[Click here for an audio version of this post: How would other cultures critique our culture?]
My recent anniversary trip to Italy got me thinking about the foibles of famous figures. Despite their brilliance in art and thinking, many historical figures succumbed to the biases and shortcomings of their culture.
Aristotle is considered one of the most influential thinkers of all time. Yet he is accused of being Elitist. He wrote, “It is clear, that some men are by nature free, and others are by nature slaves; and for these latter, slavery is both expedient and right” (Politics). My professor defending him, saying, “Aristotle couldn’t escape his cultural moment.”
Shakespeare is widely considered the most brilliant English writer ever. Yet my English professor—who loved Shakespeare—considered him sexist. She pardoned him however (in part) saying, “He was brilliant, but also just a man of his time.”
Aristotle and Shakespeare were exceptional. Very few thinkers match their brilliance. We still read their works hundreds and thousands of years later. If they—with all their brilliance—were unable to escape their cultural moments, what chance do we have?
What do we believe today that will look absolutely stupid in a few short years?
The slow creep
Cultural beliefs are like fashions. What looks odd at first gradually becomes the new normal. When I was ten years old—in the 1960’s—I first saw someone wearing bell-bottoms. I laughed uproariously. Within a few short years everyone (including me) wore them. Then it was the straight-legged jeans that looked strange.
No one convinced me of the beauty of bell-bottoms. They just gradually seemed normal (along with many other passing fashions—you really don’t want to see my yearbook).
My same bell-bottomed, 1960’s generation rebelled against our parents’ “greedy,” inequitable generation. We mocked their materialistic one-upmanship, “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz? My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.”
Within a few short decades, my generation became the greediest, most materialistic, least equitable generation of the last several hundred years.
We are the generation responsible for Enron and subprime mortgages. Before 1970 a typical company president made about ten times the lowest paid employee. Now a typical president makes one hundred times the lowest paid employee.
Compared to my generation, Scrooge looks like Mother Theresa.
This change to our generation didn’t come through discussion, evaluation, or public debate. It just slowly became ordinary, just like bell-bottoms. New cultural ideas slowly seep into our subconscious, changing our core beliefs. Soon we are Scrooge on steroids.
The passing fashion of religious beliefs
If we don’t examine our beliefs, it’s easy to let the surrounding culture infect even our beliefs about God. Classic beliefs are soon “old fashioned” beliefs, as if fashion had anything to do with God.
Maybe we should just let Madison Avenue create an annual Systematic Theology: “This year the cover will be purple (Purple is the new black), and the trinity will have four persons (Four is the new three).”
Even though “current” beliefs, like fashions, pass quickly, they are often held passionately, as if they are the pinnacle of religious thought.
Immanuel Kant was a key architect of the Enlightenment. He wrote a treatise called, Religion within the Bounds of Bare Reason. In it, he says, “Now is the best time [because of reason] to develop religion.”
Nowadays many Christians laugh (or cry) at such a belief. They say the problem with religion is too much intellectualism and not enough heart.
Kant is not alone in his arrogance of “now.” Schleiermacher (Romanticism, 1768-1834), Bultmann (Demythologization, 1884-1976), and Gutiérrez (Liberation Theology, 1928-present) all wrote out of their cultural moment; and all wrote the equivalent of, “Now is the best time [because of their particular X] for Christianity.”
Adopt or Address?
Do any of us really want to adopt passing, often insubstantial, fashionable beliefs? Let’s understand our culture, yes, but let’s address these beliefs not adopt them. Scripture says,
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern God’s will, what is good, acceptable, and perfect (Rom. 12:2).
C. S. Lewis doubted any culture’s singular reign on truth. In Screwtape Letters, a senior devil instructs a novice devil to keep his “patient” away from past Christian writers:
It is most important to cut every generation off from all others … for there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one generation may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another.
Let’s try something together
This week I’m not going to end with an uplifting application, or story, or humor. Instead I want to end with a question. I want us to ask a question about our own beliefs.
I’m not asking what beliefs you see in other people (like “loosening of sexual standards” or the “growing control of the religious right”). Instead, what culturally influenced beliefs do we ourselves hold? These beliefs can even be “small” beliefs, like “God could never use me,” or “I’m just too old [or young]….” So,
What beliefs do you hold today that might be shaped by our cultural moment?