Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Great Greeting Giver

For a period of time, I attended college in the Southern United States. Even though we share the same citizenship, it has some very different nuances in its culture. One of those was the open and friendly way in which people interacted with each other. Even strangers. Two illustrations of what I mean:

I am from the Midwest. We are in a hurry, avoid eye contact in crowds, and attempt to get from point A to Point B with as little inconvenience as possible. Including human interaction. I did not realize how ingrained my southern interaction had become until I came back to Michigan. I was walking through a local campus (summer courses) and as I saw people—anyone, really—I would wave; calling out a friendly greeting, “Hi, there!”

They started back at me; moving as quickly as possible away from the strange little person who dared say “Hi” and slow them on their way. I was shocked at how rude and impatient these “northerners” were. My inner-being had changed to the point it felt “wrong.” This was not how humans were to interact! Of course, I quickly re-assumed my Midwestern “values.”

The second instance was when I took my wife back to visit friends. I warned her things were just a little bit…different…than she was used to and moved at a distinct pace. “Oh, that is fine by me,” she said, “I think it will be nice to slow down and be friendlier.” She didn’t know what she was getting in to.

We bought some items at a store, and got in line at the cashier behind a person with only one or two items. Lucky, right? Er…no. The cashier and the buyer struck up a conversation. Now it was evident they didn’t know each other; but that wasn’t hindering the conversation a bit. They were more than willing to chat away. After about a minute I turned to my wife:

“Are you O.K?”
“This is fine. It’s kinda nice, actually.”

Another minute passed.

“How are you doing?”
“Do they always talk like this?”

Another long minute passed.

“You O.K.? You look a little…red.”
“Don’t they know people are trying to purchase things here? Don’t they know we have things to do?”

And another minute…

“Uh…maybe you should wait in the car…?”
[words chopped off with a snap of the teeth] “WHY. CAN’T. THEY. SHUT. UP?”

Even though we are but a 1000 miles apart in distance; the cultural divide may be far greater.

As humans we recognize the cultural and societal impact of greeting each other, and how that varies from place to place. In some parts of world, touching each other in greeting would be considered very rude. A bow is appropriate. Yet in others, a greeting may be on the other end of the spectrum, consisting of a firm hug and a kiss on each cheek.

We have quick handshakes, firm handshakes, handshakes that the more respected person must offer first, power handshakes and no handshakes. We have bear hugs and side hugs and one-armed hugs. We have kiss on the cheeks, kiss in the air near the cheek, one kiss, two kiss and three kiss greeting. Here are different forms of greeting from a few selected places.

We even indicate the depth of relationship by the amount of body we use: to a friend we use a whole arm (hug), to a stranger this is reduced to one hand (handshake) and by the time we reach an enemy, the only thing left in our greeting is one finger. In business gatherings we have one form of greeting; in doctor’s offices another. (Who shakes hands with a proctologist?)

We understand both the differences and the force of upbringing affecting how we view greetings. In fact, as cultures interact, they can even affect each other. Because of Japan’s interaction with Americans, the handshake has become more common, for example.

None of us is surprised at the differences of greeting. None of us is surprised that how we were raised causes us to feel some greetings are “right” and some feel “wrong.” If I met some of you in person and grabbed you in a great big hug—some would find this shocking, others would take little note. Why? Because of our relationship and our culture. On the other hand, if I were to bow and not offer a hand in a handshake—this, too, would seem stilted and odd.

Fine and dandy but…so what? Here is my question: Why is this any different than morality? In the same way greetings are determined by culture, time, locale and society—why can’t morality be determined the same way? The same way greetings modify upon meeting new cultures; morals can change.

At some point humans met each other. They learned there must be a way to indicate how this meeting was to progress. Were they to fight? To talk? To avoid each other? By creating simple forms of greeting, these questions were answered. How many fights start with, “Hi”? (Curiously, after all these years, we still haven’t figured out a way to end conversations. How many times, at parties or meetings, does an awkward silence eventually end with a muttered, “So..O.K., then…uh…see you later?”)

In the same way, humans recognized they had to interact with each other and began to institute morals within these interactions. If I could steal stuff from my neighbor’s cave, then they could steal stuff from my cave. Meaning I could never leave my cave to get more stuff. If I was burned with a stick, I didn’t like it. Presumably if I burned someone else with a stick; they would like it.

Yet somehow, in our discussions on God, theists are vastly impressed with the fact there are morals--that this proves there is a God; but are not equally impressed with the fact there are greetings. Look, if morals (which appear driven by society) imply there is a Great Moral Giver then greetings (which appear driven by society) imply there is a Great Greeting Giver.

What is the difference? When we point out the vastly different morals over locales and time (slavery, polygamy, divorce, euthanasia, abortion, etc.) what we are told is the point is not what the morals are—it is the fact there are morals.

All right. Then it is not important what the greetings are—it is the fact there are greetings. Thus proving the importance of greeting to this Great Greeting Giver. We can even continue this argument along similar lines; using it to demonstrate if morals must be absolute by their mere existence, then greetings must equally be absolute by their mere existence.

What does this mean for the Christian? According to 1 Cor. 16:20:

All the brethren greet you. Greet one another with a holy kiss.

If we have “absolute greetings”—it would seem the Christian God requires it be a kiss. Not a handshake. Not a bow. A kiss. (And not just “any” kiss mind you—but a “holy kiss.”)

Does this seem ridiculous? Isn’t Paul talking about a cultural norm? Well…wait a minute. Then we could equally claim the prohibition against homosexuality in Romans 1 was merely a “cultural norm.” and dismiss it as well. If greetings are relative to time and place—why can’t morals equally be relative to time and place?

What method does the Christian use to determine greetings are NOT absolute under their God, but Morals are? If the only proof for absolute morals is the claim “Well gee--everybody has morals” then I can claim “Well gee--everybody has a form of greeting” as well.

If you can see how greetings are derived from culture, develop over time, modify upon interaction with other cultures—can you see how morals will too?

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