Science in Christian Perspective
The belief that moral standards, norms of conduct, and social institutions are not absolute but relative to time, place, culture, and historical circumstances is a basic orientation of contemporary social scientists. This cultural relativity is linked with the "doubting Thomas" attitude which is at the core of empirical science. It is accompanied by skepticism about the possibility that any particular set of ethical values, Christian or non-Christian, can ever be universal to all mankind.
Various definitions of cultural relativity may be found in social science literature. As accepted by most anthropologists, the concept means that "the values expressed in any culture are to be both understood and themselves valued only according to the way the people who carry that culture see things." (47, p. 144). The gist of it is that "judgments are based on experience, and experience is interpreted by each individual in terms of his own enculturation." (25, p. 63). Its essence lies in the observation "that every institutional value is of no value somewhere else and that every institution we do not value is valued somewhere else." (37, p. 384). This anthropological usage is accepted, usually without reservation or qualification, by sociologists and by many, perhaps most, other social scientists.
The concept of relativity thus runs through all the social and behavioral sciences. It is implicit in political science which recognizes that there are differences between political structures and functions in time as well as in place, that each nation has its own set of political institutions, and that even if two nations have the same basic form of government their practical functioning differs. Historians and economists similarly reflect cultural relativity in their interpretations of social and economic history and institutions. Psychology emphasizes individual differences, implying that each person has unique abilities and limitations and hence should be reared and should live according to a unique set of standards somewhat different from those of every other individual. Cultural relativity is the most conspicuous of all in the sciences of sociology and cultural anthropology which discovered early in their history that standards of good and bad vary greatly in time and place. That which is considered "right" according to the values of one group of people may be considered "wrong" according to the standards of another.History and Implications of Cultural Relativity
Cultural relativity is as old as social science. References to it may be found in writings of the ancient Greek classicists, and it probably contributed to the ethical opportunism of Machiavelli's The Prince in 1513 A. D. Its use as a specific concept in modem science goes back, however, to the work of researchers and scholars only within the past century. As knowledge of peoples other than one's own accumulated, it was observed that standards of right and wrong differed widely from one culture to another. By the beginning of this century it was obvious from ethnological research that scarcely a sin in the Decalogue had not been regarded either as a virtue or as an allowable practice among a portion of mankind. To paraphrase Lea's presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1903, even a very slender acquaintance with the history of ethics was enough to establish the fallacy of the commonly accepted premise that there is an absolute and invariable moral code by which men of all ages and of all degrees of civilization are to be tried and convicted or acquitted. Standards of right and wrong are modified and adapted to what are regarded at the moment as objects which are the most beneficial to the individual or to the social organization (34, pp. 56, 57). Thus the concept of cultural relativity led to ethical relativity and became one of its major foundations.
Among those who had the greatest influence in developing and disseminating the ideas of cultural and ethical relativity were William Graham Sumner of Yale University, L. T. Hobhouse of the University of London, and Edward Westermarck, who worked both in England and Finland. Sociologist Sumner, whose career had begun as a Protestant clergyman, published his classical work, Folkways, in 1906. In it he compared the customs of a large variety of cultures, chiefly preliterate and rural, and arrived at certain conclusions about the nature and characteristics of institutions, laws, fads, fashions, customs, etc. He noted the great variability of group habits (folkways) among the people described in ethnological reports and devoted much attention to moral standards or mores, which are folkways to which the moral judgment has been attached that conformity is essential to group survival. His outstanding conclusion was that "the mores can make anything right." (56, Chap. 15). This is a major theme of modern sociology, although in all fairness it must be said that many Roman Catholics and other Christians disagree with it or else reinterpret it as simply a descriptive scientific statement of what has been observed about the concepts of right and wrong held by various groups of people.
*Revised and expanded version of "The Problem of Cultural Relativity," paper presented at the 15th annual convention of the A.S.A., Seattle, Aug. 25, 1960. Anthropologists Claude Stipe and George Jennings, members of the Publications Committee of the A.S.A., and numerous other friends and colleagues have contributed directly and indirectly to the improvement of this paper. Errors and misinterpretations which remain are, of course, solely the author's responsibility. More references are provided than might be necessary so that others who wish to study the subject will have a good starting point for such work.
**Dr. Moberg is Professor of Sociology and Chairman of the Department of Social Sciences at Bethel College, St. Paul, Minnesota.
The first edition of Hobhouse's Morals in Evolution also appeared in 1906. Its purpose was "to approach the theory of ethical evolution through a comparative study of rules of conduct and ideals of life." (27, p. v). It was concluded that the "furtherance of the collective life of humanity becomes the standard by which moral rules and social institutions are to be judged." (27, p. 600). Ethics, Hobhouse believed, were founded on deep-lying instincts and a humanitarian idea. Supernatural religion should not be the basis for ethics, but ethics provides the test for the value of each religion and creed. The task of sociology is to aim at a scientific determination of the functions institutions fill in the life of humanity. Its findings would be a chief basis for spiritual progress by which achievements of one epoch become the basis for a fresh development toward salvation, which is within and for this life and must focus on society as much as or more than upon the individual (27, esp. pp. 600-608, 635). Hobhouse's ideas contributed to ethical relativity through their stress upon value-subjectivism, in which the mind is dominant in the evolution of morals, as well as through their reflection of cultural relativity.
In the very same year Westermarck's The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas (62) appeared. Based upon anthropological findings about customs, laws, and institutions, the conclusion reached was that moral judgments are based ultimately on emotions. This was elaborated in another well-known work, Ethical Relativity (61), which appeared in 1932. Westermarck's main contention was that the moral consciousness is based ultimately on emotions, the moral judgment lacks objective validity, and the moral values are not absolute but are relative to the emotions they express.
The social sciences thus provided a major foundation for the doctrine of ethical relativism which denies any universal ideal. Opposed to absolutisms of all kinds ' including those of religion, relativism denies that there are any objective, unconditionally valid standards of right and of good which apply in any place and at all times. It is the view "that the rightness of an act and the goodness of a person or an object depend upon the interpretation or point of view of some individual or group toward them, and hence may vary from person to person." (58, p. 29). There are no true principles of morality because there are no objective standards. Thus radical empiricists, who hold that a word has no real or cognitive meaning unless the thing to which it refers can be experienced directly, believe that, since the word ought is not what is, "ought" is meaningless. Supported by strict naturalism and the logical positivists who hold that ethical statements do not refer to any objective facts but express merely the feelings and emotions of men, ethical relativity claims that what is right at one place is indeed wrong at another, for beyond human thinking and feeling there are no universal objective standards (58, pp. 29-33).The theoretical orientation of cultural relativity affected not only moral rules and codes; even God Himself was reduced to a projection of man or a "collective representation" of society. He no longer was seen as the omnipotent Creator, the Lord of the universe, and the judge of all men. Instead He became merely a symbolic figure standing for the social cohesion, integration, or solidarity of the group (16). Since each group has its own conceptions of deity, there are many gods, none of which is universal and all of which are "true"-but true only in the sense that whatever men respond to as true is for them real and true in terms of the ideological and practical consequences of such belief and hence in terms of significance to individual and social life.
Modern cultural relativity in the social sciences is based upon the obvious uniqueness of particular cultures, the observation that even if there were universal moral laws they would not mean the same from one culture to another, and the nature versus nurture struggle against reductionist philosophies that would reduce explanations of what and how a man behaves to biological, ecological, or psychological categories without an emphasis upon acquired or learned dimensions of behavior (17, pp. 202-246). Some anthropologists have used its conclusions about variations in value-premises between cultures as the basis for describing entire cultures in value terms. Ruth Benedict, for instance, sees differences between cultures as consisting essentially of irreducibly different value-premises (6). The national character school of anthropology is strongly inclined toward this position.
Cultural relativity basically is a philosophy which, in recognizing the values set up by every society to guide its own life, lays stress on the dignity inherent in every body of custom, and on the need for tolerance of conventions though they may differ from one's own. . . . Emphasis on the worth of many ways of life, not one, is an affirmation of the values of each culture. (25, pp. 76, 77).
This philosophy is a direct outgrowth of the application of reason and modem social science to man's values. It affects the value-premises of an ever-increasing number of literate people. Since it is largely a product of social science, it is implicitly accepted as a basic postulate by many social scientists, and has clear implications for all Christians as well as for Christians in science, it is a subject worthy of much study in the American Scientific Affiliation.
Cultural relativity, as we have seen, "leads to moral
relativism, which claims that each of the many moral,
ethical, and religious systems has its validity. This point
of view implies that religious believers who claim to
have a comer on truth are simply manifesting ethnocentrism or bigotry." (28, p. 324). Relativism thus
tends to undermine established religious values and
sometimes becomes a substitute for traditional religious
As man applied science and reason to the analysis of his values, it was inevitable that the standards of Christian groups should be included in his study. Obviously these standards varied greatly, even though most claimed the same Bible as the source of their values and believed their principles were very clearly based upon its teachings. From such observation, it was a short step to analysis of the Scriptures themselves and of the values incorporated in them from the perspective of the cultural settings in which they were produced or, as the social scientist is likely to say, the cultures which produced them. It was easy to note how certain of these values changed in time and varied with circumstances. A logical conclusion was that the Bible is simply another manmade book, clearly and solely reflecting its cultural origins, in no way transcending them (60).
To all this fundamentalist Christians typically responded with suspicions that modern social science was undermining the faith, that it was inherently atheistic, that it did not give man his proper dignity as God's highest creation for it treated him as merely another animal, and that it was a camouflage for creeping godless socialism. Christian students avoided and Christian schools refused to offer courses in sociology and anthropology until some of these obstacles were overcome and the positive values of these disciplines in Christian service became evident. Even though cultural relativity broke down many arguments of the social evolutionists who saw western civilization as the pinnacle toward which all human society was moving, it was highly suspect for the other problems it created or accentuated.
Another area of die warfare of science and Christianity had emerged. Christians insisted that they had an absolute set of standards clearly presented to all peoples in the Bible. Their denon-~inations and sects could not agree on many of its specific details, but each insisted its own interpretations were the true teachings of God's Word. Cultural relativity was denounced and moral absolutism proclaimed, presumably on the basis of clear teachings in the Bible. Yet the relativist strengthened his case by examining the development and current status of Christianity itself.
The history of Christianity itself can be used to support the principles of cultural and moral relativity. When modern physical sciences proved that the earth was not flat and that it was not floating upon water, as Psalms 24:1-2 and 136:6 implied, Christians reinterpreted these passages as figurative, not literal, descriptions of the earth. The fixity of the earth (Ps. 93:1b), rainfall coming from the windows of heaven (Gen. 7:11; Ps. 148:4), the sky as a tent or a hard upturned bowl (firmament) arching over the flat earth (Gen. 1:6-8; job 37:18; Ps. 104:2; Isa. 40:22), and various other concepts of the material universe were reluctantly given up as knowledge of the universe grew. Beliefs in evil spirits as the cause of illness, in the creation period as consisting of six 24-hour days, in the universality of the deluge, and in the creation of man in the year 4004 B. C. or only a few centuries earlier have lingered longer. The relativity of man's interpretations of the Bible to his culturally-limited knowledge (including his science) has become evident from these historical events in science-religion relationships.
Among those who most strongly combat relativity on the verbal level are the dispensational fundamentalists. In practice, however, they have made greater adaptations of Scripture than most other Christians by their stress upon seven different periods of time in each of which "man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God." (51, p. 5, note 4). They and many other Christians unwittingly apply the principles of cultural and ethical relativity in their interpretations of the Bible itself. Many of the divisions and schisms of Christendom can be related to culturally relative behavior and culture traits believed in by some and rejected by others.
Sectarian groups often cling to outmoded customs which were widely practiced in earlier centuries. These customs become badges of distinction which solidify ingroup sentiments and identify those who are "separated from the world." Some, for instance, continue to practice footwashing as an ordinance of the church because Jesus commanded the disciples to follow His example of washing their feet (John 13:14-15). Most Christians see this as related to a culture in which sandals were worn while trodding dusty paths in the heat of the summer sun. For cleanliness and especially for soothing the weary feet, footwashing was a very appropriate act Of hospitality and love. Today, they say, we need not practice this custom, for we do not normally wear sandals, we walk relatively little, and modern plumbing conveniences make it very easy to bathe one's own feet. They say the humility of Christ is the key principle of this example; we must follow Him in this respect, in honor preferring one another.
Other examples of Scriptural principles which are treated from the perspective of an implicit cultural relativity by most Christian groups are easy to find. For example, Christians are instructed at least five times in the New Testament to greet one another with a holy kiss (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 11 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26; 1 Pet. 5:14; cf. Luke 7:45 and Acts 20:37), but we recognize that the kiss has a somewhat different social meaning in America from that of Biblical cultures. It is difficult today to keep kisses "holy," and they may be interpreted by contemporary observers as indicative of homosexual irregularities. Hence one modern translator (44) has replaced "holy kiss" with "a hearty handshake" in these admonitions; even those who dislike the freedom of his translation agree with it in their practice.
Some of the most obvious culturally-linked traits are related to the position of the woman in society and in
*Throughout this paper I write to expose, clarify, and hopefully resolve a significant problem. Concrete illustrations from various religious groups (including my own) are not given to attack or condemn any of them but only to make the argument and the problem more clear.
the church. In Biblical lands and times she was considered clearly inferior to men, but in contemporary America her position approaches equality in civic, econornic, family, political, and other rights and responsibilities. Most Christians no longer interpret literally the Biblical teachings that women should not pray when their heads are uncovered nor men when their heads are covered (I Cor. 11:4-5, 13), that women should not cut their hair (I Cor. 11:6, 15), that they should not braid their hair nor wear jewelry (I Tim. 2:9; 1 Pet. 3:3). They no longer are required to keep silent in church, asking questions only of their husbands at home (I Cor. 14:34-35). Instead of heeding the Biblical command that they should not teach (I Tim. 2:11-12), more of them than of men are teachers in the typical church, and many of them teach adult classes which include men as well as women. These do not create problems in most evangelical churches. We protect our sense of integrity by conventionalized explanations for our deviations from the literal teachings of God's Word.
Greater problems for the thinking Bible scholar are found in certain other subjects. (Neither theological interpretation of these doctrines nor evaluation of whether they are right or wrong is the chief purpose of this paper. My main concern is to illustrate how cultural relativity is present within American Christianity.) Jesus turned water into wine that was considered delicious by those who drank it (John 2:1-11). He was accused of being a drunkard because He feasted with sinners as He exerted His influence over them, calling them to repentance (Mat. 11:18-19; Luke 7:34). The Bible nowhere commands complete abstinence from all alcoholic beverages but only avoidance of certain types, of excessive use, and of drunkenness. God gave men wine that makes glad the hearts of men (Ps. 104:15). But today, in an age when natural fermentation is accompanied by distilling processes which greatly multiply the alcoholic content and when use of automobiles is impaired by even small amounts of alcohol, circumstances are different. Christians hence try to re-write into the Bible teachings about abstinence that are not directly found in it.
Slavery is not directly condemned in the Bible and seems in fact to be upheld by Paul's epistle to Philemon as well as by other passages which slave-owners stressed in the period prior to the Civil War. Similar problems arise in regard to war. The Sixth Commandment emphasizes that man shall not kill (Exo. 20:13), but, except for certain of the historic "peace churches," Christians appeal to Biblical events, historic circumstances, and a "higher good" to make exceptions for the wholesale slaughter of warfare. A "pagan sermon to the Christian clergy" criticized them because "the morality of war now dominates the curious spiritual life of the fortunate peoples of Christendom." (17, p. 199). Social science research demonstrates that on these and related topics most Christians simply reflect the moral standards dominant in their culture.
God Himself appears to have approved certain culture patterns which are unthinkable to us. Jephthah is praised as a hero of faith (Heb. 11:32), but the chief evidence of that faith was his vow to make a human sacrifice to God in the event of victory in battle and his carrying out that vow even when it meant taking the life of his own daughter (judges 11:29-40). The levirate by which a man cohabits with his brother's widow to produce offspring in his brother's name is upheld by God in Genesis 38:7-10; the man who refused to cooperate in this activity was struck dead and gave his name to the sexual practice of onanism. Prostitution appears implicity permitted by God in such passages as Hosea 1:2 and Genesis 38:11-26. The polygamy of David and Solomon and other Old Testament characters is not condemned by God; He actually gave David his master's wives (II Sam. 12:8). Easy divorce is arranged for by God in the Mosaic code (Deut. 24:1-4) * and only later was reinterpreted by Jesus as having been permitted because of the hardness of men's hearts (Matt. 5:31-32; Mark 10:2-12).
Even belief in the existence of numerous gods can be upheld by reference to Scripture passages. Henotheism, which acknowledges the existence of many gods (typically with one for each tribe, nation, or other group), in contrast to the monotheistic belief that only one God exists, is a common perspective of the Old Testament (Ex. 12:12; 23:24, 32; Deut. 10:17; 12:30-31; Ps. 95:3; 135:5; Zeph. 2:11; etc.).
Jesus Himself violated the folkways and mores of His time and people. He ate and slept with Samaritans (John 4:40) when the average Jew of His day would not even pass through Samaria if in any way avoidable. He associated with women in public as well as in private, when a rabbi would not be seen in public with any woman and was taught that even conversation with his wife might put him in jeopardy of going to Gehenna. Jesus was considered very sinful by the religious leaders of His day, for He violated rules of ceremonial cleanliness and separation, neglected religious duties, regularly broke the Sabbath, defied tradition, and in other ways sinned against the laws of God revealed in the Scriptures as interpreted by centuries of tradition and dozens of religious scholars (49, pp. 66-109).
Ordinarily, evangelical Christians who profess to teach "all of the Bible" in their educational programs pass over such passages or the problems they present, not realizing how great indeed are the implications of such portions of God's Word. After all, we are but human. It is easy to overlook that which would not be pleasant to observe!
Cultural influences on contemporaxy Christian values are easy to discover. Christians in the South until very recently have almost unanimously favored segregation of the races, keeping the Negro in what they consider to be his place, while those in the North have tended
*Compared to other cuItural norms of that day, however, Mosaic standards of divorce were stringent.
to hold different verbal conclusions on the subject, reflecting the values of their sub-culture. Christian farmers who secure much of their income from the raising of tobacco have a different perspective on the subject of smoking than those whose main source of income is corn or dairy products. Christian pacifism is not popular during war-time, but when people in general are alarmed about war and inclined toward pacifistic views, it is common for Christian preachers to go on record as favoring conscientious objection to military service and other anti-militaristic positions.
At one of the first church services I attended in the Netherlands the Baptist minister who had preached an evangelical sermon including reference to salvation through the blood of Christ emerged from a side door of the church with his Bible under one arm and a smoking pipe in his hand. After all, nearly all men in his nation use tobacco! Only recently, as medical reports on the linkage of smoking with cancer have been made, have Dutch Christians begun to question the practice as a possible sin. We had lived there only a few weeks when a Baptist lady came to the door selling chances on a lottery for the benefit of a Baptist church building fund. Since the nation itself sponsors lotteries as a device for governmental and welfare fund raising, they do not see gambling of this type as sinful-the cause is good! Culture traits commonly take precedence over Christian values in all lands whenever there is a clash between them.
Other inconsistencies are apparent. In I Corinthians 11:14 we read that long hair is a disgrace to a man. Yet our pictures of Jesus portray Him as a man with long hair! Regional and local variations are also evident in Christian folkways pertinent to pool or billiards, women's hair-do's and jewelry, shorts and slacks for women, movies and television, card playing, dancing, mixed bathing, roller skating, observance of the Lord's Day, dietary habits (coffee, tea, coke, pork, beer, etc.), contraceptives, and attitudes toward slang. Some minor sects still condemn the use of automobiles, telephones, buttons, and instrumental music for churches. To my knowledge no systematic comparative study of these variations has been made.
Each of the numerous subcultures present within the one American culture (cf. 19) has its own set of values. These values in our rapidly changing society are continually being modified. Changes in group concepts of what is right and wrong result at least in part from the growth of knowledge, the close contacts of diverse groups, rapid social change in general, and developments in the biological, physical, and social sciences which reveal the eff ects of various types of practices.
Subcultural categories in America may include the urban laboring classes, upper middle-class apartment dwellers, suburbanites, cornbelt farmers, northern middle-class Negroes, and southern sharecroppers, to mention but a few. Nationality background variations, regional distinctions, religious identifications, and edu cational contrasts add to the diversity of the various distinguishable segments of the population. Moral values vary between these subcultures, and they vary in time within each of them. Without research to discern what the specific subcultures are and how they are changing in time, we can present this only as a hypothesis of what might be found upon careful investigation. The subculture of urban middle-class white collar workers during the World War I era may have held values similar to those of the subculture of contemporary urban residents who have recently migrated from the rural South into northern cities, and other analogous differences and similarities might be observed. Certain groups change more rapidly than others; their values a generation ago may have been the same as the present values of slowly changing groups. Christians, reflecting their subcultural backgrounds, have contrasting ideals of what is right and wrong, righteous and sinful, proper and improper for the consecrated child of God. Denominational and sectarian divisions result in part from these moral and ethical divergencies.
Similar comparisons can be drawn between cultures. For example, there appear actually to have been different ethical standards for God's people in the period before the patriarchs from those of the time of Moses. The prophets, in turn, introduced a higher ethic which can be tersely summarized in Micah's statement, "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" (Micah 6:8). Jesus introduced the highest ethic of all -an ethic based upon the inward motivation of love. His ethic is supplemented, elaborated, and applied by the relatively precise interpretations of the New Testament epistles. (Other gradations of ethical development can be discerned in the Bible; these are only suggestive and illustrative.)
Much of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in American religion can be traced to the slowness of fundamentalists to accept the developments of modern science, in contrast and often in opposition to the eagerness of modernists to adapt their religion to new scientific data. Other conflicts and misunderstandings between groups may be analyzed from the perspective of differential rates of social change or, in other words, in terms of such conceptual frameworks as conservatism/liberalism, cultural lag, and cultural relativity. The natural history of religious groups as they change gradually from sects to denominations or churches follows a pattern of increasing acceptance of change and adaptation to change. The sect resists what it considers to be worldliness and is at war with the rest of society; the church or denomination adapts to society, accepting most of its major tenets, values, and institutions (39, Chaps. 4, 5).
Why does the application of Biblical principles to current life not result in the same specific standards? Eacl- group insists that it has the right answers and that others who disagree are wrong. Is the Holy Spirit who guides the Christian into truth at fault? Or do men misinterpret God's desires for their lives, confusing cultural standards for His eternal will?
The evidence used by agnostic social scientists to support their idea that religion simply reflects culture is very strong. Everywhere and at all times it indeed is conditioned by societal characteristics. Christian theology itself "is the result of a continuous dialogue between Gospel and culture," a product of culture and yet a reflection of Christ addressing every culture (52). Evangelical Christianity is no exception. Cultural relativity is conspicuously evident in it. Nevertheless ' the principle of cultural relativism, even apart from strictly Christian doctrines, has many weaknesses.
Cultural relativity as the basis for ethical relativism is rooted in the following syllogism:
Ethics is a cultural phenomenon,
Culture is relative,
Therefore ethics is relative (17, p. 202).
People are brought to see value in whatever things their local experience has suggested, and we ought to respect all cultures. However, there is no necessary "therefore" between these propositions. It cannot be proved from the premise, that all values are relative, that we ought to respect all cultures. We might just as well hate them all (3) !
In other words, there can be no question as to the fact of cultural relativity. There indeed are divergent value judgments between cultures and even between the various subcultural groupings found within heterogeneous societies. To jump from this fact, however, to the conclusion that there are or can be no objectively justifiable or true value judgments which are independent of specific cultures is to present a logically unsound argument. The descriptive observatLons of science neither necessitate nor imply prescriptive standards for behavior. What is and what ought to be are not by any means the same (50).
Some cultural relativists are self-contradictory. In their opposition to all absolutisms, they make ethical relativism, toleratice, and respect for all culture patterns a goal. In so doing, their doctrine borders on asserting an ethical absolutism. Stating that there are no universal values, they attempt to make a universal value of cultural and ethical relativism (17, pp. 202-246). "In claiming to make an objectively true statement by declaring that we are unable to attain any objective truth, this position clearly contradicts itself." (26, p. 107). To oppose the notion in the name of science, freedom, or democracy that there is any objective norm is to admit the existence of values which can be used (presumably objectively) to arrive at truth, for science, freedom, or democracy is thus held up as an ideal! The relativistic theory itself is advocated because it is thought better to know the truth than to err-it is a value (26, pp. 112-128). When cultural relativism refers primarily to an appeal for cultural tolerance and the dignity of every body of custom as universal values, it implies a type of absolutism or empirical invariance (17).
This introduces the need to distinguish between cultural relativity as a fact, cultural relativity as a method, and cultural relativity as a moral standard by which to judge the rightness or wrongness of any act or pattern of behavior. The fact that each society has its own cultural standards of morality cannot be questioned. (Even the Bible reflects this fact in passages like Romans 2:14.) In the investigation of divergent cultures the social scientist usually must refrain from making value-judgments as to the goodness or badness of his subject matter lest his moral evaluations create ideological blindspots or color his observation and thus bias his findings. Cultural relativity in this sense has proven to be an invaluable methodological tool which is closely related to the ethical demand of science for honesty in investigation. It is obvious, however, that this prescriptive methodological principle of empirical investigation does not amount to an ethical prescription outside the framework of the scientific method (50). As a method, cultural relativity is a doctrine more of ethical neutralism on the part of the scientist than of moral indifference. Neither the fact nor the method of cultural relativity calls for the adoption of moral or ethical relativity.
If ethical relativism were to become dominant in a society, it would lead to chaos of man's moral, cultural, and spiritual life. Men would tend to take the easiest way out of any situation. No group standards would be possible because of individual variations and the fact that, even if there were a theoretically unique set of values for each group, each person in a complex society belongs to many groups. No evaluative comparisons between groups would be possible, and there could be no evolution of morals or moral progress, for progress implies movement toward good and away from bad (58, PP. 29-33). Social unity and cooperative endeavor would be impossible, for they depend to a great extent upon shared values.
Cultural relativists often fail to distinguish between the many different types of standards of value present in any society. Some standards deal primarily with technical culture traits and have to do only with efficiency versus inefficiency. Some are symbolic, while others are non-symbolic. There are juridical, religious, scientific, technical, educational, and aesthetic as well as moral standards. To deal with any group's standards as if all had to do directly with morality is a serious fallacy (cf. 21).Sumner, Benedict, Kroeber, and others who may be classified as cultural relativists have implicitly condemned such features as "social waste' and "infantilism" in the cultures they studied and have affirmed certain values as superior to others (47, p. 154; 17, pp. 202-246). Indeed, the dysfunctions (undesirable, unanticipated effects) of moral relativism make even the most "objective" social scientists shy away from it. A practical result of such doctrine would be that slavery, cannibalism, infanticide, and other social patterns which are reprehensible to most people would constitute a violation of moral values only in those groups which condemn such behavior. Every group would measure itself only by its own standards. Moral anarchy in which every man would do that which is right in his own eyes could easily follow. Conflicts between cultural and subcultural groups could be settled only by negotiations and compromise leading to recognition of cross-cultural values or by a power struggle in which right is determined by might. Hence in part "the abandonment of the doctrine of untrammeled cultural relativity is a reaction to the observation of social consequences." (30, p. 663; cf. 50).
An increasing number of social scientists now believe that some phenomena are trans-cultural. Thus scientific knowledge generally has withstood efforts to make it culturally relative in the narrow sense of that term. There is no scientific knowledge which is uniquely Eskimo, Mexican, Japanese, or even evangelical Christian, although the scientific method may be applied to the study of topics which are of unique interest or applicability to such groups (17).
Similarly, some values probably are universal and ultimately may be considered "absolute!' by social scientists. To use Redfield's words, "It is possible, I think, to agree that everybody passes judgment as guided by the experience he was brought up to have and recognize, and yet to assert some reasonable basis for preferring one thought or action to another." (47, p. 145) * For instance, analysis of marital success in relationship to premarital pregnancy suggests that, regardless of the culture's degree of permissiveness of premarital sexual intercourse, forced marriage appears to work against marital success; a certain universal norm may be present, to some extent independent of the cultural variable (64). In like manner it has been observed that nearly every religious or ceremonial act is regarded as an obligation between groups and persons, and not only as an obligation to immortal gods. Conformity with group norms is something individuals give to each other in the discharging of their obligations to each other. Therefore it can be hypothesized that reciprocity is a moral norm that is one of the main components of a universal moral code (20).
Human similarities are embedded in the chromosomes and reflected in man's daily activities of labor, eating, sleeping, and the like as well as in his life cycle (conception, birth, puberty, marriage, child-rearing, death). More significantly, all of mankind appear to share certain basic needs and drives, as well as stresses or uncertainties related to disease, thwarted ambitions, bereavement, etc. If it is assumed that man's basic needs ought to be realized (as far as is reasonably possible) in every culture, we are given a basis for developing universal judgments of good and bad (9; 23; 50). As anthropologists again focus on similarities as well as differences among the earth's peoples, as psychologists recognize the involvements of their science with ethical problems and pan-human needs and capacities, as sociologists stress cross-cultural features of human society, and as psychoanalysts discern psychic universals in myths and other culture forms, there is increasing awareness of the "universal culture pattern," "cultural constants," "cultural invariants," and "ethical universals." Moral standards are universal; however much they vary in specific content, they are much alike in basic concepts of intent. It is very difficult currently to identify clearly the moral principles which are not relative, but the extension of careful scientific research should help us develop a "virtuous relativity" that can serve our needs more adequately and more consistently than does radical cultural relativity (30; for additional references see 2). New knowledge and radically changed circumstances in fluid society may alter some of these universal values, so "conditional absolutes" may be an appropri ate term to apply to them (31).
Redfield has predicted that cultural relativism is in for difficult times. Anthropologists are likely to find it a hard doctrine to retain as philosophers' criticisms are buttressed by their own changing experiences when they analyze people who are neither unimportant nor remote from their own concerns. Nazi extermination of the Jews, white supremacy racism, and contemporary social disorganization of folk societies from the impact of western industrialism can hardly be viewed with ethical indifference. Since the anthropologist is a man as well as a scientist, he cannot do his work without human qualities, including that of valuing. In future ethnological studies it might be wise for the scientist to specify what he believes to be good and bad in the cultures he studies. Then other social scientists with different sets of values can also study the same groups; their conclusions undoubtedly will be different and will supplement the findings (47, pp. 145-157; 65, Appendix 2).
The declining popularity of ethical relativism among social scientists and philosophers does not mean, however, the removal of conflict between Christian and secular philosophies. The persuasiveness of cultural relativism has been in part the product of a false dichotomy which held ethical judgments to be either subjective and relative or transcendent and absolute. Since the fact that there is widespread variability disproved transcendence, the former alternative was chosen. "A third genuine alternative maintains the objectivity of value judgments but rejects the source of such objectivity in some transcendent realm, locating it, rather, in the projection of human ideals." (50, p. 790). Obviously, such humanism is easily divorced from Christianity.
In my opinion, however, overt behavioral norms emerging from humanistic principles will, for the most part, coincide with those of the Christian Scriptures. In spite of the bewilderment that arises from first impressions of the earth's myriad moral codes, further analysis seems to indicate that there is a fundamental order and uniformity, with practically all peoples holding to precepts of respect for the Supreme Being or for benevolent substitutes, care for their children, control of sexual behavior, and reprehension of malicious murder, maiming, stealing, and deliberate slander against a friend.
This universal moral code agrees rather closely with our own Decalogue understood in a strictly literal sense. It inculcates worship of and reverence to the Supreme Being or to other superhuman beings. It protects the fundamental human rights of life, limb, family, property, and good name. (11, P. 563).
Although it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a primitive people with all the forms of relationship between religion and morality that we as Christians might anticipate, it would be equally difficult to find one without traces of either direct or indirect relationships between religion and morality. Classical social science theory holds that morality in the sense of duties to one I s fellowmen arose independently of religion and only later came to be considered as the expression of the will of supernatural beings. The rival theory, that duties to God and duties to man were in earliest times considered the will of God and that only later did morality and religon drift apart, actually may have more evidence in its support (11).
Such evidence indicates the likelihood that there are universal values, perhaps divinely revealed to man in the beginning of human history, which apply unequivocably to all mankind whatever their social condition or position. As anthropologists and other social scientists seek these out, they may approach a position equivalent to that of the Christian who sees certain general principles of conduct as an ideal for every society. They may thus accentuate and reinforce the philosophical, theological, and political doctrines which are commonly known as "natural law" (36, esp. pp. 58-80; cf. 14). The facts linked with this concept are "introspected or sensed raw data, antecedent to all theory and all cultures, given in anyone's experience in any culture." (43, p. 657). Cultural adaptations lead to variations in the "living law," which constitutes the social norms of the earth's respective peoples, but natural law provides for these a universal cognitive standard for measuring goodness or badness of these norms without being trapped by the practical and theoretical fallacies of ethical relativism (43). Surely it is not inconsistent with Christian theology to believe that the imprint of God's creative work, however distorted by sin it may be, is still reflected in the human heart (5) ! The naturalistic methods of science will never in themselves fully re veal God to man, for it is only by faith that men can know Him. Yet they can help men of faith increasingly understand God's mighty workings which are revealed in the very nature of creation and hence of man, as well as in the Scriptures.
A "better" and a "worse" thus can, in fact, be established, for cross-cultural comparisons and corrections can be made, guided by conceptions of what men and society ought to be, just as corrections can take place within a society and within an individual on the basis of comparing action with ideals (59, pp. 25-42). The greatest problem in such comparisons, of course, is determination of what is ideal. For the Christian, the basic guides are the written and the Living Word of God.
The greatest weakness of relativism is that "it denies all objective basis for regarding one moral idea as better than another." (45, p. 112). Absolutism which stresses unconditional, universal, objective standards of right and good also is weak, for "it means the abandonment of an empirical attitude in the sphere of morals." (45, p. 112). Both are extremist and exclusive positions. An alternative intermediate position is perhaps the most tenable for modern man. The old and the new, tradition and innovation, respect for established principles and adaptation, all have a place in a society which is rapidly changing because of the impact of science and technology. "We need ideals flexibly applied yet all-embracing. We need to combine the universal and the particular, the changeless and the changing." (45, p. 122). But is this a Christian position? Ought not Christians to have absolute standards of right and wrong?
Before attempting to answer the above question, let us note two contrasting ethical perspectives that may be observed among Christians in their efforts to support morality. The first of these emphasizes norms that will here be termed standards. A standard consists of a canon, edict, law, order, maxim, rule, or regulation which designates in absolute, authoritarian terms specific acts as either good or bad, righteous or sinful, rewardable or punishable. A standard focuses precisely upon definite details and makes them clearly "black" or "white" with no intermediary stages. It makes no allowance for exceptions. Thus, a standard may forbid men to have long hair, may prohibit the wearing of rings, may demand the tithing of mint or anise seeds, or may ban Christians from attending movies. Standards are closely linked with moral absolutism; they reduce Christian morality to a code of rules. Ethics based upon standards stress obedience to the letter of the law.
In contrast, many Christians emphasize
conduct. These are guiding models, broad rules, generalized patterns, basic doctrines, or fundamental truths
which can be applied to a wide variety of specific situations and acts. A principle is a basic norm which may
be used in deciding conduct or in making choices about particular acts which are not directly mentioned in the
rule. It is a guiding ideal on which other ideals depend.
Illustrations of principles are Jesus Christ's teachings
that we ought to love our neighbors as we love ourselves and to judge not that we be not judged.
Fundamentalists traditionally have stressed precise standards of objective behavior more than general principles of Christian conduct. Perhaps this is because principles are so much more difficult to apply. Absolutism is the way of least resistance. No difficult decisions need be made by the one who simply consults a rule book that divides everything into black and white categories without intervening shades of gray.
But such an approach to Christian morality is beset by numerous weaknesses. Even if it were possible to develop a complete code covering all areas of life, the code would rapidly become antiquated in modern dynamic society. Technological change combines with social, economic, and political innovation to make today's relevancies tomorrow's ridiculous incongruities. Lacking flexibility to adjust to new circumstances, absolutist standards of Christian ethics bring disgrace upon themselves, upon the groups that insist upon clinging to them, and ultimately upon the Christ they profess to honor. The humanist criticism justifiably holds that absolutism is "a faith of stagnancy" in which men are anchored to their faith while the world around them changes, making their faith become irrelevant (22).
The inadequacy of standards to cope with conditions of a changing world has perhaps no better recent illustration than that provided with the advent of television. Even as they continued condemning the sin of movieattendance, some fundamentalists uncritically watched brutal, carnal, sensual, and seductive scenes in their own homes, unaware of the inconsistency that thus brought upon them the scorn of their youth and the disdain of the world.
Many Christians have made the mistake in foreign missionary programs of equating Western cultural standards with Christianity. The folly and detrimental results of this policy are increasingly apparent. They make a similar mistake at home when they equate regional, local, or sectarian Baptist, Lutheran, Mennonite, Presbyterian, or other standards with Christianity in the ethnocentric belief that all who come to know God in truth through Jesus Christ will inevitably arrive at precisely the same standards for Christian living as their own if only they sincerely study God's Word in order to do His will.
Instead of finding what Scripture really has to say and modifying their cultural traits to conform to Scriptural principles they unwittingly distort Scripture to find support for their culturally established beliefs. (57, p. 115).
Christians who adopt this practice are prone to focus on maintaining their cultural prejudices until they cannot cooperate for effective Christian service. They are so critical of "non-Christian customs" that they cannot witness effectively. "Instead of understanding the nonChristian culture and manifesting love for the nonChristian (person), they condemn him." (57, p. 115). As one of America's leading theologians correctly stated,
The weakness of orthodox Christianity lies in its premature identification of the transcendent will of God with canonical moral codes, many of which are merely primitive social standards, and for development of its myths into a bad science (42, p. 9).
To use the Bible in that manner as the basis for a set of rigid rules applied impartially to all Christians under all circumstances at all times is equivalent to allowing our arms, legs, mouths, etc. to be tied with fetters that make of us mere puppets directed and moved by the rule-makers and rule-enforcers. It makes us slaves to the traditions and interpretations of men. It removes the liberty that ought to be ours in Christ. It binds us to the temporal order of transient things which are seen, and it may alienate us from eternal spiritual verities which are not seen. It makes us walk by sight, not by faith. It causes confusion of ends and means in Christian living, making the "fruits of the Spirit" the goal instead of a by-product resulting from a right relationship with God. It may alienate men from Christ by making them think that, because they observe the manmade rules of a church, they are living the life that is in Christ. It makes men deify human institutions and customs, so the ultimate object of their worship becomes the perpetuation of a set of traditional forms and patterns of activities. It detracts from true worship of God as revealed in the written Word and in Jesus Christ, the Living Word, by the Holy Spirit. It minimizes the work of the Holy Spirit whose task it is to guide the Christian into truth (John 16:13), and thus it subjects men to the risk of idolatry which puts other gods in His place. It falsely presumes that men have infinite knowledge and perfect wisdom, failing to recognize that man's finite mind limits his reason and his lack of realized perfection marks all his acts with the stain of sin. As a result, absolutism usurps the Lordship of Jesus Christ, placing man on the throne instead of the omniscient, eternal Lord of Creation.
Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart (I Sam. 16:7). Not mere outward conformity to human interpretations of God's Word but inward obedience and submission to the Holy Spirit's guidance is the criterion of whether or not one is doing God's will. These subjective intentions and meanings may be known only to oneself and God. Objective interpretations by others often misconstrue one's conduct, but God is the judge to whom men ultimately are responsible. Of course, men's love for and responsibility to Him must always include love for and responsibilities toward fellow men created in His image (I John 4:19-5:2). Respect for and courtesy toward their personal and social customs and the absence of judgmental attitudes in humble recognition that one may be wrong therefore accompany true godliness.
It hence seems to me that God respects the society which emphasizes cultural pluralism. Christians ought to uphold it as a sustainer of true religious liberty within which persons can choose to serve or to reject Christ and the Christian can best exercise his personal responsibilities to God. Variations in social standards for Christian living within and between sects and denominations, by regions, and by theological interpretations of liberalism, neo-orthodoxy, evangelicalism, and fundamentalism need to be respected, even though we clearly identify ourselves with one position, because freedom for one depends upon freedom for all. This cultural pluralism permits a broad-sweeping exercise of individual responsibility and reflects a higher degree of religious liberty than can be present when authoritarian standards are dogmatically imposed upon all alike. Freedom is an essential prerequisite to the exercise of free will. [If man's conduct and his fate in life are rigidly determined by biological, cultural, or other forces, he lacks freedom. Although human limitations and endowments and the characteristics of particular cultures condition and limit human freedom so that "human nature" is always relative to the society in which it has been developed, much of man's maturation and action is self-determined and based upon his own choice (see 32).] Many of man's arbitrary "rules for Christian living" may seem as foolish from our future perspective in eternity as would be the regulation of which shoe to put on first or how many hairs to part on the right side in order to live a "holy life."
But are there no absolute standards whatever that God intends His people to apply at all times and in all places? The Ten Commandments seem to offer a universal set of standards applicable to all mankind in every age. Yet most Christians believe it is justifiable to violate the command, "Thou shalt not kill," in the case of "just wars" or capital punishment of offenders. The majority of them do not keep the Sabbath, although they give at least token obedience instead to "the Lord's day." Perhaps the majority of them do not fulfill the command, "Six days shalt thou labor," if they can get by with laboring only five.
Jesus indicated that all of the commandments of God can be summed up in the two-fold principle of loving God and loving one's neighbor (Matt. 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-31). This demands positive action at the same time as it prohibits many kinds of destructive and negative behavior. Love results in many forms of kindness (Luke 10:25-37; 1 Cor. 13), but it also is manifested by the absence of deeds that are condemned by the DecalogUe.
New Testament exhortations clearly condemn sexual immorality, lying, theft, deceit, and many other types of wickedness. Man's problem lies, however, in the definition of each of these evil deeds. For example, is a "white lie," social subterfuge, or half-truth used in love to protect the welfare and work of a fellow Christian a lie in the sinful sense? Since definitions of these sins vary in time and place, we must conclude that if there are absolute standards, the social situation decrees how these shall be interpreted and applied in any given group as well as in any particular person's life. God's Word provides the Christian with principles for living, not absolutist standards. It allows for a type of cultural relativity within this framework.A principle never applies
. . . exactly the same to the lives of differing individuals . . . . it is much harder to regulate things when it is the individual who must decide his own behavior; and it is much harder to go about the usual pastime of comparison, the end of which is a relative righteousness. But when an external group standard becomes the law to which a man must appeal, it cannot be the Bible and God which he obeys, for the Bible can be understood only in terms of principle, which applies in various ways to the lives of different men, and which the individual must appropriate to his own life, being content with obedience rather than approval from his group. An external standard can never change the interior of a man, but an external standard can deceive a man into thinking he is obeying God. : . . by setting up and teaching of a pattern of externalities we defeat our purpose, for real obedience to Jesus Christ through the Bible is nearly impossible to teach where cultural conclusions are already forced upon the student in such a way as to imply that he is hardly a Christian if he does not fulfill the standard of the group. . . . obedience to God is active response with respect to the situations in the life of a man. It is he himself, however, not his religious culture, who must in private prayer and personal Bible study decide both what the principle is and how he must obey it (18, pp. 222-223, italics added).
Absolutist objective standards of Christian ethics err in being statically wedded to past traditions and social conditions. Prejudices blind those who hold them to their inconsistencies. Self-interest is easily clothed in garments of Christian idealism. Relatively narrow educational and social backgrounds limit perspective, blind people to the implications of their views, and prevent them from seeing the validity of Christian standards different from their own. Prideful sin makes them criticize others without criticizing themselves (cf. 7, pp. 15-31). Rigid codes for Christian living therefore tend to reflect man's culture as of a given time and place, absolutizing that which ought to remain relative.
Whether Christians sit or recline at meals; sit, kneel, or stand lifting holy hands to pray; use a single communion chalice or individual glasses; are baptized in running water or in an indoor pool; and greet one another with a simple "Hi!," a handshake, or a holy kiss is not ultimately important. The Kingdom of God does not consist of habits of clothing, recreation, diet, or even religious rites and ceremonies. This was a major teaching of Jesus Christ in His condemnation of the Pharisees for the externalism of their religion (49, pp. 111-159).
The only absolute in Christianity is the triune God. Anything which involves man, who is finite and limited, must of necessity be limited, and hence relative. Biblical cultural relativism is an obligatory feature of our incarnational religion, for without it we would either absolutize human institutions or relativize God (40, p. 282, note 22).
Biblical principles for Christian living can be termed a
- relative relativism" which demands dynamic obedience
to a living God rather than static conformity to dead
(40, pp. 48-52).
As already indicated, a type of relativism for Christians is advocated in the New Testament. One of the clearest statements about it appears in I Corinthians 9:19-23 in which the Apostle Paul states that he became all things to all men so that he might win them to Christ (cf. Acts 21:18-26). The epistle to the Galatians was written to uphold the liberty that is in Christ and to warn against false brethren who wished to bring Christians under bondage to the law. justification is by faith, not by observance of the rules, regulations, and ceremonies of the law. Similarly, the church council at Jerusalem concluded that gentile Christians need not bear the yoke of the law. Reflecting cultural conditions, it instructed them only to abstain from idolatry, unchastity, that which was strangled, and blood (Acts 15:1-29).
The Christian should be led by the Holy Spirit, not by a series of detailed rules and regulations. He has been called unto liberty, yet this liberty is to be used to produce the fruits of the Spirit and not to gratify the desires of the flesh (Gal. 5:13-25). The law of liberty (the law of love) has limitations, as all liberty does, for limitations are essential to protect liberty. The limitations upon Christian liberty are given generally as principles rather than as specific rules or regulations. For instance, none of us lives to himself, and each is accountable directly to God. He who believes he may eat anything should not despise the weak Christian who abstains from certain types of food and vice versa. If habits of eating and drinking cause another to be injured, the habits should be changed so that they will be mutually upbuilding. He who is strong and not under bondage to dietary habits and observance of special days ought to bear the burdens and failings of the weak, pleasing his neighbor for his edification, even as Christ pleased not Himself (Rom. 14:1-15:6; cf. I Cor. 8). The Christian should not be subject to legalistic regulations, for he is dead to the elementary ordinances of the law and raised with Christ. He ought, therefore, to set his mind on things that are above, not on things of this earth (Col. 2:16-3:4; see 12).
Jesus taught that we ought not to judge others lest we ourselves be judged. Our responsibility is to take away our own faults before correcting the minor flaws of our brethren (Mat. 7:1-5). This implies a type of individual relativity by which each Christian is to judge his own actions under guidance of the Holy Spirit who enlightens the principles of God's Word. Jesus taught in the parable of the faithful and wise steward that the more God has committed to one, the more He will require of him (Luke 12:35-48). What is right for one person may be wrong for another, for each has his oownindividual calling and mission in life; each has his own personal endowments and weaknesses; each is in hisown unique social situation, and each should make love his aim (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-14:1).
All the specific ethical instructions of the New Testament may be seen as expositions of the one basic command to love. Concrete applications of New Testament principles are always through the "judgment of faith", which is the result of a new way of looking at all things and all situations through faith in Jesus Christ. It means doing God's will spontaneously because one is filled with His Spirit and hence filled with love. It involves the joyful liberty of children of God constantly renewing themselves because they have been made new (33, PP. 85-100).
The Bible also recognizes a social relativity in which groups with different degrees of revelation of God's will are judged according to the standards that have been "written in their hearts" and consciences (Rom. 2:12-16). The gentiles outside the law are a law to themselves. Customs such as divorce, polygamy, swear-, ing vows, revengeful punishment, and hating one's which were not condemned in early Hebrew were clearly disapproved of by Jesus Christ enemy history (Matt. 5:31-48). What is right for one group of people may therefore be wrong for a corresponding group at a later time under a different set of environmental, social, and technological circumstances.
Many Christian standards which vary from one group to another (some approve of television movies while others condemn them, some attend the theater and others avoid it, some use cosmetics while others scrupulously abstain, etc.) seem to reflect differences in the social environments in which a majority of the members live. In the large city today, judiciously applied lipstick is not considered even by the most conservative to be a label of the woman of loose morals, nor is card-playing considered irrevocably linked with gambling. Activities which a generation ago would have been sinful for the Christian are no longer that, but in some rural communities they may still be a sign or symbol of irrespectability and hence wrong for the child of God. As Christians move from one community to another, they must face the issues of outward conduct wisely, considering the social meanings locally attached to various acts lest they offend weaker brethren and injure their spiritual welfare. What is right at one time or place may indeed be wrong on the basis of the very same Christian principles at another.
This is not to say, however, that all culturally approved practices are right for the Christian. God condemned King David for taking Bathsheba away from Uriah even though that was a common custom among oriental kings of his day (II Sam. 11:2-12:23). Christians are warned to "be not conformed to this world" (Rom. 12:2), to deny "ungodliness and worldly lusts" (Titus 2:12), not to be friends of the world (James 4:4; 1 John 2:15), and "to walk not as other Gentiles walk" (Eph. 4:17). Each is to work out his own salvation, permitting God to work in him to do His good pleasure so that he may be blameless and harmless "in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation" (Phil. 2:12-16).
Paradoxically, Christian relativism hence recognizes a true Absolute, Almighty God, who reveals Himself and His will primarily through Jesus Christ, the Holy Scriptures, and the Holy Spirit. Man can know Him sufficiently to receive redemptive grace, but man cannot in this life fully comprehend God's work and His will. Even Christians know only in part (I Cor. 13:9-12); as a result, their decisions and deeds can never with complete assurance be labeled by man as perfectly just, completely pure, or absolutely holy (cf. 41, pp. 234-241). Only One is faultless; only by receiving the gift of salvation is His righteousness imputed to man. The redeemed can glory only in Him whom God made to be their wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (I Cor. 1:30-31).
Christian relativism necessitates a constant recognition that even Christians sin (I John 1:8) and that all man's institutions and practices are tainted by sin. Hence
the transcendent character of the Christian ideal ... keeps every human program and every human institution
under judgment. . . . Nothing we do or achieve is likely to be free from distortion by an overemphasis upon those interests that are closest to us or by the narrowness of our own perspective as we make judgments (7, p. 59).
All our actions, motives, and goals must be subjected to Spirit-led scrutiny in the liberty that is ours in Christ. As we analyze them to determine what we ought an
ought not to do in our particular social and cultural setting, we can ask the three questions suggested by Reyburn for missionaries to use in Christian evaluation of cultural items: (1) How do people in the culture perform such judgments and how do they scale their own hierarchy of values? (2) What kinds of innovations are at work within and without the societ~ which tend toward changing present conditions? (3) In what ways are such changes working toward or away from generalized Christian moral and spiritual values? (48).
It is these general moral and spiritual values applied by the Holy Spirit to one's specific social position and unique set of circumstances which determine whether his acts and their accompanying motives and goals are predominantly sinful or righteous. Fortunately, God is the ultimate judge, not our fellowmen, and He has made provision through Jesus Christ for our utter sinfulness.
Christian relativism is not a new doctrine. "Christian ethical theory has always been particularly concerned with . . . the incarnation and expression of the absolute in and through the relative." (10, p. 6). Even the medieval theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) combined relativism and absolutism (15, esp. pp. 309341). Were it not for the tremendous range of vari ability in regard both to what is permissable and what is demanded in Christian morality, Christianity would long since have become a dead religion, for it would have been applicable only to one of man's cultures at one period of time and could never have become a successful missionary faith. Without a recognition of "the inevitable presence of the relative even within the Christian tradition itself," American and European Christians are likely to continue promulgating western secular culture traits as if they were essential elements of Christian faith (10, p. 92).
"To say that our moral judgments are relative is only another way of saying that they are relevant, that they make sense in terms of what we know of life and the world." (10, p. 108). Man's free will is fully recognized, his range of choice is extended, and his responsibility of choosing as an aspect of making God rather than the culture pattern the Sovereign of his life is maximized by Christian relativism. The apparent dilemma of absolutism versus relativity is resolved by recognition of the proper place of both in Christian society.
Christian relativism obviously is different from the extreme form of cultural relativity which holds that any religion or faith is all right, provided only that one be sincere. In fact, it may well be labeled as an absolutist philosophy by the critic, for it looks to the Bible as a guide to principles for personal and social conduct. Yet in looking to the Bible Christian relativism recognizes that the Bible must be rightly interpreted.
Many things in the Bible which belong rather to the setting of God's revelation than to the essence of the revelation are fascinating subjects of study in themselves, but it is good to keep them in their proper perspective by considering what part they play in relation to God's saving Word to men (8, p. 14).
A cultural as well as a linguistic translation of the Bible is needed. The world outlook of die first century was different from that of Old Testament times, and both were vastly different from that of twentieth century western civilization. "To assume that the Bible may be read with linguistic and cultural uniformity betrays the facts. It is a caricature of facts to assume that English is the language and the twentieth century is the setting of the Bible." (24, p. 18). This process of communicating the Christian faith which was revealed in one cultural setting to men in another culture which is vastly different goes far beyond translating the words of the message. The gospel cannot produce in the "new" culture exactly the same results as it did in the cultural milieu which is the setting of the New Testament, but the products of its inspired proclamation will be parallel and the redeeming grace of God will be just as much at work (cf. 63).
Our interpretation of the Bible must-always be done in the consciousness that the language of the Bible with reference to the natural- universe is popular rather than scientific. As Ramm has so clearly indicated, the Bible employs the culture of the times in which it was written as the medium of revelation. Its vocabulary, measuring systems, geographical terms, and tendency to attribute psychic functions and emotional states directly to the heart, liver, bones, bowels, and kidneys were meaningful in that cultural setting to which God's revelation was first given, even though they may be misleading to the naive as well as the highly learned today (46, pp. 65-77).
The Bible is non-scientific, but it is not anti-scientific. It speaks specifically to a particular culture, but it is nevertheless relevant for all men at all ages of history and all stages of cultural development. In order to discern what is transcultural, rather than limited to a particular culture, we can apply the following principles of interpretation:
Whatever in Scripture is in direct reference to natural things is most likely in terms of the prevailing cultural concepts; whatever is directly theological or didactic is most likely transcultural; and by a clear understanding of the sociology of language . . . we can decipher what is transcultural under the mode of the cultural (46, P. 78). It is the truth underlying the cultural concepts, rather than the cultural vehicle used to convey the truth, that is binding upon man in God's inspired Scriptures. While it is true that this position means "that God has revealed Himself to man in a book written in terms of discredited science and outmoded cultural patterns" (13, P. 13), this does not mean that God's revelation is discredited. After all, had He given man His Word in the language and concepts of twentieth century science or of present American culture, it would not have been meaningful to men of the past and it would very likely be outmoded even for us in less than a generation.
As he engages in his task of distinguishing between
that which is culturally limited and that which is the,
eternal truth of God in the Scriptures, the Christian
should have an intense interest in the work of social
scientists who are seeking cultural universals-those
moral values present in all cultures of mankind which
are essential to the survival of man or of society. Their
findings undoubtedly will reaffirm the principles for
human relations presented in God's Word and will help
to clarify our interpretations of them. Supercultural absolutes that may be found by such work will vary in
their specific applications from one culture or subcul-,
tare to another, but they will help to solidify faith in
God's Word as the source of ethical principles by which
men ought to live. They will clarify how Christians
succeed and fail to do God's will in the midst of a
crooked and perverse generation. They will not, however, bring men to a redemptive knowledge of Christ,
except insofar as they fulfill the "schoolmaster" or "custodian" function of the law, pointing out to men how
they fall short of the ideal and hence need salvation
and keeping men under the constraint that is essential
to the maintenance of order in society (cf, Gal.
As the world's cultures become more and more h one, and as men of diverse backgrounds and val orientations are drawn ever closer to each other in tim cost distance, it is increasingly important to have u versal principles by which to guide individual and c lective life. The need of men to predict each other' behavior in order to correlate their activities effective for the highest welfare of all makes universal ethi principles ever more essential. "When people learn think of themselves as members ciety, it will be easy for them to agree on a cal system." (35, p. 544).
Meanwhile Christians would facilitate dissemination of the gospel by explicitly adopting Christian relativism, the modified type of cultural relativity which lets Christian person and group decide for itself in its unique set of circumstances and under the guidance of the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit what is right and wrong. Such Christian relativism would not countenance the spiritual imperialism that has transplant alien, often meaningless, culture traits from missionarysending nations to non-Christian lands as if they were an essential part of the Gospel of Christ. It would not confuse non-Christians at home and abroad by the wide variety of contradictory rules and regulations that currently alienate some potential converts, It would be consistent with both social science knowledge and the Bible.
But alas! Christian relativism has its hazards as well as its blessings. Men's hearts are too easily "hardened by the deceitfulness of sin" (Heb. 3:13) and led astray by the passions or lusts of the flesh that wage war against the soul (I Pet. 2:11). Hence some might se this principle of Christian relativism as a cloak for sinfulness, an excuse for licentiousness, a shield for antinomian immorality, a rationalization for wickedness.
The practical question, however, is not whether there will be sin among even the children of God under Christian relativism, for all the alternative ethical policies are also subject to abuse. Hence the practical question is which is the least of the "evils" between which we must choose.
But even more important is the question of God's will. What has He revealed His will to be in regard to moral values? Christian relativism summarizes that revelation. It does not water down, reduce, or treat lightly any essential New Testament doctrines. It is the way of persuasion, enlightenment, and open-minded commitment rather than of coercion, compulsion, or threat. It can be readily reconciled with God's revelation through creation, which is the subject of scientific inquiry, and at the same time it can operate with clear Christian insights (cf. 29). It recognizes the fact that the Christian is dead to the law but alive to God through Jesus Christ. It acknowledges the significant role of the Holy Spirit in ethical action and thus avoids the errors of both legalism and antinomianism. Under Christian relativism we are released from and dead to the law which held us captive, so we serve God, not under the old written code of the letter of the law, but in the new life of the Spirit (Rom. 7:6; see also I Cor. 2:7-16).
... through the action of the Spirit, Christ becomes our Eternal Contemporary to aid us in moral decisions. . . .
Only through the continuing Spirit of Christ can we dis cover the will of God for us in solving the moral issues
of our time (4, p. 95).
Christian relativism demands a basic confidence of Christians in each other. Rather than destroying their fellowship by a carping spirit, viscious incriminations, malicious recriminations, suspicious gossiping, and doubtful disputations, they will, if led by the Holy Spirit, have trust in each other which results in a loving attitude, a forgiving spirit, and gentle restoration of those who make mistakes. Each will look to himself lest he also be tempted. While bearing one another's, burdens, each will test his own work; simultaneously all will work for the good of all men, helping each other interpret the principles of God's Word so that they will be meaningful in contemporary circumstances (Gal. 6:1-10). By their love for each other, they will make all men know that they are Christ's disciples (John 13:35). Christian relativism will thus contribute greatly to evangelistic outreach in America as well as through sensible mission programs abroad.
All men of all cultures and all ages have disobeyed "God's super-cultural will" whether they realize it or not. Although God is willing to adjust His dealings with men to fit the cultural environment within which they live, redeemed men ought to adjust their lives so that they conform more and more closely to the Christlike pattern indicated by the principles given in the New Testament. This will especially affect the motivations for living that guide daily conduct. It will involve readjusting behavior to fit the pattern given by the Word and the Holy Spirit, rather than adjusting interpretations in order to rationalize and justify established patterns. It will involve recognition of the fact that, although the picture God has given of Himself had to be expressed in cultural terms in order to be intelligible to finite men who live on a cultural level, God Himself is super-cultural, transcending limitations of man's national and religious cultures and subcultures (55, esp. pp- 134-141, 191; 53). It will involve, in effect, that integration of Christian absolutism and cultural relativity which we have here labeled Christian relativism.
True Christ-like concern for the eternal welfare of men can be manifested by consistent efforts to cut through culture patterns and social customs in order to reach people of other cultural and subcultural backgrounds. Self-sacrifice is usually a major element of such demonstrations of love. just as Christ stripped Himself of His heavenly glories to become the servant of men (Phil. 2:1-13), we must strip ourselves of all attachments to our earthly culture which would become a barrier hindering men from experiencing a personal confrontation with Him whom to know is to have life eternal.
Christians like other men are inclined to banish the claims of Christ from their daily concerns by an idolatrous substitution of false gods called values. Many cultural barriers hinder American Christians' relationships with Christ (54).
In his single-minded direction toward God, Christ leads men away from the temporality and pluralism of culture. In its concern for the conservation of the many values of the past, culture rejects the Christ who bids men rely on grace (41, p. 39).
Christ and culture, both of which are represented in the social self of the Christian, are hence engaged in dialogue, if not direct conflict, with one another. This state of tension will continue as long as we remain in this present life. Various kinds of solutions have been achieved, but we must always remember that in every culture and subculture these are finite and limited. Men's values are relative in time and place, but Christians should always strive to ground them in the eternal Absolute, God. He and absolute values are not directly accessible to science (1), but if such values are revealed indirectly as cultural universals, they may be discerned through scientific studies by men of Christian commitment.
Through the supercultural relationship with God called faith, by which the Christian lives a life which constantly acknowledges that God is and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him, the Christian can in some measure transcend his culture and live the life which is hid in Christ in God (cf. 54). God's new covenant will be increasingly indelible in his heart and mind as he obediently makes each moral decision in the prayer that God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven. His life will then be characterized by Christian relativism.
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