Changing Culture: The Perils of Idealism

I am continuing to work through the book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davidson Hunter.

One the face of it, there is significant merit to the emphasis on ideas, the individual and to personal piety. Filtered through the legacy of German idealism, however, problems occur. The image this perspective offers is of culture, somehow, free-floating in the ether of consciousness. Change consciousness and one changes culture. But are ideas, values, and worldviews singularly important to cultural change? Is rational consistency the best way to resist worldviews different from one’s own and the most effective way to persuade others?

Idealism misconstrues agency, implying the capacity to bring about influence where that capacity may not exist or where it may only be weak. Idealism underplays the importance of history and historical forces and its interaction with culture as it is lived and experienced. In addition, idealism ignores the way culture is generated, coordinated, and organized. Therefore, it underrates how difficult it is to penetrate culture and influence its direction. As well, idealism mistakenly imputes a logic and rationality to culture where such linearity and reasonableness does not exist but rather contingency and accident. It communicates the message that if people just pay attention, learn better, be more consistent, they will understand better the challenges in our world today. If they have the right values, believe the right things, embrace the right worldview, they will be better equipped to engage those challenges. If they have the courage to actually jump in the fray and there choose more wisely and act more decisively, they will rise to and overcome those challenges and change the world.

There is a great irony in this perspective. One the of the great virtues of the worldview approach to culture is its rejection of dualism – the division between secular and sacred, public and private, objective and subjective; the idea that the truth of Christianity is really only religious truth, relevant to one’s personal life but mostly irrelevant to other spheres of life. But here is the irony: the idealism expressed in the worldview approach is, in fact, one manifestation of the very dualism its proponents are trying to challenge. Idealism reinforces that dualism by ignoring the institutional nature of culture and disregarding the way culture is embedded in structures of power.

In sum, idealism leads to a naive perspective about the nature of culture and its dynamics that is fatal. Every strategy and tactic for changing the world that is based on this working theory of culture and cultural change will fail.

To be serious about changing culture, the first step is to discard the prevailing view of culture and cultural change and start from scratch.

David has been a systems thinker most of his life. He has started three businesses as well as designed and developed systems and processes in existing organizations. He has a Doctorate in Leadership and has also done additional post-graduate work in communications.

He has also pastored 3 churches and loves to think about, write about and podcast about scripture, theology, and leadership.

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1 comment
  • David,
    A commenter on my blog sent me over here, since we’re both working through Hunter’s book. Glad to see your insights; I’ll try to check back to see your further analysis.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

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