What if: Are Beliefs Constructed by Culture?

By Ruth Preston

Surely if you lived in the Middle East you would be a Muslim wouldn’t you?

Probably. But then I would not be “me”.

If I were to attempt to answer the question, I would have to go into detail about Middle Eastern cultures, and the vast differences between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, for example. However I think that the real question being asked breaks down into two sub-questions:

Firstly: How can Christianity be true universally when it seems that beliefs are culturally set?

Is it true that beliefs are constructed by culture? Mostly I would agree. In so many ways we are defined by our culture. I would be horrified if I applied for a job and my application was openly denied because I am a woman. However, more than 100 years ago in this country that was a reality. It is likely that generally women were a lot less horrified in the cultural context of the 19th Century than I am now. I’m not making a moral comment on women in the work place, but agreeing, to an extent, with the implication that culture does have a large affect on our beliefs and values.

Having said this, does culture characterize us definitively? Most children accept anything that their parents tell them; but they often question their parent’s understanding and authority when they hit their teens. I think that culture is very similar: it is very influential but not defining. Everyone has the chance to question the assumptions of his/her own culture (with varying degrees of opportunity). Most cultures are composed of different groups of people with varying beliefs, even if it is not as diverse as many western nations (although many nations in the Middle East are also multicultural). An thus, even if the Christian faith is not, technically, an option most people would need to make a judgement of what is ‘true’ between different interpretations of reality. Even if that was within, say, the Islamic faith. Therefore culture only goes as far as giving you basic assumptions, which then can be built upon, or demolished and reconstructed.

Turn the Tables

 If we take the assumptions of the question, then it should also be asked of our Western culture. It should be asked: ‘Surely you are only a . . . ‘pluralist’ (someone who believes that truth is self-actualized and therefore ‘every path leads to God’) . . . because of your environment and upbringing?’. If you try to invalidate someone’s belief by suggesting that they believe it because of culture, you must also ask yourself the same question: ‘is what I believe only due to culture?’ The result of such reasoning is to breakdown not just religious belief, but non-religious belief also. As such, we are back to square one.

 Secondly: If Christianity is true, how could it be fair that some people are much less likely to believe than others due to culture and upbringing?  

Christianity can often be misunderstood to be only a philosophy; as something that you believe with your mind. And although this is certainly a component, it is not the essence of what it means to be a Christian. Being a Christian is to be a follower of Christ, to know him. The way that we come to know God is through God’s own initiative. God came to earth and became a man, Jesus Christ (2nd member of the Trinity). He suffered as a human, and took the penalty for our own wrongdoing. For God to be just, he cannot leave the evil things that we do to go unpunished. But in his love for us he satisfied his justice, by crushing Jesus the son that he loved instead of us, so that we can come to know him. Knowing God comes about through faith in Christ. It transforms your very being, in the depths of your heart you know the love of God and you love him in response. As such, the essence of Christianity is not entirely about what you know, but who you know, and how he has changed your life.

Therefore, when the question implies that belief in Christ is limited to certain cultures, it assumes that Christianity is a philosophy of the mind. When it is more than just that, it’s about a relationship with the creator God that involves your heart, mind and soul. Which is a response to the knowledge of who God is. And the knowledge of God can be found in different places for people to respond to. Creation. Conscience. The Bible. Experience.

 General Knowledge of God

There are two things that all people have access to, which are pointer’s indicating God’s existence and character. The world around us, and the moral conscience within us. We are also reminded of this in the Bible, in Paul’s letter to the Roman Church: Romans 1: 19-21 talks of God being revealed in nature. Romans 2:15 says that those who are not Jews and do not have the Jewish moral system (God’s Law, to be found in the Old Testament) will be judged by what they do know not what they do not. Paul reminds the Romans that responding to God is not based, necessarily, on understanding and following the ‘Law’. And that disobeying God is not, always, assessed in reference to that Law.

“For all who have sinned without the law will perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when, non-Jews, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law” Romans 2: 12-13.

Because people have different opportunities of understanding who God is, people will respond to different pointers. That is not to say that anyone comes to know God through any other than Jesus Christ. But that responding to God, does not need to be based on knowledge of Christian belief, or even of Jesus Christ in the way that many Western Christians know him, for ‘God does not show favoritism’. Therefore when someone does not have an opportunity to hear about Christ’s death and resurrection, they will not be judged as those who do. However, having said all this, in many ways it is unknown how God will reveal himself to people who are unlikely to hear about Jesus due to culture. Above is an account of what the Bible says, and my own speculation from my understanding of the Biblical text. God’s own method of drawing people to an understanding of himself is his own prerogative.

What about you?

Surely if you lived in the Middle East you would be a Muslim? But I wouldn’t be ‘me’ if I were born in the Middle East; I was born in England in 1986. In case I get misunderstood, I want to state clearly that I do not think ‘all paths lead to God’. What I am saying is that God is Just, and will reveal himself to people with, or without, the ‘Christian message’ as westerners understand it. As such, God will require that we respond to him in the capacity that we have access to understand him. My point is this: it may be uncertain how God will reveal himself to other people who have not heard the Gospel, but if you are reading this article you are, most likely, not in that position. An understanding of how God has shown him-self throughout history is available to you, the Bible. If you live in a Western country you may even have Christian’s you are in contact with, who would be able to talk to you about their experience’s of God. I hope this encourages you that God is just, and that he wants you to respond to him.


Further Reading

Copan, Paul., ‘If you were born in India you would be a Hindu’, Article: http://www.bethinking.org/truth-tolerance/introductory/if-you-were-born-in-india-you-would-be-a-hindu-.htm

Pickering, Mike., ‘What about those who have never heard the Gospel?’, Article: http://www.bethinking.org/truth-tolerance/intermediate/what-about-those-whove-never-heard-the-gospel.htm