Science in Christian Perspective



Christianity and Culture 
I. Conscience and Culture

Summer Institute of Linguistics, Inc.
Dallas, Texas 75211


From: JASA 31 (March 1979): 8-12.
Presented at the Annual Meeting of the ASA in 1977. Some of this material was given in an earlier version to the Missionary Conference of the Moody Bible Institute, October 1-3, 1975.
This is the first of a three-part series on Christianity and culture.

Universals of Conscience?

This is a dream, a wish, a hope-that some scholars will help us to understand conscience better by careful, documented, cross-cultural research. What is conscience telling people crossculturally? Is there Scriptural evidence for a law of conscience as related to-or not related to the law of Moses?

Three Types of Law

In Romans 2:14-16 (RSV), there seem to be three different law sets, which we will subscript as Lawi, Laws, Laws. The first is the law of Moses; the second, the moral law underlying a particular culture; the third, the more basic and more general law, the ultimate law of Cod which will somehow relate to the universe 0! different cultures on the judgment day:

When the Gentiles who have not the law (Li) do by nature (L2) what the law (L1) requires, they are a law to themselves IL2), even though they do not have the law (L1). They show that what the law (L3?) requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience (L2) also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus (via L:3, the law of God). (Compare the translation from The Living Bible: "He will punish the heathen when they sin, even though they never had God's written laws (L1 ), for down in their hearts they know right from wrong (L2). God's laws IL3) are written within them

Two major implications are here: (a) There is a universality to moral law, which is panhuman, genetically
transmitted, not relative to a culture, and not isomorphic with the Mosaic code. That is, there is some universality to conscience, (b) There is an area of God's ultimate requirements upon man which leaves room in His judgment for some diversity in the individual's responsibility toward God's ultimate moral wish for man. Thus there is variability within rigidity; there is an area of God-allowed flexibility in the outworking of God's deeper absolutes. This variability is in part a function of knowledge or conscience-sensitivity which is culturally carried beyond the Fall by common grace.

The universal may he distorted, but not lost, by the Fall. There is still a common core of uniformity, perhaps not easy to find in every culture. There is always in every culture some empirically detectable restraint against killing. (There are some friends you are not supposed to kill-maybe you are supposed to kill your enemy.) There is at least some minimum kind of incest which is considered wrong. There is objection to some kind of appropriation of another's goods (perhaps your favorite spear, or the hunting dog by which you might eat or go hungry). And in no culture known to me is there a total reversal of moral criteria, such that the total good of the one is the total had of the other. (For individuals, however, there seems to he the possibility of at least partial reversal: "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil," Isa. 5:20; and the one who says of Christ that "He has an unclean spirit" "never has forgiveness"with self-destruction of conscience, arid blasphemy against the Holy Spirit perhaps being equated here, Mark 3:30,29.)

I do not believe that this universality is the result of mere cultural spread. (I could not, of course, prove it.) But on the other hand, differences do occur in detail. In spite of these differences seen in culture, there is (as I understand Paul) some eternal validity in the common core of conscience-sensitivity. By it men may stand; by it they may fall; by it they may he judged; through it they may be lost; through it we see that they are twisted, and that before Christ came, they needed Christ. Christ came to seek and to save those who already had a valid law of conscience but who did not live up to what they knew, who had light but were unable to follow it, who needed help to meet their own ideals.

In Luke 12:47-48 our Lord tells its that that servant who knew his master's will but did not make ready or act according to his will would receive a severe beating, whereas he who did not know and did what deserved a beating would receive a light heating. Everyone to whom much is given, of him much will he required. And from Matthew 11:21-24, we learn that it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah with their homosexuality than it will be for the first century academic rejectors of the Christ who met Him in person.

Anger as Calibrating Conscience

What kind of research program could help us to understand, support, modify, or reject such notions as (a) and b) above? The cue may he found in Matthew 7:1-2 from the words of our Lord: If you judge, be ready for the same criteria to be used against you. Here our Lord is trying to teach me that when I get

In no culture known to me is there a total reversal of moral criteria, such that the total good of the one is the total had of the other.

angry at somebody, it is dangerous for me. Why? Because if I get angry with my brother, and I say something, it gets on a "tape recording." Then at the judgment seat in heaven, when I say that I didn't know any better, the tape recording will replay my voice shouting in anger to someone: "You are bad, you did this." Then God may legitimately say: "How can you say that you did not know that it was bad, in view of the fact that you scolded your brother for doing it?" My anger at someone else calibrates soy conscience, and every idle, angry word I speak calibrates what is inside my conscience knowledge. When I do what I have accused somebody else of doing as wrong, I have no excuse. So it is a literal truth that by the judgment I mete out, God will judge me-as in Romans 2:1-2 we are without excuse if we condemn another but do the very same thing ourselves. And in Matthew 5:22 we hear that if we are angry with our brother, if we insult our brother, we are liable to hell. What an extraordinary statement from the lips of Christ!-hot rational, sensible, and intellectual. When I am contemptuous of my brother-"You fool!"-I calibrate (or document) my ('valuation criteria.

There are, then, universals of getting angry or contemptuous, which in principle are present around the world but are in detail variable, but we have no classical study of it by Christian or by secular sources. (At least when I asked a retired professor of cultural anthropology a short time ago, he told me there was none. I do not know the literature well enough to guarantee that myself.) So I am urging my colleagues abroad to keep a diary, recording when somebody gets angry so that at some future time these general comments may he refined.
These culturally-identified laws (Li) are related to hot vary from the law of Moses. Why, then, did they need Moses? To discern universals of good and evil more sharply within one setting of specifics. But there was more in Moses than just this. There was a way out of this twist, by animal sacrifice, looking forward to Christ. And there was more detail to help define our "neighbor." This is sometimes difficult. For example, several years ago, the mass who (if I didn't misunderstand him) had been in recent years in charge of studying scores of miles of Chicago waterfront to see bow to prevent pollution, called a meeting of some Christians to try to get them interested in the problem of the pollution of their environment. He failed and was very disturbed about this fact. Finally I asked why he did not request his pastor to preach on Deut. 23:13. The pastor there asked me to do so instead. The congregation listened when I read the text for the sermon of the morning:

You shall have a place outside the camp and you shall go out to it; and you shall have a stick with your weapons; and when you sit down outside, you shall dig a hole with it, and turn hack and cover up your excrement.

Because the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp, to save you and to give up your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy that He may not see anything indecent among you, and turn away from you.

I have seldom heard salvation and sewage preached just that way. But I've been places where I wished that this law of Moses had been incorporated into the culture.

The Jewish culture needed to learn from Jesus that the new commandment was for love and courtesy to an enemy. Our conscience must be taught that we should love those who hate us, and that the God who sends rain on the just and unjust requires this for our good as well as for the good of our enemies. Otherwise, if every time anybody does something to me which is bad, I return something bad, eventually evil "calls my tune"-I react automatically with evil to evil. But the only possible freedom in all the universe is to he immersed within the character of God, where action is free from such contextual triggers.

An autobiography by Tariri, an intelligent man though illiterate, will illustrate some of this problem. (He was asked questions and answered them on tape. I know him, and I studied his language with him.) He was a headhunter and had killed some twenty people. He tells us how he learned to shrink and cure heads. (You have to cut them off nice and neat down by the shoulders, they taught him-you don't cut them up under the jaw!) But why should he make war on the Candoshi, he asked himself-they were his own flesh and blood. Note the implicit recognition of responsibility and conscience. But the reply: If you are like that, you will become a great chief with the moral conflict between knowing it is not good, and the normal fallen Gentile desire to want to rule it over everybody else and be greatest by dominating. He lost the battle, as we so often do. He added that his friends were afraid, when they saw a head hanging around someone's neck as an ornament, that this might happen to them some day-or that they might learn that their son's head had thus been taken by the enemy. This, he said, was very sad and some day one like this would have to go and get his son's head back.

The moral: Here is a man who knows that it is wrong to take heads, but does it for power (as we do things for power), and at the same time feels sadness (or thirst for vengeance) when he sees the same happen to his own son, or wonders if it will.

We have seen that anger helps to calibrate conscience -conscience by which men will be judged. And we have seen that this differs partly, but never totally, from culture to culture.

We have spoken only of anger arid conscience-but note Paul's insistence that consciences may differ, and should be honored, in relation to eating food offered to idols (I Cor. 8:7-13); and note especially that this in part abrogates the judgment of the church council (Acts 15:29) which reported that it had seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to the church there, in relation to the cultural context of synagogues where Moses was read (Acts 15:21). This is an astonishing reversal, under a cultural relation to absolutes. Similarly, Paul acted "under the law" (Li) to win people in that context (I Cur. 9:20); but "outside the law" (Li replaced by La), but not without "law toward God" (La), i.e. under the "law of Christ" (presumably La).

The Model of Etics and Emics in Cultural Analysis

Now we ask: What kind of academic model will help us, in part at least, to understand this difficult relation between a continuing universal of God's moral law, and evidence of culturally variable patterns of conscience which God states that in some way He honors?

We have such a model in linguistics. I refer to the generalized form of etics and emics (terms which I coined some time ago by shortening the more specific terms phonetics and phonemics1). It specifics how things
which are "different" from an absolute point of view are usefully treated as the "same," from a different cultural point of view which takes into account purpose and functional equivalence or meaning.

What kind of model will help us to understand the difficult relation between a continuing universal of God's moral law, and evidence of culturally variable patterns of conscience which God states that in some way He honors?

I first met this problem when trying to learn a few words of Chinese. I remember the experience vividly but have forgotten the particular words. Although I later specialized on phonetics for a number of years, at that time I could not hear the difference between words which contrasted only by the presence or absence of a small puff of air ("aspiration") after p t, or k. (The words are said to he phonemically different, as arc for English-lie and die which differ by the presence in d and absence in t of vocal cord vibration). Yet I Had been trained by my culture (by my language in this instance, as part of my culture), to ignore (not to "hear") such a puff; the two p sounds in paper, in English, differ by such an aspiration (the first has it, the second dues not). But pairs of words in Chinese differ in meaning solely because of this puff sound. English speakers are trained by their culture to treat the two p sounds as systematically "alike" for purposes of word recognition or differentiation; the two are said to be (phon)etically different but (phon)emically same. In training linguistic students to be prepared to study languages alien to them, phonetic training must be given them to prepare them to hear many sounds which in a similar way occur in their own languages, (phon)etically, but without them being at all aware of that fact.

Note, however, that two languages which differ in such ways-by different (phon)emic arrangements of sounds into systems of sounds significant to those systems-nevertheless can translate messages from one to the other, in spite of these apparent (and, for the beginner, in fact serious) obstacles. Somehow, the deeper fact of message, or meaning, can transcend the carrier particles of those messages. If this were not true, all communication would cease across impassible language harriers. As it is, one only has to become all things to all men, under the constraints of the ernie-structural-systems of a particular language, to pass on the passage he comes with, from outside that system.

There are in some sense several kinds of language universals: (a) the fact that every language uses consonants, for example, even though the specific list or etic detail may differ; (h) the fact that messages of significance or interest to members of a culture occur in every culture; (c) the fact that such messages are in general translatable, with approximately equal impact or meaning (subject to delay in the developing or in the process of borrowing words or descriptive phrases for items or experiences which have not been known in the borrowing culture, and subject to some limits which block translation of puns, or of rhyme, or similar kinds of forms).

The same principles seen through emic sounds, with their etic variants, are relevant to all phases of purposive culture. It is emically relevant in the U.S.A. for example, to drive on the right hand side of the roadin contrast to illegality on the left; but in Britain the emic system is different-driving on the left is appropriate. (And in both there is etic variability: e.g. in the U.S.A. one may wander gently within the right hand lane, not too wildly, lest one be thought of as drunk (this is etic variability, not emic contrast) ; in Britain, the same applies to the left.) Note, however, that this ernie but surface difference leaves untouched the underlying universal moral issue: one must driveor act in other circumstances-so as not to endanger his neighbor unnecessarily. This is relative to the culture, insofar as driving on right or left is concerned. That is, the moral principles-moral meanings, the constraints of conscience-are translatable into different cultural patterns just as language messages are. And the stake at judgment day, the universal condemnation for carelessness in taking a life, would clearly be administered relative to the local culturally-determined emic system of left or right.

Here we see in terms of everyday life how two cultural systems can differ, yet both be treated with respect by God as being emically viable sources of, or patterns for conscience. We may find that difficult to follow-even as I find it difficult to drive in a culture where the left is the "right" place to drive; it takes will, and concentration, lest former habits move one into the (there) morally-wrong-via-formal-error pattern.

Moral principles are translatable into different cultural patterns just as language messages are.

On the Emies of Comfort

Yet in such an instance it is important for its to ask: "Who is my neighbor-and how does he want me to treat him emically?" I have seen a visiting Mixtcc boy of Mexico give his grandfather an elegant present-a dish of toasted grasshoppers, treating his relative as he would want to be treated. One sees easily in such circumstances that that which is valued in the visited culture is not necessarily that which is valued in one's home town. Here the universal of neighborliness is unchanged. Its implementation differs according to the local emie form.

Once this point has been reached, other very deep problems are at stake. Such a question is: How can I give comfort to those who are in pain and sadness? At the tomb of Lazarus Jesus wept-in the culturally appropriate way to communicate the universal of being deeply moved in spirit and it was "read' properly by those who saw in that way how deeply Jesus loved him (John 11:33-35). And Paul to the weak became as one weak (I Cor. 9:22). We need emic adaptation to a culture if we wish to give comfort in a way that can be understood-and the understanding of messages comes through more cmic channels than just those of language.

We are in need of careful anthropological studies of the techniques used in different cultural areas for showing comfort-and help in learning to use them. (Personally, I find it awkward, as representing a generation of undemonstrative New Englanders, to let the present midwesterners read my feelings; even my daughter has been startled to see me meet my sister, with whom I have for many years had the closest, deep personal and professional fellowship at home and abroad-and shake hands! No kissing for us.) And then, in the pattern of Christ, we need to translate our feelings into visible, emically readable patterns of behavior.

On the Emics of Persuasion

Here, then, is the opposite of anger, an emic contrast: the giving of comfort. But other emic differences between cultures occur, which are also of great importance to us, if we wish to communicate with persons elsewhere. One of them, I found to my surprise, is that there are differences in the techniques of persuasion. We take it for granted-we are emically conditioned to our own system-that when we are persuasive to our colleagues at home we should by the same approach be persuasive to peoples of any other culture. Unfortunately for our peace of mind, this often fails, and we find ourselves ineffective. For example, colleagues of the Summer Institute of Linguistics in the Philippines found that in certain preliterate animistic tribal groups-neither Christian nor Islamic nor Hindu the people were exceptionally powerful arguers in philosophy. They considered our people to he inept and unpersuasive. One of our anthropologists suggested that a fifteen minute presentation of a topic, followed by a two hour discussion group, would be more persuasive than a longer lecture-and would come closer to their own all-night discussion sessions.

We are already indirectly acquainted with different types of persuasion, but have seldom, if ever, focused on them directly. Ezra and Nehemiah both faced a certain kind of problem, members of their community marrying people who did not join in serving God with them. When Ezra faced this problem, his approach was that of the self-humiliating leader who amused sympathy and thus obedience: "When I heard this, I rent my garments and my mantle, and pulled hair from my head and heard, and sat appalled . . . humbled ....ashamed (Ezra 9:3, 10:1-17). It worked. But Nehemiah used a different emic style (with the same absolute moral demand underlying it): "And I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take an oath . . , I chased them from me . , . Thus I cleansed them" (Nehemiah 13:2530). This emic style also worked.

The argument types in the gospel of John are remarkably varied: In Chapter 1, by the testimony of John. Chapter 2, by signs-the wine; Chapter 3, eye-witness ('We have seen'); Chapter 4, personal experience; Chapter 5, evidence of the works of the Father; and so on.

Paul, too, used different persuasive styles for different audiences: in Acts 15:4, a report declaring all God had done; in 15:38, pragmatic argument about Mark; in 17:2, argument from the Scriptures; in 17:2223, argument from a cultural component of reference to an unknown God; in 17:28, quotation from their own scholars or poets; in 22:2, the social pressure of the use of the native language, Hebrew, carrying a biographical report; and, in the epistles, commendation versus scolding, versus didactic instruction. All of these were emically different, but useful.

We must be ready to use whatever tools are culturally appropriate to carry the universal absolute message. And such tools include the concomitant necessity of being scholars as servants, not rulers; with emically visible compassion, not inner upset or anger by which we would now sow, and from which we would eventually reap.

A Postscript on Conscience

A statement in the July 25, 1977 issue of Time about the New York power blackout with its accompanying looting gives clear evidence that newsmen have known for a long time this principle of responsibility evidenced by voiced complaint: "A teen-age girl on Manhattan's upper West Side complained to friends that some boys had offered to help carry away clothes and radios [stolen by her], then had stolen them from her. Said she, with the skewed logic of the looters: 'That's just not right. They shouldn't have done that.'"

An instance from the academic field has also just come to my attention: In Language, Journal of the
Linguistic Society of America
(53:406-11, June 1977), Georgia M. Green of the University of Illinois in a review is strongly protesting a book written by Ian Robinson which severely attacks Chomsky and his band of followers who have dominated the linguistic scene for almost two decades. After an initial quote from Robinson (who says "that Chomsky has attained the goal of complete uselessness") Green complains in her opening sentence: "Who is Ian Robinson, and why is he saying these terrible things about us?" But a few lines later she herself says of Robinson's book: "If you are a professional linguist, you will be annoyed, appalled, amazed, and disgusted, but unlikely to stomach reading past p. 25." Being a member of academe is no shield against motes and beams. Education, professorships, and publishing are not the antidote to the fall. Some deeper re-structuring is needed by all of us mortals.


1Kenneth L. Pike. 1967. Language in Relation to a Unified Theory at the Structure of Human Behavior, 2nd edition. The Hague: Mouton.