A Culture is Only as Good as its Ideas

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I’ve been reading Christianity Versus Fatalistic Religions in the War Against Poverty by Udo Middelmann, president of the Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation. In this book he tells how he visited an East African village and observed two very different ways of living.

His first stop was a mission station, a small hospital run by a Dutch doctor. He observed that three steel tanks had been set up to collect rainwater from an aqueduct that was served by water coming off the mountain during the rainy season. Twice a year more than 450,000 gallons of water were collected and sufficiently served the needs of the hospital during the dry seasons.

The village itself was another story.

The principal of the school there explained that many of the people and animals migrated from the area every year during the dry seasons, and his attendance whittled down each time from 450 to less than 100 children. He told them no one in the village had tapped the rock for water because they saw this as being a purely Western way of living and this was not the way they had chosen to live.

Nature, which they held sacred, dictated their lives to them and they rejected ingenuity that used the forces of nature rather than bowing to them on the basis that it was simply too “Western.”

Their fatalistic ideas of nature and the gods forced them into unnecessary hardship.

Cultures are developed on shared worldviews, and worldviews are built on collections of individual ideas. Today we hear that we ought to celebrate all cultures, for they are all equal. There is nothing objectively better about one versus another; their differences are something to embrace rather than examine.

One should not question the “noble native” who engaged in cannibalism, nor the Aztecs who practiced human sacrifice, ripping their victims’ hearts out while they were still alive. Nor should one criticize the practice of pre-colonized India of burning the wife of the deceased along with her dead husband.

Comparisons of different perspectives on morality to see if some practices and beliefs lead to objectively better outcomes in society should not be made.

Oh no. Any attempts to examine and compare would be decried and branded cultural chauvinism.

This is the equivalent of saying that no idea is better than any other idea. Absurd.

Contrary to relativism’s assertions, we can measure ideas by the results they produce, and we have a moral responsibility to do so, and to reject those which are evil and embrace those which are good. People suffer—both spiritually and physically—because of bad ideas.

India has a high rate of poverty, and hunger and starvation is an ever-looming possibility for millions of people while cows freely wander their streets, because of their idea that these beasts should be revered and protected. These sacred cows cannot be touched—in more than one manner of speaking.

Concerning the people in East Africa in the area that Middelmann visited he wrote,

“Their culture was fundamentally suffering from a poverty of ideas. This resulted in a poverty of personality that, in turn, had consequences in their economic and social life. They had their religion, but reality was not allowed to challenge it. They were rich in a faith that made them poor in reason, personal honesty, and moral quality. They saw the light but were afraid to walk in it. They were prisoners of their inhuman religions, their indigenous habits, and their traditions.” (p. 37)

Ideas are not the exclusive property of any one culture, nor do they “belong” to people of any one color. To the degree that any culture embraces a good idea it will prosper, and to the degree it accepts a bad idea it will suffer. Truth is. It may be discovered, then lost, then rediscovered by men and nations, but it doesn’t change. Ideas based on truth will carry objectively better outcomes when implemented.

The historian Tom Holland, who has denied the very existence of God, yet wrote a book in praise and defense of Christianity titled, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Made the World. As he studied the evil of ancient cultures he realized that it was Christianity and the ideas it had given man which elevated humanity. Jonathan Van Maren at The Stream described the book as “one of the most ambitious historical defenses of Christianity in a long time.”

The gospel offers hope. It changes our thinking—about both this life and the one to come. As we seek to have compassion on those in spiritual and material need around us, let’s consider this thought by Udo Middelmann:

“The specifically Christian component about biblical compassion toward those in need…requires careful analysis of those religious, intellectual, social, political, and cultural ideas that war against the human being…Faulty and inhuman views with such extensive consequences need to be corrected, refuted, and unmasked.” (pp. 37-38)

In the classic movie Ben-Hur, one of the Roman military leaders voices his frustration over the Jews and their hope in a Messiah to Messala and exclaims in exasperation, “How do you fight an idea?”

To which the scheming Messala responds, “With another idea.”

Ideas turn people into bondage and darkness, or they set them free into the light. We live and die by ideas. A culture is only as good as those it holds.

Tabitha Alloway

Tabitha Alloway is a wife and homeschooling mother of three who enjoys reading, writing, and exchanging ideas with fellow believers.

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