Commenting on a recent FMH thread (see #85), Sonnet raises some good questions:
When we call something “cultural,” then we allow ourselves to think of that thing as peripheral, perhaps silly, and certainly not required for salvation. But who gets to decide what is doctrine and what is culture? . . . I would be willing to bet that everyone’s configurations of doctrine and culture are different: How do you decide what is doctrine and what is not? Do you believe that someone else can tell you? Why is this distinction a useful one to make?
I’ve been wondering the same thing. This separation is frequently proposed as a way to deal with aspects of the Church that a person finds difficult. Once something gets labeled “culture,” as Sonnet observes, it’s easy to dismiss it; in fact, “culture” at times seems to simply be shorthand for “something I don’t like/believe.” However, I’m finding myself more and more skeptical about any clear-cut distinction between the two.
For one thing, what might be seen as cultural excesses frequently have some kind of relationship to what might fall under the heading of “doctrine.” The idea that drinking Coke is a sin, for example, is obviously connected to the way in which people are understanding the Word of Wisdom. If there’s a cultural tendency to act a bit exclusive or superior to “the world”, to give another example, there just might be some link between that and the “only true church” idea. And if sometimes we act like a bunch of overworked lunatics trying to save ourselves, I’m guessing that’s related to Church teachings on faith and works. In other words, the stuff that’s getting identified as culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s intertwined with our understanding of doctrine.
And the reverse is true as well: our doctrine is inextricably tied up with culture. Even in scripture, it’s not always clear which bits we should view as which. (Where does the Nephite practice of capital punishment fall? What about Paul’s prescribed gender roles?) In any case, doctrine doesn’t descend upon us in a completely transcendent fashion; it’s always mediated through language and culture. I’m not sure it’s possible to peel back the cultural overlay to reveal some pure, untainted truth lying underneath; we always encounter doctrine in cultural forms. The atonement, for example, which probably most of us would agree is a “core doctrine,” is explained using a variety of cultural references: Jesus is said to have paid our debt, or to have mediated for us in a kind of legal setting. Likewise, when we say that God is our father, the way people hear that is going to depend on a culturally-shaped understanding of what “fatherhood” entails.
When it comes to making sense of ideas and practices found in the Church, I certainly wouldn’t say that we can’t make any distinctions at all, that everything from white shirts and green jello to teachings about faith, hope, and charity, is on par. But I do think that sorting out where something falls on the continuum from “weird cultural tic” to “essential saving doctrine” is often a less than straightforward process.