“I don’t know who discovered water, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.”
Someone recently said this to me while I was in India a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about culture and how we don’t normally recognize our own cultural habits and assumptions. We just think, “that’s just the way it’s done” rather than recognizing that that’s just not the way it’s done somewhere else. Our values, assumptions, and beliefs, known as our worldviews, are so ingrained in us that they are like second nature. It takes an outsider’s perspective to really be able to evaluate our own culture well. On the other hand, when we, as outsiders looking into somebody else’s backyard, seek to learn about this “strange” and “peculiar” foreign culture, we then wake up with the humble reality that the more we are in a foreign culture the less we know about it. Things I didn’t even realize I didn’t know I now know I don’t know. We only see the tip of the iceberg, but, it’s what’s underneath the water that is most important- those assumptions, values, and beliefs that truly define us and explain our external behaviors.
Over a period of about six weeks I was in four very different cultures: China, America, Thailand, and India. Each of these places has something unique that dwells there, a culture that finds its expression in the day to day life of its people.
As a simple example- in China they eat with chopsticks. So opposed they are to touching the food they eat, you will often see people eating fried chicken with plastic gloves. And you would never ever see Chinese people sitting on the bare floor. In India they sometimes gather on the ground and eat with their hands, right down to the rice and dal (usually a curry or lentil-based sauce that goes on top of the rice), but only with their right hand, never with their left. Indians don’t eat pork (for the Muslims) or beef (for the Hindus), whereas the Chinese will eat every part of almost any animal that they can. What are the assumptions, values, and beliefs that give them reason for what they do?
Here is a deeper example–People in India and Thailand have a keen view of the spiritual world; China much less so. However, while most Chinese say they don’t believe in the spiritual reality, they really are more keen of the spiritual world than they realize. This is because just about every tradition they have has an auspicious connection to luck, fortune, and harmony based on some link to the glorified past. This glorified past includes the myriad of people who have gone before, the ancestors. The way they approach daily life is mirrored to their worldview.
However, while worldviews are so ingrained in us that they cannot be separated from our identities, they are not so ingrained in such a way that these worldviews can’t be shattered. I tell you, in each of these places and in each of these cultures, worldviews ARE being shattered! Minds are being transformed! There are so many people who don’t know the One whose Image we bear. But, when they DO embrace Him, then their culture changes. Not to an American culture or an Indian culture or a Chinese culture, though there will always be elements of those things in their identity…but a new culture that both sets them apart and brings them together as one. People are grappling with new ways to understand their world and their role in it. These are times of both hopeless desperation and hopeful opportunity.