Values and Culture

Does culture evolve? Or does it merely change? Culture is the organic matrix within which we make our choices and are in turn shaped by them. The culture of a particular society comprises the beliefs, knowledge, practices, and institutions that structure its life and are transmitted to its next generation. As important as values are, they are only part of the cultural whole.

Changing values drive cultural change; but just think about the relationship between these two dynamics. The benchmarks of a progressive values shift are increasing creative complexity, greater awareness of interdependence, and the further integration of ways of knowing. As these values evolve, what happens to the way people in a culture think and behave? 

My good friend Ron Miller once asked me, “How many people do you think lived through the Renaissance?” I’ve never forgotten his question. He wasn’t asking about population figures, but about the atmosphere of the time. How many people knew then that they were witnessing the rediscovery of the human being in relation to the world? How many knew that theirs was an age of revolution? How many woke each morning eager to find out what the next promising development might be or where the next challenge would arise? How many went about their daily tasks simply unaware of the new world taking shape around them? Who responded to new ideas and opportunities? Who exulted? Who simply denied the rich new  complexities of an age of change?

Who glimpsed the truth, but – frightened of its implications – lied?

The situation that confronts us today is similar in many ways. We live in an era in which evolving values are reshaping culture, yet we are often so preoccupied with simply “coping” that we overlook dramatic, positive changes. Instead, we fixate on the seemingly intractable problems that confront us and are drawn into the naysayers’ camp. And the naysayers simply deny.

To grasp what is changing for the better all around us, we need to focus on the relationship between changing values and evolving cultures. With this understanding, we’ll be better able to develop strategies for life in a renaissance that’s not always apparent.

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