Saturday, January 13, 2018

Culture quote of the Day: letting the encounter with the Other set us free

“The wisdom of the Desert Fathers includes the wisdom that the hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self – to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it.” – Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World (Chapter 6, “The Practice of Encountering Others”)

What does the author mean, that the other can “spring you from the prison of yourself”?

These words resonate with those of Fr. Richard Rohr, who says “It is always an encounter with otherness that changes me,” giving me “a reference point that relativizes all of my own.” “Without the other,” he continues, “we are all trapped in a perpetual hall of mirrors that only validates and deepens our limited and already existing worldviews.” And, “Until we have points of comparison, we don’t understand much. When we have those, we can relativize our private absolute center.” (Everything Belongs)

I think Rohr and Taylor are getting at the same reality – all of us naturally function / exist as the center of our own universe. We see things from our perspective, and the world simply is (to us) as we know it to be. On a group scale, we call this ethnocentrism (seeing the world from the center of my group).

It is encountering the “Other” that can free us from this “prison” of our self, of our perpetual hall of mirrors, where I only see what I see and assume the world is that way. It can do this work of setting us free “if we allow it.”

To return to a personal example – as I grew up Minnesotan Swedish Baptist, my understanding of being Christian was defined by and limited to an understanding of how we were Christian. I was unaware that there were different practices, perspectives, interpretations (of baptism, church life, lifestyle issues like drinking alcohol, etc.). All I could see was our way of being Christian, and was thus, “trapped in a perpetual hall of mirrors” (in “the prison of myself” / of our group), where I could only see ourselves, our ways. It was the encounter with other types of Christians, in University and in the Middle East, especially, that began to “awaken” (free) me, to show me more of the breadth of ways of being Christian, in doctrine, ways of reading and understanding the Bible, practices. This process “relativized my private absolute center,” putting my understanding of how to be Christian in relation to more of the fullness (through history and across the world) of how others were/are Christian.

At the time, the process felt challenging, unnerving, at times overwhelming, like things were unravelling, coming apart. Eventually it came to feel liberating and enriching. And this, I think, is why both Taylor and Rohr speak so highly of the value of encountering others.

To come back (as I always do!) to the Intercultural Development Continuum, this is what intercultural growth and development, i.e., the movement into the phases of Acceptance and Adaptation, is all about – growing in our ability to see ourselves in light of and in relation to different others. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

Can we be zealous for truth and open to the truth of others, at the same time? Further reflections by Rabbi Hanan

“So much human tension and conflict are bound up with what I often call the hubris of exclusivity. Too many of us are ensconced in our own truth, unable to tolerate any other view of reality, or morality, or justice. To give a real hearing to the other side feels traitorous as if we are turning our backs on the most basic principles of truth and decency. This polarization is tearing American society apart at the seam, and on my side of the ocean in Israel, it is contributing to the perpetuation of the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”


In this reflection my Orthodox Rabbi friend Hanan, living and writing in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, asks whether there is a way of looking at truth that might allow peaceful coexistence and a positive pluralism, rather than causing polarization and conflict.

Rabbi Hanan suggests that there is a way to pursue and understand truth that can encompass different perspectives, and (at least) enable those with different perspectives on what is true live together peacefully rather than fighting and polarizing.

He draws on the teachings of Rabbi Kook, a religious mystic, who suggests that God “is the master of all the different truths; He contains them all and combines them all,” and is “the kaleidoscope of the myriad partial and contradictory truths that make up reality.” He suggests that there is a “divine spark of light” in everything, and that “We must study and listen, collect, and absorb more and more approaches and understandings, as strange and offensive as they sometimes appear.” Not that everything must be accepted as true (he measures truth against the Torah), but “We must struggle with ourselves to always endeavor not to refute but to find some spark in all that we encounter that can enrich our ever-expanding purview of truth.” With this view, Rabbi Hanan advocates that

“we must go forth and listen and then listen again, not because the other might be right and we might be wrong, but rather because the other might be right just as we are right. We must know that when only we are right, we are certainly wrong. We must strive to hold this truth and that truth instead of this truth or that truth.  We must be zealous for the whole and not for any one part of it. That according to Rabbi Kook is the meaning of being zealous for God.”

This reflection demonstrates again, I think, a movement from an ethnocentric perspective of others (and what they believe to be true), to one which is more global or ethnorelative (seeing my perspectives in the context of the existence of other perspectives).

One of the broader questions which this suggests to me is, does a move toward accepting and adapting to different others (a move into a global or ethnorelative perspective), necessitate a move away from the idea of “truth” (or the pursuit of or holding to “truth”)?

Rabbi Hanan, following Rabbi Kook, suggests not. He does not suggest giving up the pursuit or valuing of “truth,” but rather, finding a different (non-ethnocentric, non-exclusive) way of seeing what I think (or “know”) to be true, in relation to what others (differently) see to be true.

This idea, that people have partial truths (“sparks” of truth), and that no one (but God) has all truth, or a full perspective on truth, is one way of approaching the pursuit of truth in light of the fact that there are in this world many different perspectives on truth.

It fits, too, with a perspective that we should differentiate between “truth” / reality as it exists, and our human perception of / understanding of / perspectives on truth. For us, as human beings, truth is mediated – through our senses, through our language, through our thought categories, through our cultural ways of looking at and defining the world, through our minds. A “modernist” (and ethnocentric) perspective on reality (truth) is that we simply “know” the truth; a “postmodern” (and global / ethnorelative) perspective on reality is that our knowledge of truth is mediated.

People of faith may be a bit unnerved by this perspective on truth/reality. But I return to the saying in 1 Corinthians 13, “we see through a glass darkly.” That realization reflects the intercultural trait of humility, and enables us (as does Rabbi Hanan’s approach) to be open to others, to what we might learn from them, and to the greater complexity we might gain in our view of reality and of truth. In other words, holding our understanding of truth more lightly has the benefit, beyond enabling us to live in peace with others, of expanding our understanding of truth.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Seeing through the eyes of the "Other" - a Jewish Rabbi on President Trump's Jerusalem declaration

In IDC (Intercultural Development Continuum) terms, intercultural growth involves moving from an ethnocentric way of relating to others (Denial – being basically unaware of difference, or Polarization – being pushed away by difference / pushing difference away, feeling threatened by it, negatively stereotyping, etc.), i.e., experiencing my own way of seeing things, my own value system, my own interpretations, etc., as the only real and true way of being human (corresponding, simply, to “how things really are”), to an ethnorelative or global perspective on others. As we move into Acceptance and Adaptation (in how we experience difference), we become open to difference, curious about it, respectful of it. We come to see things from the perspective of others, and to be able to appreciate those different perspectives, to see them as real; and to see those different others as equally (though differently) human.

A great example of this, I think, is reflected in the writings of Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, including this recent reflection on the declaration of intent of President Trump to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem - https://www.myjewishlearning.com/rabbis-without-borders/torn-between-a-particular-truth-and-a-mutual-peace/.

Rabbi Hanan demonstrates the intercultural (which you could also simply call human or interpersonal) skills of empathy, ability to see things from the perspective of the other – the ability to understand and reflect and even accept a different narrative of how things are.

Rabbi Hanan reflects a deeply held, deeply felt Jewish perspective on Jerusalem (see the article for details), concluding with the words,

“For most Israelis, the refusal of the world since 1949 to recognize Jerusalem as our capital has been a bewildering affront to our dignity, our identity, and our sovereignty. Many would attribute it to irrational vestigial anti-Semitism. United States president Donald Trump is to be commended for finally correcting the painful and unjust slight and doing justice to the Jewish State. We are deeply thankful and we feel vindicated, as the greatest power on earth has recognized the truth at the foundation of our millennia-long identity.

At this point you think here’s one more person “taking sides” in the deeply polarized non-dialogue about the status of Jerusalem. But this is not the end of the article. Rabbi Hanan proceeds to say,

"I write the above words with fervor and conviction. It is all true. But it is only a part of the truth. There is another truth as well, and there will never be peace as long as we hang on to only part of the truth as if it were the full truth."

And he then lays out a Muslim Palestinian narrative of (perspective on) Jerusalem, in terms which I think most Muslims would recognize and agree with; and he concludes that section of his reflection with these words about President Trump’s declaration:

"From this perspective, President Donald Trump’s momentous announcement was a prodigious slap in the face. Its various caveats did little to soften the sting of humiliation. It gave a piece of the greatest prize to Israel, while the Palestinians still have nothing. Blatantly violating international consensus, it stole from the Palestinians and from the Muslims their last remaining sliver of dignity and hope. It recognized reality indeed, the reality of Israeli’s usurpation of their holy city. It gave the ultimate seal of approval to injustice after tragic injustice perpetrated against the Palestinian people and the Muslim religion."

He goes on to conclude,

"We have here two truths. Both are valid, reflecting part of human reality. Each, however, becomes false when they separately present themselves as the full truth, the only truth. If we want real peace, we must take both into account (emphasis added).  If we really want peace, there is no room for the blind hubris of exclusivity. We must work it out together. There is no place for unilateral measures. We must not lend a hand to any move that triumphantly tramples the last shred of the other side’s dignity. We must make our music heard in harmony with the concert of nations."

"I am deeply torn between (a particular) truth and (a mutual) peace, but if I must decide between them – and indeed I must – I will come down on the side of a mutual peace."

This is all the more remarkable because of the deep and deepening polarization between the Palestinian and Israeli sides in their conflict, where neither listens to the other (there’s plenty of shouting at each other, though), and in fact, where there is hardly any relationship or contact between those on the two basic sides of the conflict.

Rabbi Hanan represents the human potential to understand the different “other” (even one with which our own people are in conflict), to meet the other as a fully human being, to enter their world and empathize with their perspectives and values. And this not only represents a positive model of “intercultural” growth and development, but also shows how this growth can be relevant to peacemaking in a situation of intractable conflict.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Culture quote of the day: Maimonides on holding to our accustomed opinions (part II)

"[People] like the opinions to which they have become accustomed from their youth; they defend them and shun contrary views: and this is one of the things that prevent [them] from finding the truth, for they cling to the opinions of habit." --Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed

I find it interesting, to return to this quote by Maimonides, that he correlates clinging to our accustomed opinions with missing the truth, and advocates that to pursue truth, we need to move beyond our accustomed opinions and ways of understanding reality.

I find this interesting because most of us, I think, tend to cling to our accustomed ways of understanding reality in the name of “holding to the truth” (being firm in what we know or believe, etc.). Coming to see things more broadly, to many of us, feels like losing hold on “the truth.”

Maimonides suggests that becoming free from our habits and accustomed ways of looking at the world, actually frees us up to discover the truth (I would say, in more complex, multidimensional ways).

As an example from my personal experience, consider my understanding of baptism. Growing up in a (Swedish background) Baptist church in Minnesota, I understood that the Bible clear taught that believers in Jesus Christ should be baptized as an indication of their personal faith and intention of following him. It was clear that this act needed to be performed when one was of an age to understand what they believed and were committing to, accompanied by a profession of faith and intent. This was the simple Biblical Truth, as I understood it.

Then, one day (when I was in college) I ran into a Presbyterian, who advocated a different view of baptism (baptizing infants). I was astonished that anyone could have such a crazy view, clearly not in accord with what the Bible teaches. I did what Maimonides advocates not doing – clung to the opinions to which I had become accustomed from my youth (but realize – I didn’t see this as opinion, but rather as the clear Biblical truth), defending these opinions and shunning contrary views. (In those days, due both to ethnocentrism and perhaps to tendencies of my One Enneatype, I was fixated on knowing “the Truth,” the “right” view of everything, etc.)

It would not have been satisfying for my Presbyterian acquaintance to say, “well, you have your truth and I have mine.” I clearly wanted to know God’s perspective, what the Bible teaches – after all, faith is about Truth, reality, not about people just “making it up” and having whatever opinions they feel like having (right?). I didn’t fall into that relativistic “trap,” but rather, went on my way confident that I understood the Truth and that Presbyterians were just clearly wrong.

Fast forward a few years, through being in church community in North Africa with a variety of expat and local Christians who had different views and practices than I had grown up with, and my having been challenged over time to consider that perhaps I didn’t see everything clearly and know everything perfectly…

I crossed paths with a couple of other Presbyterians some time later, both of whom I cared for and respected deeply. I finally asked them to explain the Presbyterian view of baptism, and how it squared with the Bible. As I listened carefully, trying to understand their perspective (a key, by the way, for moving from an ethnocentric perspective on others, into Acceptance and Adaptation), it occurred to me that Presbyterians and Baptists were essentially doing the same thing, but in a different order (Baptists “dedicate” their children, and then seek to raise them in the faith, hoping and praying that as they grow to maturity, they will embrace Jesus and will choose to be baptized as a sign of their faith; Presbyterians baptize their babies into the family of faith, and then seek to raise them in the faith, hoping and praying that as they grow to maturity, they will embrace Jesus and will choose to walk in the faith they have been baptized into). And I thought, “perhaps God is ok with both ways of baptizing.” (And I thought, too, about the fact that 90+ % of all Christians in the world through history have baptized their babies, and it occurred to me that it might be a tad bit arrogant to be part of the tiny baptistic minority claiming that we had figured out the “true, biblical way to baptize.”)

I would say that in listening to others (in the cause of seeking to understand the Truth), and letting go of some of the “opinions to which I had been accustomed from my youth,” I have come to a deeper, more clear understanding of the “Truth” of baptism. At least, that is what it “feels like” to me. And to me, this experience, this journey of having what feels like a broader, more multidimensional understanding of baptism, feels enriching and positive. I still have my preferences on baptism, and my practices; but I hold them more lightly, and less dogmatically. In fact, over the recent Christmas holidays, I participated in the baptism of my first grandson in an Episcopal church. And I believe that God is pleased with that. J

Monday, January 8, 2018

Culture quote of the day: others are not failed attempts at being me (Wade Davis)

“The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being YOU: they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.” – Wade Davis (emphasis added) (I credit my daughter with bringing this quote to my attention)

This quote captures something of the difference between an ethnocentric and an ethnorelative / global minset, in how we look at others.

When we are ethnocentric, i.e., centered in our own people (our own ethne), we are unaware that there are different ways of being human (as represented, for example, in the variations between being “individualist” vs. “collectivist” when it comes to how individuals are seen in relation to the group, being “monochronic” vs. “polychronic” when it comes to how we view and experience time and tasks, variations in group norms and customs, worldview, etc. – all the ways in which cultures differ). We lack both “self-awareness” and “other-awareness,” relate to others as if they were us, and inevitably judge them for ways they fall short (i.e., they don’t do things or see things rightly). We see them as “failed attempts at being me.”

Back to a Myers-Briggs example, as a strong “thinker” on the MBTI, for a long time I was frustrated with people who let feelings “get in the way” in a discussion (rather than “simply” focusing on “facts” or “truth”). It disturbed me when in a discussion, someone would become emotional or get their feelings hurt. Then I learned of the “thinker”/”feeler” distinction in MBTI terms, that these are two basically different ways (on a spectrum, of course, with a range of variation) of processing information and interacting with others, in terms of the way feelings are (or are not) involved. Becoming aware of this, I was able to begin to appreciate that different others were, well, different than me (and not to be measured against my way of experiencing life, but to be appreciated as the unique humans they are).

As we get to know different others as different (in any of the ways that they are different, and this works on an interpersonal as well as on an intercultural level) but equally human, we come to know ourselves more deeply as well, and we have a more multifaceted understanding of the reality that there are a range of unique manifestations of the human spirit. We see ourselves, our ways of being human, in the context of other ways of being human. This is what it means to have an ethnorelative (or global) mindset – we see our people (our ethnos) in the context of the spectrum of kalaidescope of peoples.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Culture quote: Self-knowledge on the boundary

“Who knows one culture, knows no culture. We come to self knowledge on the boundary” – David Augsburger

In IDC terms, the two major ways we have of relating to others / other cultures are from an “ethnocentric” stance, and from a “global” or “ethnorelative” stance. Knowing one culture, in the Augsburger quote, is being ethnocentric – I know the world as I know it (as my people know it), and don’t realize that there are other ways of seeing things. On an individual level, it is equivalent to just knowing how I experience the world – for example, being an “extrovert” but not realizing that that is one way of being, that there are other people who are “introverts.”

Stephen Covey says that without self-awareness it is impossible to know other people as they are, because I relate to others as if they were me. Therefore, self-awareness and other-awareness, or realizing that there are different ways of being human, go hand in hand. To refer to the extrovert / introvert example, if I am an extrovert but unaware of the existence / reality of introverts, I may simply judge others who are introverts as being rude or unfriendly (by my standards, which are the only ones I possess). The knowledge that others are different, that there are other ways of being, comes “on the boundary” (of otherness), as Augsburger says – and once I come to understand that introvertedness is another way of being, I can know both myself and others more deeply.

The same is true of knowledge of other cultures / people in their cultural context. According to the IDC, Minimization is a transitional phase between “ethnocentrism” and a “global mindset.” One of the keys to growing out of ethnocentrism (through Minimization and into Acceptance and Adaptation) is a combination of self-knowledge and other-knowledge, which comes “on the boundary” between myself / my group and others, as I learn that there are different ways of being human – that some peoples, for example, see themselves not as free-standing individuals, but as part of a group, with the group having the right to speak into the lives of individuals and guide decisions, etc. (e.g., who they marry, where they live, etc. - this is known by interculturalists as a “collectivist” way of living out the relationship between individuals and their group).

The only way to gain awareness of my own culture (and of the fact that I am an encultured human being) is to go to the boundaries of others, and encounter them.  So if you are looking for growing self-awareness, step out. Or, to look at things from a different angle, if you travel and engage others in their cultural settings, realize that the “strangeness” you run into is not an indication that those others need to “get their act together” (i.e., become more like you, in how they drive or organize their society or approach time and appointments, etc.), but rather that you have encountered a different way of being human; and this represents a great opportunity to learn not just about those “strange” others, but about yourself as well.



Friday, January 5, 2018

Culture quote of the day: Maimonides on our tendency to cling to our opinions

"[People] like the opinions to which they have become accustomed from their youth; they defend them and shun contrary views: and this is one of the things that prevent [them] from finding the truth, for they cling to the opinions of habit." --Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed

Do you think this is true?

Can we see the reality – or at least the possibility – of this tendency in ourselves? Can we recognize ways in which we simply defend what we are accustomed to, and resist other perspectives?

It seems to me that Maimonides is referring to an aspect of the human tendency to be “ethnocentric” – to accept the worldview, perspectives, values of the people we grow up with and live among; in fact, for those views and values to be so deeply rooted that we aren’t aware that they are anything other than “how the world is.”

If Maimonides is right – and I think he is – how do we overcome this tendency? How do we escape the inertia of living with our customs, habits, traditions, patterns - in short, with our ethnocentrism (the tendency to see the world straightforwardly from the perspective of our people, and believe the world “really is” that way)? How do we escape the tendency to recoil from anything that is new and different and strange to us? How do we develop an orientation toward getting out of our territory, our "bubble," and setting out on a search for truth/reality that leads us into the "territory" (literal and figurative) of others? Can we develop the ability to see the tendency that Maimonides puts his finger on, and to work against it?

A starting point is to recognize that we might be clinging to “opinions of habit” and shutting out other views, and that we might be missing some aspect of “truth” (or reality) through ths tendency. A next step is to desire to grow beyond our current opinions and ways of understanding, in search of a broader perspective, a view of truth informed by the opinions and experiences of others. And if we think that is possible, and desire it, we can take the further step of engaging in relationship with those who are different from us, those who have different experiences and opinions, different perspectives and understandings.

A good friend of mine, author Mazhar Mallouhi, opened his novel “The Long Night” with the statement, “Those who never reconsider their ideas love their ideas more than they love the truth.” I think this is another way of saying what Maimonides is getting at in this quote. So the question is, which do I want more – my (current) ideas and opinions, or a more full perspective on truth (reality)?