More on culture and convictions.

In yesterday’s post I argued against an overly simplistic view of how individuals accept the ideas of their own cultures. On the one hand, we cannot say that our ideas about the meaning of life are independent of our cultural backgrounds; on the other, we cannot simply dismiss people’s opinions as the result of cultural conditioning, since we all go through a process of re-evaluating our cultural inheritance as we grow older.

No one can say he is free of cultural influences: first because our cultural influences are often unconscious, and second because  even people who claim to be counter-cultural radicals are generally just switching one cultural pose for another.

Exhibit One: The artist formerly known as Cat Stevens

Exhibit One: The artist formerly known as Cat Stevens

This leaves us with a problem: how can we hold to our convictions while admitting that they are culturally conditioned? I do not have a clear answer myself, but these are some of the thoughts I have as I try to grope around the issue:

1) Three facts, (first) that most of us re-evaluate our cultural backgrounds as we mature, and (second) the resulting fact that all cultures change over time, and (third) the fact that people can undergo radical cultural shifts, show us that the average person does think semi-independently of his cultural background.

2) Some cultures have many centuries of development, can include many sub-cultures, and live in regular contact with other cultures. When referring to things like Christianity, Islam or Western Civ, we could probably speak of “super-cultures”. Our basic assumption when confronting this sort of reality should be that given the huge store of human experience contained in them, they probably have something positive to teach us about human nature. For example, it is easy to look at news of suicide bombers in the Middle East and dismiss Islam as something grotesque, but given Islam’s millennial tradition and multi-ethnic membership, it is more likely that we are getting a distorted image of it in the news, that there are other factors involved in these horrors besides religion, or that Islam finds itself at a low-ebb in history and these deformities are not a reflection of the whole.

3) We often glorify cultural rebels, but I often feel like cultural rebels are annoyingly superficial, as if they never took the time to understand what they are rebelling against. At best, their rebellion is a symptom of a deeper cultural crisis which they themselves lack the mental tools to address. Then there are men who are celebrated as counter-cultural, but when you look closely at them they seem much more mysterious. Socrates was a critic of Athens, but after reading the dialogues of Plato it is hard to imagine anyone in the city of Athens who was more Athenian than Socrates. Jesus was a critic of Judaism, but after reading the Gospels, especially in the light of recent scholarship, it is hard to imagine anyone more Jewish than Jesus. Both men were immersed in their cultural worlds, but both men had universal aspirations. Both men have had a cultural impact that has spanned centuries.  It is almost as if by becoming more perfectly Athenian and more perfectly Jewish they become more universal.

What do these reflections add up to? Not a formula for knowing some trans-cultural truth, but maybe an attitude of patience and a desire to learn more about my own cultural heritage.

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