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 Metaculture - Meaning Development

Because we are Human Beings...

Meaning Development; Meaning Metaculture


Alastair McIntosh


Published in The Coracle, Iona Community, 3:2, 1989, pp. 13-14.



Over 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.


Those 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 meaning’.


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 valuable one.


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.


One – 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 absorb.


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 heart.


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:


All 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).


Celtic 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


Metaculture, 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:

The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth;

The named was the mother of the myriad creatures.
The myriad creatures rise from it yet it claims no authority;
It gives them life yet claims no possession;
It benefits them yet exacts no gratitude;
It accomplishes its task yet lays claim to no merit;

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.

This is what is meant by returning to one’s destiny.


(Tao Te Ching, Penguin trans.)


How 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 world.

Cart 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:

It was precisely because of this denial of the Archetypal aspect and its supreme value of love [in the power-obsessed world of Rome] that Jung saw the history of the world as such a cataclysmic wasteland. It was this denial that made modern man increasingly sick in mind and spirit, so great was the loss of sense of direction which resulted from this rejection. It was the equivalent of what my African countiymen. . . call the ‘loss of soul’. This they fear and abhor as the greatest disaster that can befall any human being.... The soul of man, after all. . . was naturally religious. . . . Clearly it gave man a hunger greater than any physical hunger. And if this hunger were not nourished, men and their societies either withered, or perished in some disaster unconsciously brought down on themselves.’ Wherever Jung looked, he saw a world increasingly sick because of loss of soul deprived of its meaning. ‘Meaninglessness’ was the greatest disease of his day, as it is of ours. (Jung and the Story of our Time, 1976)


Rediscovery as Persons


Looking 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.

Such 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:

One thing we know, which the white man may one day discover — our God is the same God. You may think now that you own him as you wish to own our land, but you cannot. He is the God of Man, and his compassion is equal for the red man and the white.

Seattle went on to apologise, “I am a savage and I do not understand any other way’. The term, ‘savage’, derives from the Latin, ‘silvaticus’ — belonging to the woods. Increasingly the world’s life support systems are being threatened by cutting down the woods for ‘development’. But the societies living in what’s left are being looked at afresh to see what can be learnt about happiness and sustainability. How ironic. What an upside-down Kingdom. Not just African music but the philosophy of savages is coming home to roost.


Alastair McIntosh, a Quaker, is business advisor to the lona Community and co-director of the UK Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific.





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