Do not learn the way of the nations… For the customs of the peoples are delusion.
In Jeremiah 10:2 the people of God are commanded not to learn the way of the Gentiles. Today, we call the way of life and customs that Jeremiah spoke about, culture. Who is the mother of culture? Where does it find its origin? God told Judah through Jeremiah the answer to this question.
The culture of the nations is connected to their religion. They take their knowledge from religious observance of stars (10:2). They dedicate their art to idols (10:3-4). They fear dead idols (10:5). They have been taught by idols (10:8).
Paul connected his childhood culture with the religion of Judaism.
For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it;
What questions does a religion ask?
- Who is the final authority to determine good and bad in life?
- What is the great goal of life?
- Where did the world come from?
- How do we deal with guilt, fear, shame, and death?
- How can we know that something is true?
- What is beautiful?
Doesn’t a culture try to answer every one of these questions? In fact when a group of people gather themselves they inevitably form traditions bent on dealing with just these difficulties. As an example, how might the culture of African Traditional Religion (ATR) answer these questions?
- Who is the final authority? “Ancestors, swikembwu, midzimu, and the taboos that they have passed down to us over the centuries. Some day I will become one of them just like my forefathers.”
- What is the great goal of life? “To maintain the traditions that we were given in the society in which we were born.”
- Where did the world come from? “It is unknown and unnecessary. No man needs to know origins in order to continue in the path that his family has always led.”
- How do we deal with guilt, fear, shame, and death? “By staying in the paths of ancient tradition, we can overlook the impressions that come to our hearts.”
- How can we know that something is true? “The only truth is that which received from the ancestors. So we do not trust science or history because the numerous spirits and the terrible powers of witchcraft can change any given situation.”
- What is beautiful? “Beauty is the same as appetite. There are no affections to be raised because there is no reality beyond this world and the very similar spiritual ‘world’ where the midzimu live.”
“After all, elders (male or female) are tradition’s custodians. Even when only one speaks, his or hers is a vicarious voice; a voice uttered on behalf of the family or clan and its heritage. For this reason the voice of an older person vibrates with an aura of infallibility and finality. To defy it is to incur the wrath of not one but many; all, in fact, including the furious dead.”
Choolwe Mbetwa, Why Africa Is Poor, 38-39
What Mbetwa put into print is known by a great number of people living in the rural areas: There is a strong connection between traditions (culture) and authority and the ancestors. Authority and ancestors are religious categories while the ongoing, earthly traditions are the cultural. Culture is an incarnation of a religion. Culture is the clothes that religion makes for its believers.