How often do we hear, during discussions of operational procedures deemed suitable in certain contexts, a call for “best practice” to be pursued?
One hundred and five years ago, the Yale theologian, sociologist and economist William Graham Sumner wrote the classic Folkways, which provided food for thought not only for sociologists and anthropologists but for students of ethics.
In Folkways, Sumner propounded the celebrated theory of social relativism. It did not take too long before the claims of social relativism applied in the field of morals were shot down by rigorous reflection by several persons, notably German psychologist Karl Duncker. Yet there is something priceless about Sumner’s thesis that we dare not forget in the Church.
The truth is that, whereas many years ago persons representing imperial cultures simply announced to native peoples what they were to believe and how they were to act (after all, the speakers represented the civilizing powers), today the language has changed.
It no longer appears appropriate to reveal the nakedness of haughty cultural presumptions of superiority that issue in pronouncements on legitimate belief and appropriate methodology. Today, an apparently more defensible method must be employed.
It often exhibits the liberal use of the expression, “best practice” or “best practices.”
Especially when there appears an inversion in power relations, some people tend to dress their cultural prejudice in the language of best practice.
In some cases, the glad users of the expression are unaware of the fact that it can be interpreted as a modern robe for an ancient cultural superiority complex.
Every cultural tradition has its own best practices, but the practices deemed best in each tradition are not to be regarded as best for all traditions, unless the speaker assumes normative standing for his or her own tradition.
Proper Christian humility that affirms the reality of the incarnation in a variety of cultural settings and traditions leads us to be rather careful when we use the expression “best practice” – especially when we engage in discussions in global organisations.
We must remember that none of the contexts from which each of the participants come ought to claim to host what ought to be best practice for all cultures. Whatever we make of the works of William Graham Sumner, we do well to tread lightly when we – all of us – are tempted to trumpet with arrogance from our own peculiar cultural assumptions.
Furthermore, since best practice is related to the application of technique for the sake of desirable outcomes, we may wish to affirm that outcomes are not all that matters when we are dealing with Christian living.
Outcomes matter, but many people believe that God cares also about motives, means, and more. The language of best practice is not always useful!
– Neville Callam
General Secretary, Baptist World Alliance