Culture in Faith

Faith too often stands on its own in our current world. People are separated by it, define themselves by it, live their lives based on its principals. Yet, despite its completely interwoven nature with life, it is so infrequently discussed in the context of cultural development. The truth is, Faith is a fundamental part of all human existence, and how we approach it directly correlates to what our culture considers socially acceptable.

This entire process is visible in all corners of the planet. We will start with one end of the extreme, the cultural melting pots of the western world. Take, for example, the United States. Here you have a land full of different beliefs, a country founded on the principal belief of freedom. This freedom extends to all forms of life, from the right to speech to the right to practice, or not practice, the religion of your choosing. However, this once-radical structure of individual freedom was created due to radical believers being oppressed in a less radical society. So they left, traveled across the ocean, and created a colony of free beliefs where it didn’t matter how outside of the realm of normality you sat, you were welcome to be as radical or neutral as you saw fit.

This created a hodgepodge of faiths, faiths that all believed that they were right and the others were wrong, but faiths that existed in a world where all faiths were welcome. Here, society created two separate cultures, the Culture of Law and the Culture of Belief.

The Culture of Law stated that regardless of who you were, regardless of what you wanted to do, and regardless of your background, you were entitled to the same basic rights as everyone else who lived within the borders of this land.  You, like everyone else, are granted freedoms to do as you please with your faith, making that faith an individual decision that can be made by you and you alone. In exchange for that freedom, you are to accept that other faiths will be doing the same, and that they are granted the same rights and freedoms as yourself. This is a large part of being American, and it is an element of immense patriotic pride across the nation.

The Culture of Faith, however, subscribes to a different mentality. Many faiths, excluding a select few, believe that their faith is the only way to advance to a higher state of being. Your birth culture can throw you headfirst into your Culture of Faith, your parents raising you a Lutheran, taking you to a Lutheran church, spending time with Lutheran friends, teaching you Lutheran morals and religious laws. But your neighbor may be something completely different, a Buddhist or a Taoist, existing within the same parameters of their own unique Culture of Faith.

So where the Culture of Law grants freedom and rights, the Culture of Faith requires conflict. If your faith states that only your religion will grant you access to the life beyond, then you are constantly attempting to pull people into that faith to essentially “save” them. And the two cultures will conflict, the Culture of Law saying that you have the right to believe what you want, and the Culture of Faith saying you believe what we believe. And though these two bump together, you are trapped in a perpetual stalemate where each different faith is operating under exactly the same rules, separated only by a baseline religious structure of their particular cultural faith.

Of course, this is not the only extreme, nor is it the most extreme on this side of the spectrum. Take, for example, the Rwanda Genocide. Their Culture of Law and their Culture of Faith bumped heads until the tension became so strong that there was no room for the Culture of Law in the minds of the people. The Tutsi, the Culture of Law majority but the Culture of Faith minority, were systematically slaughtered by the Hutu, the Culture of Law minority but the Culture of Faith majority. In a single night, Hutu neighbors of Tutsi individuals walked next door to the homes of people they had lived beside for years, dragged them out of their houses, and murdered them, creating a total body count of an estimated 100,000 people in a single night. Then, with the Culture of Faith driven to exterminate the Culture of Law, the Hutu continued their slaughter bringing the total death tole to an estimated 800,000-1,000,000 people, or roughly 20% of the population of Rwanda.

Our cultures define us. For the people in Rwanda, just like the people in America, the lack of agreement between the Culture of Law and the Culture of Faith were simply strong enough to produce unspeakable horrors. In the United States, excluding a few radical groups, the Culture of Law and the Cultures of Faith allows for enough symbiosis to survive simultaneously. However, whenever a political leader takes the stage and claims himself to be one thing, claims the country to be a country of only one particular faith (Christian being the front-runner in the early days of the 21st century), that separation begins to grow. The Cultures that support the Culture of Law are slowly pushed away from it by their Culture of Faith.

Regardless of who you are, you are driven by many different cultures. These cultures help define you, to create the person you will become and the reasons you decide to do or not do certain things. The problem for many First Culture Kids is that they have existed within such a tight set of cultures that they fail to see the harmony and uniformity that exists between them all. To them, their culture is the single way of thought. They don’t easily understand that others may not think the way they do, or believe the things they believe. They fail to see the differences because they have been brought up confined to the parameters of their birth cultures, just like the people they cannot relate with were brought up confined to their particular culture as well.

For a Third Culture Kid, however, we have the gift and curse of seeing past those borders. We gave up a birth culture long ago, so where everyone else is confined, we are constantly adapting and absorbing. The TCK mentality of survival through adaptation forces us to see the lines that connect every single culture all across the world. We understand, completely on impulse, that the Taoist and the Muslim neighbors really aren’t that different at all. They developed into two separate cultures and two separate faiths for exactly the same reasons. The problem is, they are so blinded by that Culture of Faith that they can never see their similarity.

It’s a benefit to us, being TCKs. We are universal acceptors. We can relate and understand regardless of what you believe. But we do that because we lack the cultural exclusivity that a First Culture Kid possesses. Where we fall short is in understanding why you cannot see just how similar you are to the man you consider to be so fundamentally different. This could be the reason why the TCK community is, predominantly, an atheist one. It could also be why the faith-based TCKs I’ve met in my life are the most laid back and understanding members of the religious population I have had the pleasure of discussing God with. It could also be that, like everyone else, we are part of the same broken system. Our culture, be it a Third Culture, doesn’t allow us to understand what it means to be so strictly First Culture.

Whatever it may be, I am glad to know the truth; It doesn’t matter what your Culture of Faith may be, your atheist, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, etc. brothers and sisters are no different to you at all. You just need to look past your Culture of Faith to see it. And that alone, at least to me, makes it worth all the hassle of growing up a TCK.

Post by: James R. Mitchener

13 thoughts on “Culture in Faith

  1. Mike Sullivan

    This is a fantastic article! I followed your posts for a while and was hoping you would get back to writing on this blog. I too am a TCK and a person of deep faith. I’ve struggled with what you write about here. Being a TCK enables me to express my faith in a unique and gentle way. On the other hand I’ve always found people of other cultures much more open to spiritual conversations about my faith and their faith. Usually these conversations with people of other cultures are supportive conversations about how faith is an important element of life. I think “Americans” are typically too afraid to offend so avoid discussions on faith and by this miss out. Thanks Mike

    1. James R. Mitchener Post author

      Thank you very much, Mike. I really appreciate it. I am certainly planning on getting back to writing more on the topic. So much of my time has been consumed lately, but I realized yesterday just browsing through Third Culture Kid Life that something has been nagging at me for too long tell me to get back to it. There’s so much to say, and the fact that there are people like yourself reading it makes the entire experience so much more rewarding than I could ever explain. So truly, thank you for reading, and should you ever want to chat with a fellow TCK, I’m just an email or blog comment away my friend.

  2. Marilyn

    I appreciate this thoughtful article. I too am a third culture kid and have lived a good part of my adult life in a country other than my passport country as well. I like the clear picture you give and the phrases “Culture of Faith” and “Culture of Law”. Where I disagree is that the article implies that cultural differences are confined to faith alone – that if people could only see beyond their single lens view of faith, they would see how similar they really are. I feel like that is a simplistic view of cultural differences. Yes we are similar, in that we all cry, laugh, feel pain, anger etc. But the way we express those differences is totally different and it’s not all about faith. In my job I teach workshops on culture and culturally responsive care, largely to a western audience helping them to understand the many immigrant populations that come through their doors for care. Their are cultural differences in everything from self concept to what they’ll eat for dinner that night and how they’ll cook it. The conflicts come not from faith alone, but from the ethnocentrism that says “My way of cooking, living, eating, thinking, doing is better than yours”. You can have two people who both profess to be Muslim, or Christian and the way they live life is still in stark contrast. A Muslim and Christian, both from Pakistan, have a lot more in common than the Christian American and the Christian Pakistani….this is long and I apologize but would love to hear your thoughts.

    1. James R. Mitchener Post author

      I understand what you’re saying completely. While TCK Life is an attempt to explain all the dynamics of a TCK upbringing, I am obviously confined to specific categories in each article. When I was writing The Illusive Home (, a collection of 13 posts, I focused heavily on exactly what you are discussing. There are countless elements that impact our development, and so many of them shape our ability to connect, accept, and involve fellow human beings. I do, however, believe that the Culture of Faith is one of the most powerful unifying cultures in determining human behaviour. When I say this, please don’t take it the wrong way. What I’m trying to say, one TCK to another, is to not view the word “Faith” as a FCK would. What I mean by Culture of Faith is how your faith interacts with all the other elements of who you are, how it bleeds into your personality and affects you to your core. An example of what I’m saying is this:

      The United States has never elected an open atheist president. Sure, the country’s had them, back in the days before television, but now that isn’t the case. There have been many polls stating that a theist would rather vote for someone that doesn’t share their belief but believes in a God than an atheist who believes in “nothing.” These results don’t change, regardless of if you put a hat on a monkey and call him a Christian then stand him next to a clone of Sir Issac Newton wearing an “I’m an atheist” t-shirt. Today, the monkey in the hat would win the election hands down.

      I’m not sure if that’s a criticism more on faith or on politicians, but I think the point is there. The Culture of Faith and the Culture of Law are interwoven to an extreme level. The Culture of Faith isn’t just a belief in a god, but rather how your faith impacts your decisions and shapes the person you are. The Culture of Law isn’t the rules of the land, but the foundation upon which you build your morals, expect others to build theirs, and what’s considered universally acceptable behaviour.

      When you put the two side-by-side, what you end up with is two potentially conflicting results, especially in a country that claims “Separation of Church and State,” despite the gradual decline in that mentality since E Pluribus Unum was switched to In God We Trust in 1956, and “One Country, Under God” was written into the pledge of allegiance in 1954 (a pledge that was written by a Christian minister who intentionally left “Under God” out of the copy). In the end, however, you have two mentalities, one that is to create a law that governs man by man, and you have a doctrine that governs man by god. Eventually, they will collide.

      The question is, how hard to they hit each other when they do, and which of your personal cultural standings is the first one to cave in defeat to the other?

      1. Marilyn

        Got it – and agree with you. And you’re point on faith and law/church and state is well stated. As someone who is deeply committed to her faith, I’m continually amazed that people in the United States spend so much time discussing the faith of candidates and presidents….it’s fascinating because there is deep criticism in this country of the Muslim world – yet to see our politics worked through shows many similarities. Good last question.

  3. Karissa Taylor

    Wow, excellent article and really good discussion. I think you nailed it quite well– the tension between culture of faith and of law.

    A couple of thoughts that I found interesting–one is that you find the TCK community predominantly atheist. Most of the TCKs I know are predominantly faith-based; nice chance for me to branch out. I also think that TCKs have deeply rooted convictions, even when they may not voice them. It’s these convictions that give a moral base and stability, especially for the faith-based ones. In general, it can simply be that we think it imperative to be open minded, to get out into the world and out of a monocultural mindset. For those who are faith-based, it’s especially important to know what they believe, in the constant change of life and places, and the cultural and ideological pressures that come with it. We can be polite (and laid-back), but we can debate. And I think that while adapting and absorbing is a large part of being a TCK, we do a lot of analyzing and evaluating as well.

    I’ll come back and look at this discussion again, there were some good additional thoughts that I’d like to re-read.

    1. James R. Mitchener Post author

      You know, that’s a great point Karissa. We absolutely do have an imperative to be open minded, a talent that extends to the point that we can portray ourselves to be anything we believe others want us to be. I do not doubt that I am an atheist, a decision I have made based on a lifetime of travel and an endless need to acquire answers to every imaginable question with a grounding in logical reasoning. I don’t claim that my choice is fundamentally right, but I believe it is fundamentally right for me.

      That open-minded mentality is absolutely crucial here, because while I am an atheist, I also work as a consultant in a city that exists right on the bible belt. My upbringing and detailed knowledge of countless religions allows me to behave, operate, and respond to different people based on their own particular beliefs, allowing me to more than fit in, to become part of that culture or community. It instills confidence and builds relationships, and it’s a trait born of a youth living everywhere imaginable.

      That being said, I couldn’t agree more that we have incredible powers of debate. It’s natural for us, having acquired so much information and adopted so much diversity in our lives, to have strong opinions on the elements we have chosen to adopt into who we are. We can readopt or put up artificial veils, but I will not pretend for even a minute that when someone challenges the fundamental beliefs of myself or someone I care about, I will enter into a debate almost instantly.

      So my question to you is this, for I know the answer in instances involving myself, but I am curious about other TCKs that do the same thing: When forced into that position that you abandon adaptation and move to the offensive, how often do you win? I would also note that I define “win” in the debate sense, where winning does not involve convincing the one you are debating against, but instead involves making those who are listening and not participating side with you, or question themselves so that they stop blindly believing and start to think and analyze.

  4. Karissa Taylor

    Hehe, WELL…now that I think about it, I actually rarely move into the offensive vocally. There’s no winning. I get my points and views across but really what I’m doing is dialoging and creating discussion—I have good friends who are atheists and we understand and agree that our views are different and have fun taking turns having a shot at raising an argument—that being said there are some particular sticking points—everyone has them and their pet issues, especially surrounding issues that are controversial. I go to a very liberal institution and while I have some liberal views, I’m conservative in other areas. I don’t often express these views, when I know they are unpopular, unless pressed but at the same time, I do have formulated opinions, usually politely expressed or I refrain altogether.

    Maybe I “lose” most if not 100% of the time, when I think a part of us does want to convince the other person of our views or at least validate them to a certain degree. But I usually feel I’ve achieved my goal when the other person comes away saying, “Hmm, I haven’t thought of that before,” or, “I haven’t looked at it that way before” –which I think is what you were talking about in defining “winning.” And I find this happens fairly frequently after a respectful conversation, where both people come away having learned something, or at least have a better understanding of where we’re coming from. I think choosing your timing, the level of relationship, and the people with whom you argue, is very important. For people who already have their minds made up, my grandparents for instance, I don’t even bother, it’s futile making them angry by raising a different viewpoint.

    Good questions, I’ll have to come back, I still haven’t decided how often I’m willing to jump in and give my opinion on issues that cause friction but I’m also not willing to stand by when someone is expressing opinions so vocally and I think he or she is missing something.


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