Every year at the beginning of my Moral Theology class, I have my students (high school sophomores) read C. S. Lewis's "Illustrations of the Tao" (from The Abolition of Man).
By the "Tao" Lewis means the Moral Law, and he shows how its various precepts ("Do not Kill," "Do not Steal") are evident throughout history in cultures around the world. I begin the course in this way, because every year my students come in believing that moral judgments are merely opinions. Why? Because all they know is moral disagreement among cultures, not agreement. Even a superficial study of different peoples and times will, as a matter of course, show disagreement. But we emphasize this disagreement to the detriment of seeing larger truths based on our shared human nature.
Lewis shows this moral agreement over a range of moral imperatives. The Ten Commandments declares "You shall honor your father and mother." But one finds the same command in the moral codes of Ancient Egypt, American Indians and the Analects of Confucius. The Ten Commandments forbids lying, but so also does the morality of the Anglo-Saxons, the Babylonians and the Hindus. Indeed a country that tried to live out the very opposite of the Ten Commandments, e.g. "Kill! Steal! Lie!" is as difficult in theory as it is in practice.
To be sure, cultures do have disagreements about right and wrong, and one should not minimize them. There are significant differences for example between Christian and pagan morality, the former being a definitive advance over the latter. At the same time, as Lewis helpfully explains in Mere Christianity, "Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired. Men have differed as to whether you should have one wife or four. But they have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you liked."
This shared agreement is based on common goods that all peoples, individually and socially, are trying to achieve. The stability of marriage and family, the education of the young, the respect for authority, the punishment of wrongdoing, are common features of all cultures. All cultures, in their own way, promote courage, moderation, justice, and generosity. Without these goods, the results are disorder and inevitable collapse.
Lewis therefore helps provide a standard for the study of other cultures outside our own. Insofar as a "multicultural" reading list, whether through history or literature, helps the young see common features of human experience, and the moral law that helps us interpret that experience, it is an invaluable part of one's education. All too often, however, a "multicultural" curriculum is built on the explicit premise that all moral judgments are social fabrications, and that no set of virtues are necessary, no set of truths worth knowing.
In practice, such relativism does not maintain itself. A new set of "values" asserts itself implicitly, namely, that the "right" moral attitudes are produced by the intelligent compassionate liberal outlook of the modern age. Such values are of course arbitrary, but this gives no unease to educators who are convinced of their own decency and superiority. One sees this for example in the studies of "World History" where other cultures are always shown in a rosy light, cleansed of all sexism, racism, and sexual "hang-ups." By contrast, Western "Judeo-Christian" culture is shown as proud, repressed and cruel. Clearly, the moral framework that guides this historical narrative is not "relativism" whatever relativism is asserted at the beginning is only a means to inculcating new "values."
Lewis therefore helps provide a standard for the study of other cultures outside our own.
No culture on its own is the repository of all truth and goodness. Cultures have always learned from each other, and will continue to do so. At the same time, because we share the same human nature, and whatever progress we make collectively is made in light of the basic goods that perfect that nature. Hence, a "multi-cultural" approach cannot be an end in itself. As Mortimer Adler once quipped, "restaurants are multi-cultural, while hardware stores are transcultural." One could add that without the transcultural building supplies that hardware stores provide, no multicultural restaurant could exist. However important it might be to understand the multicultural differences among men, it is far more important to see the transcultural commonalities that unite them.
Arthur Hippler. "Multiculturalism in context." Newsletter of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education #14 (March, 2011).
Reprinted with permission of the author, Andrew Seeley, and the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education.
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Arthur Hippler teaches theology at Providence Academy in Plymouth, MN. He also serves on the advisory board of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education.Copyright © 2011 Institute for Catholic Liberal Education
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