Culture at the Core


© 2015 Robert Osburn

Drill into the bedrock that undergirds the Wilberforce Academy and you will discover several fundamental propositions, among them this: Culture is the main force that drives human affairs, in particular the affairs of nations.  To make the point negatively (while also setting myself apart from the large majority of scholars), politics and/or economics are not the main driving forces in human affairs.

Before making my argument, I must join the thousands who spill enormous amounts of real or virtual ink in order to define the slippery term culture. In an earlier blog I suggested, “culture is everything that humans do when we combine God-given rationality and creativity with the structures and elements that God built into creation.”   For a more traditional definition: Culture encompasses symbols, institutions, authorities, practices, and assumptions by which human societies define themselves and their place in the cosmos. 

The definitions multiply, but what is indisputable is that at the very heart of culture is worship.  The root behind the word is the Latin term cultus, which refers to that which is worshipped.  All cultures, in some way or another, are shaped by worldviews that inspire great allegiance, claim to accurately define reality (at least in a given locale), and foster ways of living.   

My point is this: People die for their societies because their societies are defined by cultures whose core is profoundly transcendent and, thus, a place of deep devotion. Politics and economics, by contrast, rarely appeal to more than forms of self or group interest.   If culture is the main augur behind society, then reshaping political and economic realities is much easier than reshaping cultures. We fight for what inspires us, whether God, Buddha, Allah, or some other great or grand reality, and only reluctantly embrace new forms of transcendence that inspire our devotion.

To this point that culture is really about what we worship, mainstream scholars reply: Fine, but you folks who insist that culture is the driving force in human affairs forget that politics and economics do matter. You folks who look for only one explanation don’t realize that life is much more complex.

And to this concern I simply respond: Yes, reality is complex, and to claim that culture is the primary driving force is not to say that it is the only force in human affairs.  The pursuit of power, such as in present-day, Syria, or in any number of strife-ridden nations around the word, undeniably changes life for millions.  The hunger for wealth is a massive force, but, at the end of the day, neither economics nor politics is able to reshape cultures with the same intensity that cultures shape them.  Cultural realities are enduring, whereas politics and economics are often passing and ephemeral.  Russia, whether under communism or today’s oligarchy, is still the same recognizable society because its Orthodox culture is the subterranean footage that runs beneath it. (For those who want a glaring portrait of that culture, I recommend the 2014 film Leviathan.) Japanese politics were radically reshaped in the wake of its World War II loss, but, to this day, it is a recognizably Shintoistic society.  Culture endures; political economics pass away like flowers.

At the Wilberforce Academy, we work to help our students recognize this central truth about culture, one that a few secularists like the late Lawrence Harrison promoted in books like Culture Matters (2000)Besides what we believe to be the empirical evidence for the argument that culture drives politics and economics, another reason that we hold to the primacy of culture is because this view best accords with a Christian worldview where God is ultimate, and sin, which deeply impacts our thinking, is our greatest problem.  In other words, the human problem is, at its very core, spiritual.  By contrast, the majority of social scientists who believe that politics and the pursuit of power are central do so because of their postmodern worldviews. Others make economics central to human affairs because of their naturalistic worldviews.  And, let’s face it, political and economic parameters are easily the subject of empirical testing, whereas testing cultural parameters demands greater effort.

If culture is the golden lever that changes societies, then our students have a life’s work ahead of them.  Their task, which means changing what their societies worship, is ultimately the work of cultural transformation.  And, for that great work for which we seek to provide them the best available and most Christ-honoring tools, they have the living God to sustain and to inspire them.