1. Theology and Culture: The Promises and Perils

What has culture to do with theology and why even ask this question in the first place? Theology alone is a sufficiently difficult subject. Why make it more difficult by correlating it with something as difficult to explain as culture? Theology bears enough problems of its own; after all it is a science of God who is infinite, inexhaustible, and perfect. How does one explain such a being as God? How can this be a “science,” a form of knowledge when God is not an object in the world that we can point to and say “this is it” or “here it is, just look at this.” We cannot treat God as an object where we give a definition and categorize it like we would in a biology class. God cannot be placed within the normal classification system of kingdom, phylum, order, genus, and species. In fact, ancient Christian theologians expressly forbade thinking or speaking of God in these terms. They said “God cannot be placed within any category” using a famous Latin expression, Deus non est genere.

This simple expression entails a radical idea: God cannot be placed within any category larger than God in order to understand God. If we can define God in a category that is more encompassing than what we mean by “God,” then that larger category would truly be what we mean by “God” and our use of the term “God” would be subordinate to that larger category. This is why theology begins with the claim that God is not in a genus or that God is not in a category. We know this only because of the revelation given to Moses when God tells him that God’s proper name is “I am.” God alone is the one who truly is; God cannot be contained within any conceptual framework that we devise ourselves, even though we must use our conceptual systems in order to speak of God. This important theological idea is drawn from the first three commandments God gave to Moses:

  1. “You shall have no other gods before me.”
  2. “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”
  3. “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name” (Exodus 20:1–7 NRSV).

These commandments set the parameters for our speaking and writing of God, which is what theology is. We must speak about God in such a way that we do not, explicitly or implicitly, assume something greater, more perfect, more holy than God; for if we do then we will have set other gods before God. We will have fashioned for ourselves an idol. And finally we will have taken God’s name in vain, that is to say we will have used it not in order to worship and glorify God, but to worship and glorify something other than God, which could only be something created and thus our worship and adoration will be empty—vain.

Given that these first three commandments set the parameters within which we must speak about God, doing theology is itself an awesome task. How can we speak or write about God without reducing the majesty of the Most Holy One to our conceptuality? This problem tempts some to what is called a “negative” or “apophatic” theology. “Apophatic” means the negation of what appears. Thus this negative or apophatic theology only tells us what cannot be said about God. All it can say is “God is not . . . .” While this is an important and essential element of theology, worship requires that we also say something positive about God, which is called “kataphatic” theology. We cannot simply be silent for God has commanded us to speak, preach, teach, worship, and adore; all of which requires that we use language to address God. If we do not use our language to express the object of our thought, speech, worship, and adoration, who is the Living God, then we will fail to keep the commandments. We must worship and love God above all else, and that requires that we creatures use our language, actions, habits, gestures, thoughts, etc. for love, worship, and adoration. This is why we must finally bring together “theology” and “culture.” For as I shall argue below, our cultivation of language, action, habits, gestures, thoughts, etc. for specific purposes is what we mean when we use the term “culture.”

When we speak about God, we do not use some private language that God gives us. We use everyday language; the language that allows us to communicate the most mundane things as well as the most sublime. For this reason, theology cannot be done without culture; that is both its promise and its peril. The promise is this:

This promise also contains perils:

These are the promises and perils that bringing theology and culture together holds forth. The promises and the perils are closely related. What is a promise can be a source of peril, and what appears perilous gives rise to the promise. We cannot always determine if what we are doing participates in the promise or the peril. But if we are to do theology, we must venture forth boldly, recognizing both the promises and perils every time we speak of God. This helps us answer the question why we should relate theology and culture. The answer is simple: we have no choice. Theology can only be done in cultural form. Using language is an essential aspect of what we mean by “culture.” Theology is using language to speak about God. We are commanded to do this, and we must believe it can be done or we would never say, “Thus says the Lord,” “The Lord be with you,” “This is the Word of the Lord,” “The body of Christ broken for you,” etc. That we can speak about God is the promise. But given that it will always be some culture’s language that is spoken, it is also the peril.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What is theology?
  2. Why can God not be placed in a category?
  3. What are some categories in which we might be tempted to place God?
  4. If God cannot be placed in a category, how are we to speak of God?
  5. Why can we not be content with a purely ‘negative’ theology, which only says what we cannot say about God without telling us anything positive about God?
  6. What are the promises involved in bringing theology and culture together?
  7. What are the perils in the correlation between theology and culture?