Society And Culture
We all live within a society, and we all have a culture. These are a couple of the fundamental aspects of humanity's tendency to form groups—villages, cities, states, nations, even the entire world population. The rules of our particular society and culture—both written and unwritten—affect how we treat one another and how we relate to other societies and cultures. Where do these rules come from? Is there any basis for them?
Essentially, the rules in our society and culture come from how we view ourselves and our place in the grand scheme of things. Our worldview, to use a single word. It is our worldview which shapes our values, what we consider important and what we consider unimportant. The rules that we come up with, whether they are merely our unconscious attitudes toward ourselves and one another, or whether they are formally enacted laws, will reflect our attitudes about what is important and what is not. This is not something we consciously strive for. It is a natural result of human nature.
On this topical page, I will first present some of the essentials of society and culture, in as neutral a manner as possible. The idea here is to show how various beliefs and worldviews generally produce certain types of societies. Afterward, I will examine the issue using the Biblical point of view as a starting point in order to hypothesize what type of society could result if this worldview is adopted.
The main difference between law and custom is that the former is codified and enforceable by constituted authorities, whereas the latter is unwritten and (usually) not legally enforceable. Nevertheless, custom often has a stronger influence on behavior than law, because it is ingrained in our thinking processes from earliest childhood. In spite of this, codified law subject to legal enforcement is necessary for a society to function, given the human tendency toward selfish behavior. Because of this—with the exception of some small, primitive societies where custom literally has the force of law—all societies have codified law.
Exactly how that law is enacted depends on the culture and nature of a particular society. Given the diversity of cultures and worldviews, there are many different legal structures in which law is enacted and enforced. Some types of legal structures include:
In order for law to function in a society, the citizens must be aware of it and its requirements. Where there is literacy, law is normally written down and published for all members of the society to read and obey.
Also, in order for law to function, there must be enforcement. In most societies today, this involves separate police and court functions, although this has not always been the case historically. The basic job of police is to directly enforce law, investigate crime (instances of violation of law), apprehend those who violate law, and protect the rest of society from violators. Courts exist to weigh evidence—using the legal-historical method described on the parent page—decide innocence or guilt of those accused, and apply punishment to those found guilty.
Custom, on the other hand, does not require any codified structure in order to function. People learn the customs of their society beginning at a very young age, in a manner very similar to the way that they learn language. It is ingrained in their basic thinking, and generally informally enforced through methods such as guilt, shame and fear. Studies have shown that cultures can basically be divided into three classes, according to these three concepts of informal enforcement of custom.
These are some of the basic concepts of law and custom. Of course, there are many variations of these basic concepts, which depend on many factors. Much of both human happiness and misery come as a result of how law is applied in a given society.
In a sense, this topic belongs in the previous section on law. However, justice is really somewhat of a separate concept. Law is a code of what is accepted as right and what is defined as wrong within a given society. Justice, on the other hand, involves how the law is applied. Law is objective. Theoretically, justice should also be objective—which is why Lady Justice is often depicted as wearing a blindfold. However, human nature being what it is, justice often ends up being subjective.
When justice is subjective, this means that enforcement of law depends on the choices of the enforcer, and not merely upon what is written in the law books. This can have both positive and negative results. For example, if a juvenile offender is arrested for committing his first crime, and it becomes clear that he merely did something stupid and will probably not do it again, a judge will often be lenient and give the kid another chance. On the other hand, judges can allow their personal prejudices regarding race, national origin, or some other characteristic of the one on trial to cause them to give harsher penalties to certain individuals based solely on these personal characteristics, rather than the nature of the crime and the attitude of the defendant. Or they can allow a member of a “preferred” class to escape punishment if the victim of the crime was a member of another class.
How subjective justice in its various forms is viewed in a given society generally depends on the worldview of the members of that society. A worldview that includes compassion would applaud the judge who gives a kid who made a mistake a second chance. Likewise, a worldview that sees certain classes of people as being superior to others would look with approval upon a judge who ruled according to these class prejudices.
In some societies, subjective justice is used by the ruling class to help them maintain power. What determines prejudice against a particular defendant is not necessarily a personal characteristic such as race or gender, but political and social views. This type of subjective justice is most commonly found in authoritarian systems of law.
In its broadest sense, this concept determines how we view our fellow human beings. In turn, it is heavily influenced by our worldview. What are human beings? Is there anything special about human life as opposed to, say, squirrel life? And if we assign value to human life, where does that value come from? What is it based on? Does it apply to all human beings, or just those in certain categories, determined by such factors as race, gender, age, etc.? As you might guess, the answer to these questions is largely based on what we believe about where human beings originated.
Broadly speaking, there are two general categories of belief about human origins. Within each of these are many sub-categories, but the main categories are:
In general, belief systems based on random acts of nature do not recognize any type of absolute value for man or any other life, imposed by any external authority. This is not to say that these belief systems place no value on human life; rather they leave it up to man himself to decide what value to place on it. This usually leads to a wide range of values for human life, influenced by how individuals perceive man as fitting into the greater scheme of things.
Belief systems that include a creator tend to value human life according to whatever value they perceive the creator as having given to it. Since there are many different belief systems that fall in this category, with many different perceptions of the divine being, there is often a wide range of values placed on human life. In addition, many belief systems place certain races or national or religious groups above the rest of humanity, and as a result tend to value members of those races or groups above other human beings.
This topic covers a wide range of subtopics. Just about every interaction that a person can have with a fellow human being falls into this broad category. And whether public or private, a person's interaction with other people will be governed mainly by three factors: his view of the value of the other person, his knowledge of both the written and unwritten laws of his society, and his direct personal interest in the interaction. And of the three, it is the direct personal interest that primarily drives the interaction. The other two factors serve chiefly to limit the degree to which the person will act to place his own interests above the well being of the other.
Of course, not all human interactions involve one person wanting something from another. Many times, people interact out of simple friendship. Nevertheless, even friendships can be subject to the other factors. How much does a given person value his friends as people? When they hurt his feelings by some offense, either real or perceived, it is often the question of value that determines how a person will react. Even law can be involved, if an offended person places little or no intrinsic value on his friend and desires to harm them.
Aside from simple friendship—and when people encounter one another but do not interact, such as strangers on a city sidewalk—nearly all other human interactions involve at least one person wanting something from the other. It can be something as trivial as directions to the nearest bus stop, or something more, such as an item that the other person has. There are more possible combinations of things desired, degree of value assigned to the other person, and respect for any applicable law than I could conceivably cover here.
Human interactions affect every aspect of society. Family relationships. Commerce. Crime and punishment. Medical care. Sporting events. Traffic. Parties. Government. Education. The list goes on and on.
Our individual worldview determines how we view and value our fellow human beings. Societies are composed of collections of human beings, and the collective worldview of a society largely determines the kind of law, both written and unwritten, that it has. Other values—what we consider important, what we consider necessary, what we consider irrelevant—are also heavily influenced by our worldview, and drive our desires.
Worldview is a crucial factor affecting how we interact with one another, which in turn basically determines what kind of society we live in.
On the topical page about Evidence, I use legal-historical arguments to support the claim that Jesus Christ really did rise from the dead. The rest of this topical page will be based on that presumption, and will examine how a worldview derived from the Bible—the authority of which Jesus personally affirmed—would affect society and culture. I will begin by saying that in many ways this is an ideal case. Many people call themselves “Christian”, but do not follow the precepts of Scripture in their own lives. These can be “nominal Christians”, for whom Christianity is merely an aspect of culture, but not something that affects their daily lives. Or they could be believers who claim to follow the Word of God, but who allow other ideas that contradict Scripture to influence their thinking as well. Or they simply may be ignorant; they believe the Bible, but are unfamiliar with its actual teachings.
One of the most important concepts in any society is that of right and wrong. This lays the foundation for law, custom and justice, as well as strongly influencing how people interact with one another. Custom generally reflects what the people of the society as a whole internally believe to be right and wrong, and law and justice are based on taking those concepts and codifying them to help maintain order within that society.
According to the Biblical worldview, right and wrong are ultimately defined by God. It is the responsibility of those who follow this worldview to act as what Jesus called “salt and light”, influencing the society in which they live to model its behavior according to God's principles. While the Bible does not call for believers to create a theocracy, they are expected to encourage customs based on God's definition of right and wrong, and to influence the legal structure of their society to do the same with regard to enforceable, codified law.
Many of the Biblical principles of right and wrong are essentially understood as being universal, and are also found in nearly all worldviews throughout history. These are concepts such as “do not murder”, “do not steal”, “do not commit adultery” and other similar principles. Others are more controversial and are rejected by many non-Biblical worldviews. The Scriptural view is that it is not necessary that we understand why God declared something right or wrong; it is merely necessary to trust that He has a good reason for it, and obey.
When it comes to enforcing right and wrong in society, law and justice can only go so far. In the end, how we interact with one another is largely determined by what is in our hearts. If someone violates a law and is caught, justice will hopefully be done and an appropriate punishment meted out. However, the victim is still a victim. Many crimes cannot be undone; a murdered person, for example, remains dead. A rape victim cannot be “un-raped”. What motivates a man to respect his fellow human being?
A Biblical worldview places tremendous value on human life, because according to it, man was created in God's image, and because there is a part of each of us—the soul—that will live forever. Jesus pointed out that the second greatest commandment, after loving God, was to love one's neighbor as oneself. Later, he stated that the greatest expression of love that anyone can demonstrate is to give up one's life for another. Love focuses on the other person, placing concern for their well being above one's own personal interests and desires.
Selfish desire is the root of much of the evil in the world today. People want something and do not value others enough to control their urges. The kind of love that Jesus spoke of is a potent antidote to selfishness—if a person will internalize it and allow it to reshape his worldview. Again, we are all human, and even those who follow Christ still struggle with our tendency toward selfishness and evil (see the section on The Nature of Mankind in the topical page Beyond Death). Nevertheless, if applied, the concept of loving others—of respecting them and valuing them as human beings just as much as we value ourselves—has the potential to counteract much of this tendency.
If we love others and respect them as fellow human beings, then it follows that we will not want to harm them. We will not want to take what is theirs without their permission or just recompense. We will not cheat one another. We will not assault others just to satisfy our own pleasure. We will not deceive others for personal gain. And so forth. Again, these are ideals, and the degree to which a person expresses them in his life depends on the degree to which he has learned to love and truly internalized the concept into his worldview.
Much hate and violence in the world has its roots in revenge. In simple terms, revenge is “getting even” for some wrong done to a person, either real or perceived. Many primitive cultures in the world live a cycle of revenge, especially where killing is involved. With man's selfish nature, where does it end? When do people simply say “enough!” and stop the cycle of vengeance? Having a system of law and justice helps; victims are encouraged—required—to forego personal vengeance and allow the duly constituted authorities to deal with the infraction. But the internal problem of the heart attitude still remains, and especially in situations where infractions of law are not involved, the cycle of hate and vengeance often continues.
Jesus cut to the heart of the matter when he commanded his followers to forgive. Contrary to common misconceptions, forgiveness does not involve pretending that no wrong was done. The old cycle was: Wrong. Revenge. Counter-revenge. More counter-revenge… Yes, many times the cycle stopped with the first act of revenge, as the offending party would admit that the retaliation was justified. But human tendency is not to admit wrong, and to retaliate in turn. Jesus taught a new cycle: Wrong. Offended party goes to offender and states the offense. Offending party admits offense and asks for forgiveness. Offended party forgives (still recognizing that a wrong was committed, but choosing to “let it go”). Cycle ends.
Forgiveness is not easy! It goes directly against the natural selfish tendencies of human beings. But Jesus considered it vital, and made it a core part of his teaching, pointing out that our offenses against one another are miniscule in comparison with our offenses against God. But just as God's forgiveness of our sins removes the barriers between Him and us, so our forgiving one another puts an end to the cycle of hate and revenge that harms so many.
If forgiveness were a part of everyone's worldview in a given society, much motivation for crimes against others would be removed. The cycle of hate and revenge would end. Relationships would be restored. Again, this is an ideal, and again, the degree to which it is manifested depends upon the degree to which people have internalized the concept of forgiveness and made it a part of their worldview.
The key to all of the preceding principles is recognizing that their authority comes from God, and that He is supreme and has the right to set whatever standards He chooses. This is the core of the Biblical worldview. Many of the precepts in these principles are inherently contrary to human nature, and without motivation, very few will make any attempt to follow them. Recognizing God's authority is a powerful motivating factor. The Bible calls it “the fear of God”.
As I have written elsewhere (Evidence, Beyond Death), there are other reasons for accepting the Biblical worldview, reasons that are more important to any given individual than the need for a worldview with a positive effect on society. In fact, I do not encourage anyone to adopt the Biblical worldview simply in order to better contribute to their society. In effect, this is putting the cart before the horse. It is the fear of God inspired by a Biblical worldview that leads to the kind of values described above. Historically, when Christianity is reduced to something merely cultural, it loses its power to help overcome man's natural selfish tendencies, what the Bible describes as a “sin nature”. Instead, societies arise which claim the title of “Christian”, but instead of obeying Christ's teachings commit every evil known to man—often in the very name of Christ himself.
Remember that society is made up of individual people, just as our bodies are made up of individual cells. The type of influence that you have on your society depends on your ways of thinking about the world around you and the people that inhabit it. You are an individual.
What do you believe in?
Copyright © 2005-2020 William R. Penning. All rights reserved.