Monday, December 01, 2008

Religion & Culture

Malaysia's National Fatwa Council recently declared that the practice of yoga is condemned in Islam. Their reason is that yoga consists elements of Hinduism inherent in it. This is a failure to distinguish yoga as a beneficial physical exercise from the spiritual practice cultivated differently and much more intensely by yogi.

If the Fatwa Council is consistent, then it should condemn the practice of exchanging wedding rings in marriages as well.

The wearing of rings in marriages originated in ancient civilization and religion. It was believed that the fourth finger on which wedding rings are wore has a vein that connect directly to the heart. Hence this practice was later being adopted by Christianity as testified by St. Isidore of Seville in the 7th century AD,

"It was given by the spouser to the espoused whether for a sign of mutual fidelity or still more to join their hearts to this pledge and that therefore the ring is placed on the fourth finger because a certain vein is said to flow from thence to the heart."
(As qouted in 'The Nature of Diamonds' by George E. Harlow, p.164)

However the primary reason for this post is not to highlight the disturbing fatwa released by the National Fatwa Council. I took the event as a platform for a wider conversation on the vague and often-confusing relation between religion and culture.

Before we ask whether is religion supposed to rule over culture or vice versa, I think there is a more fundamental question to ask: Is such relation legitimate in the first place?

But wait a minute, what does such conversation has to do with everyday Christian living?

This is what it does, "To prevent Christians from rushing into going around the neighborhood and condemning other cultural practices." And the practical effect is two-fold: To clear Christians from being viewed as unnecessarily hostile and anxious, and to save Christians from being hostile and anxious.

So back to the question about the legitimacy in conceiving such relation between religion and culture.

Very very very first of all, the Bible is not a book or an encyclopedia about cultures and religions, thus there are limited resources to learn from it about these two great themes. All the Bible provides is the impetus and framework for us to work on.

Second, we Christians often tend to put religion over and above culture. And hence we have our own 'fatwa' launched from our pulpits.

One example is the anti-movie sentiment among Christians in the 1960s-70s. There was a perception that the culture of watching movies are bad for Christian living. Thus many preachers were calling fire from heaven on this culture.

To draw a more contemporary example, there are church leaders who are suspicious of blogging-culture. They loath at blogs just like the Malaysian government used to. But what happened to the Malaysian government will happen to them soon: they will be proven wrong.

So to pitch religion above culture is not an option. Neither is it legitimate because the categorization between 'religion' and 'culture' is a pseudo-category. 'Religion' is very often cultural, and 'Culture' is always religious.

Remember that 'Ang Pow' (or Hong Pao) giving during Chinese New Year has its origin in the belief that 'red' color frighten the ancient monster known as 'nien' (Mandarin for 'year')? Hence the saying 'gou nien' (New Year) means by-passing the monster.

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