Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The blurry lenses of culture

When I was 13 years old, my family moved overseas, to Singapore, to live.  It was a really interesting time to leave my home country and find myself plopped down into a whole new world.

I was a pretty contemplative, observant kid, and so I just soaked in the culture.  I watched what people did.  I listened to what people said.  I began to separate culture from beliefs, from worldview, and from values.  I remember learning about the parlimentary system there, and how there are multiple parties, but only one ever has been (and probably ever will be) in power.  I remember asking to use the bathroom and having a lady lead me back to her bedroom suite, the only bathroom that had a bathtub.  I remember reading American magazines that were painting dark skin as desirable, and then hanging out with my Singaporean friends who were jealous because of how pale I was (yes, really!).

I think it was about then that I realized how we so often want exactly what we don't have.  And our whole culture values something that is scarce to us, but could be abundant somewhere else.  And I think it made me look at everything differently.  It made me question which of my beliefs were truly true, and which we just held on to because they were comfortable to our culture.  It made me wonder whether what my culture told me about beauty was really true.

Similarly, when I went to church in Singapore, I found that they focused on different "truths" than we did here.  What they were totally concerned about was in the Bible, but we just didn't pay as much attention to it as they did.  That made me wonder how we decide what is the most important.  Everyone says that they are taking what they believe straight out of the Bible.  But my life experience caused me to question which really came first... did my church really look at the Bible and then allow it to form our culture and beliefs?  Or did my culture and cultural beliefs form what my church thought was important and worth emphasizing?

This experience forced me to conclude that we really do read a lot into what we believe is "truth."  Based on our culture, our experiences, our lives, our values... we take those things with us when we read.  If I come from a culture that values community over individualism (like Singapore), I'm going to read about the call to Christian community with totally different expectations than I will as a Westerner. The Westerners that I know can't even conceive of the reality of living 12 people to a 3-bedroom flat, and all the cooperation that entails.

Technology has made the world smaller.  One of the consequences of that is that people are confronted with different ways of living and believing and existing at a really young age.  For me that experience was a shock to the system - I was thrust into another culture where I couldn't help but recognize the differences.  Today's generations are growing up exposed to all different worldviews and tolerating those is fairly natural.  I think this probably contributes to the skepticism about "absolute truth."  As I've said before, I think it's less an issue of people believing there is no absolute truth, and more an issue of thinking there's no way to know what that is.  How can I really separate myself so utterly and completely from my own life experience, values, and culture to be able to say that I know for sure what that passage really means?  And if you try to tell me that  you are completely separating yourself, I'll probably laugh at you.

So what does all this mean?  I think the beginning of every conversation about truth has to be the admission that I see through my own experiences and culture.  If we can agree about that, then maybe we can begin to talk about our different perceptions and how to figure out what the truth is, even though we know that we can't find it perfectly.  Until then, I think that modernists and post-modern, post-Christian people are just going to keep talking past each other.

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