Cultural Relativity and Seeing Christ in the Other; Van A. Reidhead, PhD

1. Cultural Relativity is a method that directs anthropologists to suspend judgment while investigating the beliefs and practices of peoples in other cultures. The assumption being, that base-line knowledge, as well as understanding, comes from assessing the other in light of her own environment and historical logic.

2. Cultural Relativism is the practice of this method.

I was raised in a small Mormon town in northeastern Utah. Ever since I started college, in far off southern Utah, and befriended a kid from Chicago, I have been a culturally challenged person. My formative adult years, from 17 to 50, were spent reconciling successive onslaughts of unavoidable oppositions in my life. At 17, how was I, a devout, and therefore celibate, Mormon youth, to sustain a friendship with an Irish Catholic Chicagoan, the only “foreigner” and the chief sexual activist on campus. How could I relate to Irish Chicago vs. the mass of Mormon youth, without choosing sides but also without loosing my own identity to the middle?

At 21, a missionary leader in Brazil, how could I reconcile the competitive sales strategy used to gain converts, with the radical communism I had been taught was the true order of God? Twenty-three years old, reading anthropological archaeology and studying Book of Mormon archaeology at BYU, was a fact-supported synthesis possible? One year later, 24, and a new graduate student majoring in archaeology with a bioanthropology minor at Indiana, I encountered the urgent business of emerging whole through the creation-evolution labyrinth. In that hall of smoke, genes, and mirrors, I devoted at least half-time my first year of graduate school coming to grips with the Mormon teaching on race. Each discovery doubled back on others, culture being the amazing marbled layer cake that it is.

The reconciliation of opposites was not always possible. From 17 until now, many choices were made. Despite good will, some conflicts cannot be ignored. Eventually, an anthropologist encounters the limitations of the open-mindedness of cultural relativism and begins to wonder how it really works.

In 1983 I read my first monastic literature, Thomas Merton’s Mystics and Zen Masters, a fascinating cross-cultural examination of contemplative mystical practices, where people work at the interface (reconciliation) between God (ultimate reality) and human. In 1984 I visited a Trappist monastery and met my first monk face to face. In 1990 I began looking for a monastery for ethnographic field work. By 1992 all requests had, politely, failed. In May I booked a flight to Utah to visit my octogenarian mother. I was aware of a Trappist monastery in Huntsville, possibly the quintessential Latter Day Saint town in late 20th century Mormon cosmology. I called the Abbot, explained my purpose and requested a conference.

In January, 1993, I entered Holy Trinity Abbey and did not leave the property for 30 days, the duration of an observership, the time when a would-be monk tries the community on for size, just as cloister life tests him for all to see.

The abbot assigned me to feed pregnant cows with one of the brothers and gave me a place in the choir beside a lean old rosy-cheeked brother who appeared taller than I, though he is actually a little shorter. The cow feeding brother took me, a total stranger with no pretense of becoming a monk, reluctantly, from obedience to the abbot. But I had been raised feeding cows and performing every kind of ranch job. A self-described introvert and loner, he started talking with me the first morning, as we brushed the snow from the pole fence, crawled into the stockyard, and set to work feeding bales of hay to hungry cows. We talked and laughed and shared many things non-stop for two weeks. After that the abbot granted me a fairly free reign in the enclosure, and my feeding companion prevailed on me to quit feeding cows, an all-day job in winter, so I could get acquainted with the other men, for the sake of my research. I consented, reluctantly, and he returned to silence. When I returned that spring he took me to visit the hermitage, where he goes overnight for recollection each month. When elections were held, in 1995, to choose a new abbot, he asked if I would feed cows so he could participate without them having to go hungry. As with the hermitage visit, he had secured the abbot’s consent before asking. Since then, we’ve spoken once or twice, though I have spent more than 100 days in the abbey.

On the same day that I started feeding cows, I took my place in choir. The brother who remains to this day my choir mate, greeted me with a toothy, glad smile — no obedience to the abbot required with this guy. He was glad to have me. He guided me gracefully, and in silence, as a Trappist can do, through the dozens of liturgical books, leaflets, and single sheets of paper required to participate in their daily, bi-weekly, and annual liturgical cycles.

One day after Sext, the middle prayer among the seven that make-up the daily Office of the Hours, I turned to him and whispered, “Will you teach me lectio divina?” Lectio, as monastics call it, is a kind of text-based contemplative prayer.

The next morning at 11:00 we met in the small chapel at the rear of the church. I was empty-handed, not wanting to scare him off with mixed messages about my intent to learn lectio. He carried a book by the late Karl Rahner, a Jesuit theologian who taught at the University of Innsbruck. On a piece of scrap paper he had written the word ANTHROPOLOGY vertically, in capital letters. In single words he had broken it down into its classical definition. But he had also written such words as GOD, CHRIST, EUCHARIST, and MAN. He intended to teach me the meaning of anthropology. I felt amused and amazed at the same time, and decided I would remain open.

Our formal meetings generally lasted exactly one hour. Occasional unplanned encounters, in the building where Monastery Fresh Eggs were inspected and packaged for commercial distribution, or in the tailor shop, for he worked both jobs, our discussions ran longer. Sometimes, on warm days when it was not too hot, we went for walks or met on the shaded lawn in front of the church. At rare times other lay people or a junior monk were with us. Our talks were intense, varied, but unswerving in their purpose, which was to come to a mutual understanding of the meaning of Anthropology and of Benedictine Christianity .

Slowly we became fast friends, as our discourse ranged across theology, scripture, the writings of the sitting Pope, life stories, but never a word of gossip, and the ever increasing vulnerability of mutual self-disclosure. There were regular disagreements over seemingly superficial but truly serious matters. He chided and cajoled me to forget about these prepared questions. “Get to the meat of the matter, brother!” Sometimes I got the Benedictine treatment, little notes left in my choir stall with sparely written fraternal corrections, intended to twist my thinking. I reminded him, a good Trappist imitation, firmly, unbending, that I too am under a vow of obedience to my university which had funded the research and to my professional, which held me to fairly standard research methods. Doggedly, but enjoying the hell out of each other, we persisted. I read the Pope’s “Encyclical on Evangelization,” snippets from Rahner, and a little of von Balthazar’s theology of anthropology. He talked about Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Muslims, Mormons, Atheists, Men, Women, universal discourse, mutual respect, the nature of man, the love of Christ, the fertility of self-sacrifice, immanence, transcendence, his monastic approach to sexuality, about brotherhood, sisterhood, and humanhood. I talked with him about anthropology; its assumptions, methods, and discoveries, ranging from paleoanthropology to humanistic anthropology. With a growing history together, we can now tap into our shared discourse at an infinite number of jump-off points.

At the end of December, 1996, I took two students with me to the monastery, one to do research on power and the other on health and aging. I asked my choir mate to help out, which he did with characteristic grace. Toward the end of their stay he pulled us into a side office in the Guest House, and once again we set to work, the two young people like the proverbial privileged flies on the wall. He had come across an article written by one of the Church’s envoys to an international women’s conference in Scandinavia, in which she spoke with clarity and urgency about the need for a non-judgmental, cross-cultural discourse on the pressing humanitarian and communication issues of our time. He, in his inimitable style, set the article inside a story that contextualized it by establishing mutually understood coordinates that cut through a large potential hubris, pointing excitedly at paragraphs and phrases in the text, which I read as I talked.

Five to ten minutes into the discussion, I don’t know, it was not tape recorded, he said, and I paraphrase, “Don’t you see brother. This is anthropology. It is all about seeing Christ in the Other.” The concept, “cultural relativism,” appeared in my mind, and I spoke the words out loud, “Cultural Relativism.” I started talking, explaining the concept of cultural relativity as also the practice of cultural relativism and seeing Christ in the other meant the same thing, in our discourse. When I had finished talking and stopped for his response, he bent before me, a modest, intentional Mother Theresa of Calcutta bow, and said, “Wow. ” It was in the first days of January, 1997, he was approaching his 80th birthday and me my 50th. We tried to talk a little, but we were eager to get away from each other. I needed time, and space to process, and for taking notes, a powerful tool for maintaining balance in the field. For the field is a place where cosmologies clash, mingle, separate, recombine, and synthesize — perilous stuff for a social scientist.

This past late December into January I returned and took up the question of the meaning of seeing Christ in the other with 6 more monks. I was familiar with the term and knew quite a bit about its practice, but had never addressed it systematically. Before even tentatively suggesting that I might be on the verge of extracting convergent concepts and practices from the murky waters of anthropology and religion, I wanted to make sure that I knew where my ducks were located on a scattergram. I asked each monk the question: What meaning does the phrase, “seeing Christ in the other,” have for you? Later questions, except for routine ones to verify its place in Benedictine monasticism, were adapted to their responses, to allow me to find out what the phrase means both conceptually and as a practice.

Five of the six monks said that it did have meaning to them, though each described it quite individually. The sixth monk said that he prefers the usage, “Christian Charity,” over “seeing Christ in the other,” though he acknowledged that the two are overlapping approaches to the same thing.

One of the five monks roots the concept in scripture and in very carefully defined and codified terms. His understanding is highly intellectualized and somewhat legal and his application designed to make communication possible. His is, in social science terms, a good case of applied theory. On a scale where the intellectual understanding and practice occupy the right and mystical and spiritualized occupy the left, I would rate him quite far to the right.

The second monk integrates Old and New Testament scripture with psychological theory in his interpretation and practice. He is very Old Testament law-like in an almost zero tolerance for intolerance approach to the issue. Christ leaves no alternative but to see Christ in the other, regardless of the objective evidence available to condemn the person, as we, left to our own nature would do. In real life this monk must apply the concept well, because he is a well-used confessor for many lay people, men and women alike, and is used for the same purpose by some of the monks. He is not as far right as the first monk.

The third monk used Mother Theresa as his model to explain the phrase and its meaning, and the Rule of St. Benedict to establish its precedent as a monastic imperative. He provided examples from daily monastic life to explain how the concept, when applied as a method, enables people who live in an enclosure, a delicately balanced form of community life, to make sense out of, and otherwise mediate, conflictual situations and issues. Of the 25 men in the community, he meets the vagaries of his life with greatest equanimity, if I can be judge. I rate him as having a well-developed synthesis of the spiritual, intellectual, and applied use of the concept, though I position him just a little to the intellectualized right on a sliding scale.

The fourth monk approaches it in a radical, almost pacifistic way. He uses the term “docile,” to describe the attitude and the requirements for action that a monk must take in avoiding judgment so as to meet people where they are. This way, he can serve others without condemnation, even when faced with someone whose attitudes and behaviors are in grave violation of his own sense of goodness. In leadership roles he is able to take stands, sometimes with determined commitment in the face of stiff opposition, with but rare appearance of emotional discomfort. He is a stalwart of the community, with a reputation for contemplative silence and evenness. I rate him a little past midway between the center and the spiritualized left.

The fifth monk is my choir mate, and I’ve already described him. He is described by the other men as a mystic. He is intellectual without intellectualizing. He seems, perhaps to keep himself above the fray and connects best with the bigger picture, not the small. He is called to see the Divine, the Image of God in the Other. When this happens, we become a sacrament to each other; we have the potential of becoming Eucharist to each other. He is far left on the spiritualized side of the scale.

The sixth monk, who is wary of using the phrase “seeing Christ in the other,” prefers the usage, “Christian Charity,” because he thinks it is too much of a practical stretch to see Christ in the other when you know what is going on. Nonetheless, a monk, as with any Christian, is under edict not to judge when it comes to a person’s salvation or any of the existential and eschatological issues related to it. This is a hard-nosed man who wears leadership well, though not without interior and interpersonal conflict. He is fearless in calling men to task, and until last summer I mistook his frank, often blunt, assessments as blanket condemnations of those who crossed him. In August of 1997, however, I had occasion to travel by automobile with him for 6 days, and from that intense interaction I learned that he has a remarkable and highly developed ability to harshly criticize specific behaviors without it spilling over to a judgment of motives, value, or a man’s contribution. He is the hardest one to position, and so I would tentatively place him dead center on the scale. He appears unspiritualized and unintellectualized equally, yet he applies the concept, by a different name, with a remarkable clarity. I am sure the ones he crosses do not immediately see it that way.

All six monks agree on one thing: a monk and a Christian must develop a discipline, call it a method, that sustains an openness in relations with other individuals and groups. This is rooted in the theory that judging the human value of others, no matter how different or strange, is beyond the ability of any human to assess. Judgment is God’s, and people condemn themselves and their endeavors when they do not learn to successfully apply this. As a theory, with predictive value, they are convinced of the tangible and spiritual benefits of the approach. There is, however, no expectation of agreement, no assumption that all beliefs and behaviors are of equal value, and there is the need to act and judge in temporal matters affecting community responsibilities and individual human rights. The applied concept of seeing Christ in the other, is a theoretical construct that predictably makes for the broadest possible inclusion of humankind within one single conceptual community. In practical matters it enables inclusion, whenever this is possible, but enables separation, when this is necessary, without condemnation at the level of a person’s human identity, value, or even the logic of their position. It is possible to misapply seeing Christ in the other, by taking it too literally, as if because a person always has value it follows that what he does always has value. This creates the same conundrum that Paul Schmidt identified in assessing the behavior of Nazis, in his 1955 selective critique and exoneration of cultural relativism, reprinted in Manners and Kaplan, 1968.

Cultural relativity, it seems to me, accomplishes much the same thing, with the same pitfalls. Cultural relativism and Benedictine Christianity may seem strange bedfellows, but the convergence seems clear. Even the benefits and variety of ways in applying the two seem to describe ourselves. If, anything, however, I wonder if anthropologists are not more prone, being a newer discipline than monasticism, to apply the concept uncritically and in the process to dehumanize the people we want to understand, humanize, and elevate. One of the monks [described] St. Bernard, the greatest Cistercian, for me. He said that the hagiography of the Saint made him superhuman and, thus, unreal and unhuman. It was, he said, Bernard’s humanity that made him great. To ignore his humanity, in all its smelly parts, is to dehumanize and, in the end, to make him uncredible.

Relativity, like Christ in the other, is the indispensable methodology of anthropology, we may agree. But it is also a core predictive theory. By applying it, we have learned seemingly unlearnable things about other people. When we apply it critically, and deeply, as many anthropologists do, and as some monks endeavor to do with their own concept, we may discover that we are talking the same language as other people, at some deep cultural level.

Is this a real convergence? If yes, are there others that converge with cultural relativism? If there are, what are they? Are they common across cultures? If so, how do they vary, and how are they symbolically expressed and nuanced? If they are not common, what does this mean? Of course, in my eagerness to understand monks and to find common ground for discourse and relationship, I may have missed the mark completely, in which case I want to know, so I seek your feedback.