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Christian History Home > News > 2005 > Grateful to the Dead: The Diary of Christian History Professor

Grateful to the Dead: The Diary of Christian History Professor
#3: Sharing Stories from the Heart
Chris Armstrong | posted 8/08/2008 12:33PM

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By definition, I suppose, every time and place in history is unique and unrepeatable. There's no denying that "the times they are a-changin'," or that people in one place create a different sort of culture than people in another place. Rather, the question is, Do all people share something that it was once fashionable to call "human nature"—some common baseline of humanity that allows us to communicate helpfully to each other across times and cultures?

We can find at least two grounds for answering this question "Yes." The first is theological, and the second social-scientific.

The theological reason is easily stated: the early chapters of the book of Genesis insist that all of us are created in God's image. Inasmuch, then, as we share God's image—whatever part of our being we think that image consists in (and that certainly has been a point of theological controversy!)—we also partake together of a common "human nature."

The social-scientific reason I want to approach by posing a common-sense question to the postmodern culture-theorists: What about the inner experiences and emotions of people? Surely these are not so culturally conditioned as our ideas or our practices? Surely we can find in our emotional experiences clues to some sort of "human nature," which will open the way for us to learn from each other at a deep level because we share a common emotional make-up?

The committed postmodernist would answer like this: Even our emotions, which we are so used to thinking of as pure, unconditioned experiences, are entirely constructed according to scripts learned from our formative cultural group. In other words—and I have seen this seriously argued in a piece of anthropological scholarship—a Malaysian, or French Canadian, or Mexican woman who has lost a child would not know how to experience grief without having a shared script for "grief" that she has internalized growing up. She would have learned how to experience grief by observing others' behavior, by receiving direct teaching, and by absorbing the very meanings of words in her language. According to this "strong constructionist" view, there really are no universally experienced human emotions. All emotions, like all ideas and practices, are socially constructed.

Within the past decade or so, a small group of social scientists have pioneered a new field, "emotions research." These folks have scoured the globe, seeking to understand what "emotion" means in different cultures, and how certain specific, named emotions differ or resonate from culture to culture.

Emotions research started off with the postmodern strong-constructionist assumption. But—and here comes our social-scientific reason for affirming something like "human nature"—more and more scholars in this field now say they have discovered certain clear, discrete "basic emotions" that show up repeatedly, across all human cultures. These basic emotions are closely tied to certain life experiences common to all human beings—like grief at the loss of a loved one, or protective love when one's children are threatened or vulnerable.

These non-strong-constructionist researchers have concluded that captionhough each culture does define and shape such basic emotions differently,* something universally human is at work in them. They are not wholly constructed within the framework of each culture.

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