Culture

According to Professor Robert Putnam the average American is very religious yet  remarkably tolerant. (ABC Radio, ‘Religion and Ethics’, 20/06/12) This coincidence of tolerance and religiosity is apparently unusual in human societies. Putnam suggests that the growth of college education has damaged biblical literalism but he does point to other factors at work in the culture, like building personal connections across group boundaries that has made the average American more tolerant.

Like humility, tolerance is a virtue and it comes from building meaningful links across social and religious divisions. One way to begin to learn how to build these connections is to understand something about your own culture.

Culture is a context of your mind. It is a context of mind that has relative agency and this agency relates to what could be called our ‘swarm intelligence’. ‘Swarm intelligence’ is a term used to describe the in-flight manoeuvres of birds or the co-coordinated activities in beehives or termite mounds. The mind is made entirely of relations of meaning and these are essentially communal, there is a strong innate force working on us to live as we truly are: as an integrated part of a lager collective.

As a member of a cultural group we share with others members all kinds of unspoken, implicit understandings about what is important and how to live our lives. These shared cultural understandings are supported by a deeper framework of meaning of which our ordinary minds are a part. For example, when we communicate with others the exchanges we make are constructed from a medium that has already been given to us. This is the spiritual medium of meaning.

If this were not the case and each person made only his or her own private meaning then there would be no basis for exchanging meaning, or shared understandings or any communication at all. Every communication exchange, even those across different languages, begin by sharing a common set of pre-conscious understandings about the implicit and explicit conditions of meaning. The mythological Tower of Babel that tells a story of how separate we are, is entirely false. Every communication exchange no matter how small has the same coherent and unifying foundation of meaning within meaning.

Owen Barfield has argued that our collective representations tend to constitute ‘the world we all accept as real’.[i] The ‘real’ is what we consider to be the norm; the predictable and acceptable world in which social behaviour is judged, rewarded or punished. The real world of our swarm intelligence is usually not an open, conditional place of cultural relativity. Yet the cultural context of the ordinary mind occupies a small and relative place with the structure of mind. And because this context is relative it cannot answer to the absolute demands of ‘the real’. Being relative, the realities that are constructed by our norms of behaviour are also relative. To believe otherwise is to believe in the illusion that you and your culture are exceptional or superior.

The linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf had a similar view. Whorf was famous in the twentieth century for his principle of ‘linguistic relativity’. Whorf studied the language habits of Native Americans, such as the Hopi and Shawnee, and compared these with Indo-European ones or what he called Standard Average European (SAE). What Whorf meant by the principle of linguistic relativity was that ‘all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated’.[ii]

This principle of linguistic and cultural relativity means that no one is free to describe the environment with absolute impartiality. Different cultures will therefore view the world differently and this difference will depend upon the predisposition that underpins the culture or sub-culture. For example, in a tribal culture the overall bonds of the tribe are those that centre on the inclusion of its members and the exclusion of ‘other’ non-tribal people. When this happens for an entire group of people their patterns of cultural identification become so strong that the bonding of their norms and swarm intelligence largely remain unquestioned, subliminal and habitual.

A tribal culture does not have to have members who carry spears and live in mud huts. A modern-day tribe can have members who belong to an exclusive church, mosque, club or society, send their children to exclusive schools and have them worship in exclusive ways. In terms of meaning making, a tribe is a culture group based largely upon the learning processes of identification and having members who share the normative values of ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups. When we identify with a modern-day tribal culture this double identification of them and us creates customs and norms of behaviour that carry exclusive values and serious threats of excommunication for those who fall outside the norms of the tribe. For the religious tribe, heaven is only available to the tribe’s members and not to outsiders.

In contrast, when a society’s norms rest largely upon the meaning making of divisions and separations it produces the contemporary world of science and technology. Such a society has values that come from a focus on differences to such a degree that they (the differences) become ends and not a means for solving problems. When differences are over-valued they multiply and turn into separations that divide. A cultural orthodoxy based upon divisions and separations is one that fragments knowledge and social interactions through the dogmas of individualism, materialism, rationalism, realism and positivism.

The hallmark of a fragmented society represents the culture of Reason (with a capital ‘R’) and while this regime of meaning is definitely a step away from tribal culture it is not a full step away when it comes to cultural identity and knowing who we are. This is to say that while much of our modern culture of Reason relies upon the foundation principle of differentiation for solving life’s problems, when it comes to our sense of who we are we tend to revert to tribal thinking and the bonding processes of identification.

In other words, we will tend to identify with the underlying norms of a tribal culture. As our modern culture of Reason has a linguistic predisposition to name objects rather than contexts or events it has the consequent tendency to prescribe us as objects, that is, as private, solo and separate entities.

Within our modern culture of Reason, mainstream materialism has constructed a ‘real’ material world that appears independent from the processes of observation. Hence our collective habits are also collective forgetting. What the materialist forgets is the relative agency of his culture. Like the fiction writer who tells a story from the omnipotent point of view, the materialist scientist has tended also to assume an omnipotent point of view. Unlike most fiction writers, scientists do not normally take into account their own language and cultural contexts.  Yet scientists cannot escape the relativity of their culture simply by assuming their theories and experiments are beyond the culture in which they work.

The creation of a positivistic world is based on the infallibility of the mechanical scientific method and it is continually constructed by exchanging abstractions like money and information. At the core of this real world is scientific measurement which means that the unreal represents that which is un-measurable and non-computational. God is therefore unreal because He is unmeasurable, but then so also is meaning, mind, culture, language, intuition, realization and insight unreal. The effects of these erasures are many.

Barfield refers to these kinds of forgetting as the making of idols. An idol is made when the relative status of a representation is forgotten and it becomes instead a ‘real’ and unqualified reality. This is also a description of an illusion. Communities that create the ‘real’ world of idols suffer from the idolatry. Idolatry therefore tends to be a collective  forgetting. However, a collective illusion is a state of mind that not only refers to some primitive forms of religious worship; it also describes many common aspects of scientific thought and practice.

In distinction from tribal culture and cultures of reason there is the culture of empathy. While empathy is yet to become a widespread collective response in any society there are many people in every society whose way of life and mode of thought are predominantly empathetic. For the person of empathy what is real are the connections he or she has with others. For the empathetic person interpersonal relationships are more real and more important than any tribal pronouncement that divide the world into them and us. The importance of interpersonal relationships represent the earthly feature of real spiritual exchanges with the divine presence of the Spirit within.

An empathetic culture takes language into account but only as the metaphoric part of a wider non-symbolic reality. A metaphoric understanding is necessary to understand allegory, parable, irony and satire and is therefore quite distinct from an either/or tribal view of the world and different from the positive literalism of Reason. An empathetic culture takes itself as relative to other cultures and perspectives. In addition, from an empathetic culture a mature spirituality can grow. This is the mind that makes meaning by discerning differences yet can make out their necessary connections within wider contexts. This is the fourfold vision of the poet, William Blake.

In summary, how tolerant we are relates to how well we understand the biases of our own culture. If we accept without question the predispositions of our culture then we are unlikely to show tolerant to those different from us. Under these forgetful conditions our reactions will tend towards a two-valued, ‘black or white’ tabloid view of the world where we identify the good, reasonable and familiar as extensions of ourselves, while the strange or different as foreign and ‘other.’  A tabloid and tribal appreciation will tend towards a hard-edged, black or white, idol-worshipping forgetfulness.

A second response involves a materialistic morality which dismisses out of hand any implication of an underlying spiritual context in the universe.  Finally, there is a more empathetic and disclosing cultural view that admits to the absolute value of social connections while accepting the relative status of other cultural positions.  Finally the culture of empathy accepts the subject of the great dream of life as the One numinous cosmic consciousness; the prime cause from which all other causes radiate.



[i]      Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1988), 20.

 

[ii]      Language Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, ed., John B. Carroll, (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1979), 214

 

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