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A Christian Perspective on Interculturality

By: Gemma Tulud Cruz

August 23, 2022

Challenges of Interculturality: Responses to Fr. Arturo Sosa

In varying degrees, Rev. Arturo Sosa, S.J., and Archbishop Paul Gallagher drove home the importance of interculturality as an expression of Christian witness and as a path to global citizenship in an extremely diverse as well as deeply broken and fragmented world. Sosa’s keynote address, in particular, drew attention to the necessity of an intercultural approach in/to encounters between and among peoples and in fostering a culture of encounter in general. This essay picks up on the relevance and complexities of intercultural encounters and suggests the historical Jesus as a model for such encounters.

Current systems of travel, communication, information, and economics have shrunk spaces, bringing people into greater contact with difference. As a result, the global community is confronted not only with the demand for dialogue among cultures and religions but also the need for efficient concepts or tools which could help shape the dialogical encounter. The concept of intercultural communication competence is one of the most promising and fundamental approaches towards studying and negotiating cultures in a respectfully complex way. It offers new ways of exploring the inherent multiplicity and versatility of cultural encounters and mutual understanding. 

“Intercultural” generally refers to the relationships between cultures. It has had wide currency in secular theory for some time, particularly in education, having emerged from a secular debate about the future of multiculturalism in light of its failures to generate social cohesion. In the field of social policy, interculturalism is promoted as a more effective way of managing community relations in a world defined by globalization and superdiversity. Others suggest that interculturalism provides a middle ground between assimilation and multiculturalism where there are tensions with the integration of ethnic minorities. Interculturalism consists of the three interrelated components of dialogue, unity, and identity flexibility. 

Unfortunately, “intercultural” tends to be conflated with “cross-cultural” and “multicultural.” In reality, and as Sosa contended in his discussion on interculturality vis-à-vis multiculturalism, they are not really the same. A “cross-cultural” approach tends to see culture in clearly defined terms with an identifiable set of characteristics uniformly shared across the culture. Cultural identities, however, are much more multifaceted and hybrid than these generalizations: everyone has a unique set of cultural variables and a complex set of subcultures. From a multicultural perspective, meanwhile, exclusionary phenomena like racism, sexism, and even genocide are the inescapable byproducts of all the universalizing/totalizing “grand narratives” of social modernization, such that exclusion is not an aberration but rather a direct consequence of modernity. Critics of multiculturalism contend that it only succeeded in embedding a superficial understanding and accommodation of cultural and ethnic diversity. In arguing for the use of interculturality as a tool for Latina feminist theologians to reflect on diversity, Nancy Pineda-Madrid reckons that multiculturalism has been used to gloss over significant differences and surreptitiously further an assimilationist agenda.

For an increasing number of scholars like Pineda-Madrid, “intercultural” is a more adequate way of expressing the cultural engagement that is more appropriate to a postmodern world. Today, the phenomenon of global cultural circulation and the problem of coping with irreducible otherness in terms of culture, religion, etc., make an intercultural approach to encounter among peoples even more vital. An intercultural approach goes further than mere correspondence. It recognizes how postmodernity deconstructs all boundaries and makes communication multidirectional, networked, indiscreet, and pluralistic. It recognizes the presence of “boundaries” because we experience them as such, but now they are very diffuse and porous. Meanwhile, cultural identities are very complex and changing all the time. Gallagher noted the relational role of the Catholic Church in his keynote address at the conference: “In contributing to the culture of encounter, the Church does not simply talk about relationships, but seeks to educate, to help people grow by examining the intellectual, (the) moral and social dimensions of their relationships and daily decisions, directing them towards peace.”

An intercultural approach begins from a presumption of cultural and relational equality and mutuality and, from the very onset of the relationship, invites one to be keenly aware of, and be able to put to one side, one’s own cultural predilections, preferences, and prejudices, emptying oneself kenotically of all power intentions. An intercultural stance is more willing to receive than to give, open to where the Holy Spirit is leading, and as open to one’s own spiritual and cultural transformation as to that of others. The recognition of the cultural frameworks that underpin human thought means that universal ambitions, or the pretensions of finality, will need to be curtailed. It also means being open to a critique of and, where relevant and appropriate, transformation of the excesses of one’s culture(s) or worldview(s). A classic example is the atomistic individualism that allegedly plagues Western societies’ more egocentric worldview and the homogenizing collectivism that purportedly afflicts non-Western societies’ more sociocentric-organic worldview. 

Sosa’s incisive discussion on the two disciples’ encounter with Jesus on the road to Emmaus convinced me that a further exploration of the historical Jesus as a possible model for an intercultural approach to encounters might be useful for the culture of encounter project. Jesus engaged in difficult and, oftentimes, transformational encounters with a broad spectrum of people in society, from the elite and members of “mainstream” Jewish society, such as Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-49),  Zaccheus (Luke 19: 1-10), and the centurion (Matthew 8: 5-13); to those who live on the fringes, including those that his very identity as a male Jewish rabbi traditionally inhibited him from encountering on the basis of geography, culture, religion, or ideology. He walked along borderlands and traversed borders into Gentile regions. In the process, he engaged in intense theological discussions with a Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28) and a Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42), and met their deepest needs by engaging with the heart of their brokenness. What the Samaritan woman did after her encounter with Jesus—sharing that experience with others—reflects the transformational and fruitful character of genuine and deep intercultural encounters. 

Jesus approached intercultural situations with wisdom, grace, and sensitivity. Principles of intercultural communication stemming from humility, affirmation, and vulnerability, which create an atmosphere that elicits transparency and transformation, could be discerned from his intercultural encounters. He followed religious and cultural patterns when they were helpful, e.g. use of meals or table fellowship as loci for encounters, and resisted them when they were hurtful, e.g. the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). He worked within his own cultural and religious frameworks without absolutizing them. Though each intercultural context proved to be unique, he tried to contextually tailor his approach to the individual. He used questions, metaphors, and dialogue in his conversations, thus respecting individuals and their cultural contexts.

As is the case in most, if not all, intercultural encounters, Jesus naturally faced difficulties. The uncharted territories in which he engaged compelled him, at times, to come up with creative strategies, such as the use of parables, to “meet” or “get through” to people. In other cases he was challenged to transcend his own customs and beliefs and make hard choices. His encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24-29), whose request to heal her daughter Jesus initially refused on account of his belief in the preeminent position of Jews for salvation, is an example. The gentile woman’s persistence and blunt response to Jesus’ rejection made the encounter uncomfortable and confrontational. Jesus’ seeming lack of sensitivity and empathy was redeemed by his humility and courageous embrace of vulnerability—his belief was challenged and changed by a gentile, and a woman at that—not only in the eyes of the gentile woman in front of him but also those of the disciples who witnessed the encounter. Indeed, what is also laudable in this encounter—beyond the wisdom and unflinching courage of the woman—is Jesus the Jewish rabbi’s openness and willingness to change and be transformed by the encounter himself. Indeed, though he lived more than 2,000 years ago and his context is vastly different from twenty-first century realities, Jesus gives us glimpses into the value of intercultural encounters. They can be moments of grace as long as we are willing and prepared to take the road less travelled (literally and figuratively), truly listen, and possibly be transformed in the process.