Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Culture vs. Morality

They say a picture tells a thousand words. Sometimes that’s true. But without context, our “truth” that we perceive may be quite off the mark. I recently sat through a workshop on teaching children about art. The presenter had us teachers in the role of the students. She presented photographs on the front screen by way of an LCD projector. We were told no background of the image and were asked to speculate as to what was happening in the scene. We were told, in essence, that there was no right answer; the truth was what we determined it to be. For approximately twenty minutes per picture we discussed, agreed, dissented, and added to what we thought each visual depicted. Now I’m all in favor of the art of prediction, making connections, and interpretation of art. My point was and still is that there was only one truth to each picture. At the conclusion of our discussion of each image, the presenter informed us of the circumstances for each visual. She in fact told us “the truth” after she previously proclaimed there was none.

So why am I making such a big deal about this? Why can’t I just let art be art? Because I’m making an analogy here. Bear with me. I’m constructing a distinction between cultural relativism and moral relativism. According to Wikipedia, “Cultural relativism is the principle that an individual human's beliefs and activities should be interpreted in terms of his or her own culture.” In contrast, moral relativism, as described by Gregory Koukl in Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air, “is a type of subjectivism. It holds that moral truths are preferences much like our taste in ice cream. The validity of these truths depends entirely on the one who says, “It’s true for me [the subject] if I believe it.”

The cultural relativist might judge graffiti, presuming it was done legally, as fine art because it gets to the core of the artist’s life experience. Referencing Koukl, the moral relativist conversely replied, “People should all be allowed to decide for themselves” when asked, “Do you believe there is any circumstance, in any culture, at any time in history, in which torturing babies just for pure pleasure could be justified? Is it objectively wrong, or is it just a matter of opinion?” UNbelieveable!

How one interprets art is far different than how one measures truth (remember, it was just an analogy). I would have been fine with the activity the presenter had us work through had she not told us there was no right answer. Had she prefaced the activity with questions such as, “How does this image make you feel?” “What do you think is happening in this scene?” I would have been content. Unfortunately, our society in large does not seem to distinguish between cultural and moral relativism. Thank God for His eternal truth!

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