Some 15 years ago or so now, a friend and I were invited to visit a “biker church” to speak and pray for the folk there. The ministry continues to this day, and is affiliated with the Bondslave Motorcycle Club, and I still see them out and about every so often. I’m not sure if they (still) consider themselves formally a church or a ministry, but I wouldn’t put a very fine point on it. I got the T-shirt when I was there — it says “House of the Risen Son” on it, and yes, we sang “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun” (try it sometime). It was a small group that met on the third floor of a 2½-story house in Winnipeg’s North End. While I was there, I snapped a photograph of their pulpit, which I still keep in my Bible-cum-almanac. The image is to me a great example of contextualization. Just seeing the pulpit gives you a pretty good idea where you are… the front forks and wheel from a motorcycle, propped up by two broken pool cues… and a cross hung from the handlebars which frame the podium. I love it, beautifully reflected here in the hardwood floor in front of the characteristically-curtained window.
There is a lot of misunderstanding about relativity as regards the emerging church and its missional expressions. Any time the word “relativity” is used apart from reference to Einstein, the conservative church gets nervous — and I’m not entirely sure they aren’t nervous about the naming of Einstein’s famous theory. The old saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” The words are traced back to St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, and his advice to St. Augustine in 387 A.D. to “Follow the custom of the Church where you are.” Nowadays, if it is uttered by the church at all, it is typically spoken with footnotes and cautions about not aligning too closely with one’s culture… in the worst cases, it is used not as a recommendation but as a warning, a statement which is sometimes axiomatically disagreed with. Christian Mission is this way, at times in its history having attempted to overrun a culture and impose a “more Christian” one instead. The colonialism of Christendom is distinctly what I have in mind here, but the habit is extended in subtle and not-so-subtle ways today. In the late 1980s, I heard second or third-hand reports of the world’s largest mission station at Kijabe, Kenya. The name is Masai for “Place of the Wind,” and one can easily conjure associations with the wind of the Holy Spirit. The critical reports told of a large community bounded by chain-link fencing; on the inside were Western-style homes full of missionaries who despite their surroundings never missed an episode of The Cosby Show, which were mailed to them on videotape (it was the 80’s, after all). They had all the comforts of home, surrounded by the security of a fence; outside, local African children clung to the chain links of the fence, peering through to see how the Westerners lived.
As I’ve been working around the missional definition, I have been rooting through some of my library assets, including old course work from college and reference materials I’ve gathered over the years on theology, Biblical studies, and missiology. Much of it pre-computer, and what was computerized then has been preserved in hard copy only… though I probably still have a lot of it stored “safely” on 5¼” floppy disks (yes, really) and in file folders distributed through several drawers of my file cabinet and desk. I’m finding some real treasures and rediscovering some reading and work I’d done before on matters that are now quite relevant. One such discovery was with my course material from my Cultural Anthropology course with Dr. Jon Bonk. I was looking for a source and some specifics for the report I mentioned of Kijabe, but didn’t find it (if anyone has more information, please comment). I did however find an article printed from microfilm (you know that glossy coated paper that prints wet and dries dull?): “Some Relevant Anthropological Concepts for Effective Cross-Cultural Ministry” by Darrell L. Whiteman in Missiology: An International Review, Vol. IX, No. 2, April 1981, pp.223-239. I’m going to quote at length one section from the article (pp.227-229), which explains the difference between cultural relativity and ethical relativity, and proposes the term “cultural validity” instead. The section comes following an explanation of ethnocentricity.
This brings us to an important point in our understanding of other cultures. To combat the insidious ethnocentrism of Euro-Americans, anthropology in its study of the diversity of cultures has developed and utilized the doctrine of cultural relativism. This is an extremely important concept for every cross-cultural worker to understand and internalize. However, it can be easily confused with ethical relativity.
Ethical relativism holds to the thesis of cultural relativism in that different cultures the same action or thing is judged differently, but it goes one step further and states that in each of these respective cultures, the judgments made by the members of that culture are not only different but also correct. However, it is not logical reasoning to go from making descriptive statements about people in different cultures judging an action differently, to prescriptive statements about ethical relativism that imply the judgments made are correct ones in each culture. Unfortunately many anthropological texts are full of these kinds of illustrations.
For example, the Marind people in New Guinea believed that the only way a child could get a name and a separate identity was by taking it from a living person. Therefore headhunting was practiced and as long as the head was obtained from an enemy it was judged to be acceptable behavior. Now in London, headhunting of one’s enemies, or anyone else, is not acceptable behavior. However, the ethical relativist, after describing that headhunting is acceptable among the Marind in New Guinea, but not acceptable among the English in London, then goes on to state that for the Marind headhunting is morally and ethically right behavior, but for the English it is not.
Let us look briefly at the logic of the argument:
Premise 1: The Marind believe headhunting is right.
Premise 2: The English believe headhunting is right.
Conclusion: What is right and wrong is relative to one’s culture.
The fallaciousness of this argument form is made all the more clear when the same logic is applied to judgments about shapes. For example:
Premise 1: Culture X believes the earth is flat.
Premise 2: Culture Y believes the earth is rather spherical.
Conclusion: Therefore, the shape of the earth is relative to one’s culture.
Now the earth cannot be both flat and spherical — it may be neither, but it is logically impossible for it to be both. However, this kind of reasoning allows people to jump from affirming cultural relativism to believing in ethical relativity.
Cultural relativism is also frequently confused with ethical egoism. Ethical egoism is the notion that individual behavior is not constrained by any social controls. That is, individuals do as they please with regard only to their own interests rather than being controlled by group norms. Ethical egoism seems to flourish more in those societies where individualism is valued above the corporate group, as in our own American society.
In contrast, the essence of cultural relativism is a mutual respect for cultural differences, a validating of diverse ways of living, not just our own, and an affirmation of the values in each culture. Because many Christians tend to react negatively to any concept of relativism, it is perhaps better if we speak in terms of cultural validity to emphasize the positive connotation of this perspective. Cultural validity calls us to respect cultures as integrated entities and to see them as frameworks in which people actualize their values and prescribe appropriate behavior to attempt to meet their needs as human beings.
However, this does not imply that cultures are complete and perfect without need of change. From a Biblical perspective the principle of cultural relativism calls us to be all things to all men. For Christians, this perspective is on the cultural level, what personal acceptance or the Golden Rule is on the individual level. It recommends that instead of making a priori judgments about a culture (or an individual), we should accept the validity of that culture (or individual) regardless of whether our own values predispose us to approve of the culture (or individual). This position of affirming the validity of another culture assumes that it has its own strengths and weaknesses, different from ours, but it does not predispose us to becoming ethical relativists.
A belief in the validity of other cultures does not obligate one to approve of such customs as cannibalism, widow burning, infanticide, premarital sex, polygamy and the like. But it does insist that one take such customs seriously within the cultural context in which they occur and attempt to appreciate the importance of their function within that context (Kraft 1979:50).
If we are to be effective cross-cultural communicators of the Gospel it is imperative that we move from an ethnocentric perspective to one of cultural validity, taking seriously the cultures of our host societies and viewing them as whole entities in which human beings strive to meet their needs. This implies that we will treat people in other cultures as if we expect them to teach us something.
The quote from Charles Kraft is from Christianity in Culture: A Study in Dynamic Biblical Theologizing in Cross-Cultural Perspective; Whiteman cites Donald McGavran (who was foundational to the church growth movement) as an example of misunderstanding cultural relativity and calling it an enemy of Christian mission rather than as a positive concept, and provides several other sources for outlining a better understanding. I pulled out my copy of Readings in missionary anthropology II (William A. Smalley, ed.) and picked at a few of the essays, such as Smalley’s “Proximity or Neighborliness?” and read,
Missionaries talk about “going out to live among the people” (although anyone who has seen a typical mission compound will not take that cliché too literally), but how many have ever thought of being neighbors to these “people” near by?
In our western world individuals may be thrown into regular contact, even close physical proximity, over long periods of time, and not have more than the most superficial social intercourse, if any at all.
He goes on to describe differing perspectives he had observed in the mission field, where on the one hand missionaries separated themselves from the people to whom they consider themselves sent, not participating in their events and customs. On the other hand, there were those missionaries who readily did participate not only in language but in activities as well. As you can guess, there was much quicker identification established by the latter examples, who were presumably much more effective in their work among the people.
Drawing as I am from missiological work from the 1970s and 80s, a more traditional cross-cultural missionary approach is being contemplated. Of all that I have here referenced or quoted though, I would say that our own culture has changed around us. The church in the West today often does not participate in the activities of its culture, fails to appreciate the nature and significance of some of its values, and distances itself from the culture, cloistering themselves away while the people look on from outside, marveling at the different way in which the church lives and never understanding why.
Clearly there is much that can be seen in these discussions which reflect the concern in the emerging missional church to be culturally relevant, to be truly among the people to whom they are sent, and to establish indigenous churches which look much like the culture in which they are established rather than like they were cast in a mold from a bygone era. Inasmuch as the emerging church is often criticized for adopting ethical relativity, in many or most cases, the nature of the relativity is misunderstood and should better be spoken of as cultural validity. There is much to learn here for our understanding of our own culture, which has changed around the church despite their continued protests. We’ve reached the stage where we are better to attempt a fresh understanding of our culture and its values so that while we may not agree with some of the practices resulting from the application of these values, we can recognize and understand the value behind them. In the USA for example, homosexuality and abortion are huge issues in the church… but perhaps the church would be more effective in its voice to the American culture if it would first seek to understand the essential values which are behind both practices. While the practice may still be disagreed with, cultural validity suggests that efforts to counteract them will be more effective after understanding has taken place.
It is a missional application (in the nuance of the emerging church) to approach ones own culture in the same way as is prescribed for approaching a foreign culture. Where the church has largely failed and needs correction now is in my view that the church in the Western world (North America specifically) has distanced itself from its own culture while failing to appreciate that they are more distant than they realize and that Western culture is in fact valid.