God and Our Many Cultures
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There is much talk today about cultural diversity. Are our cultural differences good? Or is diversity something to be avoided, when possible? What should we think about the cultural pluralism that appears to be increasing in American society today?
The story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) is often misinterpreted to mean that the division of the human race into many languages and cultures is a result of sin. The diversity of human cultures is a punishment, in this view; it is not the way God intended that people should live. However, the text of Genesis 11 does not say that diversity is punishment. In fact, the point of the story seems to be quite the opposite. As Saint Jerome suggested in the fourth century, the dispersal of humanity into many languages, races, and cultures should be seen not as a punishment, but as a “true benefit” for the human race.
According to Genesis 11, once upon a time all people spoke one language. Out of this linguistic uniformity there developed human arrogance, the desire to rise to the place of God. The text does not tell us why speaking a single language resulted in such arrogance, but our own experience might provide a clue. Perhaps agreement on the use of words led to uniform ways of thinking and acting. Perhaps uniformity of thought prompted in these people the illusion that they—like God—were absolutely right. Their ways were God’s ways. And if they were like God, then they should sit alongside of God. So, the story goes, they began to build a tower with which to ascend into the heavens and share the place that God occupies. But upon seeing the arrogance that had arisen out of uniformity, God forced humans into diverse places and ways of life by making it impossible for them to understand one another.
This ancient story is theologically profound. It tells us that God divided people into different cultures—God created cultural diversity! It also tells us that being separated into different linguistic groups was not a punishment. Instead, the creation of different languages and cultures was a safeguard. It was God’s way of protecting us against the illusion that we are or can become like God.
We do not need to take this story literally in order to see that it says something true about God. Our different ways of life—our cultural differences—are part of God’s creative plan for the world.
The New Testament adds something crucial to this insight: Cultures need each other, cultures need to interact. One of the most scandalous aspects of Jesus’ ministry was his practice of mingling with people who were different. Even more scandalous, Jesus said that the Kingdom of God encompasses this same radical diversity. In Jesus’ parable about the Great Banquet (see Luke 14 and Matthew 22), guests were invited from all walks of life, and many were “outcasts” in the eyes of the cultural purists of the day. But by bringing these guests together, God, the host, honored their differences. The feast was not the elimination of differences; it was their affirmation. The feast did not separate differences from one another; it joined them together as continuing differences. The Great Banquet is the symbol of the kind of world that God, through Christ, is already bringing into our midst.
Saint Paul summed it up: In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Galatians 3:28). This does not mean that our human differences disappear. It means that from a Christian standpoint, our cultural, social, ethnic, and gender differences are not reasons for separation from one another. On the contrary, differences, when brought together on equal footing, are essential for the kind of community that God desires.
Cultural pluralism is a challenge to the arrogance of any one human community. But more than that, our diversity is a God-given means by which human communities correct and enrich one another. God created cultural diversity, for our good.
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About the Author
Choan-Seng (C.S.) Song is Distinguished Professor of Theology and Asian Cultures at Pacific School of Religion. Song has made seminal contributions to the exploration of interactions between Christian faith and contemporary social-political and cultural-religious situations in Asia. He lectures internationally and has served as visiting faculty at Princeton Theological Seminary, Doshisha University in Japan, and Harvard Divinity School. An ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, he served as president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches from 1997 to 2004. His many books include Third-Eye Theology, Christian Mission in Reconstruction, The Compassionate God, and Jesus and the Reign of God.