Relative Relativism


Consider this story,

“An American missionary couple went to British Columbia to minister among the Kwakiutl Indians. The work was not progressing as rapidly as the couple had hoped, and the village chief was not cooperative. When their first child, a handsome son, was born, they named him after the chief, thinking this would flatter him and gain his cooperation.
Much to their surprise, when they announced the baby’s name, the Indians branded them as thieves and forced them to leave the village. The couple did not know, until too late, that the Kwakiutl Indians consider a person’s name private property. It is one of their most prized possessions. No one takes another’s name unless it is willed to him.”

         -From “Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective, 2nd edition” by Stephen Grunlan and Marvin Mayers, p. 251.

The authors used this example to address the question Biblical Authority versus Cultural Relativism. The figure above shows how I would like to think of it. If two ideals are Bible as authority and Culture as authority (strange attractors if one wants to pull a bit of Chaos Theory into it– certainly missions has elements of chaos, as well as “strangeness”).

One ideal would be Cultural Relativism (Red region). With this, culture is the authority, the canon for ethics, thought, and behavior, while the Bible is not deemed important.The other ideal is Biblical Authority (sky blue color, I guess). The Bible is canon– the standard by which ethics, thought, and behavior are judged.

But there are overlaps. I would argue that the full overlap of the ideals doesn’t actually happen. If one is authoritative, then the other is not. But when one recognizes there there are intermediate positions where culture is important, and that the same could be said regarding the Bible, then other positions can be found.

I will ignore the brown region where both Bible and Culture are important, but neither are authoritative. That is not to say that it is an uncommon view… but I want to consider positions of authority.

The Orange Region might be described as Uncritical Contextualization (as coined by Paul Hiebert). The Bible is important… but not authoritative. The culture is deemed authoritative, and missionaries would seek to find the Biblical goodness and divinity within the culture.

The Periwinkle Region (I don’t know the exact name… blue/purple/gray region) could be described as Critical Contextualization (by Paul Hiebert) or Relativized Relativism by Eugene Nida. In other words, the culture provides a relativizing of ethics, but such relativizing is not absolute, it in turn is relativized to the Bible as authority.

Nida stated in his book “Customs and Cultures” (1954), page 52:

While the Koran attempts to fix for all time the behavior of Muslims, the Bible clearly establishes the principle of relative relativism, which permits growth, adaptation, and freedom, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The Bible presents realistically the facts of culture and the plan of God.   … The Christian position is not one of static conformance to dead rules, but of dynamic obedience to a living God.

This does not solve all concerns. One could argue that it makes it even more confusing. Take the example at the start of this post of the missionaries charged with stealing a name. Did they violate cultural standards? Yes, their behavior was taboo. Did they sin? Ahhh… that is a tougher one. They “stole” a name. But in most cultures, one’s name is public domain. So if one takes the Bible as authoritative, one might argue that the couple did indeed sin because they were found to have stolen something owned by another. On the other hand, another person who holds the Bible as authoritative may decide that there was no sin, since in the Bible, a person’s name is public domain. Since one cannot “own” one’s name, it can’t be stolen.

I would argue that a theft did occur… and therefore a sin, even if only done in ignorance. In fact, in many cultures, one can own/patent an idea, trademark a logo or motto, register an incorporated name, and copyright a creative work. The idea of stealing a non-tangible property is well supported in many cultures. But even if it wasn’t, the Bible says that one should not steal– wrongfully take for oneself what is someone else’s. But the Bible gives NO EXHAUSTIVE LIST of what things one can own to define when theft occurs. As such, it seems likely that the culture is important in determining when stealing occurs. But culture should not be authoritative (trustworthy standard) when it comes to stealing (one must relativize the relativism). One can imagine some cultural situations where one might find reason to question their views on property and, thus, stealing.

  • If a culture defines certain people as property of another human being, should liberation of those enslaved be viewed as stealing (a sinful violation of God’s view regarding theft)?
  • If a society takes possessions from another society or a segment within that society and declares that a certain group, we might define as oppressors, now owns them, and any correction of such injustice would be viewed as stealing.

 The Bible needs to be the standard, without making ancient Hebrew or early Greek the real authority. These are challenging and point to relative relativism, or critical contextualization needed to determine the will of God in a new, or old, culture.

Another way of showing a similar thing is the one Marvin Mayers used in the same book as the story at the start of this post (but on page 256). The labels and focus are a bit different, but the end result is the same— Biblical absolutism (canon/authority) and Cultural relativism (importance but second to the Bible).

relativism 2



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