I’ve started up a new semester at Fuller. Which means the days of reading what I want are gone for a while. This semester I’m taking my second round of Hebrew and Theology of Multiculturalism. For the latter class we’re reading American Cultural Patterns: A cross-cultural perspective It looks at how many of our basic beliefs about reality are absorbed from our culture. Here I post my thoughts on the first couple chapters of the book.
It begins by looking at the concept of culture. Subjective culture is the ideas, beliefs, and assumptions of a people group which often give rise to objective culture which is the concrete fleshing out of that culture in such things as art and political systems. To distinguish between colonized and non-colonized societies the categories of gemeinschaft societies, which value things such as community and ethnicity, and gesellschaft societies, which value achievement and the individual, were developed. We must realize, however, that these are not exclusive categories, or that one is tribal and the other civilized. Rather, they are opposite ends of a continuum that reflect the different values societies organize themselves around. Also important are our cultural assumptions, which are beliefs we have about the nature of reality and others, and cultural values, which determines what actions we consider good and desirable. When we sojourners to another culture we must take on a third culture where we realize our cultural values and assumptions and how they differ from our host culture, and change our behavior accordingly.
One cultural assumption that is prevalent in American culture is that the external, physical world is what is real. This is certainly a value I have absorbed, and it comes out in my leanings toward atheism, due to its focus only on empirical and rational reality, during times of doubt. Furthermore, I see those cultures that value the unseen more than the seen, such as animistic cultures, as more primitive and less rational. This demonstrates the point that I believe my assumptions are natural and right, making it very difficult to receive from instead of impose upon people of different cultures.
Chapter 2 begins by describing how we process raw sensory data into ideas and symbols that have meaning. Interestingly, what we perceive and the value and meaning we assign to the objects we perceive are culturally influenced. As Americans we give weight to perceptions that we categorize as facts, which are empirical and measurable. Americans are also given to pragmatism whereby when we face a problem the solutions are evaluated, weighed, and then we decide upon the solution that will work best. Other cultures, however, often base decisions on intuitions and the problem at hand; not what-ifs. Americans focus on solutions to problems in this way because we believe there is an implied agent who is removed from the immediate act of perceiving and can evaluate the different options. There are three types of thinking we encounter in different cultures: inductive, which relies upon the data to form hypotheses, deductive, which gives priority to theories over raw data, and relational, which values experience and the opinions of those in authority.
I find myself repeatedly surprised by how many American cultural patterns I have absorbed without realizing it. Having lived in several different countries I believed that I was more culturally diverse. And, as a Christian, I believe that my faith is the primary influence upon my worldview. However, I resonate with the idea of choosing a course of action based on facts and inductive thinking. As a software developer I approach programming problems by analyzing them and testing different solutions, and certainly not by praying about them (it’s a material problem, not a spiritual one, right?). A question that keeps nagging me is if these cultural beliefs, values, and ways of thinking are all neutral, or if one is better than another? If so, how are we to choose? Using some non-cultural framework? I’m not sure there is one.