Reflection on Faith

faith (n.) mid-13th-century; "duty of fulfilling one's trust," from Old French feid, foi "faith, belief, trust, confidence, pledge," from Latin fides "trust, faith, confidence, reliance, credence, belief," from root of fidere "to trust," from Proto-Indo-European root bheidh (source also of Greek pistis). Theological sense is from late 14th-century; religions called faiths since circa 1300.
-from Online Etymoligical Dictionary
Some us have a warm, fuzzy response to the word “faith.” Others of us have a cold, prickly reaction to the word. I understand the cold, prickly reaction. Far from its original sense of “fidelity; fulfillment of duties with which one has been entrusted,” “faith” today has sometimes seemed to mean “clinging to a belief regardless of the evidence – regardless, even, of any possible future evidence.” If that’s what “faith” means, it’s no wonder that many Unitarian Universalists would rather have nothing to do with it.

If we are to have fidelity to the truth, we understand that we must always be willing to change our belief in light of new evidence. To define “faith” as “refusal to modify beliefs, whatever the evidence” is to make faith into the opposite of the fidelity that “faith” originally indicated!

The Greek word was pistis. Indeed, in Greek mythology, the goddess Pistis personified trust and reliability. In Roman mythology, her name was Fides (hence, fidelity). The Greeks often spoke of Pistis together with Elpis (hope), Sophrosyne (prudence), and the Charites (a.k.a. Graces, which variously included such minor goddesses as charm, beauty, fertility, creativity, splendor, mirth, and good cheer – all attributes generally associated with harmony among people.) When Paul of Tarsus wrote to the Corinthians that “faith, hope, and love abide,” he was clearly evoking this Greek background.

For the Greeks, Pistis evolved to include persuasion. In the Greek understanding of rhetoric, pistis are the elements to induce true judgment. So the idea of fidelity to duty morphed to refer especially to fidelity to the truth, and the logical means of persuasion of the truth.

In the hands of the writers and the interpretive community of readers of the Christian ("New") Testament, the Greek pistis evolved further from “persuasion” to “conviction.”

The Christian Testament was originally written in Greek, and pistis (uniformly translated to English as “faith”) appears many times. Below is a sampling. As you look over these passages, I invite you to consider what difference it makes if you read faith as “fidelity to an entrusted duty” or as “conviction of belief.”
  • “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor 13:13)
  • "So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight." (2 Cor 5:7)
  • “Since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.” (Rom 3:30)
  • “In it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’” (Rom 1:17)
  • “For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” (Rom 4:13)
  • “For through the spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. . . . Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (Gal 5:5)
  • “for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints” (Col 1:4)
  • “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” (1 Thess 5:8)
  • “When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly I tell you, in no one[a] in Israel have I found such faith.’ (Matt 8:10)
  • “And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.’” (Matt 9:2)
  • “Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’” (Matt 9:22)
  • “Then he touched their eyes and said, ‘According to your faith let it be done to you.’” (Matt 9:29)
  • “Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” (Matt 15:28)
  • “He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.’” (Matt 17:20)
  • “Jesus answered them, ‘Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, “Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,” it will be done.’” (Matt 21:21)
  • “’Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.’” (Matt 23:23)
  • “He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’” (Mark 4:40)
  • “Then Peter remembered and said to him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God.’” (Mark 11:21-22)
  • “When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’” (Luke 7:9)
  • “And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’ (Luke 8:24-25)
  • “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” (Luke 17:5)
  • “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8)
  • “I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail.” (Luke 22:32)
  • “Peter…addressed the people, ‘…And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.’” (Acts 3:16)
  • “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1)
All these meanings – fidelity, persuasion, and conviction – echo through our conception of faith today. What is at the core, unifying these disparate meanings?

Jumping from the ancient Greeks and the Christian Testament writers to today: recent reflections on the nature of faith provide important avenues for getting at the core of faith while discarding the association of faith with willful disregard of evidence and reason. Let’s take a look at three contemporary approaches.

1. Wieman

The Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Wieman (1884-1975) provides helpful guidance on the nature of faith. Wieman’s view, as described by Virginia Knowles:
“Religious faith is the act by which we commit ourselves with the fullness of our being, insofar as we are able, to whatever can transform and save us from the evil of devoting ourselves to the transient goods of social success, financial opulence, or even scholarship or beauty or social concern.” (1992)
We all have egos, and our egos desire recognizable achievement -- socially, financially, physically, professionally, politically, or artistically. Our egos motivate us to do some good work, but Weiman identifies excessive devotion to the ego’s desires as evil. We may be saved from that evil, suggests Weiman, through commitment to grow and change in ways that make us increasingly better able to avoid the evil of overly focusing on the ego’s desires, increasingly oriented toward humble service of enduring values rather than ego desires and inconspicuous harmony with life and our world rather than recognition of achievement.

Wieman’s understanding of faith captures what has been most central and important about faith in Western religious traditions. The outcome of faith – personal transformation and transcendence of ego-centric desires -- is precisely the outcome that the traditional Western religions have seen as the product of a faithful life. Wieman has showed us a way to embrace this valuable function of faith without the unfortunate notion that faith requires irrational conviction that flies in the face of evidence. Try reading the above samples from the Bible with Wieman’s understanding of faith in mind. Does it work?

2. Salzberg

For American Buddhist writer Sharon Salzberg (b. 1952), faith is
"the act of opening our hearts to the unknown."
Rather than believing without evidence, faith is a willingness to go forward to take in new evidence and new experience, ever-willing to be transformed. This throwing ourselves into the unknown often does feel like leaping -- hence the phrase, "leap of faith."

At the same time, Salzberg is drawing upon the tradition that faith stands in distinction from reason and evidence. After all, reason and evidence tell us about what we can know. Making our peace with unknowability is also a crucial part of a whole life.

While Weiman draws attention to the ego’s focus on achievement, Salzberg’s formulation points to another trick of the ego. The ego pretends to know more than it actually does know about what's going to happen next and about where your life is headed. Ego loves its illusion of being in control. Our conceptions of how things are “supposed” to go can close us to realities that present themselves. Faith is the liberating capacity to step out of our illusion, and, without pretending already to know, be open to surprise and mystery.

Following Salzberg, we can see that faith means engaged and open-minded and open-hearted participation in life. It means the courage to offer up all that we are to the world around us, not knowing what the world will ask or what we will find in ourselves to offer. Faith is the overcoming of the fear that could cause us to withdraw and stand safely on the sidelines. Faith is jumping in -- there's the leap again -- into all that life has to offer, the joy and the triumph and the grief and the loss. Faith is stepping, jumping, skipping, leaping, somersaulting right into the middle of possibilities for how we might evolve and for what goodness might burst forth. Faith's opposite, then, is not doubt, but despairing withdrawal.

This understanding leads to seeing faith as also awareness of an interconnected universe. We are not alone no matter how alone we sometimes feel. What happens to us and from us is part of the larger fabric of life, always rippling out through threads of connection.

If we read the above Bible samples with Salzberg’s understanding of faith in mind, do they may more sense? Less?

3. Fowler

James Fowler (b. 1940, Prof of Theology and Human Development at Emory and a United Methodist minister) defined faith as:
“a way of knowing, construing, and interpreting existence.”
A “religion,” then, for Fowler, is “a community’s way of giving expression to faith relationships held in common.”

Fowler’s definition preserves our very common sense that Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. are faiths (or, more specifically, are names of communities that give expression to faith relationships held in common among the community’s members). Each offers a certain way of knowing, construing, and interpreting existence.

The idea that it’s a good thing to have convictions that are entirely unshakeable regardless of the evidence is a bad mistake. That idea does nevertheless convey, for all its misdirection, one implication that is true: evidence is not the same thing as meaning, and evidence alone does not suffice. The way we understand the world is more than just evidence. Fowler’s definition preserves that nugget of insight about faith: that evidence alone doesn’t offer much guidance. Mere phenomena present us with “a blooming, buzzing confusion” (William James) until interpreted, fit into an overall context, made sense of.

There are many various ways to put the same evidence together into a structure of value and meaning, and each way is, for Fowler, a faith. We all have faith – it’s unavoidable – since we all interpret and make sense of existence. To have “little faith,” then, would be to have a rather haphazard and often incoherent way “knowing, construing, and interpreting existence.” To have a lot of faith would be to know, construe, and interpret existence in a way that coherently makes sense of a vast range of data. How does it work to read the above Bible verses with Fowler’s definition in mind?

Weiman, Salzberg, and Fowler each offer us an active conception of faith. It’s the act by which we commit (Weiman), the act of opening (Salzberg), and a way of doing something, namely, interpreting existence (Fowler). Faith is best understood not so much as something we have, but as something we do – or, sometimes, fail to do.

Photo by the author


Authority and Taqwacores: Boxes Too Small 2

Michael Muhammad Knight
(Wikimedia Commons)
We need the authority of individual conscience, and we also need religious teachers as guides and companions on the spiritual path to help us see our own delusions and mind-traps. Only by nailing individual conscience together with accountability to our guides and companions do we have any chance of breaking out of boxes that are too small for the grandest possibilities of life – possibilities we can but dimly sense and cannot concretely imagine.

We need authoritative teachers and leaders that we trust -- but not so much that we shut down our own conscience. We need to trust our own conscience -- but not so much that we shut out religious and spiritual leadership that can help us see where our egos lead us astray.

Lasting, healthy faith community will recognize each person's divinity and authority -- and the members will recognize the value of legitimate community leadership. The test for any authority – the internal authority of your conscience, or the external authority of a leader and a community, is this: is it maintaining a small box for spiritual truth, or is it working to expand, or explode, the box?

Our project -- the project of liberal religion -- is the difficult and fragile task of community with diversity and taking seriously the work of spiritual development. We live in that creative tension which plays out in many ways.

So let me illustrate that with a story about a very different context.

Michael Knight was born in 1977 in West Virginia. When Michael was age 2, his mother, Irish Catholic, took him and fled from Michael’s father, who was Pentecostal and also mentally ill and abusive. When Michael was 13, he heard about Malcolm X in the lyrics of the hip-hop band, Public Enemy. He started reading more about Malcolm X, and about Islam, converted to Islam, and, at age 17, went to Pakistan to study Islam at Faisal Mosque. Now named Michael Muhammad Knight, he spent several years in Pakistan. He grew gradually disillusioned with orthodox Islam. After returning to the US, he wrote The Taqwacores -- a novel about a group of Muslim punk-rockers living in Buffalo, New York. He imagined the book as his "good-bye," to Islam.

In the novel, the narrator, Yusef, draws parallels between Islam and punk:
“I stopped trying to define punk around the same time I stopped trying to define Islam. They aren’t so far removed as you’d think. Both began in tremendous bursts of truth and vitality but seem to have lost something along the way – the energy, perhaps, that comes with knowing the world has never seen such positive force and fury and never would again. Both have suffered from sell-outs and hypocrites, but also from true believers whose devotion had crippled their creative drive. Both are viewed by outsiders as unified, cohesive communities when nothing can be further from the truth.”
Originally, Michael Muhammad Knight was giving away photocopied spiral-bound copies of The Taqwacores. Then in 2003 it was picked up and published by a punk record label. The characters include:
  • Yusef, the first-person narrator, a fairly straightlaced US-born son of Pakistani parents. He has come to Buffalo to study engineering, and his Muslim parents thought it would be more wholesome for him not to live in the campus dorms.
  • Umar, a Straight-edge Sunni Muslim who tries to enforce Islamic rules.
  • Jehangir, a hard-drinking, dyed-red-mohawk-haircut-wearing Sufi punk who announces morning prayers with an electric guitar on the roof.
  • Fasiq, an Indonesian skateboarder.
  • Amazing Ayyub, a shi’a skinhead.
  • Rabeya, the house’s only woman, who wears the full-scale body-tent style of burqa and studies feminist Islam.
And various other comers and goers.

A 2010 film was made from the book
What these kids are doing might not look like Islam to the Ayatollah Khomeini, but they call themselves Muslim, study the Koran, debate about how to interpret it as a guide for their lives, and say their prayers facing Mecca. Some of them drink a lot, smoke hashish, and engage in casual sex. Others of them are in the “straightedge” camp and eschew all those things.

The Taqwacores, became a blueprint for a movement. As a New York Times article explained: Many
“young American Muslims, stigmatized by their peers after the Sept. 11 attacks, [felt] repelled by both the Bush administration’s reaction to the attacks and the rigid conservatism of many Muslim leaders.” (New York Times, "Young Muslims Build a Subculture on an Underground Book," 2008 Dec 22)
So they made their own form of Islam.

Next: Punk Islam Confronts the Tolerance Paradox.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Boxes Too Small"
Next: Part 3: Trade-Offs of Community
Previous: Part 1: Nailing Things Together


This Week's Prayer

Dear Beat, rhythm and Beatitude of life and being, pulse of existence,

Everything we have ever known and will ever know is one.

We wonder, with Kerouac, “what God had wrought when he made life so sad,” even as we also sense that “life is holy and every moment is precious.”

We grieve the violence that killed journalist James Foley and so many others.

Our hearts go out to the kidnapped, to the long-term disappeared, to the survivors of kidnapping;

to the rescuers combing through the site of landslides triggered by rain in Hiroshima, Japan, desperately wishing not to find more bodies;

to those clearing up from the flash flooding in Arizona and those enduring severe drought in California;

to the scientists working to learn and tell us about the world’s weather;

to the tourists being evacuated in parts of Iceland, as another volcano threatens to erupt under the largest glacier;

to those who try to predict seismic events, things present and things to come, and thereby save lives;

to those in Western Africa suffering the Ebola virus or living in fear of it, and to the doctors and medical staff caring for them;

to those who teach and those who desperately, determinedly, seek an education that the sum of human understanding may grow – and to those who deny learning for themselves and others;

to those rioting in Missouri and to those harmed by the rioting; to the families of all those who never deserved to be killed by a police officer and to the officers wrestling with their demons and fears and inadequate training;

to all those who mourn.

May we all find a path to healing, to the holiness and preciousness, to the oneness of all we know.

May justice create the space for all beings to dance exultant joy to the universal beat.


Nailing Things Together: Boxes Too Small 1

Comedian George Carlin – a muse to whom I often turn – said back in 1972:
“You can buy anything in this country. Anything you can think of! You can probably buy a left nostril inhaler if you look around long enough. With your state motto on it. Glows in the dark. Anything, man. If you nail together two things that have never been nailed together before, some schmuck will buy it from you.”
Call it American innovation or call it American hucksterism.

Peanut butter and jelly – slapping together two things that had never been put together before. It’s a combination you will rarely find anywhere outside America. The smart phone is basically the result of taking a cell phone, and nailing lots of other things to it. I can’t wait until it’s also my garage door opener, my TV remote control, and an electric razor. Is there an ap for that?

Pilgrims and puritans came here seeking a place to build the city of god. Then there were a lot of other Europeans that arrived on these shores because the British, French, and other colonial empires used North America as basically a penal colony. In the 18th-century, 50,000 British convicts were sent to colonial America. The two main strands from Europe that formed American culture were the churchy types who liked rules and the criminal types who really didn’t get along with rules. We’re a nation created from nailing together very different things.

Unitarian Universalists also nail together things that are generally regarded as very different – like diverse beliefs worshiping together as one faith. How about these two: Punk rock and Islam. Surely those haven't been nailed together? They have!

There have been Muslim Punk bands since at least 1979, in fact. I had no idea – until I came across a reference to a 2003 novel, The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight. That novel, I since learned, sparked a Punk Islam lifestyle movement. I want to talk about that today because I thought it was bizarre and strange – yet also compellingly illustrates what we’re all up against.

We’re trying to nail together two things that often seem at odds. The need to do that keeps arising because of the inevitable tendency to do what some call putting God in a box, what we might also call relying on rules and formulas instead of being open in each moment to possibilities we never had previously imagined but which creatively reveal new ways to understand, to love, and to connect.

Unitarian Universalism is all about nailing together individual responsibility and community. We Unitarian Universalists come out of what is called the left wing of the Protestant reformation, or the radical reformation, begun by Martin Luther in 1517. Luther undermined the entrenched priestly hierarchy by proclaiming the priesthood of all believers. Unitarians went a little further, explained our theologian James Luther Adams, and also proclaimed the prophethood of all believers.

Five hundred years ago, Luther was indicating each of us is of the priesthood, no one can make your spiritual truth but you. No one but you can do that work. It's up to you to open yourself to grace, which then takes over. That’s a hard basis to make community upon. Not impossible, but not easy.

The call to individual responsibility militates against the tribal tendency of religion. Emphasis on each individual's responsibility to make or find her own spiritual truth makes community-building more difficult. Nevertheless, I believe that only a community that recognizes each person's divinity and authority has a chance of lasting.

As long as there are external authorities, there will be competition among them and rebellion against them. That doesn't mean that rejecting all religious authority ends the competition and rebellion. It goes on internally. Within each psyche, impulses compete with and rebel against one another.

The divine, spiritual truth, God, the ground of healing and wholeness that we call by many names -- whatever we call reality at its most inclusive -- is too big to fit in the box of what any one authority -- person or doctrine -- decrees.

External authority is one box too small. The internal authority of our own egos is another box too small.

* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of "Boxes Too Small"
Next: Part 2: Authority and Taqwacores


Go 90

Intercultural Sensitivity is Hard, part 5

The fourth stage in the development of intercultural sensitivity is acceptance. At this stage, there is nonjudgmental openness and curiosity about differences but a lack of skills for entering into the other cultural.

People at the acceptance stage may say such things as:
  • "The more difference the better -- more difference equals more creative ideas!"
  • "You certainly wouldn't want to have all the same kind of people around -- the ideas get stale, and besides, it’s boring."
  • "I always try to study about a new culture before I go there."
  • "The more cultures you know about, the better comparisons you can make."
  • "Sometimes it's confusing, knowing that values are different in various cultures and wanting to be respectful, but still wanting to maintain my own core values."
  • "When studying abroad, every student needs to be aware of relevant cultural differences."
  • "I know my homestay family and I have had very different life experiences, but we're learning to work together."
  • "Where can I learn more about Mexican culture to be effective in my communication?" 
At the acceptance stage, the needed learning is learning the skills: study the differences and practice, practice, practice.

People at the adaptation stage (the fifth stage) might be heard to say such things as:
  • "To solve this dispute, I need to change my behavior to account for the difference in status between me and my counterpart from the other culture."
  • "I know they're really trying hard to adapt to my style, so it's fair that I try to meet them halfway."
  • "I greet people from my culture and people from the host culture somewhat differently to account for cultural differences in the way respect is communicated."
  • "I can maintain my values and also behave in culturally appropriate ways."
  • "In a study abroad program, every student should be able to adapt to at least some cultural differences."
  • "I'm beginning to feel like a member of this culture."
  • "The more I understand this culture, the better I get at the language."
For people at the adaptation stage, there is always the further learning of: (1) getting better and better at more and more other different cultures, and (2) learning how to function as a bridge – a sort of translator for two people of different cultures neither of which is able on their own to adapt to the other.

In some versions of the DMIS (Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity) there is a 6th stage, "integration." Integration is a matter of increasing skill and fluency at adapting to other cultures.

At what stage do you think you are? Most people identify themselves at a stage higher than they actually are. People at "defense" will tend to self-report as being at "minimization." People at "minimization" will tend to self-report as being at "acceptance." We do tend to hide our own attitudes and abilities from ourselves. On the other hand, the good news would be that higher stages are attractive. In our wishful thinking, we imagine we are already at a higher stage -- which reveals, at least, that we do want to be more interculturally sensitive.

Most Unitarian Universalists are in the middle – at the minimization stage. We love to say people are basically the same. The Golden Rule itself – "do onto others as you would have them do unto you" –  is a minimization because, in reality, what you would have done unto you might not be what someone of a different culture would want or need. After the Golden Rule comes the Platinum Rule: do unto others as they would be done unto. Doing that requires learning a lot about their culture so you can see what will work for the other person.

1. From Denial to Defense: the person acquires an awareness of difference between cultures
2. From Defense to Minimization: negative judgments are depolarized, and the person is introduced to similarities between cultures
3. From Minimization to Acceptance: the subject grasps the importance of intercultural difference.
4. From Acceptance to Adaptation: exploration and research into the other culture begins
5. From Adaptation to Integration: subject develops empathy towards the other culture.
Source: Wikipedia

When I taught public speaking and communication classes, I would stress to my students, you can’t assume that communication is a 50/50 business. When you’re speaking, you have to assume that 90 percent of the job of clearly communicating your message and being understood is up to you. When you’re listening, you have to assume that 90 percent of the job of figuring out what the speaker means is up to you. That still leaves 10 percent room for holding your listeners a little responsible for listening -- and for holding speakers a little responsible for speaking coherently. But always assume 90 percent of the job is yours.

Don’t meet them halfway. Go 90 percent. People at the adaptative stage have the skills to be able to go most of the way toward the other person – and not demand that the other person come to them – or even halfway toward them because we all tend to think we’ve gone halfway when really we’ve hardly budged.

As for me, I cannot claim to be at the adaptive stage. After all, I live in a county where 22 percent of the population is Hispanic, yet I cannot speak Spanish. I think I’m usually pretty good about being open and curious about differences, but under stress I’m going to fall back into assumptions that there is such a thing as universal reasoning and that I can recognize universal needs. I spend most of my time in a cultural bubble of NPR, the New York Times, and my fellow Unitarian Universalists. On the plus side, this culture I'm in does tend to be a culture that's interested in learning, including learning about how different other cultures are and how to get along with them better.

* * *
This is part 5 of 5 of "Intercultural Sensitivity is Hard!"
See also
Part 1: Juneteenth
Part 2: Unknown Freedom
Part 3: A New Approach
Part 4: Denial, Polarization, Minimization


Denial, Polarization, Minimization

Intercultural Sensitivity is Hard, part 4

Development of intercultural sensitivity happens in stages. There are five stages, which I’ll first describe briefly and then go back to add some detail.

Stage 1: Denial. There is a lack of awareness of diversity. It’s not possible for adult members of minorities to be entirely unaware of diversity, but some members of a majority can exist within a bubble such that they rarely encounter a cultural difference.

Stage 2: Polarization. This comes in two versions, and both versions involve an “us” vs. “them” mindset.

   (2)(a). Defense. In the first version, we bunker in, defensively protecting “us” and demonizing “them.”

   (2)(b). Reversal. In the second version of polarization, we romanticize and privileges a culture other than our own. This stage privileges “them” while demonizing “us.”

Stage 3: Minimization. This is kind of a return in the direction of denial except that people at this stage do recognize cultural differences, but they downplay their importance. Cultural differences are all superficial because deep down we’re all the same. Minimization over-emphasizes commonality.

Stage 4: Acceptance. We might also call it openness and curiosity. At this stage there is an understanding the cultural differences are real and profoundly meaningful. This much was also understood at the Polarization stage, but whereas polarization involved demonizing one side or the other of that difference, the acceptance stage involves curiosity and openness about differences. Difference is recognized as important, but difference is explored without judgment or evaluation.

Stage 5: Adaptation, also known as intercultural competence. Intercultural competence is the ability to shift cultural perspective and adapt behavior to fit with the other person’s culture, recognizing both the similarities and differences of their culture with yours. It’s not assimilation. Assimilation is a permanent change from your original culture to a new culture. Adaptation, intercultural competence, involves the ability to make temporary shifts into a different culture in order to be more effective in a particular situation.

Let me ask: at what stage do you think you are? Be thinking about that while I describe the stages a little further.

At the denial stage, people typically say things like:
  • "Live and let live, that's what I say."
  • "All big cities are the same-lots of buildings, too many cars, McDonalds."
  • "What I really need to know about is art and music." [not seeing that these manifestations of culture are just the tip of the iceberg of cultural difference.]
  • "As long as we all speak the same language, there's no problem."
  • "With my experience, I can be successful in any culture without any special effort."
  • "I never experience culture shock."
For people at the denial stage, the learning that can help move them to the next stage is more basic exposure to cultural difference.

At the polarization/defense stage, people say things like:
  • "I wish these people would just talk the way we do."
  • "Even though I'm speaking their language, they're still rude to me."
  • "When you go to other cultures, it makes you realize how much better the U.S. is."
  • "These people don't value life the way we do."
  • "Boy, could we teach these people a lot of stuff."
  • "What a sexist society!"
Or, in the reversal version of polarization, you might hear:
  • "These people are so urbane and sophisticated, not like the superficial people back home."
  • "I am embarrassed by my compatriots, so I spend all my time with the host country nationals."
  • "I wish I could give up my own cultural background and really be one of these people." 
For people at the polarization stage, the learning that might move them ahead is a stress on commonality and empathy. Stress on commonality can move folks to the minimization stage, which over-emphasizes commonality.

At the minimization stage, folks commonly say such things as:
  • "The key to getting along in any culture is to just be yourself-authentic and honest!"
  • "Customs differ, of course, but when you really get to know them they're pretty much like us."
  • "I have this intuitive sense of other people, no matter what their culture."
  • "Technology is bringing cultural uniformity to the developed world"
  • "While the context may be different, the basic need to communicate remains the same around the world."
  • "It's a small world, after all!" 
For people at the minimization stage, more exposure to different cultures probably won’t help because they process the information in ways that look for – and find – that other cultures are basically the same. Instead, work on cultural self-awareness is the key at this stage. Recognizing how deep your own culture goes in making you who you are. Then you’re positioned to understand how significant cultural differences are.

Next: More on Acceptance, Adaptation, and where we are and how to develop further.

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This is part 4 of 5 of "Intercultural Sensitivity is Hard!"
See also
Part 1: Juneteenth
Part 2: Unknown Freedom
Part 3: A New Approach
Part 5: Go 90


This Week's Prayer

Source of healing and wholeness we call by many names,
We mourn our loss:
Robin Williams, gifted actor and comedian, taken from us by the anguish of depression;
Michael Brown, age 18, in Ferguson, Missouri, shot dead on Aug 9, taken from us by a system in which police departments are increasingly militarized and African Americans are killed by white police officers at an average rate of almost twice a week in this country.

May our hearts be filled with compassion that lifts us from immobilizing hopelessness.

As thousands of immigrant children endure dangerous flight from Central America to the United States, in the hope of a better life; as armed conflicts and instability in Syria, the Ukraine, Pakistan, Iraq, and Gaza continue; as California suffers the worst drought in a century while the eastern United States experiences record rainfall and flooding; as countless millions are victims of human trafficking throughout the world; may our hearts be filled with compassion that lifts us from immobilizing hopelessness.

May our hearts be uplifted by the good in the world.

As Doctors Without Borders combats with selfless dedication the Ebola epidemic in West Africa; as Pope Francis makes a peace-making visit to South Korea; as the Fields Medal, the “Nobel Prize of mathematics”, goes to Dr. Maryam Mirzakhani from Tehran, Iran, the first woman to receive this award; as two of the leading voices in the Muslim world, Iyad Ameen Madani and Mehmet Gormez, speak up to denounce the persecution of Christians in Iraq at the hands of extremists proclaiming a caliphate under the name Islamic State; as panda triplets born in a zoo in China continue in good health; may our hearts be uplifted by the good in the world.

May we find the vision and sustain the courage to look at our world with clear and compassionate eyes. May we see what is and what could be – and become the change we yearn to see.


This Week's Prayer

Dear Grace and Mercy, be with us.

Violence is done in the name of God. May our ideas about the eternal and infinite promote kindness rather than cruelty to the temporary and finite beings around us.

Dear Grace and Mercy, be with us in our sadness. Ethnic cleansing occurs by the Islamist State in Iraq. Children starve; women are sold; the dead are buried under rocks. Thousands are exiled: Shabaks, Turkmens, Yazidis, Christians, Shiites, and Sunnis. Be with us and with all of them. Be with the victims of US air strikes in Iraq and with the beneficiaries of US airdrops of food and water.

Dear Grace and Mercy, be with us, and with all our siblings as tensions grow between Russia and the United States, European Union, and Australia. Be with Russian citizens as their government imposes a food ban that may affect their access to basic staples.

Dear Grace and Mercy, be with us, and with the 1,875 killed in Gaza, of which the United Nations reports at least 85% are civilian and 415 children. Be with the 64 Israeli soldiers and 3 civilians killed in Israel. Be with those who grieve them.

Dear Grace and Mercy, be with us, and with President Obama and 40 African leaders at their summit in Washington, DC. Be with those in Western Africa threatened by the Ebola virus outbreak.

Dear Grace and Mercy, be with us, and with the family, friends, loved ones and community of Eric Garner, who died in Staten Island on July 17 after a police officer’s chokehold. Be with the NYPD as it seeks better ways to police and respond to resistance to arrest and citizen disrespect.

Be with us. May we find peace. May we become more effective instruments of peace.



A New Approach

Intercultural Sensitivity is Hard, part 3

It’s been 20 years since I attended my first UU week-end workshop on anti-racism in our congregations. It was part of UUA’s "Journey Toward Wholeness" initiative. It seemed to me that about a third of the white people in attendance were ticked off by the claims toward which they perceived the facilitators were nudging us. Nobody likes to be a called racist – and a goodly number of my fellow Unitarian Universalists thought that’s what they were being called.

Since that first experience with an anti-racism workshop, I’ve been to some others through the years. Some of them were workshops just for ministers. Even among my dear colleague Unitarian Universalist ministers, attempts to seriously engage in discussions of white privilege and the ways privileged white people act to protect and defend their privilege tend to tick off about a third of the white people in the room. A few of them would -- as it is their accustomed white privilege to be able to do -- express their annoyance and thus redirect the attention of the gathering to the frustrations or hurt feelings of the aggrieved white folks. These workshops seemed to end up going nowhere.

I would listen to angry, reactive words from fellow Unitarians trying to understand and empathize but ultimately unable to make sense of what was bothering them. It’s clear to me that I am the beneficiary of white privilege in thousands of ways large and small, many of which I rarely notice. It’s clear to me that I am largely tacitly complicit in the perpetuation of this privilege. I would like to be part of a mass movement to dismantle that privilege, but from what I was seeing at anti-racism workshops, that movement was not getting off the ground. It was all very discouraging.

In Fall 2010, the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association initiated a series of collegial conversations – through workshops at local chapter gatherings of UU ministers – called “Whose Are We?” It didn’t, at first, have anything in particular to do with anti-racism and multi-culturalism. After a couple years, the Ministers Association then launched a follow-up initiative called, “Who Are Our Neighbors?” I attended a gathering of Florida chapter of the Minister’s Association in October 2012 and participated in a “Who Are Our Neighbors?” workshop at which I was introduced to the DMIS: Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity. It still ticked off a few of my colleagues – but only a couple, and the issues seemed to be minor presentational ones that could be easily fixed.

I was given a new hope for the possibility of congregational anti-racism work. Here was an approach that doesn’t call anyone a racist. It’s not really about unconscious prejudices so much. It deftly bypasses any temptation to detour into pointless squabbles about such things as whether members of oppressed minorities can be racist themselves or whether “racism” only applies to certain members of the privileged majority. It gives us a way to talk about important issues of cultural difference without bringing up the word “racism” at all. I think we do need to confront actual racism, recognize it and call it what it is, but we can work our way to that point more effectively with a stronger foundation – which it seems to me the DMIS provides.

It’s a developmental model – that is, it says that people develop through stages – like Piaget’s stages of cognitive development of children, Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, or James Fowler’s stages of faith development. The model was created by Milton Bennet and Mitch Hammer – who had been going to anti-racism trainings and noticing just what I had been noticing: that about a third of the white people were annoyed rather than enlightened. They began to wonder why. Why do some people react this way and other people react a different way? Perhaps they’re at different stages in their development! Perhaps every stage is an important, helpful, and adaptive response to certain conditions – it has values which we can recognize.

It’s true that whatever is identified as a later stage of development will unavoidably seem to be judged “better,” but Unitarian Universalists with our third principle ought to be able to handle this. Our third principle says we affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. Notice the two aspects at work here: Acceptance of one another – exactly where they are and who they are -- while at the same time encouragement to growth, encouragement to grow into something other than what they are now.

Is this a contradiction? Can we truly be accepting people just the way they are if we’re also encouraging them to change, to grow? If you’ve ever been a parent – or ever had a moderately loving and effective parent – then you know this is no contradiction. We love our children for just what they are – while also encouraging their growth and development because a growing, changing being IS what they are, and that process of development benefits from guidance.

Many of us carry that same approach into our relationships with peers, with friends. We accept them for what they are, while also, when the time is right, call them on their stuff, offer them guidance, encourage their growth, as they do for us. So I’m hopeful about the prospects for UUs to work together to guide ourselves to greater levels of intercultural sensitivity. It won't be easy, but it can be done.

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This is part 3 of 5 of "Intercultural Sensitivity is Hard!"
See also
Part 1: Juneteenth
Part 2: Unknown Freedom
Part 4: Denial, Polarization, Minimization
Part 5: Go 90