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Voice: Don't Let the Gate of Culture Block out Civilization Brought by Jesus

Voice: Don't Let the Gate of Culture Block out Civilization Brought by Jesus

A picture of the closed door of an old church A picture of the closed door of an old church(pixabay.com)
ByLi Daonan May 03, 2022
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Very often we may encounter a paradox when we evangelize. Initially, we will highly praise the Western scientists and their achievements regarding them as the fruit of Christianity. For instance, we will say that Issac Newton and Albert Einstein were all Christians who believed in God. It was because of Christianity that Western science came into being. However, after one believes in God, he hears another voice in the church teachings, that is, Newton and Einstein were not Christians, and the God whom they believed in was not the Christian God. Science is ‘the basic principles of this world’. Rather, we should concentrate on the salvation of the soul. Consequently, people, who join the church because of the above evangelism, often feel that the initial teaching they heard was used to seduce them into membership.

Let me use an analogy for this way of evangelizing that Christianity is like a garment, and whoever wears it is a Christian. Therefore, Christianity can be worn by Western scientists who are Christians; can be worn by Western scientific and technological civilizations which are Christian civilizations. However, when I strip this garment off them and put it on me, then they are not a Christian anymore. I become a Christian. No matter how my behavior or spirit is, as long as I wear this garment, I am a Christian.

It is said that human history is a little girl who is freely dressed. So under such a concept, Christianity has also become the little girl who is freely dressed.

The core issue involved here is what Christianity is and how we can identify it, which is a matter of identifying criteria. Of course, Christianity has many denominations with a history of more than 2,000 years. Using a rigid standard to measure it would obviously be suspected of cutting one’s feet to fit one’s shoes. However, the reason why Christianity is Christianity must have its own characteristics and necessary elements, such as justice, love, and compassion, which are undeniably true in Christianity.

When we deny the common identifying criteria of Christianity, the Christian groups will fail to reach a consensus to form a community and meanwhile, it will make Christianity a label in the evangelical process. The label can be attached to anything, thus losing the uniqueness of Christianity itself.

In my opinion, distinguishing and understanding Christian culture and civilizations is one of the few important ways to solve answer the questions above.

Let’s first define what culture is.

The Chinese word ‘culture’ we use today actually came from Japan. It is a Japanese vocabulary (in Chinese characters, 文化; pronounced [wen hua], translator's note) that was the result of translating a Western concept called ‘culture’ by modern Japanese scholars. Then it was introduced to China by Chinese scholars. Of course, Japanese scholars were not the first to create the Chinese word ‘culture’. In Chinese ancient literature, there has been the word ‘culture’. ‘Wen’ (), originally meant texture threads of stones or objects, was extended to mean the law of nature. Accordingly, the ancient Chinese used ‘wen’ (or law) to coinage ‘tian wen’, the law of nature (later ‘astronomy’ as ‘tian’ means the sky); or ‘ren wen’, the social norm and order of human relations (later ‘humanities’ as ‘ren’ means human beings, translator’s note). ‘Hua’ (化), in Oracle Bone Inscriptions, originally meant change, and later it was extended to mean enlightenment. Therefore, the combination of ‘wen’ and ‘hua’ (to form the word ‘culture’) means to educate people with ethical principles and make them obey social norms. In view of our history, it has always been a history of constant conquest. Therefore, the educational function of culture is mainly to make the conquered obey the conqueror, which can be perceived from the Chinese world view concepts such as ‘principles of social norm and human relation’ or ‘country-home’.

However, ‘culture’ does not mean the same in Western philosophy. The meaning of ‘culture’ can be traced back to the Latin word ‘cultura’, which originally meant planting or cultivating of crops. Later, it evolved to have a spiritual connotation referring to the spiritual or material achievements of human activities. Voltaire, the German enlightenment philosopher, used the word ‘culture’ to refer to the cultivation of human mind, wisdom, sentiment and morality. Therefore, the word ‘culture’ mainly refers to the results of human activities, which can be tangible and intangible, for example, architecture, literature, painting, religion, customs, etc.

We can see the differences in the meaning of the word ‘culture’ from Chinese and Western philosophy. The original meaning of Chinese ‘culture’ was mainly to educate people to obey the conqueror who fought on war chariots. Once the conqueror is in throne, he will waste no time in making everyone to obey him. However, the Western ‘culture’ has no such connotation but specifically refers to the result of people’s activities.

Civilization is not the same as culture - these are two different concepts. However, when we talk about them we often fail to distinguish the differences interchanging between the two words.

The word ‘civilization’ did not emerge at the same time as the word ‘culture’ did in the West. The English word ‘civilization’ is spelled ‘zivilisation’ in German, and ‘civilisation’ in French. These words were all derived from the Latin words such as ‘civis’ (citizen), ‘civitas’ (organized society or city) and ‘civilis’ (citizen). They can be traced back to the city-state of ancient Greece, and these concepts appeared as early as the 2nd century BC. From this etymology, we can see that ‘civilization’ means a social order in a city-state. European scholars in the 18th century first used the word ‘civilization’, which meant to endow the society with moral principles and forms. In Ferguson’s view, the history of human beings developed from barbarism to civilization.

‘Culture’ in today’s sense is more intended to refer to the result of the activities of a certain group. For instance, Christianity, Islam, the United States and Russia all have their own cultures. These cultures all have their own independent boundaries, own characteristics and ethnic affiliation. Therefore, it is in this sense that there are conflicts between cultures. We often say ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’ to mean adapting to another culture.

It is on this aspect that Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ is actually a clash of cultures, not civilizations. Because civilization is the direction of the development of human history, and it is the consensus of moral standards and order that human beings have gained after painful lessons. Civilization is universal, while culture is the result of the activities of different groups.

On the cultural level, the Christian culture is different in every country. There are many Christian literature works or Christian art works in Europe, all of which are part of European Christian culture. China also has Christian culture such as literary works, fine arts, or church buildings. Every Christian culture has its own characteristics. When we enter our local churches, we often find that the Christian culture in which we live is covered with a strong sense of enlightenment. For instance, the church emphasizes obedience, obedience of believers to pastors, obedience of children to parents, and obedience from lower rank to upper rank. So the church keeps moving forward on the track of our own ancient culture. We put Christianity, ‘the cloak’, on our own culture.

Because each culture has its own characteristics, there may be no superior or subordinate cultures. The assessment and confirmation of cultural heritage does not mean to compare the advantages and disadvantages of the cultures. ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’ means showing respect to another culture. Under the concept of cultural equality, we will not reflect on what is wrong with ‘our’ Christianity. We give our own Christian culture a feature so that we may dispel the tension between us and Jesus’ teachings.

However, Christian civilization is different. Christian civilization is a new world order brought by Jesus, a new relationship between people, and between people and God, and it is a new moral principle. As Jesus said, “a new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34)

Therefore, compared with the Christian civilization, we seem to be more willing to accept the Christian materialistic culture. In the terms of materialistic support for the church, it is the more the better. However, once the church is measured by the rules of Christian civilization, many people avoid it.

The content of Jesus’ teaching is a kind of culture, but all the more a kind of civilization. Jesus’ teaching provides human beings with moral principles, basic order and a bottom line between people. Yet, we have left the Christian civilization behind, and put the Christian ‘coat’ on our own culture. We still use new wineskins to hold old wine.

Therefore, it is in this sense that we can say that Christianity can be culturally localized, but once the Christian civilization brought by Jesus is abandoned, it has nothing to do with Jesus. Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35) “My command is this: Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) However, we often fail to obey Jesus’ command. If we cheer for wars, if we seek reasons to enslave people, and if we cheer for violence, how can Jesus recognize such Christianity even if it is clothed in the Christian ‘cloak’?

Let’s be more civilized because of the Christian faith. Let’s walk on the road to civilization because of the Christian faith instead of shutting Jesus out for cultural reasons.

- Translated by Charlie Li

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