EthnocentrismQUESTION: Ethnocentrism and cultural relativism – is there a biblical alternative to these two extremes?
Ethnocentrism is the view that one particular ethnic group is somehow superior to all others. The word ethnocentrism derives from the Greek word ethnos, meaning “nation” or “people,” and the English word center. A common idiom for ethnocentrism is “tunnel vision.” In this context, ethnocentrism is the view that a particular ethnic group’s system of beliefs and values is morally superior to all others.
Cultural relativism is the view that individual beliefs and values systems are culturally relative. That is, no one ethnic group has the right to say that their particular system of beliefs and values, their worldview, is in any way superior to anyone else’s system of beliefs and values. What’s right for one culture might be wrong for another and that’s alright. There is no absolute standard of right and wrong by which to compare and contrast morally contradictory cultural values.
Ethnocentrism and cultural relativism are mutually exclusive. They are two extremes on the opposite sides of a philosophical spectrum. Is there a biblical alternative to these two extremes? There is. There is a third extreme. Theocentrism is the view that God is superior to everyone else. The word theocentrism derives from the Greek word theos, meaning “God” or “gods,” and the English word center. In this context, theocentrism refers to the view that God’s system of beliefs and values is morally superior to all others. It is perfect. It’s the absolute standard by which we are to judge everyone else’s system of beliefs and values.
Theocentrism is similar to ethnocentrism in that it posits the existence of an absolute value system. In this way, theocentrism contradicts cultural relativism in that cultural relativism denies an absolute standard. Theocentrism is not however entirely compatible with ethnocentrism in that theocentrism is God centered rather than man centered.
How does this translate practically? The implications are that whenever it can be determined convincingly that God has spoken on matters of faith and values (how He feels about murder or stealing, for example) His view is to be accepted and adopted regardless of any controversy surrounding the subject matter. (In this case, murder and stealing are wrong). Wherever God has remained silent a matter or has given man freedom to decide for himself (which is the case for most cultural preferences), we are to decide for ourselves what we prefer. We cannot however justly prejudice ourselves against those who disagree with us because God has not given us a standard by which we are to judge who’s right or wrong. In these instances, we are to be tolerant towards those who hold contradictory views. In this way, theocentrism is different from both ethnocentrism and cultural relativism.