Saturday, October 30, 2010

Cultural Relativism :Two Way Street?

I have been kicking a few ideas around in my head the past few days and am still not exactly sure how to word my question, but this is a crude stab at it.

Is Cultural Relativism a two way street in Christianity?

Thinking on different topics kind of got me wondering if this works two ways, or just one way, from the past to the present, or the present to the past, or both?

For instance, slavery. In the past, we find it all over the place in the Bible. Old Testament and New Testament. It was a cultural norm of its day. Present day, we have concluded, rightly so, that no man has the right to "own" another man, credit card companies and mortgage banks excepted.

We looked at an old institution and is not morally or ethically right, even if it is found and accepted in the Bible. They got it wrong.

Another topic, homicide and genocide. Looking at the Old and New Testament we find examples of homicide and mass genocide of people simply because of their ethnicity, religious practice, ownership of land and all other kinds of reasons. In fact, all the people groups of the Bible participated in killing each other off for all kinds of reasons. The God of the Old Testament really had a thing for the death penalty too. Just about everything could get you stoned!

Now, present day, we have looked at these practices and once again condemned them as unethical and immoral.

Is orientation and sexuality any less important of a human rights issue? The freedom to be an individual, beholden to no man as property, the right to the sanctity of ones own life and the liberty to love and live with the partner of ones choosing. Does this relativism only work one way, from the past to the present? If they were wrong about what was right, couldn't they also be incorrect about what was wrong?

If it is a two way street, then can't we look back at some of these archaic laws and condemnations, accept them for face value without talking semantics, languages, theologies and splitting hairs and just admit...this is another area they got wrong? In fact, it is just yet another area of life that they were completely off the track when it comes to morality and ethics?

I expect to hear from every "side" on this one, but it is a simple question.

Why can we sit on this side of history and admit that they were wrong in some areas, still clinging to the Bible as inerrant (as some do) and then in other areas vehemently deny basic human and civil rights to others and to our own selves, based on the notion that while they may have been wrong in other areas, in the whole guy on guy or girl on girl action AND love, commitment and life...they were irrefutably correct?




  1. Excellent question and post. The first question I'd ask in response: are inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness guaranteed in Scripture? Do the Scriptures, in view of their endorsement of the image of God in man, guarantee such human rights as a part of the package of living?

    Slavery was not endorsed by the Bible; instead it was regulated. And so the second question I'd ask is, are you evaluating slavery in biblical times through the lens of slavery in the US in the 1800s? To do so is as myopic as me saying something like, "Franklin Roosevelt's secretary sent all his emails for him."

    (I don't, by the way, mean any offense...I'm evaluating your ideas and asking questions in conjunction with your thoughts...and I actually think a lot of you for asking these questions in the first place.)

  2. "Another topic, homicide and genocide. Looking at the Old and New Testament we find examples of homicide and mass genocide of people simply because of their ethnicity, religious practice, ownership of land and all other kinds of reasons."

    Not to be nitpicky, but I don't recall any examples of mass genocide in the NT.

  3. @Anonymous

    I understand the narrow scope of your view, but are you familiar with world history at the time, post J.C.?

  4. I'm aware that Christians eschewed violence until after the Edict of Milan. It wasn't until Christianity became mixed with politics that violence became an acceptable expression of Christianity. You won't find any examples of violence by Christians in the N.T. Sorry if that doesn't support your agenda.

  5. @Anonymous

    I was not aware I had an "agenda"? Our versions of "christianity" may be a bit different, but that is neither here nor there.

    My questions are about Cultural Relativism, not my grasp or comprehension of early church history.

    Anything relevant to say besides "not" being nitpicking and correcting my perception of historical chronology?


  6. My good friend is in the midst of reading this book and it deals exactly with the topic you've mentioned.

    From what I've heard I think it'll be really helpful for you as well. Miss you buddy!

  7. Hi Daemon,

    I dunno, I tried the "hey, maybe they were just WRONG" approach a while ago. But it didn't really work for me, because it seemed to me that if I'm going to take that attitude toward the parts of Scripture that I don't like or don't make sense to me, then I shouldn't get to trust the Bible or be comforted by the Bible when it comes to the parts I do like but which don't necessarily proceed from common sense.

    So, for example, the idea of an afterlife. The idea of heaven. The idea of an omniscient, omnipotent, and loving God. The idea of God Himself becoming man in the person of Jesus and dwelling among us. The idea of Jesus dying for my sins and reconciling me to God. The idea of Christ's resurrection, triumphing over death, crushing Satan underfoot. The idea of the Holy Spirit dwelling within me, bearing good fruit in my life. The idea that God is working everything for my good, so that I never need to live in fear. The idea that Jesus has called me to join with Him in the glorious and exciting task of advancing His kingdom, working for the redemption of all things, in love and in service.

    All of these are happy thoughts for me. :) But in their own way, they're rather wildly crazy and improbable ideas, maybe even crazier than the idea that we shouldn't have sex with people of the same sex. And what authority do I have for these things besides Scripture? None that I can see.

    I'm sure others have thought about this in different ways, but for me it only seems fair that if I'm going to allow myself to trust and put my faith in the parts I like, I have to be willing to at least wrestle with the texts I don't like, to take them seriously and try to figure out how best to understand them.

    This doesn't mean I have to accept the most common or accepted or literal interpretation of each and every verse I see. I don't believe I have to be a flat-footed fundamentalist--I think I can take other parts of the Bible and even the past couple of millennia of Christian teaching to try to understand things in a more nuanced way. And I can try to learn about the cultural setting of the time, and try to discern where the Bible is actually endorsing and teaching something, and where it is simply taking for granted the cultural assumptions of the peoples for whom it was originally written. And I don't I have to rush to come to a final conclusion on what my understanding is. I believe I can leave things open for further prayer and study. I believe I can accept some degree of mystery.

    But I guess in general I don't really see outright dismissal of particular parts of Scripture as an option for me if I'm going to remain a Christian. Maybe that's not the best approach, but I guess that's just where I'm at now?

  8. @DisputedMutability,

    I think you are balancing cultural sexual norms and doctrines of faith on the same scale. The two don't seem to relate to each other all that much.

    One is how we relate to the humans around us and the other is how we relate to God himself.

    The choosing to examine the past with an eye on the present does not seem to be a way of picking and choosing certain things to dismiss as it is the realization that what was thought to be correct 1000's of years ago, is not necessarily so today.

    The doctrines that apply to salvation have little to do with cultural norms, mores and laws that governed a people that long since ceased to exist and practice as they once did. If we are to keep these "laws" such that they are, then why are we so dismissive of others?

    Seems to me that each church picks and chooses what they accept and do not accept. There are over 2350 verses that deal with money in the Bible, but only 6 or 7 that (maybe) deal with homosexuality as we know it.

    The concept of a noble "struggle" with SSA, homosexuality or whatever one wants to call it is not a life I am willing to chose. It seems a rather feeble argument against something that Jesus himself never even bothered addressing.