Critiques & Controversies: August 2002 Archives

Review of Cultural Relativism


The Times (of London) Literary Supplement (don't know how long the link will survive) gives us an impressive review of a book that looks into some of the more appalling crimes of cultural relativism.

Sandall focuses on the worst aspects of cultural relativism, in particular its non-relativist use of sentimentalized assessments of primitive cultures as a stick with which to beat civilization. He begins with a cameo: Lauren Hutton, the actress and ex-model, forcing her two young sons to watch red-robed Masai warriors drinking warm blood from the carcass of a slaughtered cow. Their reaction -- tears in contrast to her own delighted yelps of "wow" -- disappointed her. Perhaps, Sandall wonders, they understood better than she did the necessary violence of the warrior life behind the tourist-anthropology cabaret. As the mother of two boys, one might have expected her to reflect on the appalling initiation ceremonies to which warrior societies sometimes subject young males. In some highland Papua New Guinea societies, boys "were beaten with stinging nettles. . ."[read the remainder of this passage on the site, if interested]

The initiation rituals undergone by Papuan boys are somewhat at odds with the "communal basket-weaving, accompanied by traditional dance and song", that, Sandall argues, dominates the image of indigenous cultures in the minds of "boutique" multiculturalists. Multiculturalist thinking tends to exaggerate the place of art in past communities. Writers enchanted by Aztec art, architecture and poetry often ignore the unspeakable despotism of this warrior and priest-ridden society and their continual wars, waged in pursuit of the 20,000 prisoners needed annually for purposes of human sacrifice. For their neighbours, the arrival of the conquistadors was liberating.

Now, while I cannot but agree with the major assessment, I do have to caution that not all agrarian societies are brutal, awful, or have rituals such as those described. To assume that technological societies are a priori better for being technological is one of my pet peeves. As an example look at the Amish who eschew much of modern technology.

On the flip side, it is equally wrong to assume that an agrarian culture is "close to nature" and more "respectful" or "in-tune" with the environment. In point of fact all cultures have their problems, and on the whole the standard of life within a techonological soceity tends to be better. (I wouldn't argue that this is the way it must be--I suppose I have a romantic notion that would argue we can have the best of both worlds with a bit of work--but that may not be realistic; moreover, it is certainly not the present reality in any culture I'm aware of.)

But more to the point, in the example sited above, the Masai ritual may be unjustly maligned (I haven't seen it). The real problem with the scenario is exposing two young children who have not been exposed to the realities of where their own food comes from to something that is this graphic. I don't know that drinking the blood of a slaughtered cow is necessarily any worse than what happens in modern abattoirs to prepare food for our own tables. The difficulty is some parents appear not to have a clue about what to expose children to.

Okay, all my caveats aside, we must be willing to say straight out that atrocities cannot be justified by cultural differences. Girls who die as a result of "female circumcision," the phenomenon of the "reste-avec" and the child slaves typified by the tragedy of Victoria Climbié and others in Great Britain and elsewhere, and any other atrocity you can think of needs to be identified as an atrocity and not argued into nonexistence by cultural relativism. Likewise, those things that enrich the treasury of humanity through their exemplary exposition of all the good that is possible should be acknowledged as well. For example, communal care of children in many societies, is, in fact, often a good thing.

Not being an ethnologist, I am not in the place to make sweeping comments regarding any societal practices, but I do think we tend either to sweepingly condemn cultures for some of these kinds of things or to discretely sweep real atrocities under the carpet in the name of solidarity.

The best solution to all of these extremes is to love the people who make up a society, to see within them the image of Jesus Christ. If we focus on a person rather than on some of the less savory aspects of the culture from which the person derives, we will be far better off. If we were to be completely objective, there are undoubtedly a great many things about our own culture that would appear both barbaric and appalling. Fortunately, we are called simply to be brothers and sister to one another in Jesus Christ, our Brother, our Head, and our Lord.

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On the Question of Culture


Normally, I prefer the battle on such issues to rage around me and not to comment, but I do feel that I must address an unfortunate tendency in thought, word, and deed. It seems that one webmaster blogged some remarks that were profoundly offensive to Ono Ekeh ( found via Dylan's Blog, q.v.) as how would they not be to individuals who are seeking common ground and understanding? Admittedly, the excesses of academic multiculturalists lead to a sense of dysphoria among all who do not buy into the world constructed by Foucaultian and Derridan theory (let's not even talk about Paul de Man).

I don't believe that we need to feel good about ourselves by denigrating the accomplishments of others. I don't think that cultural comparisons are particularly relevant or helpful, nor do they lead to the sorts of discussions and solutions we need to find to right historic wrongs.

There are problems in all cultures--there is no perfect culture, just as the only Perfect Human was executed in part because He was Other and made us realize that we were not so good as we thought we were. Comments that seek to elevate our sense of self at the expense of others simply contribute to the forces that pounded a the nails into Jesus' hands and feet. What we need is to address the problem and not return the fire we think we have been peppered with. We need to hear what is being said under the extravagant claims and make room in our cultural understandings for the genuine good present in all cultures. We need not claim it for our own, but neither do we need to say that it has no validity. In the example given, a writer compares a European Clock to an African Mask--perhaps an unfortunate juxtaposition arranged by curators, and extols the clock to the detriment of the mask. But looked at another way, a clock is simply a device invented for the external regulation of human behavior entirely useless to a culture that uses the daylight or the nighttime as need dictates. While technological cultures do provide certain goods that cannot be provided by agrarian societies, we may be blinded to some of the positive things that can come from living close to the Earth and its cycles. We should not conclude that a technological culture is necessarily "better" (after all, technology is a morally neutral faculty) or necessarily "worse." Why can't we simply accept that it is different and not attempt the sweeping generalizations that create an "us and them" attitude. Then we can get down to brass tacks--things nearly all reasonable cultures CAN agree on--slavery is bad, genocide is bad, murder is bad, ignoring God's law and natural law is bad. . . etc.

What we need, to use a very old and worn but tremendously useful phrase, is more light and less heat. What does one propose to gain from forcing a group that already feels disenfranchised into a position in which they must fight or die? It makes no reasonable sense. Simply teach your children to savor the wonderful benefits of the culture they enjoy and the goods of other cultures, to decry the wrongs that they see in any culture, and above all to center their hearts, minds, and souls first and foremost on the loving God who grants all things to all people, black, white, red, yellow. God sees in these colors a wonderful rainbow of images of His Son, we should strive to do the same and teach our children the same. Most important of all "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you." When God is the center all human considerations fly away. The Shema Y'israel, which could be regarded as our chief rule of law says: "Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One. Love Him with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself." Loving as yourself means simply seeing the image of Jesus and not judging that as a greater or lesser image.

I've gone on too long, but I think it's clear--Love is the rule and it leaves no place for comparison. Mother Teresa did not stop to compare Hindu and Christian culture before she cared for the ill; St. Charles Lwanga did not stop to consider who was worthy of salvation; St. Martin de Porres did not ask which culture the poor he tended belonged to; they all simply loved the image of Christ they saw in each person, without having to make themselves feel superior, without having to compare one with another. They accepted people as the beautiful, exasperating, exhilirating images of Jesus Christ that they are.

(Rant officially over, we now return you to your regular station)

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The Prayer of Silence


Different book this time:

Meditations Before Mass Romano Guardini

Stillness is the tranquility of the inner life; the quiet at the depths of its hidden stream. It is a collected, total presence, a being "all there," receptive, alert, ready. There is nothing inert or oppressive about it. . . .

"Congregation," not merely people. Churchgoers arriving, sitting, or kneeling in pews are not necessarily a congregation; they can be simply a roomful of more or less pious individuals. Congregation is formed only when those individuals are present not only corporally but also spiritually, when they have contacted one another in prayer and step together into the spiritual "space" around them; strictly speaking, when they have first widened and heightened that space by prayer. Then true congregation comes into being, which, along with the building that is its architectural expression, forms the vital church in which the sacred act is accomplished. All this takes place only in stillness; out of stillness grows the real sanctuary.

While this is undoubtedly true of mass (and one of the reasons I tend to impatience for people who wander in with a hale-fellow-well-met attitude) it is doubly true of all prayer. Prayer is encased in a house of silence. Outside of silence, prayer becomes just more roaring against the sound of the rushing wind of culture. That is not to say that God does not hear it, because of course He does. However, it is not the kind of praise that rises like an incense to the throne of heaven.

For prayer to be truly pleasing to God it must be of the sort that makes one completely present to God. Such prayer is not acquired in the short run, and ultimately its final stage is not acquired at all. However, one must dispose oneself to receive the gift of infused contemplation. One of the ways of doing so is to practice this "prayer of silence." In addition, the prayer offers the person praying innumerable benefits stemming from a "mental vacation from the world." It "recharges the batteries" and makes one more capable of coping with what occurs in everyday life. It helps one to experience the presence of God in all of life's activities. It helps one to empty oneself to be filled with the Holy Spirit. In short, it opens the doors to greater levels of prayer..

But it isn't easy, and it isn't a short road. It may take years, perhaps decades. But, as with the bloom of the Century Plant, it is both spectacular and worth waiting for. In the prayer of silence, we take the first steps toward becoming like our grand model of prayer, the Holy Mother of God. We learn to "ponder these things in our hearts" and to derive from them great joy and peace. The prayer of silence, it would seem to me, is one of the most effective tools on the road to lifestyle evangelism because it causes a fundamental change in the person who is doing it consistently. From agitated and worried to peaceful and trusting, the prayer of silence changes lives.

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Another Gem from Blog Land


I never fail to be amused, or at least perplexed (a rather enjoyable state overall) by the remarkable comments at Disputations.

I quote the excerpt below because it is a remarkable summary of much of the way I feel as well.

I don't have any insightful or non-negotiable opinions about liturgy, translations, enneagrams, EWTN, or Cardinal Law. What I will object to strenuously, though, are Catholics who demonstrate no faith in the Catholic faith.

(Add "worthwhile" to "insightful or nonnegotiable" to get a clearer idea of my stand.)

Although, contra John (elsewhere in the same blog), I do identify myself quite clearly as an Orthodox Catholic. (I just am uncertain about orthopraxis--out of ignorance, not defiance.) I insist that I am a true son of the Holy Catholic Church and any opinions I may hold contrary to its teaching are to be considered subject thereto (being a convert from the Baptist faith, I plead mostly ignorance).

That's not to say that I don't struggle with some of these same teachings. But when asked about them, I might advance my opinion, with the clear admonition that it is merely my opinion and not the teaching of the church and that I am presently struggling with and attempting to enter into the church teaching. I am pleased to say that on every point of importance on which I have disagreed with the Church, I have subsequently been proven wrong, by reason and the Holy Spirit. Praise God!

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A Right to be a Priest


Okay, so I'm late in coming to the discussion--no surprise there. However, I would like to say this about an excerpt from the New Gasparian Blog:

Lane Core from the Blog from the Core disputes my contention that no one has a right to be a priest.

He balances that with:

Of course, a right may be forfeited: but saying that is not nearly the same as saying the right doesn't exist.

I must respectfully support the conclusion, in part of Mr. (Fr. ?) Keyes:

I respectfully disagree with Mr. Core, and think we should spend more time reflecting on and celebrating what God has given, what God has done for us, then trying to take sole ownership of it.

But I do so from a slightly different perspective. The priesthood is a vocation. A vocation is a call from God. Therefore, it would be improper to say that anyone had a "right" to the priesthood. Only those called by God have any possibility of a "right" and I think insisting upon a gift would be considered boorish in any circle. No one has a "right" to the priesthood, and it may be that some have improperly considered their vocation. Sometimes proper discernment is not undertaken in the consideration of a task or place in life.

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Hazel Mote, Anyone?


At least Hazel only promoted the Church of God without Christ--a kind of Southern Unitarian thing, I suppose. But Mark Shea (direct linking not working so go to the 8/5/02, 7:32 post about Spong) has linked to an article by Gene Edward Veith that must chronicle one of the most absurd and idiotic doxologies in the history of humankind:

Bishop Spong proposes "a new Christianity." This new faith, he writes, must be able to "incorporate all of our reality. It must be able to allow God and Satan to come together in each of us.... It must unite Christ with Antichrist, Jesus with Judas, male with female, heterosexual with homosexual." This new Christianity, which amounts to a completely different religion, presumably will still need to employ bishops.

This "new christianity" already has a name--secular humanism.

And for "Bishop" Spong and those who follow him, the following admonition:

"Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of things that cause sin! Such things must come, but woe to the one through whom they come! "(Matthew 18:6-7)

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Who Saves the World?


Who Saves the World?

Kairos has a very interesting post, but I find myself somewhat at odds with the language (but probably not with the intent).

The first instance is in this short paragraph:

I know I have said this before, but it bears constant repetition: You cannot fix the world. You can only save it.

First, I must say, there are several ways to read this. If it is intended to say "The world cannot be fixed, it can only be saved," which, I believe is the intent, then I would have to concur, even if it is passive language. However, if the claim is that I as an individual can so some sort of saving, then I must demur and point at the One who saves. The reason I make a point of this is that all too many people today are ready to say that we can save the world. Look at any lobby--pro-abortion, anti-abortion, pro-gun-control, anti-gun-control, pro-environment, pro-business--you name it, and they all have the panacea that will make for the perfect world. (Well, not really, but many seem to think of their cause in this light.) While many of these causes are profoundly right-headed and certainly likely to shift the world into the right direction, salvation is from God alone. So, I must repeat, while I do not attribute this reading to Kairos, I must take exception to the literal reading of it.

Another place where I was a bit perturbed was in this quotation, "The souls of the corrupt priests and corrupted victims require significant attention. . . " once again, I believe my disagreement is with the phrasing, not the thought. A person who engages in an activity against his or her will is not "corrupted" by that activity. If they are persuaded to engage in it and then continue afterwards, then I would say that corruption had occurred. We might say that they had been "defiled" by it, but even that language disturbs me because it suggests that there is now something about the person that is wrong or distorted. In fact, there is not. Violation is the only word that can be used to describe the effect on the person, and what that "grows into" is really dependent on the person.

The corruption is on the part of the one perpetrating the act, and on that person alone. The only thing the victim suffers is harm--neither corruption nor uncleanness. We know this because Jesus pointed out that it was not what went into a person that produced uncleanness but what came out of them. Once again, I urge caution in the language because we are a society inclined to blame the person harmed. I have heard ludicrous arguments out of courtrooms suggesting that children as young as four years old "enticed" and participated in their own violation. The other extreme this leads to is that deplored by St. Augustine. Speaking in The City of God about some virgins who had committed suicide rather than suffer defilement, Augustine noted that there was nothing saintly about this action, that the preservation of virginity was not first and foremost a cause to be pursued above all others. (Note, this has nothing to do with the circumstances of Maria Goretti, who categorically DID NOT commit suicide--she was murdered). We mustn't conclude that the violation of these children corrupted or harmed them in an irreparable spiritual way. They have no "spot on their souls" for what happened to them.

Once again, it may sound as though I'm taking Kairos to task over this--I wish to dispel that notion. I am simply using some of the things he wrote about as a springboard to addressing some of the thoughts people have about these issues. If one misreads Kairos's intentions, it would be very easy to fall back into a morality that imputes the stain of a crime to the victim, and I am absolutely certain that was not his intention. So, my apologies beforehand to Kairos for a more or less semantic assault. But my thanks also for allowing me to address issues that are left too often unnoticed.

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Intemperate Words


Intemperate Words
This blurb garnered from - Musings from Domenico Bettinelli is somewhat harsher than I would care to be. I should note that these words do not appear to be the views of Mr. Bettinelli.

More from the current issue of National Review:

p. 12 Some idiot who thought he was a composer copyrighted a "musical piece" in 1952 called "4:33" that consisted of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence.

While I am no fan of the "music" of John Cage, I would hardly typify the man an "idiot." I disagree with his views on music. I dislike the vast majority of his opus. I detest his effect on much of the music that came after him. But I would see him as a wrong-headed individual who did some interesting experimentation. Most of his "music" was actually a nihilistic statement on the arts, and the arts suffered for it. I would expect, in fact, that his pointed attacks on the arts were the result of a keen, if philosophically misguided, intelligence.

But surely we can avoid the epithets and ad hominem attacks even as we excoriate the supposed art. I know, the point of the article is not art criticism. Nevertheless, intemperate language such as this example leads to people branding conservative views on a variety of issues as "intolerant," "grating," and "inhumane."

It must be possible to object to the art without denigrating the person who made it. After all, like it or not, that person is an image of Christ.

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Male Genius?


Male Genius?

I loved this post from Video meliora, partially because it gives me legitimate cause to mention Camille Paglia in a Catholic venue. (Unfortunately direct link isn't working, so you'll have to scroll down.)

Point 2: Genius as Masculine IQ tests have shown men to have a more extreme range of intelligence (or lack thereof) than women. The bell curve seems to include lots more points to the right side (i.e. geniuses) and more points to the left (dunces). And although women have not had nearly the opportunities men have in the arts, still the Joyces, Shakespeares, Dantes, Beethovens, Bachs are nearly universally male.

In Sexual Personae Ms. Paglia made a very similar argument, which, unjustly, earned her the ire of most of the feminist world. She referred to it, if I remember correctly as the Apollonian direction of the male. She seemed to imply that women held the real power--power of procreation, which was sufficient. I paraphrase here, but the ultimate conclusion was something like: "If women had been left on their own, they would still be living in grass houses." Now, she goes on to modify her point, but she essentially notes that men seem to be driven (largely as mating display and sexual impulse) to tremendous acts of creativity and destruction. To counter the genius, Ms. Paglia points out that the vast majority of serial killers, and nearly all war and incidents of mass destruction are also the property of males.

While most moments of genius appear to belong to men, feminist critics would (I think mostly rightly) attribute that to the fact that men actually had the leisure to create. (They wouldn't phrase it that way--there would probably be a great deal of bubbling diatribe about the Patriarchal Oppression). But genius is, in part, a function of leisure. To support such a claim, I would mention lady Murasaki's epic "Tale of Genji" is still regarded as one of the great novels of Japan and of Asian in general. It is, in its own way, a construction of genius by a court lady--a woman with time on her hands. Now, this is isolated and anecdotal, but it does suggest that if such leisure and education had been the universal norm in the west, we would probably see more works of genius from women. For a further discussion of this, see Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas. (For that matter, see Virginia's Woolf's oeuvre, a vastly underrated, but I think highly influential body of work, only recently really brought to light. I see much more of The Waves in such proponents of stream-of-consciousness as William Faulkner than I do Ulysses).

(Let's face it, Ulysses was a one-off even for Joyce. From that point he moved into the realm of ultimate esoterica and inaccessibility--the strangely delightful and playful Finnegan's Wake. Well worth perusal in the presence of an accomplished guide. I believe Burgess produced A Shorter Finnegan's Wake and someone produced a guide called A Skeleton Key to Finnegan's Wake. Then again, you might just content yourself with Philip Jose Farmer's playful riff "Winnegan's Fake." Not particularly up to his progenitor, but amusing nonetheless. Sorry for the digression, but recently have read too many who have not been able to scale the mountain, and while I'm not quite certain if it is truly worth scaling, it has provided an infinity of fun.)

Anyway--fascinating thread of discussion. I love literature, and I love particularly the qualities of literature that reflect the creator in the created. Works well constructed offer Glory to God whether or not their authors so intend.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Critiques & Controversies category from August 2002.

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