Because I work with and for churches to help people pursue God, and because I’ve been doing that for the last 30 years in an environment of radically different ideas about how to know and live for God, I’ve thought a lot about comparative faith and religion. One thing I’ve learned is that a person’s faith is never just a matter of what they believe. Of course, our beliefs about ultimate matters are important. We all have ideas, often strongly held, about the nature of God, the nature of human beings, and the relationship between the two. These ideas are likely to have both temporal and eternal consequences. But our beliefs never stand alone. They are always embedded in the deeper matrix of our culture and identity. In part, our identity is shaped by our beliefs. But our beliefs are also shaped by our identity and culture.
I’m trying to learn to ask questions not only about what people believe, but why people believe what they do. All of us have unexamined beliefs, ideas we hold as true without knowing or asking why we believe them. Sometimes we hold the ideas we have inherited from our family or larger culture for no other reason than that we have never been exposed to any alternative. But at times we cling to our inherited ideas because they lie close to the core of our identity. For example, in Thailand I encountered many people who dismissed the good news of Christianity because for them, to be Thai was to be Buddhist. Their sense of identity was so fixed that new ideas threatened it. That can be true of any of us, and illustrates what I mean when I say that our beliefs are often shaped by identity and culture.
Culture shapes not only what we believe is true, but also how we think about truth in the first place. In America, we tend to view truth as a private matter that each person has the right to determine for him or herself. But some cultures have a communal understanding of truth: it may be determined by a group of leaders and is upheld by everyone in the community. Personally, I understand truth to be derived from God’s written word, as properly and rationally interpreted and experientially applied. If an idea or experience doesn’t measure up to the standard of Scripture, I reject it. But in some cultures, truth is derived by experience first. If ideas, however compelling or rational, don’t confirm the experience, those ideas are rejected.
I’m certainly not saying that truth is culturally determined. There is “true truth” out there, independent of any individual or cultural construct. But our cultural experience dictates to a great extent how we go about searching for the truth and how we decide when or whether we have found it.
Here’s the application of what I’m saying: it may not be as simple as we thought to talk to each other about truth. We don’t hold our beliefs in the abstract, apart from our culture and sense of identity. We evaluate ideas, not as disembodied heads, but as complete persons who feel and choose as well as believe. This calls for patience and deeper understanding as we learn to ask not only what others believe but also why.