Rally for Proposition 8, an item on the 2008 California ballot to ban same-sex marriage (from here) (photo here)
Google the words “culture” and “truth” together. You will get the following: About 500,000,000 results (0.62 seconds). Do you want to try to wade through all that? No, of course not. So I tried a question Google suggested: how does culture affect truth? That produced: About 450,000,000 results (0.30 seconds).
Why the interest? Christians tend to see themselves in conflict with the “world” or the culture. Why? Let’s consider some the “hits”.
There is a direct conflict. Here is an excerpt from a bible.org article written in 2006 by
Some prominent symbols of postmodernism in our culture are: 1) America’s longest running cartoon: The Simpsons, and 2) recently exploding onto the scene is the murder mystery religious novel The Da Vinci Code. The 2003 best-selling book by Dan Brown has sparked the interest of millions of average people worldwide. According to the most recent figures, the book has sold more than 43 million copies, has been translated into dozens of languages,2 and is now coming out in a movie.
Among other things, the book falsely explicitly and implicitly promotes the idea that all history is made up; the Bible is merely from man not God; faith is only fiction; Jesus was merely a man whom the church embellished to be a god; He was actually married and had a child, which was covered up by the church; free sex without the boundaries of marriage is good.
Does all this tell us something about the culture we live in? I think it does, and it points out that what we as Christians believe and do are in fundamental conflict with much of our culture. In fact, we are in clash with it. Whether we like it or not, our culture is colliding with us, and we dare not harmonize with it.(from here)
Some even have designs to manipulate the culture to control the “truth”. Here is an excerpt from a Wikipedia article on Truth.
Giambattista Vico was among the first to claim that history and culture were man-made. Vico’s epistemological orientation gathers the most diverse rays and unfolds in one axiom—verum ipsum factum—”truth itself is constructed”. Hegel and Marx were among the other early proponents of the premise that truth is, or can be, socially constructed. Marx, like many critical theorists who followed, did not reject the existence of objective truth but rather distinguished between true knowledge and knowledge that has been distorted through power or ideology. For Marx, scientific and true knowledge is “in accordance with the dialectical understanding of history” and ideological knowledge is “an epiphenomenal expression of the relation of material forces in a given economic arrangement”. (from here)
The articles above raise a question. Can our perspective of what is true be altered by our culture? Of course, it can be. That is apparently why Dr. R. Albert Mohler wrote Culture Shift: The Battle for the Moral Heart of America. We can perceive as true based upon what we are taught is true. Here is an extract from a book review.
Chapter 9 will certainly offend those belonging to the National Education Association, since Mohler is an outspoken critic of the public school system. Because children are bombarded with everything from “Day of Silence” observations organized by homosexual activists to the Darwinian dismantling of any ideas related to Intelligent Design, he makes a very radical proposal on page 71: “I am convinced that the time has come for Christians to develop an exit strategy from the public schools. Some parents made this decision long ago. The Christian school and home school movements are among the most significant cultural developments of the last thirty years. Other parents are not there yet. In any event, an exit strategy should be in place.” (from here (equip.org))
Sometimes, however, what matters is more innocent. Sometimes it is just our shared experience. That can affect even the way we interpret scripture.
Clearly, our experiences shape our reading of the Bible. We are all wearing tinted glasses, lenses that help us to see some things very clearly but distort our vision elsewhere. Think, for instance, of the parable of the Prodigal Son. When 100 North American students were asked to read the parable and retell it, only six mentioned the famine the prodigal experiences away from home. In a word, American readers tend to be “famine-forgetters,” perhaps because most Americans simply have not experienced terrible famine. Compare the response of 50 Russian readers to the very same parable: 42 out of 50 mentioned the famine. Why? The cultural history of famine in World War II has deeply embedded itself in the Russian consciousness, and this cultural lens influences what Russian Christians see in a biblical text. (from here (christianitytoday.com))
Sometimes, however, what we consider right or wrong depends simply upon the people of our culture have come to believe is right or wrong. Imagine you have multiple wives, and you have just become a Christian.
An issue that believers in Western nations don’t have to deal with but those in Africa and Asia may is the practice of polygamy. Polygamy is perfectly legal in many countries. But when a man with several wives becomes a Christian, he is often convicted that polygamy was not God’s perfect plan for His followers. In this case, he is struggling with his own culture, and has difficult decisions to make. (from here (compellingtruth.org))
Culture even affects how we communicate the truth. We can miss the truth just because we don’t know how another communicates it. Here in an article from Forbes Magazine Carol is interviewing Stuart, an expert on how world cultures affect verbal and non-verbal communications.
Carol: I love that example because I’ve also observed that although there are universal expressions (joy, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, contempt), the display of those emotions – especially in business dealings – varies greatly by culture. Another cultural variance is the importance of relationships. How can that lead to misunderstandings?
Stuart: Which brings us nicely to my story about Brazil.
“I don’t understand. They repeatedly said their schedule was going to be tight. So when I mentioned I couldn’t attend the meeting in São Paulo next week, I committed to send our most experienced project manager. That way we wouldn’t have to delay the meeting, and we could finalize the contract as planned. So why did they cancel? There’s something they’re not telling us…”
Americans know that when it comes to business, “time is money.” But what they don’t know is that some cultures put a higher priority on other values. Sure, in the U.S.A. if a project schedule is at risk the last thing you’d want to do is delay finalizing the contract. But in Brazil, it’s the people involved and the relationships with them that matters most. Relationships can trump deadlines. If the American has been involved in putting this deal together, most Brazilians would accommodate the American and postpone the meeting–even if it impacted the project schedule.
In fact, just by suggesting the meeting should take place as scheduled the American has signaled his business priorities. For many Brazilians, this alone could cause them to question the American’s integrity as a business partner. They might ask themselves, “If this is how we’re treated when he is trying to get our business, what can we expect after he has our business?” They might conclude this isn’t the kind of long-term and trustworthy relationship they want and cancel the meeting. And what began as a simple lack of cultural knowledge, quickly evolves into a matter of trust. (from here (forbes.com))
Even at the end of life, our culture can affect how we communicate the truth. Imagine you are a doctor, and your patient is dying.
Britain’s end-of-life strategy reflects the core values of Britain’s dominant culture—independence, individualism, autonomy, fear and futility of relentless efforts extending poor quality life. Not all patients and families, however, share these values and concerns. In many ethnic communities, physicians and families often feel that withholding medical information is in the best interests of the patient. This reflects the predominance of the ethical paradigm of beneficence in those cultures as opposed to the predominance of autonomy in Anglo-American culture. For cultures where beneficence dominates, concealing the truth is more humane and ethical, avoiding the loss of hope and unnecessary emotional distress inherently linked with disclosure. (from here (academic.oup.com))
Does our culture determine truth? Should we allow our culture to determine what is right, and what is wrong? The answer from a philosopher is no. Consider what cultural relativism means.
Relativism in general breaks down when examined from a purely logical perspective. The basic premise is that “truth is relative.” If every truth statement is valid, then the statement “some truths are absolute” must be valid. The statement “there are no absolute truths” is accurate, according to relativism — but it is an absolute truth itself. These contradict the very concept of relativism, meaning that absolute relativism is self-contradictory and impossible. (from here (allaboutphilosophy.org))
So what is truth? If we are Christians, then we must believe God is Truth, and His Bible provides us wisdom to discern good from evil.