I encountered culture the hard way — through experience. I flew to my new assignment in London and started work the next day. During one of my first trading meetings, I did not understand something and exclaimed, “Excuse me?” The conversation stopped and everyone looked at me. I had no idea what was wrong. I quickly said, “I did not understand your statement.” The tenson eased and the conversations began again. Later I learned that the British use the expression ‘Pardon?’ when asking a question while ‘Excuse me?’ is used when one is upset. This was one of many cultural mistakes I have made during my life.
I took a week-long course on cultures, and it greatly helped my interaction skills. I learned that various nationalities view time, hierarchy, and values differently. For example, Americans see time horizons as short (‘time is money’) while Asian cultures see time as much longer (‘the end-goal is paramount’). Contract negotiations in New York are much different than in Tokyo. Once you understand these differences, relationships with different cultures are more effective.
Richard Niebuhr (1894–1962) wrote the classic Christ and Culture (HarperOne, New York, NY, 2001) seventy years ago and it is still relevant today. Niebuhr taught at Yale Divinity School from 1931 to 1962. He wrote extensively on Christian theology and ethics. He was ordained in the Evangelical Synod, today known as the United Church of Christ (UCC). His brother, Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) was a theologian who also wrote classics such as Moral Man and Immoral Society.
This blog is an introduction to Niebuhr’s book on culture and the first of a seven-part series. Culture and Christianity is hardly a new topic. “The problem has been an enduring one through all the Christian centuries. … Not only Jews but also Greeks and Romans, medievalists and moderns, Westerners and Orientals have rejected Christ because they saw in him a threat to their culture.” (pages 2–4) Why is this so? Niebuhr gives four arguments. First, “Christians are ‘animated by a contempt for present existence and by confidence in immortality.’” Their other-worldly attitude angered non-Christian cultures. Second, Christ “induces men to rely on the grace of God instead of summoning them to human achievement.” Christians incurred the wrath of empire builders and Marxists because they did not worship powerful humans. Third, Christ and his church “are intolerant.” Christians would not bow to Roman idols nor the Nazi State. And fourth, there were powerful forces that viewed Christians as “foes of culture.” From the time of Paul’s conflicts with Jews and Greeks to our post-modern culture of individuality and reason, Christians have stood up to culture. (pages 5–10)
Niebuhr boils down the Christ and Culture issue as conflicts between reason and revelation. “When Christianity deals with the question of reason and revelation, what is ultimately in question is the relation of the revelation in Christ to the reason which prevails in culture. When it makes the effort to distinguish, contrast, or combine rational ethics with its knowledge of the will of God, it deals with the understanding of right and wrong developed in the culture and with good and evil as illuminated by Christ.” (page 11)
Niebuhr defines culture as “the ‘artificial, secondary environment’ which man superimposes on the natural. It comprises language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organization, inherited artifacts, technical processes, and values. … It is inextricably bound up with man’s life in society; it is always social. … Culture, secondly, is human achievement. … Culture is the work of men’s minds and hands. … Hence, it includes speech, education, tradition, myth, science, art, philosophy, government, law, rite, beliefs, inventions, technologies.” (pages 32–33)
Culture resides in “a world of values. … What men have made and what they make, we must assume, is intended for a purpose; it is designed to serve a good. It can never be described without reference to ends in minds of designers and users. … Man begins with himself as the chief value and the source of all other values. What is good is what is good for him.” (pages 34–35)
Humans cannot escape culture. Turn on the TV and the screen is filled with culture: advertisements, news, entertainment, and sports. Buildings are designed and housed with culture. Language, art, religion, and laws are infused with culture. “We do not know a nature apart from culture. In any case we cannot escape culture any more readily than we can escape nature. … ‘No man ever looks at the world with pristine eyes.” (page 39)
From the time we are born until death, we live and view the world through cultural eyes. We are culturally biased even when we emphatically believe we are unbiased. Our religious views are formed by culture, which is the subject of my next blog.