It has been in vogue the last couple of decades to split the world into cultures. From these cultures, we see how people develop their senses of self, self-worth, and morality. One culture is not supposed to be any better than another, and we end up with the concept of “cultural relativism.” Whatever a person does or believes does not matter so long as it conforms to the norms of this particular person’s particular culture. Only within a culture can we make value judgments.
But this concept hinges on the definition of culture, and it turns out that it is much more of a fluid concept than we would would like or imagine. Let us start with how large a culture has to be. Is a culture of one just as valid as a culture of one billion? If it is just as valid, it creates a huge loophole. I can claim that I am a different culture than those around me, and they no longer have any ground to judge my actions or beliefs. I can also, in certain situations, force others to make allowances for my culture.
Every once in a while we hear a story of someone in a prison saying that his religion requires him to eat ice cream on a regular basis and expecting his request to be granted based on freedom of religion. That is one example where we the taxpayers would be forced to make allowances for this singular cultural practice. If a culture of one is not valid, then how big must a culture be to be counted? Will minority cultures always be subject to the whims of the majority? That is a scary thought.
The concepts of majority and minority bring up another point. What do we do when we have multiple cultures in one area? In America, we talk about sub-cultures on a regular basis. Those sub-cultures can be based on age, occupation, gender, religion, ethnicity, or any number of factors. Which of these sub-cultures do we pay attention to? Which set of values is a person held to when the prevailing culture differs from the sub-culture? And how far can these sub-cultures be subdivided until the concept becomes meaningless? What happens when culture devolves into just another word for personality?
One set of sub-cultures in America bring up more points. What is required of immigrants? Are they required to conform to their original cultures or to the culture which predominates where they moved to? The general theory today is that people are free to keep the culture from which they came. But are there limits to this indulgence?
Once or twice a year now, we read a story about an honor killing where a male of Muslim origin has killed a female relative for anything from running away from home with a man to dressing in a way that this male did not approve of. These men are then prosecuted in our justice system and convicted of murder or some similar offense. If they are allowed to keep their original cultures, and if their cultures allow for this type of behavior, on what basis do we judge them?
Culture is just too fluid a concept to use as the foundation for such a heavy category as right and wrong. But then what is our alternative? We need some foundation outside of people to use as a fixed reference point to define what is good, true, and beautiful and what is evil, false, and ugly.
Christians use the reference of the Bible as God’s revelation of Himself and what He deems is important since He created it all. Anything which does not meet up with the standards set forth in the Bible must be discarded.
But going back to the idea of culture, we also need to remember that there is a third category of behavior: that which is neither prohibited nor required but is permissible. And when we allow ourselves to read the Bible with open eyes, we see that there is a lot in culture that falls into this category.
Does music have to be made by an organ, or is a guitar better? The Bible doesn’t say. Should men be circumcised? The Bible doesn’t say. Should we be vegetarian or eat meat? The Bible doesn’t say. The Bible is much more concerned with topics like loving and respecting other people, obeying the Lord, and spreading the gospel throughout the earth. Within that framework, there are many things which are permissible.
In the words of Francis Schaeffer, there is both form and freedom. Only in this way can we have freedom without chaos and form without conformity.
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