Sunday, May 22, 2011

Is Ethnorelativism Compatible With Faith?

It is time to address an underlying question that arises for people who believe in God, regarding Milton Bennett’s "Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity" (DMIS) that I have been reflecting on. The question could be framed in different ways:

Are people of religious faith bound to be ethnocentric?
Are people of religious faith bound to reject ethnorelativism / Bennett’s model?
Is faith compatible with ethnorelativism (and vice versa)?

I will look at several statements from Bennett’s “Towards Ethnorelativism,” and attempt to address these fundamental questions. I do so for myself as a person who is both an Anthropologist, and as such, committed to understanding culture and growing in intercultural sensitivity and competence, and as a “Christian,” a person who believes in the New Testament teaching that Jesus is the incarnate Word of God and the source of life to all who receive him. So in a way, for me the question is, can my faith in Jesus be reconciled with my Anthropology? But I offer these reflections for people of any religious faith, be they Christians, Muslims, Jews, or any other. I think the issue is common for all of us.

Bennett’s statements, which I want to consider:

“The ethnocentrism of transcendent universalism is nevertheless evident. The principle or supernatural force assumed to overlie cultural difference is invariably derived from one’s own worldview. I have yet to hear anyone at this stage say, ‘There is a single truth in the universe, and it is not what I believe.’ [emphasis mine]

“A more pernicious manifestation of ethnocentrism based on transcendent universalism is derived from any of a variety of aggressive conversion activities. Whether the conversion sought in another culture is religious, political, or economic, it rests on the assumption that there is a single truth, or best way, and that with sufficient education all people will discover this truth within themselves. These overtly ethnocentric conversion efforts may be accompanied by a high degree of interest in cultural difference, perhaps with the rationale that knowledge of difference is necessary to implement conversion effectively.” [emphasis mine]

“Fundamental to ethnorelativism is the assumption that cultures can only be understood relative to one another and that particular behavior can only be understood within a cultural context. There is no absolute standard of rightness or ‘goodness’ that can be applied to cultural behavior. Cultural difference is neither good nor bad, it is just different… One’s own culture is not any more central to reality than any other culture….” [emphasis mine]

“a state of ethnorelativism does not imply an ethical agreement with all difference nor a disavowal of stating (and acting upon) a preference for one worldview over another. The position does imply, however, that ethical choices will be made on grounds other than the ethnocentric protection of one’s own worldview or in the name of absolute principles.” [emphasis mine]

I think that Bennett is guilty of reducing everything to an outworking of culture (though I would like to talk with him face to face about this, to see if I am understanding him correctly). In my view, Anthropologists who do this, especially when talking about matters of faith/religion, tend to do so because of imposing their own secular worldview on reality, and on others (which would seem to be a violation of ethnorelativism).

(Ninian Smart points out that “a science must correspond to its object,” and that those who study religion and religious people must take seriously what religious people believe exist, what they are responding to – God, the sacred, etc.; thus, any approach to matters of religious faith that proceeds on the assumption that God does not exist is seriously lacking. Wilfred Cantwell Smith is another scholar of comparative religions, who does a good job of creating a framework for understanding religion, that takes seriously what religious people are responding to.)

I remember Clifford Geertz talking about the dimensions of culture as “model of” and “model for” reality. I would point out the “of reality” part of this view. In other words, it is assumed, taken for granted, that “reality” exists – there is something “there,” that people are responding to, talking about, etc. Granted, as human beings we are culture-bound; we deal in models of reality, because we can only perceive, respond to, talk about reality, through the media of our senses, language, thought categories, etc. But there is a reality out there, which we do perceive and respond to, and can talk about, etc.

A parallel would be the realm of maps and mapping. Maps are human creations, they involve an understanding and vision of the world, and a certain way of portraying reality. But they do represent something that is “there,” that exists – or they would be pointless. You can compare different maps and talk about the degree to which they adequately represent reality (and maps have changed over time, with an increase of knowledge and an improvement of mapping techniques and technology). You might not agree – especially if we are dealing with different cultures’ ways of mapping the world – but you can have the conversation, and the conversation assumes that reality exists, and that’s what we’re talking about, trying to understand.

Take Jesus, for an example. If he exists, he is not simply a creation of one or another culture. We must admit that there are different images, understandings, you might say constructions of Jesus, “Christian” and other (including Muslim); but all of the ideas about Jesus, all of the workings out of who he is and what his impact is on us, are based on the assumption that he exists, and can be taken back to historical records like the New Testament writings, with eyewitness accounts of his life, teachings, miracles, death, resurrection, and ascension.

Take the Bible, as another example. Christians throughout history have believed that it is in some way the “word (or communication) of God,” revealed or inspired by Him, through different authors using different languages. If God does exist, it is possible that He would be able to speak to and through people, to communicate things about reality, about how we should live, etc. God, and his word to us, would be somehow different from our human culture and cultural context, though he and his word would only be known to us within our cultural context (this is parallel to the “incarnation” – to Jesus, the living Word of God, “becoming flesh and dwelling among us”). Granted we have issues of reading and understanding the Bible, and we/our culture gets wrapped up in the mix; but again, we have a sense of referring to, touching on, thinking and talking about, something which exists apart from ourselves and our culture.

With all of that said, let me return to elements of Bennett’s quotes.

First, the statement in the third paragraph above, One’s own culture is not any more central to reality than any other culture….” If culture is the product of people living together in society, their rules for behavior, worldview, model of reality, etc., then I agree. And at the same time, if there is “reality” outside of human beings – for example, the existence of God, including the existence of Jesus as the incarnate Word of God, alive today and working in the world – then this reality is different than (has an independent existence from) cultural models of it, etc. (the same could be said of the physical world, the universe, laws of nature, viruses, microbes, etc.).

Ethnocentrism exists, and is a danger for people of religious faith, or in the realm of religious faith, more than in other realms, because when we’re talking about the claims of God on human lives, we have a tendency to end up deifying our cultural understandings, assuming that our (ethnocentric) understandings and practices (for example, that a particular way of understanding and performing the Sacraments, or of organizing the church) are the Biblical way, the way revealed by God (people of faith have to come to grips with the fact that we have readings of sacred Scriptures, not direct access to truth). But it is possible for people of religious faith to grow beyond ethnocentrism in relating to other cultures, without losing the essence of their faith (though we may need to recognize and deal with “cultural baggage” along the way, and our faith may change significantly in the process – I think E. Stanley Jones in India is a good example of this.)

Then, the statement in the first paragraph, “The principle or supernatural force assumed to overlie cultural difference is invariably derived from one’s own worldview.” This is shortsighted of Bennett, and reductionist. If God exists, He exists outside of human culture, and we may (we must try to) distinguish between the reality of God, and our cultural formulations, models, practices, etc.

In the second paragraph, Bennett says “Whether the conversion sought in another culture is religious, political, or economic, it rests on the assumption that there is a single truth, or best way, and that with sufficient education all people will discover this truth within themselves.” There is certainly a danger here, which he rightly highlights in his Minimization stage of ethnocentrism (and which I have discussed elsewhere). Ethnocentrism exists, and it presents a barrier to interacting effectively with people who are culturally different. It is quite likely that any conversionist model is ethnocentric and needs to be challenged (for the sake of those of us who believe in whatever it is we are trying to convert people to – I believe that ethnocentric religious practices are not healthy for people of faith, or for those we relate to; but note that the conversionist tendency that Bennett is talking about is not limited to religion).

On the other hand, suppose that God does exist, and that He has plans and purposes for people? We may conclude as religious people that we should not seek the “conversion” of others, because we are likely to be attempting to recreate others in our image. And that we might talk with others of different cultures or faiths about what we understand of truth, without trying to “convert” them to our view or experience (leaving that up to God – which, by the way, plenty of religious people practice; I remember the first time I heard Father Elias Chacour, a Palestinian Maronite Priest, speak – he said, “my job is to live the life of Jesus in relation to everyone I meet; it is God’s business to ‘convert’ people”).

In the fourth paragraph, finally, Bennett says, “The position does imply, however, that ethical choices will be made on grounds other than the ethnocentric protection of one’s own worldview or in the name of absolute principles.” I agree that being ethnorelative means that we will not make ethical choices on the grounds of the ethnocentric protection (or projection) of our worldview – and coming to this point, I think, is important for people of religious faith.

I don’t think I agree with the second half of this statement. I suppose it depends on what Bennett means by “in the name of absolute principles.” All Christians, Muslims, and Jews, I think, agree that there are absolute ethical principles – e.g., not to murder, commit adultery, etc. We might not totally agree on what they are, or on how they are worked out. For example, people of religious faith (within the same faith or between traditions) disagree as to whether “do not murder” includes war, capital punishment, or abortion at various stages of pregnancy. But I believe one can be self-reflectively ethnorelative in our belief in absolute ethical principles, i.e., in tune with the cultural dimension of one’s faith, and the fact that what we assume to be “real” and obvious, may turn out not to be, as we interact with other Christians or others of different faiths.

In other words, I believe it is possible to be an ethnorelative person of religious faith; i.e., to be culturally sensitive, to be working through, working out of, the ethnocentric stages of Denial, Defense, and Minimization, and to be growing in relating to other cultures through the experiences represented by Bennett as Acceptance, Adaptation, and Integration. It is possible to accept, adapt to, and even integrate cultural difference, relating to those who are culturally different in an ethnorelative way, and yet to believe in, to know, to live in relation to, God. I don’t know that Bennett would understand this; I do appreciate his challenging us to think through these questions, even if I conclude that he is not totally right in his views; and I think that his model is critically important for religious people, as we consider the reality of culture and how to relate positively to cultural difference.

I don’t know if this is clear, or if I have made my case in a compelling way. I presume there is always more to think about and to talk about, for (even though I believe I know something of reality as well has having some cultural self-awareness) as the New Testament teaches, “we see through a glass darkly.”

Note to any reader: if you have other thoughts either on Bennett’s quotes or my reflections on them, I would love to hear them.

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