Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Demolishing the Tower of Babel: Dealing with our Ethnocentricity, Part 3 (Final)

By Rev. Fr. Michael Chua

Paving the way outward and forward

Exposing the fundamental myths that underlie our ethnocentricity is only the first stage, albeit a necessary one. In order to move beyond mere recognition and tolerance of differences to a position where diversity is celebrated, more needs to be done. Apart from the tasks that he had suggested earlier, Bennet also writes about the need to learn more about our own culture and to avoid projecting that culture onto other people's experience. This stage is particularly difficult to pass through when one cultural group has vast and unrecognized privileges when compared to other groups. This problem is so invisible that persons in the mainstream are often mystified when representatives of ethnic minorities begin to react to them in a negative way.

In order to begin building relationships with persons of other beliefs and cultures, one must move to the next level of acceptance. This next stage in Bennett's model requires us to be able to shift perspective, while still maintaining our commitments to our own values. He calls this stage “acceptance.” Acceptance does not mean that we have to believe in the same beliefs and values as the other person. What it does mean is accepting the fact that other people are entitled to hold different sets of beliefs and values from us.

Accepting and even respecting the right of others to their belief and values may prove insufficient when a person wishes to begin exploring deeper levels of dialogue and cross cultural communication. Bennet speaks of the next stage of intercultural sensitivity as “adaptation.” This allows the person to function in a bicultural capacity. In this stage, a person is able to take the perspective of another culture and operate successfully within that culture. Church documents often speak of this level as “inculturation” or more accurately “inter-culturation.”

Although, Bennet speaks of a sixth stage of cultural sensitivity which he calls “integration,” this may not be possible or even advisable in the context of religious beliefs. According to Bennet, at this last stage, the person can shift perspectives and frames of reference from one culture to another in a natural way. They become adept at evaluating any situation from multiple frames of reference. He, however admits, that some representatives in cross-cultural collaboration may reach this level, but most probably will not. In the context of religion, such integration often creates a synthesis of two or more religious traditions, thus resulting in a form of religious syncretism. Products of religious syncretism are often treated as new religious movements rather than as an ongoing process of dialogue and interculturation between parties in dialogue.

Dealing with our deep seated prejudices and aptitude to stereotype and vilify others is never easy. Few of us are even aware of every form of prejudice and ethnocentricity that we possess. Perhaps, we would never be rid of them in our lives. It would be a constant struggle of coming to terms with our inner demons, exposing them to the light of faith and reason and allowing God to restore and heal the image that He had intended for us. For some, this life long struggle may appear to be a curse. But for us Christians, it is an opportunity and a challenge to make space and constantly expand it for God and for others. Years of learning, understanding and articulating our faith through Catholic lenses will not be threatened or thrown out by our decision to encounter the ‘other’ as friend rather foe. On the contrary, we would soon discover our encounter with the ‘other’ will lead us to a deeper encounter with God, who as St. Paul reminds us is “the same Lord of all, enriching all who call upon him.” (Rom 10:12)

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