Culture and thought

Lately I have been thinking a lot about culture and how our cultural upbringing dominates our interpretations of very basic things. Where this interests me most is in how it affects our understanding of spirituality and our relationship to the world of the unseen and to God.

One historical figure who keenly appreciated this was Socrates. As the story goes, one day a person went to visit the oracle at Delphi. He asked the oracle if there was any man in the world wiser than Socrates (who was probably well known for his witty discussion and his humor by that time). The oracle responded, “No”. So the man went to Socrates and told him what the oracle had said, at which Socrates was shocked. How could it be me? he thought. To test the truth of the oracle’s pronouncement he went around asking people difficult questions about profound topics, to see if their answers were better than his, or if he really was the wisest man alive.

This caused Socrates, for example, to go up to a lawyer and ask him, “What is justice?”, or ask teachers what knowledge was, or the philosophers of the time (the sophists) what wisdom was. Each time they gave their answers, Socrates would consider it and probe its implications. Over the course of their discussion they would invariably be forced to refine their answers as Socrates found more and more cases where not only did they not apply, but they had contradicted themselves. Finally each person gave up in frustration, claiming that Socrates was merely playing with words, or tricking them into saying things they didn’t mean. “It’s obvious what Justice is and everyone knows it, there’s no reason to ask such questions!”, was a typical reply.

What Socrates discovered is that no one really knew what they were saying, they just repeated what everyone else had said about it. In the end, he decided that what the oracle really meant when she claimed him to be the wisest man is that no one was truly wise, and only in recognizing this could wisdom begin. Everything the people held as obvious and true about life was based on a set of cultural assumptions that most people left unquestioned. Rarely did Socrates present his own definition of things (though he does try to define justice in his best known work, “The Republic”); instead, he wanted people to own up to the fact that no one knew what life was about, and that by assuming they did they prevented themselves from ever approaching wisdom. Such an approach came to define the Socratic method, and today people still use his form of argumentation to peel away layers of assumption and gain insight into the foundations of what we claim to know.

His success as an individual failed socially, however, because the elders of Athens did not like the way he encouraged the youth to question tradition and the canons of social opinion on subjects such as truth, virtue and knowledge. People favored the public definition of these things because they fostered social stability, whereas he began a movement which very much destabilized what others had long regarded as sacrosanct. For this they condemned him to death; and believing in justice as greatly as he did, he complied with the judgment and administered their poison himself.

What was then true of society remains so today. We are brought up with basic notions of life, existence and truth which many claim to be self-evident but few can define. I have witnessed people bring God Himself to task based on such empty ideas – when in fact their disagreement really boils down to, “Things aren’t going the way I want them to”. Take for example the laws of God, which are clear enough, but are constantly redefined to be “inapplicable” if they disagree with a person’s desires.

Because these basic concepts remain unexamined, they can sometimes take on the role of mystical symbols which shy from definition. I have seen people on television claim unbelievable things in the name of “God’s will”, or “justice”, or “destiny”, as if the power of these words themselves requires no further understanding. In fact, conversation about their real meanings is avoided, and why? Would it lessen the magic hold of “God’s will” has over people, if they thought it meant illumining the world with the spirit of His love by way of action and example? A far less versatile buzzword that would be!

How much does our package of cultural assumptions affect the way we see the world and experience of God and spirituality? Is our understanding of these terms really an understanding, or more an inchoate “sense” passed down to us by family and friends? Might the real truth be so foreign to us that – as people throughout time have always done – we would reject the very Prophets of God Themselves should They arrive on our doorstep and proclaim loudly the answer to our hopes?

What is this “sense” of truth we hold to so dearly that it provokes such virulent debates, yet likely blinds us from the beauty and simplicity of Truth itself? I have known too many people whose joy was ruined by the demands of religion, whereas in His Own Book I find such declarations as these:

Were men to discover the motivating purpose of God’s Revelation, they would assuredly cast away their fears, and, with hearts filled with gratitude, rejoice with exceeding gladness.

My counsels and admonitions have compassed the world. Yet, instead of imparting joy and gladness they have caused grief…

It behoveth them that are endued with insight and understanding to observe that which will cause joy and radiance.

In further entries I would like to examine this effect of our culture further, because it appears to condition our attitude toward some of the things that matter most. My entry next week will look at “competition” in society, and how much it determines our views on the next life.