"Elements of Culture"

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The Essential Elements of Culture

Joel Dubois, (c) 2009, 2013-14—for free, fully cited distribution only

II. The Dynamic, Unseen Element of Culture: Belief & Reflection

When inquiring about other cultures, people today often ask, "what do they believe?" By this people usually mean, "what invisible beings and forces do individuals in those cultures assume are influencing their lives, moment by moment?" For most cultures this includes faith in divine and other invisible beings listening to people's prayers and responding to them; such belief also includes trusting that spiritual forces ensure that certain kinds of actions are rewarded and others punished after death. Yet even apart from religious ideas, people also assume the existence of more abstract entities, such as nature and the many invisible elements of which things and people are composed. They also sense and talk about forces that influence what goes on in nature. These forces include both outer events and the psychological currents that shape personalities. Words like "truth," "fate" and "luck" hint at such forces.

Asking about such beliefs is key to understanding other cultures, and it makes sense to think of belief as the first of three "dimensions," or "layers," of culture. At the same time, such questioning can be misleading if it assumes that beliefs can always be explicitly articulated, and that they are consistently held within a given cultural group. Most people associate the term "belief" with static declarations to which particular groups uniformly adhere, and about which authoritative sources can easily inform us. There are two problems with such a view of belief:

(A) First, if we consider our own beliefs honestly we notice that much of what we believe, we don't really think about explicitly. I believe that the earth existed before I was born, and that when I sit down on my office chair each morning it will support my weight. But I never thought to state those beliefs until I read a philosophical analysis of belief that suggested those examples. When I begin to think about it there are many other beliefs I hold without thinking about them, which I can bring into my awareness during moments of reflection, but which for the most part manifest only in the way that I act.

Such examples may sound trivial; but there are also more significant beliefs that people realize and articulate only if and when when explicitly asked to do so. Many believe that everyone has the right a free trial. Yet most people probably do not think much about that right unless they are asked about it by a judge preparing them to participate in such a trial. Similarly, many throughout the world believe that they will somehow experience the consequences of both good and bad actions sometime in the future. Yet most might forget, or even never realize, that they hold such a belief until someone asks about their religious convictions. Likewise, we will see in this course that even for many religious people, belief in vividly described divine beings such as Jesus, Krishna or Lao Tzu exists unconsciously most of the time, brought to the foreground of awareness only occasionally during communal rituals.

(B) The second problem with assuming that belief can be easily identified is that people tend to develop their most significant beliefs over time; they then continually adjust and revise those beliefs, rather than adhering to them uniformly in a static way. Looking at daily experience makes this clear. Trust in observable things like people, animals, organizations, and even objects develops gradually through a series of interactions that lead us to believe that such people, animals, etc. will behave consistently in a supportive way towards us.

Likewise, people increase their trust in invisible beings and forces over time, after reasoning based on daily experience that such invisible beings and forces are available to them, either offering support or giving rise to adverse affects. Observing and reflecting on her actions through prayer and scriptural reading, a Christian comes to trust that the force of sin influences everyone and that the divine power of Jesus Christ can redeem her from all sin. As glimpsed in the first unit of the course, a similar process takes place among Vaishnavite Hindus who reflect on the teachings of Krishna. In addition, the religious layperson's understanding of these divine beings might also vary considerably from what experts formally say about them, giving rise to additional variations in the belief of a group.

Even with regards to non-religious viewpoints, belief evolves and fluctuates over time. A person engaged in gardening, for example, develops a sense of trust in the elements of nature, gradually developing and refining a belief in nature's power and a sense of invisible forces of fate and luck; later on in the course we will see that many East Asian artists and writers manifest this kind of belief. While the views of certain authoritative writers may be most visible to those of us who study their writings, the variation in beliefs among non-specialist gardeners is likely to result in a far greater diversity of secular beliefs about nature than may at first appear.

Unfortunately, unexamined use of the term "belief" lulls people's minds into forgetting about the dynamic nature of belief just noted. Therefore, as you study the Asian cultures surveyed in this course, I urge you to draw on the more dynamic substitutes for the word "belief" that I have suggested above--especially "reflection," but also "awareness" and "trust." These words heighten curiosity about the often unconscious and continually fluctuating nature of belief. (Note that I refer to people's "awareness" of divine, supernatural or other spiritual beings and forces without taking any stand on whether such invisible beings and forces are real or not.)

Using such fresh language to describe belief will help you to avoid worn out phrases like "so and so never lost his faith," "the Chinese exhibit a strong belief in the afterlife," or "Americans believe that material possessions bring happiness." Such superficial stereotypes flatten the dynamic experience of reflection and trust-building that is otherwise evident in the sources we will examine. Drawing on the new terminology suggested above will thus sharpen your analyses of sources you view and read.

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