beyond my full control.  As far as faith goes, a big part of this for me as been about stepping outside of it all for a time and kind of just… watching.  I almost imagine myself as not a part of the Christian culture.  I consider what it might feel like to be an agnostic or even an atheist.  I do this because in order to think objectively, I think I need the cultural distance.  I think I need to disengage the part of my human nature that will direct me to conform due to my immersion in it all.  I need to try and not tempt my own human instincts.  Or maybe knowing is enough.  Maybe being willing to acknowledge that all this is going on under the covers will provide enough context to help me be objective with myself.

What I don’t really want is to realize in another 25 years that once again, maybe I didn’t choose this Christian life for myself.  Maybe I will have accidentally let others choose it for me.

It’s a funny thought because most of the time you will hear statements in a church like, “If you don’t feel close to God, get closer to God’s people.  Let them teach you.  Let Him transform your doubt into faith.”  Is this really a spiritual thing that happens?  Or is this a human thing that happens when we add a cultural layer?  I have a hard time accepting this kind of immersion as a viable way through what I’m experiencing because I don’t want to be culturally rendered back away form this spiritual ledge.  I want to step away from it by way of a genuine decision, or better yet, a genuine invitation or spiritual experience.

The fact is, Jesus is not the only trans-formative power.  Culture is a power we simply don’t escape from.  What if you mistake a church culture for Jesus and come to believe that Jesus transformed you, when it was actually nothing more than a cultural adoption that occurred?  Is that really all that bad from a Christian context?  When Jesus says to “know” him, does knowing the cultures that speak of him count?  Is that really knowing him?

Some side thoughts related to this… 

If you find that you are intolerant of something and if you can objectively see that your opinion of intolerance may be partly informed by one of the cultures you are a part of, consider what you can do to affect the way your culture shapes your thinking.  Know that your cultures shape your values and the way you think.  Maybe the way to deal with that intolerance is not to separate yourself from those whom you are intolerant of.  Maybe it’s not best to be surrounding yourself with only those who agree with you.  Instead try getting closer to those who best embody that which you do not tolerate.  Take a risk for the sake of another person.  Some immersion in that different culture may serve to help you to see another perspective.  Maybe you’ll gain insight and understanding.  After all, all you’re doing is engaging a natural part of you that will try and think the way those around you think.  In the case of most kinds of intolerance, it might not be such a bad thing to try thinking like someone else for a while.  This idea you don’t tolerate is held by people who live under different cultural layers than you.  Without your cultural layers at play, you are no different than anyone you disagree with.  For me, tolerance probably should be a trigger for people getting closer together so they can understand one another.  Intolerance shouldn’t be a trigger for pushing other people further away.

Basically I’m saying that if you don’t tolerate something, don’t build your defensive philosophical and theological walls before first addressing the human element.  Draw close to one another.  Learn to see things from other perspectives.  Your human nature will kick in and you will soften and be more accepting of others.  I’m pretty sure.

If you are in a culture that says that seeking understanding with another human being is something we should not do if that human being doesn’t already agree with us, I would seriously consider the worth of that culture you are a part of.