Reality check

We each have pictures of reality. Even if true, they are never complete. We see things from different angles due to culture, personal experiences, personalities and many other factors. Academically, this is basic psychology, epistemology and hermeneutics. Experientially, this is life.

Our pictures become metaphors for how we interpret reality and function in it. This can be called our “worldview.” Our worldviews answer the most profound questions about our existence and give our lives purpose, meaning and direction.

There are many different worldviews. Some are theistic, some atheistic, some spiritual, some material, some humanistic, some nihilistic (meaning “life is meaningless”). We often think of worldviews as only the product of thoughtful reflection, as if abstract and ahistorical. Yet they are highly influenced by our physical setting and historical experience.

Cultural anthropology
From an example used in college cultural anthropology classes, some people from south Pacific islands – where fish were plentiful, the weather was warm, storms were infrequent and life was easy and good – had little sense of religion and the supernatural. Everything seemed to be in their control. In contrast, the Inuit – living where life was hard, food was scarce and dangerous to get and the weather was cold and treacherous – had elaborate theologies and religious rituals for everything. They knew life was bigger than themselves. Most of us live somewhere in between these two, physically and spiritually.

Our experiences affect our theology and expression of it. This is wonderfully illustrated in the book Water Buffalo Theology (originally published in 1974), the account by author Kosuke Koyama of wrestling as a Japanese Christian to communicate the gospel to peasant farmers in northern Thailand. The wet and dry agricultural cycles led Thai people to think of all of life as cyclical. Koyama contrasts that with the biblical view: “God is not cyclical. God is linear. God is not many-times, but is once-for-all” (20, 1999 ed.).

In A Short History of Chinese Philosophy (originally published in 1948), Fung Yu-Lan makes the observation that Chinese philosophy is influenced by China’s location – a continental land with little adventuring to sea – and its agricultural economy. He contrasts this with the philosophy of the maritime Greeks and their commerce economy. The Chinese celebrate nature; the Greeks culture. The Chinese emphasize family stability (family land); the Greeks organize the “polis” (commercial interaction). The Chinese family is autocratic and hierarchic; the Greek state is democratic. Again, many of us live in the middle of agriculture and commerce. Do some of our political and religious tensions arise from being more influenced by one than the other?

Theological cultural pictures
Picture God. What portion of that image comes from your theology and what comes from culture, geographical setting, history and personal experiences? These factors are always in flux because God has chosen to work with humans through history.

There are different emphases in theology and theological traditions. Some love calling God “Lord,” and feel a deep belonging. Others react to this as depicting an enslaving God. God as judge is a comfort for some, and to others a damning fear. Some acknowledge the wrath of God, and others cannot correlate this with the love of God. A personal saviour meets the deepest need of some, but not all. Blood theology is highly meaningful to the instructed and gorily bizarre to newcomers. For some the “Fatherhood” of God is sexist and patriarchal. For others it is their best expression of who God is in his comfort and care.

Picture life. One of my primary images for the Christian life is that of a pilgrimage. For me this captures my sense of movement, purpose, process, goal, adventure, community and mission. Maybe this is because I come from an immigrant lineage. My wife sees life like a windmill, maybe reflecting some ethnic background. For her life is taking in information, milling it and producing something that others can use. We have different personalities and callings, which yield different pictures.

Seeing more
We need to see the pictures of others and share ours. We need to learn from other cultures and perspectives. For “now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror” (1 Cor. 13:12a). It’s time for a reality check. God loves variety. 

  • Rev. Tom Wolthuis is a minister in the Christian Reformed Church and the Director of Geneva Campus Ministry at the University of Iowa.

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