by Raleigh Terrell
Promoting the good news of Jesus Christ cross-culturally requires the development of both skills and sensitivities. For this, cultural anthropology has proved quite helpful. Anthropology’s insights into the behavior of people in varied cultures help us to discover what things are universal. Recognizing the systematic nature of all cultures (they are not random, collections of exotic components) provides a foundation for cross-cultural interaction. In this tactical aspect, anthropology is a powerful tool for missionaries.
But anthropology also requires that we put ourselves under the microscope along with everyone else. The encounter with different worldviews forces us to reexamine our own premises. Our smug ethnocentrism withers under the humbling realization that God’s world reveals him to be more majestic and awesome than we had thought. It is in this second, profounder dimension of anthropological inquiry that its greatest theological promise as well as perils lie.
Cultural anthropology is not a finite body of data to be learned. Rather, it is a way of observing people systematically, to find structure and predictability underlying what seems to be chaotic behavior and beliefs. The structured behavioral systems are based upon, vast accumulations of empirical data gleaned from observation.
Anthropology plays no favorites. The tiny tribe of technologically simple hunters in a remote jungle is no more nor less important, for the study of human ingenuity and variation, than the multi-ethnic industrial superstate.
Anthropologists have established that just as there is no such thing as a “primitive” language-all languages are very complicated-there are no “primitive” people. Technologies, dress, and dwellings may be simple or complex, but minds and emotions are everywhere equally subtle. The respect the anthropologist has for all peoples, and his conviction that the simplest culture as well as the most complex one has something to teach all the rest of us, are qualities missionaries can well emulate.
Scientifically valid observation requires a willingness to understand all aspects of the culture from the point of view of the participants. We are not to judge another view culture’s practices from the viewpoint of our own cultural background, but rather in their own terms within the other culture. This principle of cultural relativity means that we cannot let our own cultural biases discolor our objective observation.
For example, in order to understand head-hunting, we must approach it dispassionately, to examine its meaning and function within that culture. Even repugnant (to us) practices may be useful Head-hunting may contribute to a strong sense of camaraderie and social solidarity. Head-hunters turn their hostilities outward and live in admirable harmony among themselves.
However, cultural relativism does not necessarily entail moral approbation. Neither scientifically nor theologically is it justifiable to assert that “if it is part ot their culture, then it is all right for them; after all, one culture is just as good as another,” The secular anthropologist may believe that all peoples have the right to carry on their own traditions without outside interference, but he cannot on scientific grounds maintain that some ways of life do not bring more violence and suffering than do others, nor that some provide a much more adequate food supply than others.
The Christian knows that all practices in all cultures, including his own, will ultimately be; measured against the moral absolutes found in God’s Word. “We’ve always done it this way” is no reason to disregard clear scriptural teaching. The Word and the Holy Spirit must be trusted in God’s time to bring people to recognize any true conflicts between their cultural practices and scriptural requirements. There is no theological justification for the sort of stance taken recently by a young missionary candidate: “Oh, we should encourage Chinese converts to continue ancestor worship practices, because ancestor worship has been part of their culture for 4,000 years!”
To make valid observations of other cultures, we must step back and regard our own culture as from the outside. Subjecting our own culture to objective scrutiny brings the shocking realization that often the most exotic practices of others are quite similar to some of our own practices, at least in their underlying concept. When we see that our own culture is just one among many, each in some ways richer and in some ways poorer than the others, we are freed to develop true respect and feeling for those in other societies. This respect is equally necessary both for scientific research and for ministering the gospel
Realizing that their own way of life is just one among many is a. jolting experience for some Christians. It seems to them almost blasphemous to suggest that their own culture is not somehow especially pleasing to God: “But, ours is a Christian culture!” they say. “Surely, it is our Christian duty not only to preach the gospel, but to teach others to strive for the same kind of progress we’ve made.”
Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a Christian culture. Most aspects of culture are morally neutral. One society may have more Christians than another, but what does that mean? Are their everyday activities consecrated to Christ? Do all, or nearly all, of the people consistently show the fruit of the Holy Spirit? If so, perhaps we could speak of a Christian culture. But if there is only lip service to Christ, how can we speak of a Christian culture?
God’s chosen people were not referred to as a “godly culture.” Even that culture” into which God’s son was born, was not held up as a cultural model for all people. During Jesus’ earthly life, Jewish customs in general were neither condemned nor held up for others to copy. Rather, Jesus preached that the Kingdom of God is a matter of heart and mind, attitude, and purity of soul.
“Progress,” meaning technological complexity, is such an important element in European and American culture that Americans can hardly accept that it is not a scriptural notion. It takes an objective, anthropological approach to see that the “good things in life” we feel constrained to carry to other cultures along with the gospel may be tainted gifts. Gross materialism, runaway crime rates, ulcers, and mental breakdowns seem to be the inevitable companions of material progress. From a scriptural perspective, it is difficult to define progress in any way other than drawing closer to God, without taking into account specific cultural forms.
Our objective look at our own culture will make us suspect our culture-bound interpretation of leadership authority. Jesus said that leaders were not to lord it over their fellows like the rulers of the heathens. Missionaries must question their compulsion to instill a spirit of competitiveness among people who lack such a spirit, despite the scriptural injunction for loving cooperation among Christians. In requiring us to examine our premises objectively, an anthropological approach can help us to refine our understanding of God’s will for ourselves and others.
The detached contemplation of one’s own culture is, not only good science but good theology. It is the stuff of prophetic vision. What we might call decontextualization is essential for good missionary work and for sound theology. Theologians limited to one culture are hampered in finding the meaning of Scripture.
In sum, cultural anthropology offers many positive values. It provides invaluable help in communicating .he gospel more effectively. It requires the missionary to look at his own culture in an objective way, which can help him to refine his spiritual perceptions.
Anthropology does not necessarily lead to the sort of cultural relativism often invoked in its name. Anthropology is a versatile tool to be used in God’s service. In this shrinking world of ethnic and cultural consciousness, missionaries, pastors, and theologians alike will find that anthropological insights are of inestimable value in their preparation for service in Jesus’ name.
Copyright © 1984 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved.
Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.*
*As of January 2018: Permission must be obtained from Missio Nexus: EMQ@MissioNexus.org. Missio Nexus, PO Box 398, Wheaton, IL 60187. www.MissioNexus.org/EMQ.