On the Corner

Culture and values

by Robert Docter –
Culture and values
A few weeks ago in an On the Corner column titled “A Transparent Culture” I wrote the following paragraph:

Culture develops along with an unwritten series of norms. They are not orders and regulations, codes or rules. They’re not statutes within thick law books. They are more implied than explicit, more inferred than
concrete, more sensed than understood. These norms emerge from values, attitudes and beliefs of the people and become the accepted and acceptable ways of
behaving in a particular group, organization or society.

Without awareness of the values guiding the norms that dictate behavior, we lose the segment of the system that makes the behavior both rational and emotional. We become only legalistic—totally committed to a rule-based life that can easily ignore or minimize certain essential values.

There’s a little expression in value theory that says “values are caught, not bought.” The contagion of the value is transmitted within a family very early within the life of a child. When caregivers consistently model certain ways of behaving the child experiences the behavior, selects inputs on the basis of pleasant and unpleasant sensations from it that then generate certain feelings and thoughts with some level of meaning and seeks to emulate it. With increasing maturity the level of complexity of the value orientation of the child changes, and in adolescence they choose altogether different caregivers.

It’s possible (maybe probable) that the model has little awareness of this transaction. We are, therefore, often spreading a value “virus” in ignorance of its consequences.

We go through life ignoring our values. We have little awareness of them and find ourselves unable to mention very many of them. When someone mentions a particular value, however, we immediately claim it as well. When I ask students or grandchildren to identify their values too often they wonder what I’m talking about.

We achieve the acquisition of values developmentally as we are able to interpret our choices with greater complexity. I believe changes throughout human history indicate the development of the human species itself along this same pathway. Early tribal behavior seems based on power even more than rules. With the Ten Commandments, God gave Israel a set of specific rules to live by. With the development of the later books of the Pentateuch, Israel refined the 10 rules and broadened them to include many more specific situations. Jesus, speaking directly for God, came not to abandon the guidance of human conduct by rules, but instead, to fulfill them through the development of general principles of conduct around values like love and justice. Humanity has had problems using these general principles. Most, it seems, feel much more comfortable with a legalistic approach of specific rules. Nevertheless, this is the way God wants to work and we had all better find ways to get our minds and hearts around his principles.

How are we exposed to these values?

I have mentioned above one point of view—that they come from our experience; that we own what we are taught and that the content of this teaching has been passed from generation to generation. Others might emphasize religion as the fundamental root of our values.

Some might suggest that there exists in humans a very basic set of values shared within every culture, available to all and demonstrated by many. Some see values as beliefs, others say ideals initiate them while some say they are those behaviors identified as desirable. Others simply equate values with attitudes—a predisposition to behave in a particular manner according to the circumstances present.

To tell the truth, we don’t have much more than theories about the source of values. Different theorists have different definitions. Many have developed long lists of values—some with well over 500 value statements. Most of the lists contain single word descriptors. In and of themselves, values cannot be identified with positive or negative attributes although many of them are seen that way by most major cultures of the world.

Brian Edgar, director of Evangelistic Alliance, has developed a list of eight Christian values. They include grace, hope, faith, love, justice, joy, service, and peace. He seems to place these in an order of his perception of importance.

We could argue about that point. I would put justice at the top of the list. Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg wrote: “Justice is not a rule or a set of rules; it is a moral principle—a mode of choosing which is universal. There are exceptions to rules but not to moral principles.” He says that “the core of justice is the distribution of rights and duties regulated by equality and reciprocity.”

This raises the entire question of the relationship between morality and values. Morality has to do with “the generally accepted standards of goodness or rightness in conduct or character” (Webster). I equate values with moral principles.

The critical issue pertains to our awareness of the values or moral principles that we use to guide our choices in life. Without this awareness we are swayed by the exigencies of a given moment or the pressures exerted within a particular environment.

As Christians and Salvationists, we model the teachings of Christ in our daily living. An old expression, “your action speaks so loud, I can’t hear what you are saying” reminds us that action living is testimony to the experience that transforms us. The reality is that we must value justice and exercise moral principles.

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