Sunday, May 21, 2017

Seminary CM3: How Culture Works

This is the third post on the Contexts of Ministry in my Seminary in a Nutshell series. See the bottom for the previous posts in this unit, "The Person and Contexts of a Minister." I have completed one other unit in this series, The Pastor as Leader.
1. David Livermore suggests that our human identity is formed on the basis of three basic forces: a) there is human nature itself, which we share in common with our species, b) there is our individual personality, which distinguishes us from other individuals, and c) there are the cultures and subcultures to which we belong. [1]

Human nature in itself speaks to a context that all of us share with the other men and women of our species. We have a tendency to stereotype humanity with our own cultural assumptions, including our flat readings of the Bible and Christian theology. If we want to see the world more clearly, we will suspend such thinking until we get out a little and travel the world, and not just a few days here and there, and not just moving our body somewhere else without ever really leaving home. We may want to live in the inner city to see what it is really like or live a while in someone else's shoes. Best suspend my assumptions of what human nature is while I am exploring the way culture works.

There's a good chance that there is a lot of culture in what I thought was basic human nature.

Then there is my individual personality. I have already explored the Myers-Briggs personality test and how it might impact ministry. Becoming better aware of the fact that other people have a different personality than I do was one of the most important take-aways I had from seminary.

2. So what is culture? I like this definition: "Culture is the shared understandings people use within a society to align their actions." Or another way to put it is that culture is the "software behind how we operate." [2] We swim in cultures. We cannot get out of the water. There is nothing for us that is "trans" cultural in the sense of being removed or fully abstracted from culture. There are only a few things that are "omni" cultural, common to all human cultures. If we use the word transcultural at all, we mean that it is something shared across cultures. As I have often said, "All truth is incarnated truth."

I would say that there are three main aspects to culture. First, there is how individuals or groups define themselves as entities. Second, there is how individuals or groups relate to other individuals within and outside of each group. Third, there are the beliefs and practices of individuals or groups in relation to the world around them. [3] In philosophy, we talk of "paradigms," ways of viewing particular issues or dimensions of life. A "worldview" is then a collection of paradigms that come together as a whole. A worldview is a way of looking at the world. [4]

It would be vastly mistaken to think that humans primarily operate by playing out cognitive ideas in their lives. Rather, we are born within certain cultures and subcultures that form our basic perspectives on life. We certainly can change. Education can vastly expand our horizons. But the less aware we are of the forces on us, the more than our ideas and views are simply inherited and newly invented ways of justifying the assumptions we inherited from our environment.

Ideas can take on a life of their own. This is a gift of human nature. But our ideas are far more epiphenomena than archetype. That is to say, our ideas far more serve to defend and mirror what we already believe and practice than being the real source and origin of our behavior. It is human nature to come up with arguments to defend what we already think and do.

3. In terms of how individuals or groups identify themselves as entities, there are a number of elements and variations. Livermore suggests that there are six key cultural spectra that we can use to analyze a culture: individualism versus collectivism, hierarchy vs. egalitarianism, low vs high risk avoidance, short term vs. long term orientation, explicit vs. implicit communication, and being vs. doing. [5]

Of these spectra, the one that is most important when it comes to how individuals or groups identify themselves, is the individualism versus collectivism spectrum. Westerners--and especially "white" Americans--strongly tend to assume that they are largely independent individuals, distinct and autonomous in relation to other people, whom they also see as individuals. [6]

Mind you, individualism is not the human default. Homo sapiens is a herd animal, and we should not be surprised to find that Americans tend to group as well. In older Republicans and Democrats especially we find something more collectivist, where loyalty to the group is a greater priority that objectivity or evidentiary truth. Americans are often extremely "prejudiced" in the sense of pre-judging other people according to the way they look or their demographic. This is collectivist thinking, thinking that identifies people according to the groups to which they belong rather than some common or "objective" standard.

Indeed, "one truth" cultures have little to do with truth per se but with loyalty to the "truth" of the dominant group. When many Christians refer to the truth and protest loudly about standing up for the truth, what they really mean is standing up for their group's way of looking at the world. By contrast, Western individualism seeks a common standard by which all individuals are measured, something beyond a particular group. Blind spots have often resulted in this simply being a more subtle form of the dominant group deciding on the standard, but an honest and earnest embracing of the goal is still more likely to result in a greater "equal justice for all" than throwing the notion of "equal justice for all" out the window.

4. So individualists define themselves. They decide what they like. They decide what their values are. They decide what career to follow and whom to marry.

In a collectivist culture, identity is "group-embedded." You know who a person is largely on the basis of external features. Men are this way, woman are that way. Jews, Italians, Russians, Kenyans are a certain way. Families of status are this way, families who are merchants are that way. You can arrange marriages even before birth because the key characteristics of identity are known before birth.

Loyalty to one's group--its truth, its values--is a key virtue in collectivist cultures and sub-cultures. Chances are, your group has authority figures in it as well. Submission to their authority is a virtue. Collectivist cultures tend to be honor/shame cultures. You might hear words like "glory," "honor," "disgrace," "shame," "embarrassment," and so forth. But you won't hear someone say, "Be true to yourself" or "Let your conscience be your guide."

5. Paul Hiebert has pointed out the difference between "bounded sets" and "centered sets." Livermore argues that individualist cultures tend to think in terms of bounded sets. That is to say, they tend to set fairly well-defined boundaries to decide who is in and who is out. In a group culture, where being in or out is a matter of belonging to the group, there can be a less well defined boundary. There can be a "black sheep" of the family who is still in the family.

The distinction between bounded and centered sets seems particularly helpful when it comes to Christian colleges and universities. The more "traditional" a Christian college, the more likely it is that the college was established to perpetuate the beliefs and values of the group that founded it or that owns it. However, it is in the nature of academy to emphasize the pursuit of truth for its own sake, wherever the evidence may lead.

These two values are bound to come into conflict, because no group has a corner on the truth. The more traditional the college, the more likely it will function as a bounded set. Step outside the line and you are gone. By contrast, a centered set model suggests a model that tries to draw on the best of both worlds. The traditional identity of the college can be privileged, while the edges of scholarly examination left somewhat vague, as long as the scholars do not directly undermine the college's identity and respect it.

6. There are other identity markers. Race and ethnicity are two. Gender is another. Geography can be significant. When religion is inherited, it is part of this mix as well.

Ethnicity has to do with one's people group of origin. It is thus an extension of kinship. White Americans tend to think of families in more "nuclear" terms. A husband-wife and any immediate children. Other cultures expand the family to include grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and so forth. There are an increasing number of single parent and foster parent units now as well, and of course the US has made gay marriage an option as well.

Ethnicity thus relates to one's kinship group in its broadest terms: Italian, German, English, Scottish, etc. "White" is not really an ethnicity but has come to refer to the collection of groups like those mentioned above who have a similar light skin. "Race" has thus come to be about look, which overlaps with ethnicity but is not exactly the same. Similarly, "black" is not an ethnicity but a grouping together of all those of African origin with dark skin. The slave trade of the 1600s created the category of black. Before that point, there were Timni and Hutu and Tutsi and so forth.

7. Language is a key identity marker, and Livermore suspects that the way we speak has an effect on the way we think. Ethnicity and language are typically connected, to where our people group is associated with a particular language. When this language is part of a broader pool of groups that speak the same language, the impact is probably less than when your language is situated in a context where more than one language is spoken.

Nevertheless, even in English there are accents that we associate with stereotypes. There is a southern accent, a New York accent, a British accent. Each of these accents can give rise to assumptions about group and individual identity. Indeed, regions often have identities within a country or broader people group.

8. Gender is typically stereotyped around the world. The Western individualist world has strongly attempted to individualize gender. The goal here is that a man or a woman is not categorized by their gender but by their abilities and choices.

In individualist cultures, an individual at least in theory can choose their religion. In a group culture, one is born into a particular religion. In a group culture, all these identity markers are blended together so that to change religions is to betray one's group.

9. The last two centuries has seen the birth of nationalism. Nationalism is a group identity that transcends ethnicity. So rather than being proud to be Irish in origin, one becomes proud to be an American. Geography becomes a key identity marker, not because of one's place of origin (e.g., a Jew is someone originating ethnically from Judah), but because of the nation-state to which you belong.

10. We reinforce these identities by the stories we tell about our supposed past, by certain practices that are considered normal for your group, with key symbols that we take pride in or that we abhor, and there are often ideologies associated with a particular identity. For example, there is a certain version of American history that a certain group of Americans might tell involving brave patriots who overthrew the tyranny of Great Britain during the Revolutionary War. But a southern African-American might have a quite different story to tell about American history.

Groups tell these stories to define themselves. These versions are never the whole truth. Indeed, their function is more to give honor and purpose to our group than to give anything like an objective picture of history in the modern sense.

Groups have practices and symbols too that contribute to their sense of self-identity. Most Americans observe Thanksgiving and July, but of course Germans and the British do not. The American flag is such a strong symbol to some American groups that it is displayed proudly in many churches throughout America. The connection between God and country is more typical lost on Christians from other countries. Indeed, the association of church and state in many places has not been positive.

11. So the first aspect of culture we have identified is how culture defines individuals or groups themselves. A second dimension to culture is thus how these individuals or groups interact with one another, both with other individuals/groups within a broader culture and individuals/groups outside a culture.

Individuals within a broader culture often stratify in some sort of hierarchical fashion. The culture of India at least in the past is a standard example. The caste system identified layers of class that were not allowed to intermarry and were connected with Hindu religion according to virtue in one’s past life. The Brahman class was the most worthy and the most virtuous in a previous life. They were also a priestly class. Below them were other classes considered to be inferior.

Class is of course not unique to India. Throughout history there have always been the more privileged and powerful alongside the less. From ancient times there were the kings and there were the slaves. In medieval times there were the lords and the serfs. In recent times there are the rich and the poor, there are the working class and the management class. There has thus always been an economic dimension to culture.

Economies work in different ways at different places at different times. For example, money has not been the primary basis for exchange in most places in history. Rather, trading and barter has been. Throughout history, agriculture rather than industry has been the basis of exchange.

When goods are the basis for exchange, a sense of limited good or a zero-sum game can operate, where it is assumed that if one person has more, someone somewhere else has less. For this reason perhaps more than any, the New Testament is generally negative toward the accumulation of wealth. Western Americans however do not generally think that way.

12. Some cultures are more hierarchical, while others are more egalitarian. Most cultures probably have strongly been hierarchical. The notion that all individuals are of equal value and should have equal opportunity is a fairly unique cultural idea, it would seem, even among Christian cultures in history.

Respect for authority is thus a key moral value in most cultures. On the other hand, oppression is considered such a vice, that the impulse to revolution is also found in most cultures. This is an impulse to overthrow the tyrant (usually to replace him or her with another one). In more individualistic cultures, this can take the form of fighting for liberty.

Different cultures thus have different senses of how much freedom versus conformity is expected. Western culture has often put a primacy on independent thinking and “thinking for yourself.” Most other cultures, by contrast, would consider such thinking to be deviant. Of course individual personalities can lean in these different directions as well.

13. Generations often have differing cultures, especially in recent times when the world and technological environment is changing so rapidly. In white Americanism, you hear talk of the “builder” generation who came of age during World War II. Then there is the “boomer” generation born in its aftermath. Generation X and millennials followed suit. Each generation is often stereotyped with certain sub-cultural, generational characteristics.

14. Another spectrum on which different cultures differ is that of explicit versus implicit communication. In much of America, frankness is almost considered equivalent to honesty. Yet in many cultures, you are expected to pick up on clues that are more subtle. In an honor-shame context, open confrontation can be considered disgraceful and disgracing.

15. A sense of fairness would seem to be common to most if not all cultures, but each cultures sense of exactly what that fairness can differ wildly. [7] In American politics, for example, you can hear one politician say that the wealthy need to pay their “fair share,” while another politician might say it is unfair to make the wealthy pay a higher percentage of their income than the middle class.

All cultures seem to share a sense that it is wrong to harm the innocent within your own group. [8] “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Where Jesus was counter-cultural was when he suggested that our enemies are also our neighbors. In most cultures, it is not necessarily considered wrong to harm someone who is from an enemy group.

15. Finally, there is how the individual/group relates to the world around it. How does a culture categorize its world and its behavior in it?

Livermore identifies three additional cultural spectra that I would place in this category. One of them is the difference between low and high risk cultures. Some cultures tend to be more likely to venture out into risky territory than others, which tend to be more conservative. Of course this also applies to different personality types as well. We would expect high risk avoidance cultures to be "law and order" cultures that have autocratic tendencies.

Some cultures tend to be more short term versus long term. White American culture has often been an impatient, “Get it done now” kind of culture. Other cultures play a much longer game. Related to these spectra is the spectrum between cultures that more emphasize being versus doing. White American culture seems to have a need to be doing things. Other cultures are much more content simply to be.

It would be impossible to catalog all the different ways that cultures identify and categorize items in the world around them. One interesting feature of the way cultures categorize their world is “category width.” If rice is important for a particular culture, it is likely that the culture will have more words for different kinds of rice. If a particular category is not as central for a culture, there may only be one word for that whole category (e.g., rice) and adjectives may be added to distinguish different kinds (e.g., brown, white).

16. A final aspect of culture that has not always been appreciated in “Western” culture is that of clean, unclean, and the holy, the category of sanctity. The West has at times lost any real sense of the sacred. Everything has become common.

But many cultures have a sense of the sacred, and there is a kind of cult of patriotism in the United States that exhibits features of this cultural dimension. Do not desecrate the flag. Not to stand for the national anthem is treasonous. These are traces of the impulse to the holy in other cultures. “Touch not the unclean thing.”

A comparison of cultures around the world reveals that morality has a strong cultural dimension. In fact, the worlds ethics and morality themselves come from Greek and Latin words that mean “nations” and “customs” respectively. The Greek historian Herodotus once concluded that “Custom is king over all,” meaning that what a people thinks is right and wrong is a function of that people.

Certainly Christians believe that some moral universals have been revealed by God. Similarly, the Enlightenment worked out some philosophical principles that, when worked out, approximate the core ethic of the New Testament. Yet there is no denying that Christian cultures have played out their understandings differently and that individual cultures often have varying senses of virtue. Around the world, morality is also cultural or at least has a significant cultural dimension.

17. The name of David Livermore’s book is Cultural Intelligence. He is not concerned only with “knowledge CQ” (cultural quotient) and with “interpretation CQ, but with what he calls “perseverance CQ” and “behavioral CQ.” The material I have set out above largely has to do with understanding how culture works and having some basic categories from which to interpret culture.

By “perseverance CQ,” Livermore refers to the necessity to endure and persist when immersed in or surrounded by cultures different from your own default. It can be stressful to persist. When I went to England, McDonalds was of no particular significance to me. But after a year there, I was willing to walk or run three miles to have a hamburger that was at least a little like what I was used to at home. Behavioral CQ suggests that you not only know difference in culture but that you are willing to change your behavior as necessary when you are encountering the other.

In the end, we are all slaves to culture. It's just that most of us don't know it.

Next Sunday: The Cultures of the Bible

[1] David A. Livermore, Cultural Intelligence: Improving Your CQ to Engage Our Multicultural World (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 85.

[2] Livermore, 81. The first is Howard Becker, the second Geert Hofstede.

[3] I have found this way of analyzing culture helpful for today's entry. Livermore speaks of three primary "cultural domains" that relate to ministry. He defines them as socio-ethnic, organizational, and generational (93). Following Jeffrey Sonnenfield, he categorizes organizational culture as academy culture, baseball culture, club culture, and fortress culture (99-101). I initially played around with reformulating these categories as 1) ethnic (kinship, national, global), social (economic, religious, voluntary), and generational (age related). Some of these can also be analyzed in terms of space (where you are located) and time (age).

[4] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992) once suggested that there are four elements in worldview. These were a) a group's story, b) a group's basic practices, c) a group's symbols, and d) a group's answer to basic worldview questions like "Who are we?" "Where are we?" "What is wrong?" "What is the solution?"

[5] Livermore, Cultural Intelligence,121-41.

[6] By "Americans" I mean individuals from the United States. I am not meaning to dismiss Canadians or individuals from Latin America. This is just common parlance in the US and the simplest way to refer to this group.

[7] I have integrated the six moral foundations set out by Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind in my analysis here.

[8] The Iq people, who at one time seemed not to consider it wrong to let harm come to one’s children, could arguably have been called a sick and dying culture at that time.

The Calling of a Minister
The Person of a Pastor
Contexts of Ministry

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