Sunday, August 23, 2009

Caritas in veritate: On Cultural Eclecticism


In section 26 of Caritas in veritate, Benedict XVI describes two dangers facing the modern world, modes of thinking which "separat[e] culture from human nature." The second of these is fairly straightforward: "Cultural leveling, [the] indiscriminate acceptance of types of conduct and life-styles." We all see this, probably every day. In a world of cultural leveling, Benedict writes, "one loses sight of the profound significance of the culture of different nations, of the traditions of the various peoples, by which the individual defines himself in relation to life's fundamental questions."

But the second danger against which he warns is more subtle: "cultural eclecticism, [by which] cultures are simply placed alongside one another and viewed as substantially equivalent and interchangeable." I must confess, this is the danger by which I am more tempted. (As you may have noticed, my interests include pow-wowing with Afghans, praising obscure African peoples and observing esoteric regions of post-Soviet republics.)

Following Paul VI's Populorum progressio, one of Benedict's major themes throughout Caritas in veritate is the importance of integral human development: the economic, political, educational, social and spiritual must all go together. Likewise, I think cultures are unitary things as well. The philosophy or world-view of a people does not simply exist alongside their literature and political institutions, but infuses them; moreover, ideas may exist in their most pristine form in treatises and high culture, but they are usually transmitted through earthy rituals and low culture. Though Benedict does not elaborate to this degree, I think one of the potential pitfalls of cultural eclecticism is that cultures are often broken into pieces which are then viewed as interchangeable, when in fact they usually are not. This phenomenon can be seen in the cultured agnostic who attends a high liturgy and is overwhelmed by the ceremony of it all, but misses that which the believer considers most important. Likewise, the same phenomenon is at play when a certain economic model which works well in one culture is exported to another culture, often with disastrous results for families or traditional ways of life.

Benedict warns that cultural eclecticism "easily yields to a relativism that does not serve true intercultural dialogue; on the social plane, cultural relativism has the effect that cultural groups coexist side by side, but remain separate, with no authentic dialogue and therefore no true integration." Superficial cultural dialogue says, "I eat X for breakfast; you eat Y? How interesting..." But more profound cultural dialogue considers the way in which various elements of a culture interact with one another and the functions they fulfill in society. True cultural dialogue must consider cultures as a whole and ask about their end. Put another way, authentic cultural dialogue must look beyond the mere elements of a culture and even beyond culture itself, to that outside culture, the philosophic and theological truths it supports.

But relativism says that there is no truth, or at least that all claims to the truth are equal. Thus, relativism stymies authentic cultural dialogue by preventing any consideration of what cultures really mean or the ends which they truly serve. Coupled with cultural eclecticism, the result of such relativism can be that the bits and bobs of different cultures are generously intermixed, but to no meaningful end.


Many of the pictures used on this blog are uncopyrighted or just too plain boring to credit. But oceanic's Flickr account deserves a shout-out for this great find.
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