Not long ago, I overheard two seasoned flight attendants talk about flying into Houston, Texas, which one referred to as “the armpit of the United States.” I leaned over and asked if she had ever lived there. She said, “No, I’ve lived in Southern California my whole life”— (a case of “Californication” the Red Hot Chili Peppers might say). Visiting many locations regularly does not necessarily produce cultural humility.
Indeed, in our days of instant communication and travel one would think our students would come to the university brimming with cultural humility. They do not. Furthermore, I find the recent moralistic pedagogy practiced on college campuses makes things worse. Academics seem to have taken their pedagogical guidance from social media and believe cultural humility is something you engender in people by repeatedly teaching them that they are ethnocentric, arrogant, racist, sexist, patriarchal, nationalist, etc. I would suggest that this is one reason why diversity training, as currently practiced, has been found to be a major failure.1 Our current approach to moral pedagogy fails to recognize that name-calling and harsh critique, which immediately produces defensiveness, is not an effective approach to developing cultural humility among students.
Christians should be more sophisticated with their moral pedagogy. Our example of humility is Jesus’ incarnation (Philippians 2:3-7). So, one great way to cultivate cultural humility is to encourage students to live for an extended period in different communities around the world as part of a well-designed study abroad program under Christian mentors who guide students toward cultural humility (in contrast the popular study abroad model that leans more toward cultural tourism often does more harm than good). Even national place-based learning, which requires students to engage across differences within the regional culture they find themselves in, is a powerful means of inspiring cultural humility that does not always necessitate traveling overseas.
Indeed, moving to another regional culture in the United States can produce such humility. I first learned about cultural humility when I moved from Colorado to Texas in seventh grade. I had people question certain ways of thinking, speaking, and ways of seeing the world in a manner that sharpened my cultural sensitivities and produced some critical thinking.
I also quickly learned in seventh grade that Texans did not appreciate being told about the virtues and beauty of Colorado (e.g., I never thought of Yankee as a criticism before that time). Nor did they appreciate my various cultural observations about the problems I could easily see in Texas culture as a new outsider (e.g., the racism, the more pronounced economic inequities, pretending to be nice/sweet without honestly and straight-forwardly confronting conflict, the worship of football, etc.). My quick critique of a culture peopled inhabited and loved merely alienated them (and me). I grew to realize that Texans wanted to see my love for a place and its people before I offered any critique. This issue is particularly true for sensitive Southerners. One of my colleagues recently recounted to me how when he arrived at Baylor twenty years ago after teaching at a university in the upper Midwest, he was asked forthrightly by a Baylor colleague if he was one of those Yankee fundamentalists.
Yet, for those students (or professors) who do not have the resources for living an extended period in different geographic locations or the gift of living in different locations before college, what is another academic way to cultivate cultural humility among college students? How can we help them celebrate and enjoy the diverse cultures we have created as image bearers sharing in God’s creativity while also learning to join with Christ in critiquing and redeeming fallen aspects of different cultures?
I contend a particular course can contribute to cultural humility, and it is a course I think everyone should take as a requirement. I took the course I am advocating for myself, and it helped me deconstruct and rethink my experience of American Christianity. One might assume this course naturally occurred within my history, political science, or religion majors at secular Rice University. In reality, Rice would not let me get credit for the course since it was offered outside the university. Even so, this course did more for my cultural humility than the anthropology course I took from a secular, southern professor at Rice who smiled beautifully while she sprinkled classes with subtle critiques of Christianity.
The course I took was called Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. I think a similar kind of course should be required at every Christian university. Better than my anthropology, history, political science, religion, or sociology courses, it helped me deconstruct the cultural baggage associated with my mix of Midwestern-Texan Evangelicalism. It forced me to ask what is essential to the Gospel and what are the good and bad things various identity cultures may have added to the Gospel (e.g., Sunday School and Youth Groups were in my experience wonderful cultural creations of the past centuries, but the God and country nationalism found in certain Texas churches or the End Times prediction culture I sometimes observed were dangerous).
In addition, it also helped me think about what are the essentials of the gospel that should guide the appreciation of and critique of culture. Indeed, it led to my further study of Christianity and culture. For instance, in my graduate work I looked at how one Southern California church sought to engage with the heavy metal subculture in ways that adopted the culture’s creativity (unique dress, long hair, heavy metal music, etc.), resisted its fallen aspects (hedonism, despair, suicide, misogyny, violent mosh pits, etc.), and also redeemed the fallen aspects of the culture (evangelism in Hollywood music clubs through forming Christian heavy metal bands, kinder Christian moshing, dressing in heavy metal style but in a positive way, intense Christian discipleship, etc.).
Similarly, I examined how African American churches in inner city LA responded to the Rodney King riots in ways that considered their unique cultural context as Christians seeking both to address systematic injustice, racism, and prejudice while at the same time redeeming the fallen aspects of inner-city and African American culture in LA (e.g., fatherlessness, violence, addiction, etc.). I remember interviewing one young African-American staff member who shared how he overcame his own cultural prejudice toward whites and white church culture by watching the 700 Club (sometimes television and movies help us experience another culture).
Furthermore, it definitely helped during my extended time living and traveling in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe over the years. I observed the architectural, theological, and spiritual strengths of the Eastern Orthodox Church but also the dangers of a Church captured and corrupted by the state and various other forms of cultural baggage. One Russian teacher aptly captured the strengths and weaknesses when she told me, “When I want to pray, I go to the Orthodox Church and when I want to understand something from the Bible and have fellowship, I go to the Protestant Church.” Many Eastern Orthodox churches had simply become sacrament factories that charged money for baptisms, had no discipleship or fellowship opportunities, and still fell for Russian Christian nationalism (the latter of which is strongly evident today).
The major strength of a World Christianity course is that it provides space for students to learn how to separate the fallen parts of one’s culture (whether western or eastern, racial or ethnic, gender or class) from what is essential to the Gospel. It opens them up to learning from diverse Christian scholars in other countries who bring different perspectives. Yet, it also helps students realize that we as a church body need to call out both majority or minority Christians who elevate their political, racial, gender, economic, ethnic, class, or any other identity above their identity as humans made in God’s image and brothers and sisters in Christ. We need to develop Christian critical thinking rooted first in our Christian identity and story and not primarily in our extra-Christian identities and stories.
Overall, Christians can perhaps, not only gain cultural humility in incarnational study abroad, but also in class conversations about world Christianity led by wise and culturally sensitive Christian guides. Students could learn that Christians around the world struggle with turning their race, tribe, gender, or national identity into their most important identity (versus that of being made imago Dei or a brother and sister in Christ as one’s foremost identity). Humans magnify the faults of other groups and cultures (Peruvians vs. Bolivians vs. Chileans, South Koreans vs. Japanese vs. Chinese), and they ignore their own tribe’s weaknesses. In other words, we all act like fallen human beings, just in unique and creative cultural ways. Students need experiences and a special class about Christianity and world cultures that places our diversity of cultural gifts, sinfulness, and specific needs for redemption within the whole of the Christian story. Only then will they learn how to engage in constructive Christian critical thinking about cultural diversity and humility.