Cultural relativism is one of the many principles of the philosophy of ethics. Unlike most other theories, however, it has more anthropological significance than ethical.
How does cultural relativism influence society?
CULTURAL RELATIVISM IN ANTHROPOLOGY
Cultural relativism is a vital tool in anthropology. As such, it does not claim to define right or wrong behavior. Instead, it is a device used to investigate different cultures without making judgments about those cultures. Basically, it is a decision to understand an individual's behavior within the context of that individual's culture, instead of comparing it to another culture. For example, archaeologists analyze pottery in the context of the culture, instead of strictly comparing it to pottery of other areas. Language is investigated more carefully, taking into account sounds and inflections not native to the researcher. And behavior is compared to the culture and environment, showing how mores and taboos came to be without judging those ethics.
CULTURAL RELATIVISM IN ETHICS
In the world of ethics, cultural relativism falls under the auspices of ethical relativism. Ethical relativism says that there is no universal standard of morality. Cultural relativism as an ethical theory goes beyond anthropology and states definitively that an act is moral if it adheres to the culture of the acting agent. Rather than make a descriptive observation that agrarian tribes are more likely to be polygamous than hunting tribes, cultural relativism in ethics would say that if the culture of the hunting tribe is monogamous, then polygamy is immoral to members of that tribe.
CULTURAL RELATIVISM AND CHRISTIANITY
Cultural relativism is mildly biblical. The Gentile believers did not have to obey the same laws that the Jews did (Acts 15:24-29), although they were still required to be set-apart as God's people. But the worldview of cultural relativism has far-reaching effects on Christianity.
The most blatant is that anthropologists who strongly believe in cultural relativism insist it is immoral to attempt to proselytize someone out of their native religion. Granted, abuses abounded as European Christians colonized Africa, Australia, and the New World and forced Christianity on the natives. Secular scientists often see evangelism as disrespectful and even dangerous if it threatens the culture of a tribe or people-group.
One way Christian missionaries have responded to cultural relativism is through the "insider movement." Instead of forcing a distinctly European-style worship of Jesus, churches in predominantly non-Christian countries have a graduated mixture of Bible-based truths and cultural standards. So a believer in Saudi Arabia may still eat halal food and wear a headscarf because she believes it is right. In this, insiders follow 1 Corinthians 8:9 which admonishes mature believers to accept that younger Christ-followers may still be influenced by their culture.
An issue that believers in Western nations don't have to deal with but those in Africa and Asia may is the practice of polygamy. Polygamy is perfectly legal in many countries. But when a man with several wives becomes a Christian, he is often convicted that polygamy was not God's perfect plan for His followers. In this case, he is struggling with his own culture, and has difficult decisions to make.
A Christian can use cultural relativism in the work of Christ. It is good to be aware of local customs and to not flagrantly ignore others' standards of propriety. In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul said:
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
As long as local custom does not violate biblical standards, cultural respect can be an effective tool. This does not mean that cultural relativism is a valid ethical source. Mankind is fallen, and so are our cultures. General consensus does not dictate right and wrong. God instructed the Israelites to wipe out entire nations that valued their own culture over God's law. God is the origin of morality (Deuteronomy 12:28), and His Word is the standard by which we should live.
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