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by Bernard T. Adeney
Strange Virtues: Ethics in a Multicultural World
Writings on culture and values usually seem to polarize between the ethical relativists and the moral absolutists. Writings from the perspective of anthropology, psychology, and sociology assume at least a methodological relativism. Sometimes they affirm absolute relativism, a contradiction in terms. . . . In contrast, studies in cross-cultural communication from the standpoint of missions often assume an ethical absolutism. Biblical values are absolute. At most they may need to be applied differently in different cultures.
A choice between relativism and absolutism is too extreme. As a Christian, I have no doubt that there are absolute values, but our understanding of them is always relative. "Now we see in a mirror, dimly. . . . Now I know only in part" (1 Cor. 13:12). Not only limitations of our cultural, social, and economic background, but also the presence of sin in our lives prevents us from absolute understanding of right and wrong. Inadequate or wrong theology may subvert our ethics. Lack of virtue in our practices undercuts our ability to understand truth. . . .
For those who work in a cross-cultural situation, the obvious existence of cultural values that differ from their own adds to the complexity. Cross-cultural experience dramatizes the fact that our own values are culturally conditioned. Nothing we believe is exempt from the influence of our race, class, age, and gender. Faith does not free us from culture, because culture is the environment in which what we believe takes shape. "There is no space which is not cultural space." Not only our personal practices but also our social institutions, our economic policies, and our political practices reflect and influence the beliefs of our culture.
-From Strange Virtues:
Ethics in a Multicultural World,
by Bernard T. Adeney (InterVarsity, 286 pp.; $19.99, paper).
Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS & CULTURE Review