Metaculture - Meaning Development
Because we are Human Beings...
Meaning Development; Meaning Metaculture
Published in The Coracle, Iona Community, 3:2, 1989, pp. 13-14.
the past year a number of us engaged In ‘development’ work in Britain and
the Third World have been reflecting on the relationship this has to culture. We
have been asking how far the global crisis is not essentially economic or
technical, but cultural and spiritual. We have observed that while some types of
development are empowering for the poor, much is disempowering. Accordingly,
through forums such as that provided by Scottish Churches Action for World
Development we have been challenging the ‘myth of development’ by looking at
our own culture and by sharing, rediscovering and exploring alternative values.
of us who have worked abroad are familiar with the typical cultural training
often given to ensure that development is brought about with due sensitivity.
What we have tended not to question in the past is the extent to which much of
what passes as development is in fact an insidious hegemony of Euro-American
monoculture. By harnessing time and turning people’s labour and nature’s
gifts into commodities which can be bought and sold, this ‘enterprise
culture’ can disempower and breaks up the structures which previously gave
meaning to peoples’ lives.
It is not surprising that even culture itself has been uprooted and
turned into a commodity which those who can afford it feed upon. Thus we speak
of ‘culture vultures’ — a phrase which, being suggestive of carion, is
unwittingly appropriate wherever culture is thought of predominantly as being
music and art from the past.
However, a browse through the dictionary reveals that such an
understanding of culture is just one of several definitions. For example,
Collins Concise English Dictionary lists
as only the fourth of its definitions of culture, ‘the artistic and social
pursuits, expressions and tastes valued by a society or class’. The first is,
‘the total of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values and knowledge which
constitute the shared basis of social action’. The 1983 Vancouver Assembly of
the World Council of Churches perceptively refines this in stating that,
‘culture is what holds a Community together, giving a common framework of
Culture – the Ground of Our Being
These definitions are radically removed from the narrow view of culture
as the blossoming of a civilisation. Culture, in the deepest sense of the word,
is not a flower; it is not even the roots. Rather it has something to do with
the ground of our being; with that which brings meaningfulness into life.
In Gyn-Ecology, an angry but
insightful critique of patriarchal culture, Mary Daly calls for the recognition
of ‘metaethics’ as a way of living by which women might better learn to
experience their common identity with one another and the ‘Background’
spiritual tapestry. It is regretful that she seems to exclude men from this
unity, but her concept of metaethics as a deeper, intuitive type of ethics, is a
I think a similar refinement could helpfully be made between the term
‘culture’ in its less weighty usage and ‘metaculture’ —‘meta’,
meaning to transcend or go beyond. ‘Metaculture’, I would define as being
the transcultural foundation of culture: that which gives meaning not just
because we have a particular language, customs, art, religion and metaphysic,
but, simply yet profoundly because we are human beings. Like islands in
the sea, one culture may appear unconnected to another when viewed superficially
across the water. But in reality they are one at foundation level — through
the rock; the metaculture.
– Through the Rock
I remember a tangible experience of metaculture. I was sitting in our
house in Port Moresby one afternoon, the air space invaded by the disco beat of
a ghetto-blaster belonging to the local gang of ‘rascals’, as young
housebreakers, rapists and muggers were euphemistically called. This was
underside urban, dispossessed, jobless, culturally invaded and communally dead
Papua New Guinea: the effect of disempowering development; what Alvin Toffler
called ‘future shock’, where change has come faster than a culture can
I tried to close my ears. But later in the afternoon a stirring
recognition caused me to start listening intently. What was this? Celtic music
on a par with Clannad or Stivell? The swell of the Hebridean seas of my
childhood while out fishing with old Finlay Montgomery? I left the house, walked
up the street and asked if I might sit down and listen to their music with them.
The album was put together at the National Arts School and happened to
be the current ‘number one’ in the nation’s charts. ‘Tumbuna’, were a
folk/rock group who use western and traditional instruments to, ‘apply
exciting new arrangements to traditional songs of Papua New Guinea’. The track
that first caught my attention was called Sarule.
The theme derived from New Ireland Province — a coral encrusted crescent
of rainforest surrounded by the Pacific Ocean. Yet, this music spoke the same
cultural language as would be appropriate to those seaweed encrusted moorlands
of the Atlantic Ocean —the Celtic fringe, with not New, but old Ireland at its
This was a visible face of metaculture. One might recognise it too in
such ethnic music as the pan pipes of the Andes, the freedom songs of southern
Africa and the ragas of India. Indeed, much of what we consider to be
contemporary western music is in fact cultural synthesis. As Michael Ventura has
documented in tracing certain western music to that post-slavery amalgam of
African spirituality — Voodoo:
of them — the many Africans who created Voodoo . . . would have their revenge.
Jazz and rock n’roll would evolve from Voodoo, carrying within them the
metaphysical antidote that would aid many a 20th Century westerner from both the
ravages of the mind/body split codified by Christianism, and the onslaught of
technology. The 20th Century would dance as no other had, and, through that
dance, secrets would be passed. First, North America, then the whole world,
would —like the old blues says — ‘hear that long snake moan.’ (Whole Earth Review, 54/55, 1987).
art in the Hallstatt and more especially, the highly ornate La Tene style.
similarly illustrates a universal symbolism consistent with what Carl Jung has
written about in his cross-cultural research into mandalas. From an Eastern
perspective, the Buddhist scholar, Ananda Coomara Swami, has remarked in
correspondence with George Bain (1951) on how Celtic and Sanskritic art alike
demonstrate the eternal principle of: ‘continuity’.
The same can. be said of the art of many tribal peoples, though not of most of
our society’s ‘modern art’.
Where the Spirit Dances
then, is much more than merely our customs, ways of doing things and the arts.
It is nothing less than the level of being where the Spirit dances with the
lifeblood of creation. Feeling this IS solidarity; communion; rootedness;
deepest love. As Lao Tzu said in the 4th Century BC:
nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth;
named was the mother of the myriad creatures.
It is because it lays claim to no merit
That its merit never deserts it.
... The myriad creatures all rise together
And I watch their return.
Returning to one’s roots is known as stillness.
is what is meant by returning to one’s destiny.
Te Ching, Penguin trans.)
does this metacultural understanding inform our notion of development? In the
past we have tended to separate ‘development’ as in human potential or
spirituality from development’ as in satisfying basic and not-so-basic needs.
This dualism must be ended. As development workers (which we can all be), our
first task must be to understand healing and the restoration of meaningfulness
to life. Only by recognising where we and our culture are wounded can we start
reaching towards true development’s goal; that of whole people in a whole
Jung, probably the greatest 20th Century healer of the psyche lucidly perceived
‘modern man’s search for a soul’ as the greatest challenge of our time.
Laurens Van der Post writes:
Rediscovery as Persons
at what has been done to cultures worldwide and to the ecosystem we may feel
paralysed by guilt and grief, yet there are wise thinkers around who can help us
find new ways forward. For instance, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo
Freire writes of the damage done to the poor by cultural invasion. He suggests
that the purpose of education is conscientisation so that those who are
bound to the oppressed circumstances of their lives can rediscover themselves as
persons, capable of transforming reality through their creative labour. He calls
for ‘cultural revolution’ via ‘cultural synthesis’, in which those from
‘another world’ do not come to the world of the people as invaders, but come
to learn and share and love.
comments from Brazil in 1972 seem particularly pertinent to the cultural,
constitutional and developmental situation in Northern Britain today. Yet
acceptance of what this kind of solidarity really means is not always easy.
Particularly as we are on spiritual ground, some Christians might take issue if
called upon to consider Christ inclusively rather than in the traditional
exclusive manner of spiritual monopoly. The Native American Chief Seattle is
amongst those who have expressed the hope that more Christians would come to
terms with the validity of other spiritual paths. His plea is as pertinent to
today’s pharisees, Christian and otherwise, as it was in 1854:
Alastair McIntosh, a Quaker, is business advisor to the lona
Community and co-director of the UK Foundation for the Peoples of the South
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