Friday, October 29, 2004

THE CHRISTIAN BELIEF AND MODERN CULTURE

THE CHRISTIAN BELIEF AND MODERN CULTURE

By Dr. Wu Ku Sheng


* Yellow shaded regions ------ unsure words or sentences

Modern

The term ‘modern’ can be examined through three different lenses, namely from the aspect of time, from the philosophical point of view and also from the sociological perspective.

From the perspective of time, the word ‘modern’ had already existed since the Middle Ages in the Western world. In the Far East, the term ‘modern’ had existed in China since the Pre-Qin Dynasty era. In other words, the people of that age see themselves as living in the ‘modern world’, which is why in every century there is bound to be a phenomenon called ‘modern’. ‘Modern’ is something which is continually developing, and that is the reason we find it so difficult to determine categorically when this period of time that we refer to as ‘modern’ actually occurs. In another two hundred years, who can say for certain how the people then will view the age we are living in now.

From the philosophical point of view, ‘modern’ philosophy began after Hegel’s death in 1831. (needs to be expanded)

From the sociological aspect, the structure of the term ‘modern’ is made up of three symbolical events. What we refer to as ‘modern’ now, actually encompass events for the past two hundred years. Incidentally, many events have taken place in Europe during the last two centuries and the multilateral impact of all these events have helped shape the structure of the term ‘modern’. This is not to be mistaken as the ‘modern’ viewed in respect of time, since the people of that time essentially viewed themselves as living in ‘modern times’.

During the past two hundred years, at least three of the following events happened at around the same period of time:

1. The Enlightenment movement

This event happened in the 18th century with France as its center. The objective of the movement was to break free from tradition, to dismiss the authority of both state and religion and to pursue personal freedom and rationality. The movement emphasized practicality and reality and rejects that which is abstract or cosmological.

2. The French Revolution

This was basically a people’s revolution. Why did it happen? There are several factors that triggered it – economic crisis, the demand of the middle class for more political power and the influence of the American Revolution for independence in 1776.

In 1789, the French Revolution erupted. The Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed. The revolution was accomplished with the execution of King Louis XVI. What was the outcome of the revolution? The result was greater upheaval in society. The revolution was distorted into a rebels’ revolution, which resulted in Napoleon coming to power subsequently.

3. The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution happened around the late 18th century until early 19th century. This is the economic factor of ‘modern’. As all would know, the revolution was caused chiefly by the development of science, which resulted in the replacement of manual labour by machines. When did it first happen? It started in England and later spread to other parts of the world. The revolution brought about changes in industrial standards and also resulted in the increase of population.

So, we can see that these 3 events happened at almost the same time.

When did the so-called ‘modern’ phenomenon happen in Mainland China? The first Asian country to advance into the structure of ‘modern’ was Japan, and this was related to the Meiji revolution. In the case of China, it occurred in the year 1919, as a result of the May 4 movement or possibly earlier, during the Chinese Revolution of 1911. We can conclude therefore that the China of Asia was in a ‘pre-modern’ age before the 20th century.

What are the characteristics of the ‘pre-modern’ age? Firstly, it is typified by a very strong sense of traditionalism. Instances of this are the deep influence of Confucianism and widespread sexual inequality. Submission to authority is another trait, manifested by a fierce spirit of loyalty and patriotism. Moreover, life carries a certain meaning and society adheres to a certain set of rules.

At the turn of the 20th century, China entered into the ‘modern’ age. Did China voluntarily enter into the ‘modern age’ or was it forced upon her? The answer is the latter. But what made her do so? It was actually the result of external factors. Foreign powers had invaded China, forcing the country to take the path towards the ‘modern’ era.

What are the characteristics of ‘modern’? It is anti-traditional, anti-authority and anti-‘pre-modern’. The dominant element is not the corporate body but the individual, who should be his own master. Reason is considered as the measure of all things; it is the standard yardstick that is to be referred to in any matter. Three different approaches were employed to achieve reason. They are experientialism, scepticism and scientism.

Experientialism basically espouses that only the things that can be seen and heard are considered to be true. In this connection, the experience of the senses forms the basis of all truths. Scepticism, on the other hand, teaches that nothing can be believed completely. In the case of scientism, only material things are real. The spirit, soul, God and supernatural powers are all unreal and illusory.

These three schools of philosophy view Christianity as their common enemy. Even so, the three are not in harmony. Having overpowered the Christian school of thought, they end up contradicting each other. Why so? This was because in certain contexts, science had already foraged beyond the field of experientialism, thus leading to experientialism questioning scientism.

It is impossible for a person to be totally sceptical of everything. If that were so, he would be living in a world full of suspicion the moment he opened he eyes. Even while drinking a glass of water, he might suspect poison in it. If such a person does exist, he will call into question the reliability of experientialism, which claims that only what can be felt by our senses is real. The sceptic will then request that experientialism put forth evidence to prove its claim. Clearly, These three schools of thought contradict each other, which was the main reason why ‘post-modernism’ appear on the scene.

When we consider the Enlightenment movement, it is in a sense a utopian school of thought. It wanted people to believe that the world would get better, that the world would finally become a place where hunger, tears and pain would be removed. Such a utopian outlook sought to make people believe that a civilized society is formed on the basis of reason and common education, without the need for religion. Did the ideals of the Enlightenment movement materialize? They did not. The dreams of these aspirants have all but gone up in smoke. On the contrary, the world is slipping into a deeper calamity: Energy crisis, overpopulation, wars, North-South confrontation, international political instability, erosion of the family institution, decline of moral values, increase of criminal activity and the like. These are the main reasons that led to the birth of ‘post-modernism’.


Culture

The original meaning of ‘culture’ in Latin is ‘to cultivate’. Culture also forms part of the word ‘agriculture’. Culture does not refer only to the cultivation of land, but also the cultivation of knowledge and emotions. Our ability to cultivate comes from God. If God did not create man, then this world would just be a kingdom of animals and culture would not even come to existence. Simply put, culture is man’s activity.

Culture is closely related to the created world. Culture requires the work of cultivation and also an object to which cultivation is aimed at. Without the natural environment, there would be no material for cultivation, and no culture as well. The various aspects of our life, evidenced by varied and diverse fields such as economy, arts, law, geography, and religion, all originated from God’s creating work.

Culture cannot be neutral. Culture is the continuation of an individual’s or a corporate person’s perception of life. Culture can reflect a cultured individual’s perception of life because it is the essence of that very person’s beliefs and thoughts. For example, if a person regards the accumulation of wealth as of uttermost importance, the attributes of fair play, love and honesty would not be of great significance to him.

Let us consider Genesis 4:17: “ Cain lay with his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Cain was then building a city, and he named it after his son Enoch.”

A French sociologist said that Cain was the first person in the world to build a city. Do you remember that it was stated in the first chapter of Genesis that when God created man, he made man ruler over the whole earth, all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground. Does the construction of the city have anything to do with this cultural mission handed down to us in the book of Genesis? If God made us ruler over the natural environment, then what kind of responsibility do you and I have towards the city we are living in now?

When you visit a bookshop, what sort of attitude do you have towards the stacks of books on the shelves? Do you look at these books positively or negatively? What do you think is God’s view on these products of mankind’s culture? Recently, two authors wrote a book on their study of ants and won the Pulitzer Prize. The Chinese version has just been released in Taiwan. Amazing! Hundreds of pages, just talking about ants! I was in a bookshop in Singapore yesterday and there I discovered various types of books, pet books on birds and horses, and even on dolphins. This is part of human culture.

Have you ever been to a boutique? How do you view all the clothes there? Do you feel guilty spending lavishly on the items? Or just plain happy that you can enjoy the product of human civilization? Other than humans, are there any other animals on earth that wear clothes? Closer to home, how does God view the boutiques in Kuala Lumpur? Some of the other questions that we should ponder are:
(i) From what aspect should we view human culture?
(ii) What is our perception of the term ‘culture’? Is it an awful word or a good word?
(iii) Is culture created by God or anti-God?


Christianity and Modern Culture

Let us now shift our discussion to the relationship between modern culture and Christianity. I would like to highlight two books in particular, “The Rise of Religion and Western culture” and “The Rise of Religion and Modern Science”. In the former, the author Dawson made a comparison between Western and Eastern culture. He wrote that the ideology of Eastern religion surpasses time, is unchanging and rests in a perfect state for eternity. In contrast, Western religion with Christianity as its main stream, is a dynamic source of energy, and introduces a spirit, which transforms their world. As illustration, Dawson pointed out that Confucianism in China and the caste system in India are very stable, orderly and undergo very little changes throughout the ages. On the other hand, Western religion does not restrict its influence within the boundaries of religion but extends it to all aspects of life. Subsequently, these two different strands of influence brought about different development of culture. Unlike their Western counterpart, the traditional ways in China and India have reached a crescendo or a bottleneck and can no longer move further beyond.

This is the reason why a lot of people have attributed the development of modern science to the Bible. Why so? Because the Bible had already made the assumption that the universe is orderly, and that there is a principle to be sought out. Those who sought the principle behind the universe and the universe itself are both of the same origin. Both were created by the same God. As a result, both the researcher and the object of research have a close relationship, a common point. Without this as a basis, it is impossible for science to be developed.

Let us quote another example, ‘modern democracy’. Why do we use such a term? Isn’t democracy enough? All of us know that it is modern anyway. Well, that is not quite true. In fact, democracy had already existed in the city-states of Greece 2,000 years ago. However, it is different from the present-day democracy. The former was democracy for the minority, for those who had slaves and servants to serve them. Since this group of people had so much time to kill, they could afford to go to the city council to discuss matters. Modern democracy is very different as everyone can participate in it.

Why was modern democracy formed in the West and not the East? Some say that it is just a coincidence, but actually, there is a reason behind it. Western mentality has two origins: (i) the Greek and Roman culture; and (ii) the Hebrew culture. Both cultures share a common point: “There is a dark force in the inner depths of man.” Although the Greek and Roman culture do not have much to say on this, the Hebrew culture has very strong thoughts on the matter.

When Christian thinkers design the political institution, they will take into consideration the unreliability of human nature. Man needs to be monitored by a higher authority. Modern democracy has 2 basic thoughts: (i) All men are equal; and (ii) All men are unreliable. Incidentally, these two points match the Bible’s view of human nature. Because man is made in the image of God, what makes him precious is not due to his education or appearance, but rather due to the fact that he possesses the image of God. This is why in modern politics each person has one vote. Regardless of his or her physical health or age, each person has only one vote.

Man also rebelled against God. There is unimaginable evil within our very being, which requires the necessity for everyone to be monitored. A Chinese literary critic, Xia Zhi Qing, who is an expert on Chinese novels, found that Chinese novels lack recognition of the evil nature of man, and that is the reason why it is difficult for Chinese novels to evoke the emotions and receive critical acclaim. Great literary novels are able to produce a deep impression and stir up a sense of reality in the mind of its readers due to its picture of the contradiction and conflict within the human soul. A book that fails to depict the evil side of human nature can only tell its readers half the story of human nature and thus unable to touch the emotive chord.

Therefore, the Christian view of the duality of human nature reflects the two extremes of humanity – human can be very noble, yet so despicable.

In the summer of 1787, when the founding fathers of the United States (US) gathered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to draft the Constitution of the US, their hearts were burdened with a strong awareness of the dark side of human nature. Before them was a new country, which had been established for a mere eleven years, and they were filled with hope. But at the same time, they also felt the need to face to harsh realities of the world. It is the sort of mentality, full of hope, yet fearful at the same time that made the US Constitution a lasting and influential one through the centuries. However, some critics argued that the founders of the US at that time experienced the dark side of politics and society, and because of that they noticed the decisive point during the drafting of the constitution. The critics proceeded to question, “Is there a society that is not filled with darkness and evil? Why were the founders of the US the only ones to notice this?” Most historians believe that the Constitution of the US was a continuation of the Puritans’ freedom movement, and going further back, the biblical philosophy of the Hebrews.

In view of this, we can safely conclude that the rise of modern culture is closely related to the rise of Christianity.

What other examples can you think of? The woman rights movement. Is it connected in any way with Christianity? Is this movement more developed in nations where Christianity is influential?

In ancient times, there were six things that a rabbi was prohibited from doing. One of them is that he is not allowed to talk to any female, including his wife, in public. What about children then? Were they cared for so well? After all, they are the hope of the future, and should be given the best treatment. When Jesus told his disciples to let the children come to him, they were not amused. The children of ancient times were no angels. Their mothers do not read bedtime stories to them. They were not so fortunate. If that was the case, how did the emphasis on women and children come about? All these are due to the concern for human, and the concern for life.

During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the American government told its citizens not to travel by air. The lives of Americans were considered very valuable to the country. Do you not feel envious of the US government’s concern for its people? For example, it does not matter how many military planes get shot down, the only thing that matters is the lives of those in it. This lies in stark contrast to Russia’s treatment of human lives. In 1865, Dalgesen was raising churches in China. Once, when he was passing by the Yellow River, he saw someone drowning, but nobody bothered to lend a hand. Dalgesen could only feel sorry for the Chinese’s disrespect for life.

Respect for humanity brought about the liberalization for woman rights, respect for children, science and religion. Is it possible for us to return to the time when Christianity exerted such a commanding influence in society? What about now – what is the influence of Christianity in modern society and modern culture?

A few years ago, a daily paper in Hong Kong, “Xin Pau”, carried an article dated 17th November, which commented on a report concerning the relationship between the Hong Kong dollar and the currency exchange by the Asian Wall Street Journal. At the end of the article, the author compared this report by the Asian Wall Street Journal to a theology textbook, too difficult to understand. This prompted dissatisfaction amongst some Christians who were teaching in a Bible college in Hong Kong. They wrote an open letter to the publisher, but it refused to publish it in the papers, which further them.

However, a particular Christian brother had a different opinion on the matter. He expressed that the author did not meant what he said; he merely had the impression that theology books are difficult to understand, and used it as an example. He went on to say that in all honesty, since the time of Jesus until the present, Christians have always been a minority group. In the US, although the words ‘I believe in God’ are clearly printed on bank notes, the truth of the matter is that Christianity is still very much marginalized.

Some disagreed on this. Another brother retorted: “Wait a second. What about the Middle Ages? At that time, theology was crowned as the “queen of the sciences”. Many universities in the US and Germany evolved from Bible colleges. Even today, a large number of public universities in the UK and Germany still have theology faculties. You must have been mistaken on this matter. What you are saying is not true. We still wield certain influence on society although we may be increasingly marginalized.”

Who is right here?

The question for us to reflect upon then is this. Can we return to the time when Christianity exercised such a huge influence on the rising and development of Western culture, democracy, modern science, etc? If yes, why? If not, why?


The Mission of the Church

For easier understanding, some have categorized the Christian mission into two: (i) Gospel mission – to share the gospel; and (ii) Cultural mission – wider in scope and encompass all aspects of life.

The Church today treats these two missions as different issues. Let us discuss therefore how we can have a positive impact on the culture of our society today.

1. Daily live – this can take place through a variety of ways:
(i) Community service
The influence of individual Christians from the local church upon the neighbourhood is the starting point in influencing culture. For example, the local church serves the local community by organizing activities for youths and senior citizens, providing education for toddlers and setting up libraries.

(ii) Counter-culture
Christians try to build up a culture that is based on the Bible, to counter the influence of worldly culture.

(iii) Workplaces
Generally, the time Christians spend at their workplaces is more than the time they spend in church or in fellowship. This is the reason why attitude at work is so important. A responsible Christian who follows the principles of the Bible faithfully can influence those around him regardless of where he is working.

2. Thinking
If the Church is to exert influence in this field, we must acknowledge the presence of the intellectually-inclined in research, teaching, writing, publishing and mass communication. More often than not, the Church tends to neglect this group of people and fails to contribute more energy and funding for the purpose of raising this intellectual group. This has in turn caused the Church and Christianity to retreat from the battleground in society. By doing so, we are abandoning the disciplines and fields such as mass communication, entertainment and even comics. Some may argue, saying that it does not matter even if we are sidelined, as long as we still share the gospel. But the fact is that it matters greatly. This is because the people whom we target to share the gospel are ultimately determined by our culture and ideology.

3. System
There must be Christians who are participating in politics and public opinion. If it is allowed in society, participation in labour strikes and silent protests should be encouraged. The degree of participation will vary according to area, depending on the progress and climate of the society concerned. Christians can move into different systems step by step to influence policies. The Church should provide moral support to believers who are anointed in these areas. Being a public figure is not easy, because such a person must have excellent communication skills and live in a transparent manner, where there will constantly be people clamouring for his attention. Therefore, such candidates have to be spiritually stable. The Church should encourage gifted and spiritually stable believers to participate in politics. Another way is to influence the system externally, such as through public opinion and social actions as outlined above.

Although it can be said that thinking is the foundation of culture, the maintenance of social culture requires a healthy and complete system.

How should Christians view culture? We need to have believers participating in the three aspects mentioned above – daily life, thinking and system. We want to acknowledge the work being done by all churches. Of course, compassion is a very basic element. Sincere care and love heals a broken spirit. However, if you have the opportunity to participate in the policy making of your church, do not forget to highlight the other two aspects – thinking and system. Of course, they cannot be forced upon believers. Nonetheless, we would want to progress concurrently in these three areas.





Response

By Dr. Stephen Chan


My feedback consists of two main points. The first is the universalism of culture. You may not like to think, but you cannot escape it. Likewise, you may not like culture, but you cannot escape it as well. Secondly, in the process of exploring the depths of culture, we must be bold enough to shoulder the burden of culture.

On the first point, I emphasized that culture is impossible to escape from. One of Hitler’s generals, General Kelin, once said: “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’, I feel like reaching for the trigger of my gun.” Why? This is the problem that modern culture is facing. Culture has reached a point whereby it is being used to conceal the faults of mankind. There is a negative motive behind it and culture is exclusive of others; it is a massacre of barbarians.

When modern people claim themselves to be cultured and blindly believe in a particular culture, it is very tragic. Followers of Hitler believed themselves to be of the highest culture and civilization, yet in the end, they were the most barbaric.

The crisis we face now is barbarism. The main question now is how are we going to preserve the cream of our culture and at the same time fend off barbarism. In other words, we have to go back to the most basic question today. Science is science because of definition. What about culture? I totally agree with what Dr. Wu said just now. Culture is definitely related to cultivation. For example, if we consider the term ‘agricultural’ in plantations, the root word of agricultural is ‘cult’. Although its contemporary meaning is ‘evil religion’, its original meaning is ‘offering to the gods’. Therefore, culture actually originated from religion. Art also originated from religion.

In ancient China, the nine sacred court treasures were used to worship the ancestors. The rulers possessed nine of those; officers had seven, while the common people had none. This court treasure as a cultural tool also originated from religion. When the people worshipped, they had to write words on turtle bones, which is the oracle bone inscription, as we know today. Words and poems also originated from religion. Therefore, religion produces culture, tools, science and technology, poems and even music. It is the same in both the West and the East.

Culture is relative. There is a more basic truth in culture, which is religion. Since we cannot escape culture, we must define what culture is.

What is modern is something that we must all face today. Even Malaysians have to face it. What you (Malaysians) are facing today may not be globalization but modernization. Amidst the world economy crisis now, the question is how is Malaysia’s economy to be preserved and subsequently modernized. Therefore, in Asia, we do not discuss modernism or modernity but modernization.

What is modernization then? It is very simple. For example, Jews are not allowed to press buttons on the Sabbath, and as a result, they cannot use computers on that day. Sabbath day is from Friday night until Saturday night. In order to overcome this restriction, they invented the Sabbath elevator. A new programme is stored into the system, whereby the elevator will stop on each floor. When a person needs to use the elevator, the door is already open, and when someone leaves the elevator, the system detects it through electronic sensors and shuts the elevator doors. This was done so they would not break the law of the Sabbath. This is not a reply to the question of modernism but rather a response to modernization. In this respect, Judaism as a very ancient religion modernized itself by the invention of the Sabbath elevator.

Modernism is the more important question here. Why is that so? It is because modernization is the product of modernism. What then is ‘modern’? Dr. Wu was clearly correct on this point when he said that ‘modern’ is not a period of time, but referred to the people of every age who thought that they were living in ‘modern’ times. I personally believe that one of the greatest contributions of the Shanghai people to Chinese culture is by translating the word ‘modern’ into Chinese, ‘Mo Deng’. So, ‘modern’ really has nothing to do with today; it is, in reality, just a state of mind.

‘Modern’ is a problem that we must all face today. Do not think that it is an issue solely for theologians, philosophers and preachers to discuss because it has everything to do with the uniqueness and universalism of culture. Culture is inescapable. It is akin to saying that you do not buy shares; but if Wall Street declines drastically or the world economy collapses, you will still be affected, do you not agree? Therefore, all of us are all sucked into the stock market, in one way or another. It is an inescapable fact. The politicisation, economisation and globalisation of culture have compounded the inescapable nature of culture. Borrowing a quote from my favourite author:
“This age is inescapable.”

This is the uniqueness of culture. Only you can bear the burden of your own culture. Similarly, only Malaysians can bear the burden of their own culture. I know Malaysia is in a difficult situation now because the Ringgit is directly affected by the US dollar. Although the Malaysian economy is recovering, there are still a lot of obstacles to be dealt with. These are very serious problems and only the people of Malaysia can shoulder this burden. Not only must we carry the burden of culture, we must also shoulder the burden of society and economy.

Referring to the catch-phrase used by Hong Kong churches some years ago, ‘counter-culture’, I wish to say that although I respect it, I respectfully disagree. They were wrong. Counter-culture is a mistaken slogan. This is because Christians are unable to counter culture. It is just like standing in the middle of a river, bound to be swept away by the current. How can we cross the river then? Simple; build a bridge across it and cross the river using it. Simply put, counter culture is doomed to fail.

One of the most gifted Christians in the ‘counter-culture’ movement, Sister Su An Pei, who recommended ‘ moderate living’ did not see the slogan as the ultimate objective of the movement, but as a means of countering culture. In this respect, ‘moderate living’ was advocated as a medium to achieve the objective of ‘counter-culture’. However, many writing ministries today lacked a deeper vision and have mistakenly treated the slogan as the ultimate objective. This is wrong.

If we are not to ‘counter-culture’, what should we do instead? As Dr. Wu put it, reform culture; or as the Reform College phrased it, challenge culture. You must challenge culture. So, from a Christian stance, we are not opposing culture.

Once again, I ask the Malaysian Christians, especially the Chinese believers:
What are the urgent matters that should be dealt with now?
What are the challenges that are confronting you now?
What are the crises in society that you face now?
What are the points of convergence between your Christian beliefs and society?

These are questions that only you can answer. You must go deep into society to find an area where you can be salt and light to it. This is the urgent matter now. Time waits for no man. Therefore, we must make good use of our opportunities to impose the influence of our Christian beliefs upon Malaysian culture.

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