Introducing the Pain-Pleasure Worldview

At St Andrew’s Hall, we train future missionaries to understand and engage cultural worldviews with the gospel. Perhaps the broadest categorisation used by missiologists and anthropologists is to divide human cultures into three predominant worldviews: guilt-innocence, shame-honour and fear-power. Ruth Benedict is credited as the first anthropologist to distinguish guilt-innocence and shame-honour cultures.

Three ways to view the world

Using this distinction as a starting point, those of us who teach “Culture 101” explain that there are three main ways to view the world and make decisions. You can live in a world that is controlled by the spirits, where you try to gain power in the face of fear. You can live in a world that is controlled by community expectation, where you try to gain honour and avoid shame; or you can live in a world that is controlled by individual conscience, where you try to maintain innocence and avoid guilt.

We then make the following generalisations: that animistic cultures are controlled by fear and power; that most Arab and Asian cultures are governed by shame and honour. And traditionally we have said that Western cultures – Australia, England, and the United States – are guilt-innocence cultures. Guilt-innocence cultures make their decisions based on whether things are right or wrong. Right and wrong are defined by an external code or set of rules. At one level, right and wrong are defined by the rule of law whether secular or religious. At another level, right and wrong are defined by social norms and expectations.

The shift from guilt-innocence to pain-pleasure

This is the world in which Anglo-Australians grew up during the 1940s and 1950s. But I don’t think this is the world we inhabit today. Guilt-innocence is eroding as the worldview of western culture.

One place where that is evident is in the world of politics. In a guilt-innocence culture, it ought to matter a great deal when politicians tell blatant lies. Political parties used to lose elections because they had reneged on their election promises. But in 2017, nobody expected Donald Trump to keep his election promises. Trump is a post-truth politician. “Post-truth” was the word of the year in 2016. It is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Trump knows that objective facts are less influential than appeals to emotion and personal belief. His tweets are aimed at connecting emotionally with how a disenfranchised part of the American electorate are feeling.

Guilt-innocence is eroding as the worldview of western culture. I think we are moving from being a guilt-innocence culture to becoming a pain-pleasure culture.

So I want to suggest that we are seeing the demise of guilt-innocence as the dominant worldview in Western cultures. I suggest that guilt-innocence is a fading paradigm. I think we are moving from being a guilt-innocence culture to becoming a pain-pleasure culture.

Of course, the language of pain and pleasure is nothing new. The pleasure principle is a cornerstone of Freudian psychology. Freud argued that human beings have always been driven by an instinctive desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain. And of course, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain is the hallmark of hedonism. What I’m suggesting is that pain-pleasure is becoming the western worldview. It is the basis on which our culture is making decisions.

The “inner voice” of culture

A while ago at our church, one of our pastors was talking about how your conscience speaks into your life. He talked about an inner voice. And he called his inner voice his “inner lawyer”. If you come from a culture where right and wrong, guilt and innocence, are important, then your inner voice is an inner lawyer. And the inner lawyer says to you, “Don’t do that, it’s wrong. You’ll get caught.”

People from other cultures don’t have an inner lawyer. Their inner voice is different. If you come from a shame-honour culture you don’t have an inner lawyer. You have an inner grandmother. And your inner grandmother says, “Oh, the shame of it! I’ll never be able to look her in the face again!” If you come from a fear-power culture, you don’t have an inner lawyer or an inner grandmother. You have an inner demon. Your inner demon says, “Fear me or I’ll get you.”

So what about my pain-pleasure culture? What voice, for example, do millennials have speaking inside their heads? Not an inner lawyer, not an inner grandmother. I think the inner voice of the millennial is an inner therapist. And what does the inner therapist say? “Go for it, you’re worth it, it feels good.”

In a pain-pleasure worldview, you make decisions based on what feels good to you and what makes you happy. Your identity is as a pleasure seeker and a pain avoider.

That’s my introduction to the pain-pleasure worldview. In the next article, we will think about how the pain-pleasure worldview attacks Christian faith.


 Photo: unsplash.com

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